Selecting the right effects stompbox will keep your sound on sure footing

Many legendary rock moments—Jimi Hendrix wailing through an Octavia on “Purple Haze,” or the Edge’s lush delay on U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” for example—were crafted using carefully chosen effects pedals. Guitarists of all genres use these small, specialized signal processors to tweak their instruments’ sounds in wildly creative ways. And they’re not just for guitarists anymore: Bass players, keyboardists, vocalists and even horn players are adding effects pedals to their signal chains to add a new level of spice, variety and nuance to their performances.

Effects pedals come in a candy-store variety of sizes, shapes and flavors, and finding the one that’s just right for you can be a challenge—so we turned to experts Bob Bradshaw and Arlan Schierbaum for guidance. Bradshaw is a guitar system designer and the founder of Custom Audio Electronics, a music technology firm that has created tailored stompbox systems for artists including Dave Grohl, Eric Clapton and Toto’s Steve Lukather. Schierbaum is a vintage keyboard specialist who integrates stompboxes with instruments ranging from electric pianos to Hammond organs. He has worked with acts like the Pointer Sisters, Daniel Powter and Mandrill. They spoke with us recently about how to select a stompbox—and how to get the most out of it.

What do stompboxes do?

SCHIERBAUM: They’re generally a portable sound-manipulating effect that’s put into a box small enough to lay at the feet of a musician, and placed in line with an instrument. You can add a stompbox to any instrument or audio path. They can offer a musician a huge amount of possibilities in sound choices, and will often change the way the instrument reacts while being played.

BRADSHAW: There are different “food groups,” so to speak. One category is gain devices, like fuzztone or overdrive boxes. Another group is modulation devices like chorus, tremolo and vibrato circuits, which manipulate the sound either by pitch or amplitude. Then there are time-based effects, which are typically echo, reverb and delay—and filter effects, as well. There are also all kinds of subcategories.

What are your go-to effects pedals?

SCHIERBAUM: Most often I use wah-wah and delay pedals. The wah-wah basically filters the sound, giving a boost of equalization somewhere in the mid-range frequencies. That boost point is moved manually by a potentiometer, which is connected to the pedal action. When you move the pedal back and forth, it shifts the mid-range spike point, causing the wah-wah effect. I use wah-wah to sculpt an instrument’s sound—it’s great with Hammond organ, electric pianos, Clavinet and even drums and vintage synthesizers like the Minimoog. Delay is also very useful in creating an extended space for an instrument. A short delay can create a nice ambience, while a rhythmic delay can make for a nice timing effect. A long delay with a long trail can really expand an instrument’s sound—organ and string tones, for example—especially when you swell into them with a volume pedal for a smooth attack.

What types of musicians use pedals?

BRADSHAW: Anybody can use these. I’ve seen people put wah-wah pedals on trumpets and all sorts of stompboxes on vocals. If you’re open to being experimental, pretty much anything goes for any genre.

SCHIERBAUM: One great example of a musician using effects pedals in interesting ways is Reggie Watts. He’s a singer who uses the Line 6 Delay Modeler for looping, harmonies and effects—I’ve also heard singers do brilliant things with the Korg Kaoss Pad. Michael Brecker used the wah-wah sound on sax, Bootsy Collins uses filter pedals on bass and Stanton Moore uses filters, distortion and other effects on his drum loops live. Lots of new DJ mixers have filters and delays built in, but outboard effects for DJs are very useful as well.

BRADSHAW: U2’s the Edge loves stompboxes. He uses different effects and is always tweaking his signal chain, playing with different permutations. He uses a whammy pedal, which shifts pitch, and a lot of overdrive boxes, too. But his main thing is echo—it’s a key component of U2’s sound. Different echo pedals have different character. The TC 2290 Dynamic Digital Delay is a good one, and there’s also the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man. That’s a classic stompbox delay that he uses.

What are your favorites?

BRADSHAW: I’m a big fan of the latest pedals from Eventide. They make very high-quality rack mount processors and they’ve now created pedals as well. They’re MIDI controllable and you get a lot of different sounds out of one box. Another batch of really nice pedals is the DigiTech HardWire series. They are also very high quality, rugged, great-sounding pedals. They can work at either instrument or line levels of input, so you can put them in an effects loop for your amp as well. Another forward-looking company I’ve collaborated with is Dunlop, and the Ibanez Tube Screamer is a ubiquitous pedal to say the least. It’s an amazing overdrive box.

SCHIERBAUM: I have a Dunlop Custom wah-wah pedal that is always amazing. For distortion, I go between a vintage DOD 250 Overdrive Preamp, a Maxon OD808 and the vintage MXR Distortion+. I love my vintage solid state EchoPlex and also my Line 6 Delay Modeler for echo.

How do digital and analog pedals differ?

SCHIERBAUM: Digital pedals use a digital model of an analog pedal—or a digital algorithm—to create an effect. Digital effects can have an advantage for effects that are the same every time, and if you want a high level of programmability. But in my experience, modulation, filter and distortion effects benefit from the anomalies and variations of analog circuits.

How do you string pedals together?

BRADSHAW: It’s important to use high-quality cables. And when you string multiple pedals together, make sure you have a way to properly bypass each device, so it’s not wrecking your original sound. If you have too many in line, capacitance builds up and it can roll off high frequencies, degrading the sound. It’s important for most effects to be in loops so they can be bypassed properly.

SCHIERBAUM: It is really important to avoid placing lots of pedals together and destroying your tone. It’s also important to know that some pedals have true bypass and others don’t. True bypass means that if you turn the pedal off, the signal passes from your input jack and doesn’t run through a circuit in the pedal, so it truly bypasses the electronic components of the pedal.

How do you pick the right stompbox?

BRADSHAW: It’s all personal preference. I wouldn’t dissuade anybody from using anything. The crappiest little pedal could be the coolest thing in the world to someone—a $59 Japanese fuzztone may be perfect for a given situation.

SCHIERBAUM: Various pedals respond differently to different instruments—a phaser on a Wurlitzer will speak differently than a phaser on a Fender Rhodes. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of trial and error and no absolutes. I recommend borrowing pedals from friends and experimenting, and when you hear an altered sound from another musician you like, try to create a dialogue about the effect and how it’s being used. Most importantly, plug it in, turn the knobs and listen to what happens.

–Michael Gallant

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