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Wilco's Nels Cline
Top Signal Chain: Boss TU-2 tuner > Z.Vex Fuzz Factory> Fulltone DejáVibe> DigiTech Whammy > Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer > Boss VB-2 Vibrato > Bigfoot FX Magnavibe > Klon Centaur > Crazy Tube Circuits Starlight Overdrive > Crowther Hotcake > Fulltone ‘69 > Electro-Harmonix Pulsar > Crazy Tube Circuits Viagra Boost > Boss FV-500H volume pedal > Boss DD-3 delay > MXR Phase 45 > Boss DD-7 delay
“Sadly, happily, strangely, I seem to be known for using a lot of effects pedals,” Nels Cline told us. “For me, they’re like colors on a palette, and they’re not a gimmick.” Though the talented guitarist plays in a number of projects, we checked out his expansive setup for his most high-profile gig—lead guitarist for alt-rock band Wilco.
The keys to Cline’s sound are overdrive, compression, volume, and delay: “This is the exploded version of those parameters,” he explains. The volume pedal is particularly important for Cline, who was introduced to its usefulness in the ’70s through guys like Steve Howe and Robert Fripp. In addition to using it for violin sounds and bringing volume up and down, Cline—always the single-coil lover—also employs the volume pedal to defeat 60-cycle hum. “I just always have my foot on it,” he says. He uses a Boss FV-500H because it doesn’t break easily and is transparent.
The other key to his tone is the elusive Klon Centaur, which he relies on for lead work like the solos on “Impossible Germany” and “Ashes of American Flags.” The latter also employs his Boss VB-2 Vibrato and Electro- Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb.
Other favorites of Cline include the Fuzz Factory, which he describes as, “really strange and intense and uncontrollable,” and the Magnavibe, which he says is the only pedal that replicates the tone of an old Magnatone amp he records with. He pairs the Fuzz Factory with his DigiTech Whammy (set to two octaves down) and punishes the strings with a spring for end-of-the-world tones. Setting the Whammy between settings, resting his battered Jazzmaster on his amp, and working his Korg Kaoss Pad 2—generally used for tape delay effects—unlocks out-of-tune clusters and further wackiness.
Bottom Signal Chain: Signal Chain: Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man > Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay > Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing > Korg Kaoss Pad 2 > Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Plus. Photos by Rebecca Dirks
Cline pairs his Fulltone DejáVibe and Boss DD-7 for Band of Gypsies-style Hendrix tones (“Doesn’t come in that handy with Wilco,” he jokes), employs the Fulltone ’69 for germanium fuzz tones, and calls the Crazy Tube Starlight into action when old-school RAT tones are in order. His vintage Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Delay has been part of his sound for more than 25 years after Bill Frisell turned him onto it, and it’s always recording, used for looping on the fly.
Cline’s guitar tech, Eric Baecht, calls Cline’s second board—the collection of noisemakers situated on a table—the “science project,” and the description is apt for Cline’s approach to effects. He’s constantly playing and experimenting. “I have fun everywhere I go,” Cline told us.
The pedals are straight in line, no loops. When we asked Cline about it he explained, “It does degrade my sound … degradation is my sound. I’m not a purist about anything, so why would I be a purist about guitar tone?”
Watch the Rig Rundown: