How to Use a Chorus Pedal! Don’t Bore Us… Get to the Chorus!
Chorus pedals might be the ubiquitous Velveeta of the guitar effects world. Some musicians absolutely love it, as evidenced by countless songs by The Smiths, Prince, Nirvana, The Police etc., while some other musicians despise the effect with every fiber of their being. I’m of the opinion that once you actually find some cool reasons and musical situations to use chorus pedals, you’ll be hooked just like I have been since seeing Prince use one on “Purple Rain”!
What Are Chorus Pedals?
Chorus pedals belong to a group of effects also known as “Modulation” effects. Modulation effects modify your guitar sound by adding a time delayed version of your original guitar signal, and then give you the player the ability to control the size of that delay over time. The distinct tone of a chorus pedal, and the chorus effect, essentially allows you to sound like there’s more of you playing the same part, doubling the sound if you will, while adding shimmer and gorgeous clarity. While this process of additional delayed signal does happen when you stomp on your favorite Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus effect to play “Come As You Are” for the thousandth time, it isn’t an exclusive process. Other pedals add some different forms of injected delayed signal to your original guitar tone too, and by definition should be featured in the modulation camp.
Other would be modulation pedals would be:
· Phasers (think Eddie Van Halen wooshing sound on “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love”)
· Uni-Vibes (Think “Breathe” by Pink Floyd with David Gilmour’s pulsing guitar tone)
· Automatic Double Trackers (making a delayed copy of a signal, usually vocals and doubling them slightly out of time, think Beatles vocals)
· Flangers (Think “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” theme)
What separates the sound of each varying modulation effect is:
· How long the delay signal is: (10ths of ms to 100ths of ms)
· How fast the signal varies: (does the effect change once per second, or multiple times per second)
· How the signal varies in tonality: (does the effect change smoothly, or does it jump randomly)
· How many delayed versions are added to your original signal: (think one delayed sound vs hearing many different ones)
What makes so many of the subtle differences in our favorite modulation-using guitarists overall tone and feel in a composition, I like to think of the sound of Prince’s shimmering guitar tone on “Purple Rain”, vs Kurt Cobain’s low-end swirling on “Come As You Are” and “All Apologies”, is really how these modulation effects produce different sounds with different parameters applied to them. That’s why there are so many various sounding effects we throw a blanket tag over with the “Modulation” terminology. Sure, different pedal manufacturers have different sounding chorus pedals, I like to think of it like different chefs making the same dish with their own seasonings, but all chorus pedals do essentially the same thing. Just try different companies’ offerings until you ear tells you what you like.
What Do Chorus Pedals Sound Like?
Chorus pedals add a gorgeous richness to your guitar tone that give off the impression you are doubling what you are playing. Depending on how aggressive you adjust the settings on chorus pedals, you have a small amount of shimmering doubling, or a semi choir singing in unison type sound. At max speeds, most chorus pedals give off really great fake rotary speaker tones as well. So, there’s a ton of applications you can use these in and they really can give a spark to your creativity. Sometimes, I find playing with chorus pedals inspires me to write with different chord progressions just because of tonally different chord inversions seem to work better with the effect on.
What Are the Controls on Chorus Pedals?
Many chorus pedals have multiple controls on them, which can be great for getting different sounds. While some effects makers have only two controls knobs, some like the famous Electro-Harmonix Small Clone only have one, you’ll traditionally have the standardized three controls: Level/Volume, Rate, and Depth.
The Level knob will control how much output the effect has in your guitar’s mix. So, with the level knob turned up more you’ll get a lusher, thicker chorus tone. Keep the level knob turned low if you want a more transparent chorus tone. For chorus units that don’t have a level knob, more than likely the manufacturer tuned the chorus level internally in the circuit and left it set to their company’s tonal setting. If you want to change it, I recommend studying your manufacturers circuit and marking original settings before you switch anything internally. This way you can always get back to the original pedal tone if need be. The Depth control is what controls the intensity of the effect, as well as the “warble” of the effect. To my ears, I treat the depth control as a subtle adjustment to get thinner or thicker chorus tones. This helps when you’re trying out different guitar and amp combinations in the studio, or you’re trying to find the right tone for the chorus to fit the arrangement you’re playing in.
The Rate Knob is the other important control to consider when using a chorus pedal. Adjusting the rate knob will change how fast the chorus effect injects delayed signal against your bypassed guitar tone. The faster the rate, the farther away the delayed signal is to the regular guitar signal. This can make the delayed signal not line up as much in time with the bypass signal, and to our ears produces a faster moving pulse.
My Favorite Chorus Pedals:
I find I get asked a lot about chorus pedals from students ranging from all ages. It’s always really cool to see what is resonating with up and coming musicians, but rarely does everyone agree on the same subject matter for questions. I think it’s a testament to the lasting effect, *no pun intended, of a classic chorus on our musical lexicon. The sound itself seems to be truly timeless. Being a professional session guy, I have a lot of favorite chorus units. Some of them are analog hardware, some a really expensive vintage pieces, and some are digital emulators and plug-ins. I look at effects as helping me paint the picture I’m trying to paint creatively, and I really try to go for the subtle sonic nuances when recording. But if you’re just looking to get in on the chorus action, you can just pick up a pedal for a few bucks! Here’s some of my favorites:
Electro-Harmonix Small Clone: This was the pedal used by Kurt Cobain on Nevermind. It launched a literal music revolution in the nineties, but the original EHX concept goes back to the late 70’s before they went bankrupt. The Small Clone is the original mass-produced chorus pedal that was available to guitarists. Made with an analog bucket brigade chip to control the delay times, the EHX Small Clone as a thick analog sound. It is the simplest unit to use on this list, with a single knob for Rate and Depth switch to adjust the chorus for thicker or thinner. I use a vintage one from 1981, but these are expensive and hard to find, I recommend checking out a new reissue of the Small Clone for about $50 at your local music megamart.
Boss CE-1: This is one of the greatest chorus pedals ever produced. You’ll want the expensive big box vintage version here folks. There’s just no getting around it. While very expensive, currently going as far as $1500 on the vintage market it has a super-rich chorus tone that seemingly no other pedal can match. These were originally made for organ players, and were derived from the Roland Jazz-Chorus which was Boss’ parent company at the time. Dean DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots, John Frusciante from Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Andy Summers from the Police all use this unit. And for good reason, it just has THAT vibe. It seemingly can go with everything. I’ve even patched one of these in like rack gear into my recording path to use it on drums, bass guitars, and even keyboards. You can use a $50 Boss CE-2 in a pinch, but it just isn’t as organic sounding.
AnalogMan Chorus: If you’re looking for a great sounding analog boutique alternative to the expensive vintage Small Clones, check out AnalogMan’s chorus pedal. He uses the good old MN3007 delay chips and everything in his units. They come sturdy in rugged, Hammerite painted metal cases so they stand up to nightly tour abuse, and they are pedal board friendly with 9-volt barrel connectors drilled in through the top. No need for an unsightly wall wart, or replace batteries all the time. This thing sounds great, and I feel like if you choose to have the added depth switch it really can cover a lot of tonal ground. I like the added attention to detail with the circuit design, because Mike adds something internally to get the pedal to be SUPER QUIET. These pedals tour and record the most consistent of any I’ve tried from unit to unit. Call up AnalogMan for info on how to buy your own!