PEDALS: HEAR TO STAY, GONE TOMORROW

ModKitsDIY

In The Who track, “New Song,” Pete Townshend ironically laments, “I write the same old song, but everybody wants to hear it.” It’s a musician’s inside joke about resorting to the ever-faithful A/D/G chord pattern that became his go-to chorus for pretty much every anthem Townshend (and many others) penned. Rock & Roll has been re-tracing its steps for some time, begging questions like: how many more 1st-position chord riffs can AC/DC churn out to suit the Young brothers’ tiny hands? Or how many more riffs on the Strat can Fender build while still claiming, “All new?” We’re obviously banging our heads against a wall, necessitating diversions into the 10-string guitar and Tosin Abassi-types on the front covers of guitar mags. But nothing epitomizes rock’s contrived overkill like the pedal industry. I mean, Judas H. Priest – have you seen the selection? It’s already too noisy and we haven’t even plugged in yet! So, for the next few minutes TheToneKing.com will serve as your pedal-shopping “noise-gate,” so you don’t spend a lot of money just to make “the same old noise and nobody can hear the difference.”

OVERDRIVE OR OVERKILL?

There are more pedals than chord progressions to use them on — or even words to describe them. The Tone King has done enough pedal shoot outs to know that any decent pedal compendium would rival the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 5th Edition with an index as long as the Tibetan Book of The Dead (written in Tibetan).

Rock & Roll is simple music. But choosing a pedal is anything but. How many times can we read about “gritty” overdrives with images“aggressive attack?” Or “smooth, saturated” distortions with “tons of sustain?” Enough already! Even Alex Lifeson has moved on to Axe-Fx that writes and plays all the parts for him so he can tour from the comfort of his own living room. Just the simple act of choosing a distortion pedal requires traversing a giant wall against which every combination of chips, caps, and digital resistors has been thrown to see if it’ll stick with an audience who really can’t tell the difference –at least not to the extent that warrants spending $300 vs. $150 on a single pedal. Guitar Center offers over 1600 different distortion pedals. Musician’s Friend has over 500. And Pro Guitar Audio has about the same, albeit with some helpful demo videos. But herein lays the irony. The players who made us want to pick up a guitar in the first place had nowhere near the kind of choice we have today.

BACK TO BASICS

It’s safe to say that the most iconic rock guitar tones ever laid down came by way of plugging into either:

A: A Plexi

B: A DiMarzio “Super Distortion” pickup

C: A MXR Distortion +

D: Or any combination of thereof

You’d hear the occasional Fuzz Face before MXR, or maybe a Big Muff here and there. But that’s pretty much about it.

MXR (Dunlop) and Boss (Roland) were there since the beginning. They’ve always made good pedals at good prices. True, Electro-Harmonix pre-dates them. But we don’t know anyone who really loves anything about that brand. According to the latest scientific research, people who buy Electro-Harmonix are eight times more likely to purchase a waterbed at some point in their life. For some, immediate novelty will always supersede the enduring subtleties of good taste. Less is never more.

Line 6

We suspect EH has been living off the Big Muff all this time. Probably because it just happened to be in the right place at the right time, helping grind out what many consider to be the best guitar licks ever recorded — such as David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb,” and other timeless riffs by Hendrix among others. But remove the player’s genius from the equation and the Big Muff remains a mystery on par with The Big Bang. Over time, it spawned an entire galaxy of sequels like Muff Jr. Uncle Muff, Muff ‘N Stuff, and last but not least, Muthermuffer, which sounds like a toothless drunk having sex with a Vietnamese hooker. On a waterbed, naturally. Who wouldn’t want to hear what that sounds like? At least once.

BOUTIQUE OR BULLSH*T?

“Boutique” is just another word for “two American guys in a garage instead of 1587 Chinese guys in a factory.” Personally, I don’t care how many people are making my pedals, or what language they speak, so long as they make good sounding pedals for a fair price. Look at it this way: a pedal engineer with a good health insurance plan through Roland will design a better pedal than a guy who has a huge co-pay because he works at a tiny “boutique” that charges $275 for a single pedal just so you can replicate the dulcet tones of Slipknot. We have yet to hear a $275 distortion that beats any $75 MXR or Boss pedal to the extent that we should pay the difference. If you’re that hung-up on the boutique thing, Monte Allums makes $20 mods that will boutique-up your Boss pedal if your ears are that sensitive — and, more importantly, if you’re that good of a player. Edward Van Halen can hear the difference between identical pickups attached using different kinds of solder. You can’t.

Speaking of sensitive ears, this writer has a pair. I once picked out a bad trombone note out of a 120-piece orchestra during a recording session for a TV spot (if memory serves we were re-recording a version of the Goldfinger theme for Visa). After a shouting match with the producer (we were behind on the clock), he finally soloed every track on the Neve, and there it was – a G#. They looked at me like I had leapt off the front cover of a Marvel comic. Yeah, I can hear stuff. So it’s people like me who are supposed to be paying $275 for a distortion pedal. And I’m telling you, it has less to do with music than marketing, or science than witchcraft.

FOCUS OR F#CKUS?

Some pedals jack up the price because they’re a 2-in-1. A Distortion plus boost. Or distortion plus delay. They have names that are all at once pretentious and ridiculous, like “Golden Cello,” and “Froggy Fuckaface,” replete with gaudy graphics and fonts vying for our attention. Once you go with a 2-in-1, you may as well go with a multi-effects unit and call it a day. The whole point of a pedal is focus. It does one thing and does it very well. Not two, not three – just one. Nobody wants a $14 dessert made by a Pastry Chef/Proctologist, after all.

Not long ago, I picked up a Mad Professor Golden Cello i.e. Distortion + delay. On paper, it made sense since those two effects go well together sonically speaking. But in practice, setting the delay – or even tweaking it – required opening the box and fiddling with three tiny trim pots. First, it took me 20 minutes to find a screwdriver that would fit. Then I broke one of the precious, plastic micro-knob thingys, turning it into a 3-in-1: a distortion + delay + paperweight. Not having learned my lesson, I then picked up a Mad Professor Number One Distortion. Wide open chords sounded great. But the unit would clip the top of every chord when picking successive, palm-muted 8th notes (kinda mandatory for metal). Figuring that I got a lemon, I sent it back, only to receive a replacement that did the same thing. I called the distributor and told them the manufacturer must have sent them a bad batch. When they were able to replicate the problem, they freaked. Meanwhile, I called Europe and talked to someone at Mad Professor who admitted to a design flaw (that’s how I saw it, anyway). There was so much technology crammed into the thing, the noise gate was being triggered and could not be shut off. Noise gate? I bought a distortion pedal, not a noise gate. I already have a noise gate. In fact, I have TWO noise gates because I couldn’t decide which one was better.

There is, however, a single exception to the single-focus rule – the Roland Multi-Stomp. Only Roland could make multi-focus its single-focus. The Multi-Stop is like a multi-effects unit for people who don’t care for multi-effects units. And you need a lot of people on a good health care plan to come up with that one. And, oh yeah, it’s about $120. Even its most useless tone – a ménage à trois of Israeli pimps jerking off on a waterbed – inspires creativity. Financially speaking, with a Multi-Stomp you’re paying about 12-cents per pedal. So I say, “Bring on the pimps and the waterbeds!”

SMALL & SMART – THE TRUE COMBO

da-2_top_galIf you must venture beyond the go-to guys like Dunlop and Roland, there are two factors that matter 1) Size, and 2) Technology. Small is the way to go these days. While it’s fun to gripe about the amount of choice, there’s nothing like having 12 pedals at your feet while still having enough stage space to do the Rock-You-Like-A-Hurricane move. If I can fit two pedals where there used to be one, and it sounds good for under $100, count me in. Technology matters, too, and it’s on a tear. You want your pedals to keep pace. Being able to download tones, customize, and fine-tune your sounds are all player-centric benefits that help us sound like ourselves instead of each other. And that brings us full circle. With Roland and Dunlop. Boss’s new Adaptive Technology is truly impressive. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that their DA-2 may very well be Holy Grail of distortion. Honestly speaking, I can’t hear how this pedal could sound any better for the tone we expect it to produce and the price they expect us to pay. Its proprietary technology requires new words to convey its tone — even though it looks like it’s been around forever. It’s moving rock forward while incorporating all the good stuff that came before it — all for a rock & roll price. As it should be.

PLAY IT AGAIN, PETE

There’s nothing wrong with writing the same old song if the new song is that much better for the same price or less. Someone like Edward Van Halen, for example, would never pay more for a pedal than his guitar was worth. Even today, he’d never go there. It’s totally antithetical to what he’s all about — which is him — not his gear. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been so late the game with his EVH brand. Don’t get bamboozled by digital hocus-pocus or fancy graphics. Your ears and eyes are still analogue after all. If you’re good, you’ll rock a $50 MXR Distortion + or a $200 ZVex Box of Rock. If you suck, you’ll sound like a Box of Cocks on both and be $200 poorer for your efforts. Otherwise, go ahead and drop $275 on a box that won’t make you play any better while pretending you can hear the difference. But whatever difference you think you’re hearing doesn’t mean it’ll make any difference to the ears of your audience. Especially if you suck balls on the guitar and you happen to sleep on a waterbed. Eventually, you gotta grow up and realize nothing will make you sound better than just being a better player. And then you’ll be amazed how much better all these pedals will start sounding – and just how good that old Muff Diver you bought way back when could sound all along.

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