Pedal Power

Guitar master Joe Bonamassa shoots from the hip about selecting the right effects pedal

For a guitarist on a quest for the ultimate pedalboard setup, the sheer number of options can make any search downright bewildering. There’s a seemingly endless supply of cutting-edge digital varieties guaranteed to pack entire guitar rigs into a single pedal. But there are also plenty of vintage classics and even hand-built boutique rarities to consider.

What’s more, cool new stompboxes are constantly hitting the market, tantalizing guitarists with even more inspiring ways to fuel their creativity. But with an ever-expanding inventory of pedals, questions abound: Are analog pedals worth the hype? Are modern boutique models better than tried-and-true classics?

Quite simply: How do you choose what’s right for you? For advice, we turned to blues-rock superstar Joe Bonamassa to shed his keen insights into the world of guitar effects. Thanks to his 26 years of wowing audiences around the world—and amassing an impressive collection of guitar gear in the process—few artists know pedals like this guitar ace.

What pedals do you like?
What works for me is not going to work for everybody. I like pedals that do radically different things, like a flanger, or an EHX POG, or a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere. When Jeorge Tripps made his Angry Troll, he built a revolutionary pedal, because it does something nothing else can do. The Pork Loin is the same way—it’s basically a Neve preamp in front of your guitar amp, which gives you this big, thick sound.

How about classics?
There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. The iconic stuff like your Uni-Vibes, BOSS Chorus Ensembles, Fuzz Faces and Echoplexes—you know, your game changers—those are the ones I generally stick with because they radically change the sound of your guitar in a good way. When you start making minimal changes, trying to improve on something that’s already well done, you just get yourself in trouble.

Kinds of pedals to avoid?
I stay away from the phase tones and the more esoteric Z.Vex kind of effects—not that it’s bad stuff, but when you put a tone bender and a ring mod in the same box, you just can’t control it. There’s also a lot of stuff you plug into your rig and just wonder what it’s supposed to do.

What gems have you found?
The BOSS DD-3 Digital Delay is the best overall for delay. The Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere and the Korg G4 are great pedals for Leslie effects. And one of the best tremolos ever made is the Fulltone Supa-Trem. The Cry Baby Wah Wah and the Fuzz Face are a couple of favorites, and I love the BOSS RV-5 reverb pedal. That said, my desert island pedal would be a Ibanez TS808 vintage or reissue Tube Screamer.

Why do you love the Ibanez TS808?
If only I had a nickel for every time a pedal with a name like “Green Reamer” showed up here. It’s usually just a modified TS808 Tube Screamer—with less mids and more bass—claiming to be better than the original. But it’s not. I start with an already distorted signal, so when you’re talking about an overdrive pedal, the frequency band has to be very narrow and spiky. The beauty of the Tube Screamer is that it takes away highs and lows, and it accentuates the midrange, giving me the boost I need to go into that easily attainable high feedback.

You prefer a digital delay.
How many people who say they love analog delays actually play live gigs? It’s one thing to set one up in your bedroom or at rehearsal but it’s not as useful when you perform day to day. In a room without drums and cymbals, keyboards and another guitar player, you’ll hear it fine. But onstage, an analog delay is so dark—and not dark like an Echoplex—you might as well not turn it on, because you’re not going to hear it. With a digital delay like a TC 2290 or a BOSS, you’ll actually hear it.

Any effects get on your nerves?
Overuse of a wah-wah pedal is at least a parking ticket level offense. There ought to be at least a $75 fine if you use it more than five times in one night.

Do you ever use amp modeling?
I understand the necessity of amp modeling, but I’m a vintage guitar collector. If I want the sound of Fender Tweed Deluxe, I grab a Tweed Deluxe. Ones and zeros can’t substitute for tubes, capacitors and moving air into a microphone. They can get it close, like with the Kemper Modeling Amp. You can model your amp with that thing, and it can give you back a reasonable proximity of the sound. Technologically, it’s incredible they can do that. But will it sputter like a tube amp? Will it be inconsistent? Will it be warm and soulful and flawed? That’s the last 5 percent, and modeling doesn’t resonate with me at that fundamental level.

How do you manage your effects?
Generally, it’s delay on and off—that’s the thing that gets stomped on the most. I use the flanger three or four times in a set, too. I use the Polygon three or four times, the wah a couple of times. All the stuff that’s on the board gets used. I’m not the sort of guy who needs all his sounds in a rack and controlled by MIDI or anything like that.

Batteries or power supplies?
I use the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power, which has never failed. We deal in volumes that are over 105 decibels on the deck, and the subtleties of a drained battery get lost when the jet engines crank up. I like a good, solid power supply that I don’t have to worry about every day.

Any hard lessons learned?
I have a whole room full of pedals, and certain pedals work great with a Tweed amp and others work well for a Marshall. I’m constantly changing them out. It’s not like swapping out pickups, where you change out the pickups in your guitar because you think the new ones will sound better. But when they don’t, and you put the originals back in, it just doesn’t sound the same. You can always swap out pedals, and the only hard lesson to be learned is the damage to your pocket book.

Any additional advice?
Start with the guitar, the amp and a cable. Then ask yourself, “Can I get what I really want to hear?” If not, go and find the effects that do the job. You don’t want to buy a whole bunch of stuff at once, hook it all up, record some stuff, and then find out none of it sounds good live. And of course, your songs are always more important than your effects. The underlying point of all these effects is to take good songs and make them better. Add great guitar sounds to a bad song, and you still have a bad song.

–Phil Selman

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