I thought it would be fun for me to write a piece about the gear we all obsess over: Pedals, and more specifically the seemingly endless hunt for the best guitar tone!
It's a big obsession for me, just as it is for many of you, and I wanted to share my thoughts on a few things I've learned over the past several years. I want to stress that for everyone this is an arduous journey of trying different effects with your personal guitar rig, and that what I find cool and useable might not be your cup of tea. A ton of musicians tend to be extremely jaded when it comes to discussing this just because of the sheer amount of overkill of effects units they've tried in their journey as musicians, and many become set in their ways and mindsets of tone, so I want to reassure everyone that this can be an extremely gratifying learning experience if you choose to look at it positively. If you approach this with an open mind I think you will have get happiness and fulfillment out of the journey instead of frustration.
There are quite a few misconceptions out there that seem to constantly perpetuate with a life of their own thanks to the internet, and I'd love to use this blog as a means of busting them up! It should be noted that this all is filtered through my take on tone, so if you're into high gain heavy metal guitar playing you'll probably disagree with everything I have to say.
Distortion Pedals: I should say overdrive pedals so as to distinguish them from fuzz pedals, which are a completely different effect that are in a category into themselves. Overdrive pedals were designed to simulate the sound of overdriving an amp naturally. This happens when turn a tube amplifier up volume wise and push the amplifier past a certain voltage/volume threshold and the tubes begin to sag and create a crunchy "breakup tone". Where this threshold crossing happens is different to every amplifier, and can depend on how much wattage (how much power the voltage provides the amplifier) and headroom (how loud you can turn the amplifier up before it starts to clip or distort) the amp in question has. Typically, you must turn your tube amplifier up way past the point your ears could handle in most rooms for it to start achieving tube breakup. So, distortion pedals were designed to make this pleasing tube breakup tone achievable at lower volumes. You can't turn a Marshall Plexi tube amplifier, or even sometimes a Deluxe Reverb amplifier on 8 in your bedroom without making a ton of people, including yourself very, very miserable.
Now Stevie Ray Vaughan, widely regarded as one of the finest guitar tone connoisseurs ever, used an Ibanez Tube Screamer Ts-808 model overdrive pedal on his debut album Texas Flood. These were manufactured in the late 70's, and by the early 80's when Stevie used his, they were widely considered to be cheap, affordable tone shaping overdrive pedals. After Stevie famously used these to great effect on Texas Flood, these became highly regarded as integral tools in tone chasing, and thusly became highly sought after and collectable. Prices now have surged from an initial $50 price tag in 1980, to fetching upwards of $2000 in todays used vintage gear market! Wow, so these little green stomp boxes must be made with a sprinkling of fairy dust for them to cost that much! Needless to say, many guitarists consider these green stomp boxes to be the "Holy Grail of Tone", and regularly pay vast sums of money to acquire this innocent looking green pedal. In my opinion, they are fantastic tools and every guitarist should have one.
The misconception about this "Holy Grail" of guitar tone was most users’ assumptions about the pedal's uses are dead wrong, and these presumptions still tend to prevail on the internet: Stevie didn't use much distortion at all in his sound. He did when he was going for his all out "Jimi Hendrix tone", as evidenced on his version of Voodoo Chile Slight Return, but listen to any early Stevie Ray Vaughan song and you won't hear as much tube "breakup" tone as you might originally think. His tone sounds much more pure and full as opposed to distorted. I hear players all the time, and even remember hearing when I used to do this many years ago, who turn the overdrive knob all the way up and then think that the volume knob is just a master control knob for it. This is a common misunderstanding about an important audio concept that comes up in modern guitar playing called "Gain Staging". "Gain Staging" is how all the volume elements of your guitar rig interact with each other in the signal chain.
So then by definition, the volume knob of the TS-808 is the most important part of the pedal, and helps set the level in "gain staging" of how much overdrive/tube saturation you want to hear. The overdrive knob should really be thought more as a cheat knob, because as you turn the knob more and more clockwise, the more gain you are adding to your guitar tone to reach a certain threshold of saturation, but you are also robbing yourself of the natural frequencies and tonal characteristics of whatever guitar you are currently playing. Like anything in life, you need to shoot for a nice balance between the amount of overdrive you need for how you play, and the natural characteristics of your guitar. Also remember one more important point, at whatever settings you use kicking on an overdrive pedal or distortion pedal should make your guitar louder than it originally was, not quieter. Quiet sounding loud tones just sound fake and strange. Setting the "gain staging" correctly will help ensure this will not happen.
Also remember throughout the process to experiment with your guitar's volume knob to get a wide range of tonal options while using a TS-808. It really does give you a wealth of tonal choices! When you get the "gain staging" right with a TS-808 it can sound identical to when your amp is breaking up naturally at loud volumes. So be patient and use and trust your ears while you're working out tube screamer settings.
So, what if you the humble musician don't have the $1400-$2000 required to get your hands on an original 'Holy Grail of Tone" TS-808??? My advice to you is don't worry about it. There are so many pedal makers now who make direct copies of the 808 circuit that you can find a decent version made to emulate it just about anywhere. Vintage Tone Purists seek out original TS-808's not just for their rarity and collectability, but for some mystical microchip differences that they argue make a difference in tone. So, if you're looking for something in the ballpark I recommend the Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive Mod pedal, which sounds very close but in certain modes can be harsh sounding in the high end or not quite as transparent as the real thing. Be sure to work on those settings with one of these, but the mod versions have much more tone shaping options than the original and I find them to be better overall. I find the Fulltone Fulldrive 2 to be a wonderful redesign of the Ts-808 with a boost feature added to simultaneously help get you more sustain. The Robert Keeley and Analogman modded modern TS-808 pedals are scarily close to an original TS-808. I find that these are like the next over paint sample at Home Depot close, which is to say unless you had the paint codes from Home Depot (in our case an original TS-808) you probably wouldn't know the difference.
Not interested in the iconic midrange oriented EQ curve that a TS-808 brings with its overdrive tone? Not a problem there are also a wealth of other overdrive pedals out there that offer unique twists to players. One of the most sought after in recent years, and one of my personal favorites, is the Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal from the 90's. This pedal has become so iconic over the last few years that I'll have to have a blog post dedicated strictly to them. In a nutshell what I like about this pedal is it captures the spongy feel of turning up a Marshall Bluesbreaker amp up to ten and while being able to use your guitar's volume knob to get different tones. It's a bit darker, and a little edgier than a TS-808, and I find that it colors Stratocaster pickups in a unique way, and the tone knob on the pedal is like a mini B.B. King switch that really adds some serious vibe when you use the "out of phase positions" on a Stratocaster. If you're not wanting to change your overall tone of your guitar with overdrive, but want to cut through the mix of a band and be a little louder I like the Fulltone Fat Boost, The Keeley Katana, and my personal favorite the Durham Electronics SexDrive handmade in Austin, TX. These pedals are like having a personal mix engineer whenever you want to ride your fader up on your guitar volume level, so you can play above the band, and in the case of the Durham SexDrive won't take away any low end of your signal and can add some presence to the tone. I’m a fan of the original vintage big box Electro Harmonix Hot Tubes Pedal. These can add a ton of saturation at higher settings, and can get quite woofy in the low end which depending on the guitar and amp combination can be VERY cool. If you’re not feeling on spending the money for a vintage original, EHX has recently reissued this pedal in a small box format for only $60 which I think is a steal! I also use a Analogman King of Tone and a Klon Centaur and Klon KTR. They have their own thing going on sonically and I really like what both Mike Piera and Bill Finnegan have come up with respectfully. If you’re into handmade boutique pedals, look no further.
The facts are most guitar pedals are cool, and for the most part, every single one has a place for you musically. It's very fun to plug into a pedal, find some settings, and play and adjust your playing to that pedal’s strengths. I find that most pedals can do one thing amazingly well, so experiment with playing some and figure out if that single thing works for you!
I hope this has helped you out a bit. There are so many other things I want to share with you guys. What to buy, what to pass on, what to save up for, what are good deals now, and through this blog I'm going to get to it one subject at a time!