Guitar Cable Amp and Hands

worthim's picture

Guitar Cable Amp and Hands

(Note: I found an old email from Dave ~rip~ with his take on the use of a guitar cable amp and hands to pull out your own original sound. I think he was getting on me a little bit in this one - I have the pedal board syndrome like he described ... Scott ... 8^)

Now, boys & girls, don’t take me all wrong here…I’m not ‘anti-effects’, though I will admit to be a serious late 60’s-70’s throwback in terms of most things musical including guitar tone.

But do yourselves a favor and dig out some old music by Leslie West/Mountain, Cream, Humble Pie, Savoy Brown/early Foghat, Trapeze, Allman Bros., and that ilk. Monster tone, and from nothing but a guitar, a cable, and an amp…and of course, some very talented sets of hands. Hendrix was about the only guy in those days to use much in the way of effects, and at that, only a RotoVibe, a fuzz/octave, and a wah. He certainly didn’t have a 2-foot by four-foot Velcro board packed end-to-end with pedals. Nobody did in those days. And just listen to the tones they produced.

I am of the opinion that too many players these days seriously over-use their effects. And really, to my ears, they just muddle up things to the point where the guy’s actual playing and his true guitar tone are obscured by the effects. Maybe that’s the whole idea…to cover up the fact that perhaps they can’t play as well as they’d really like to. As for me, I could get by with one really good chorus, a delay/reverb, and a ‘tubey’ OD/distortion unit (no square-wavy ‘metal’ or ‘grunge’ pedals for me, thanks). That’s all I’d ever need. Well, maybe a separate OD and full-on distortion pedal….or just a good tube amp with a clean and dirty channel. In fact, I have a relatively inexpensive multi-effect pedal that does all I need, and then a bunch more. I typically use just two of the amp/distortion models (‘boutique’ and ‘Brit Stack’), chorus, reverb, and delay. The rest of the stuff that comes in that unit I don’t have much use for, such as the cab models, phase shifter, pitch shifting, flanging (very rarely). Yeah, I’d use them if a song actually would call for them, but for the straight-up blues-based stuff I like to play, even chorus can be overkill.

My advice to young players just getting started out is to develop your tone to be as good as it can be before the effects are added-on. If you like nice gritty overdriven tones, get an amp that’ll give you that and just work with that at first to develop your control over the dynamic response of the amp (via your hands). It’ll sound SO much better than a little box full of electronic doodads. But get that tone thing worked out with just your guitar, a cable, and that amp. Then when you start laying on some effects, in a tasteful manner, your output will be that much better.

Nothing sounds uglier to me than too many effects layered onto a guitar’s output, and all of them maxed out. The more effected your signal is, the less you hear of the real thing; the guitar. The whole thing becomes nothing more than electronic noise if taken to extremes. I hear guys playing with razor-edged distortion driven into a chorus, then into a delay and reverb, all laid on super-heavily and over-the-top, and I can’t tell what kind of guitar they’re playing anymore. It comes to the point where that wouldn’t even matter anyway, because the effects are more prevalent than the original guitar signal. When it gets to where you can no longer tell if the guitar is equipped with single-coils, humbuckers, or P-90’s, it’s gone too far. When the guitar’s true tone is lost among all the buzzing, swooshing, and echoing going on, it’s time to back off a bit on the little boxes on the floor. Layered effects can be applied with taste. Sadly, though, too many players don’t seem to know how to do that, and they end up with a total tonal mess. Yep, that’s just my opinion, of course, but there it is.

Something else to consider is the signal loss that you get at each and every patch-cable connection between effect pedals. When you have a dozen pedals, you have a dozen tiny little losses of signal in the interconnections. It can get to the point that even with all the pedals bypassed, your guitar’s tone no longer has any sparkle or liveliness at all. This is one reason I’m beginning to favor those multi-effect units; one input jack, one output jack…not ten or twelve of each. Try this little experiment: If you have a way to record, jack up all your pedals, but switch them into ‘bypass’ mode and play some clean chords and runs while recording. Then unplug all that stuff and run your guitar cable directly into your amp and record the same chords and runs. Then compare the two. I’ll almost guarantee that you’ll be completely shocked at how much ‘tone suckage’ is occurring thru all those pedals and interconnections, even if ‘bypassed’. Now, two or three pedals is probably not going to make much of an audible difference. But a double-decker pedal board full of pedals definitely will. I know guys who have a good dozen pedals all hooked up at once, and they have become inured to the ‘strangled’ tone they’re getting when trying to play ‘clean’. Simply put, they just don’t know any better. Those guys would totally freak if they ever just took the plunge and tried my little experiment, just once. But they’ve become so reliant on all those pedals to ‘create’ their tone for them that they no longer have any idea what their guitars actually sound like. Kinda sad, really.

I guess one school of thought on this is that you can use all those pedals as if they were one electronic instrument... kinda like a hardwired analog synthesizer with your guitar as simply the pitch & note on/off source. That’s OK, I suppose, if that’s what you like. But I personally like to be able still to identify the type of guitar that’s being played, by its natural character. I want to be able to tell a Strat from an SG from a Les Paul from a Danelectro. And I can still do that if several effects are applied at once, tastefully and not in excess, i.e. a little bit of reverb, a light amount of chorus, a ‘one-echo’ delay, and a less harsh and grindy distortion.

What I’ve been trying to get at is this: get your tone down with just your guitar and amp, then use your effects tastefully to augment and enhance that, rather than trying to use your effects to create your tone for you. Because no matter how many effects you use or at what intensity you use them, if what’s going into them up front is garbage, what’s going to come out the other end is augmented and enhanced garbage.