What Have You Done For Me?
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
Whether you’re a massive gearhead or not, everyone loves a pedal. Like guitars, pedals go beyond mere utility, becoming part of our identity. Where would Morello be without his Whammy? Would anyone notice Hammett without a wah? How would Cobain have fared without his DS-2? More than that, pedals are a way of teleporting us to other realms instantly, where different approaches, tactics and even characters are lurking. In this episode of Machine Bites, I’m going to talk about the influence that effects have over our playing, our music, and our nature, so sit down and read on.
The majority of players, whether they’re playing country or grind, will have owned or still use an overdrive. It’s the most common first effect for people to get into, not just because it makes a racket (which is awesome) but because of its ubiquity on practice amps, its prevalence in music, and its immediacy and scope. Drive is everything from your SRV break-up to cascaded, gated trem picking and down-tuned dj0nt-boffery, and even the most ardent jazzer, if handed a Kramer and a big silly drive, will start pinching and dive-bombing with a massive grin on their face. The sound of overdrive is the sound of violence, salaciousness, confrontation and stature, the badass who answers every question with one-liners and lightning reflexes. It’s why people still go wonky for over-the-top shredding, heavy styles of music and dirty riffs – we identify with the spirit that’s writhing inside the sound, thrilled by the danger of it. Fuzz, while a gloriously impractical thing in many musical contexts, still shifts because we love how raw and untamed it is, and how differently it behaves to safer effects like overdrive. Play through a Tubescreamer and you’ll feel a little bluesy, play through a Fuzz Face and you’ll be flexing that wide vibrato all day, playing dirtier as the sound gets more distorted.
Re-record Not Fade Away
Every pedal has these fundamental effects on us – the big one for me was delay. In the very late ’90s I got my hands on a Digitech/DOD PDS2000, and this changed my experience of the guitar forever. It had an infinite hold button, and this meant I could stack lines on top of lines, melodies on top of melodies, giving my playing a whole new dimension. It allowed me to create worlds in sound for the first time without having to have someone else there to rely on, and before the advent of affordable looping, it allowed me to build up my confidence significantly. I didn’t realise how much I could do, and delay let me see that.
The same can be said of reverb, around which entire musical genres and subgenres are based. What’s ambient without reverb? How obtuse and bendy shoegaze would have been without it, how drab U2’s early work would have been. The beauty of reverb is that it lets you play less, allowing you to get the most out of each note, chord and harmony. Post-rock bands like Godspeed would have been crispy dry, and Vaporwave would never have come to be. Even if you’re not a fan of excessive reverb, think about the sort of lines you played the last time you plugged a tremolo or a chorus in. If you weren’t surfing or picturing yourself squinting into the sun, twitching your fingers next to your holstered pistol, you’re talking nonsense.
Much like buying a new pair of shoes gives you a feeling of additional purpose, re-ordering your pedalboard feels fantastic. That’s because of what it implies – that you’re doing this to make new music, to let your sound do something else, and that you’re going into new territory. The joy of this is a re-acquaintance with yourself, with the whole reason you started playing guitar in the first place – to make a sound that you wanted to hear. Re-arranging your effects lets you know that you’re in for new adventures, and that is a great thing. You’ve got effects in your collection right now that make you think of particular records, artists, styles, times in your life, and even the stuff you never use (and you know exactly which of your pedals I’m referring to here) still brings you joy for a reason only you know. This is important.
One of the most magical things about effects is that, irrespective of their function, they can change the way we perform, and our state of mind while performing. We spend years painstakingly swapping drives out to get that exact tone that we’ve been searching for, with the right attack, depth, cut and bass to it, and when we find it, it feels like a piece of ourselves has slotted into place. Think about the feeling that you have when you’re coming up to a certain song, or crashing into the chorus after a clean section, and you step on The Loud to get your monster lines over. Knowing precisely what that unit will do and how it’ll sound takes all the anxiety out of your performance – at least in that respect – and you can get on with steamrolling the audience with your amazing music. This doesn’t sound like a big thing, until you think about how much time and effort you put into finding the sound you’ve been hearing in your head for ten years.
When you’re looking down at your board or hammering through pedal reviews online, you’re looking for something genuinely important. When you obsess over a player’s sound, you’re tracking down a part of yourself. Viewed esoterically or otherwise, our pedals are not just in our setup – they’re part of who we are. So, go and find that thing, but don’t neglect the pantheon of gear you’ve already collected – it really does matter.
John Tron Davidson is a musician, journalist and owner of Heavy Repping! The best damn plectrum blog on the internet.