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When considering what the “best” pedal might be for your situation, you really need to look at the rest of your rig. Each component affects the performance of the others, so it’s not realistic to assess the merits of a particular pedal without at least considering which guitar and amp you intend to use it with. To best achieve your desired tone, it helps to think holistically—as if your entire signal chain, from string to speaker, is a single vehicle of musical expression. Or maybe you just want to find a pedal that sounds good with your setup. That’s okay too.
Before recommending a particular type of pedal, here are the questions I ask: What guitar do you play? What pickups are in your guitar? What amp are you using? What speakers are in your amp? And finally, what type of tone are you trying to achieve? A pedal that sounds incredible in one setup may sound mediocre (or worse) in another.
Start with Your Guitar…
So let’s start with your instrument. The pickups in your ax certainly impact the pedals you use, particularly dirt pedals. In most cases, humbuckers produce a much hotter output signal going into your pedals than single-coils. There are pros and cons to this, of course. For example, the original MXR Phase 90 was notorious for clipping when used with high-output pickups. However, a certain overdrive or fuzz pedal may respond rather favorably to a good goosing from a hot bridge humbucker. Conversely, a good buffered boost pedal may help an otherwise anemic set of Strat pickups sound more open, dynamic, and muscular. Yet the same pedal used with hot pickups might end up sounding too distorted. In many cases, it’s all a matter of personal preference. I really like the sound of single-coils with a Fuzz Face, but prefer humbuckers with a Tone Bender. (I should note here that I’m using the terms “Fuzz Face” and “Tone Bender” in the generic sense, which would include any pedals based on these designs as well as the originals.)
…Then Move on to Your Amp
Next, let’s talk about matching pedals to your amp. The same pedal may sound radically different in a high-gain stack than it does with a low-watt combo, so you definitely want to have the best match for your amp. In addition to sheer wattage, there are other factors that come into play, such as circuit configuration, types of power tubes, and what speakers are being used. A typical comparison would be “Fender vs. Marshall”—or, even more broadly, “American vs. British” amplifiers. Each has its own characteristics.
British-made amplifiers most often use EL34 or EL84 power tubes, while the power tubes found in Fender and other American-made brands were often 6L6 (or sometimes 6V6). The characteristics of a 6L6-type tube are wide frequency response, tight bottom end, and greater headroom. In contrast, the EL34 and EL84 typically have more of a midrange emphasis with an earlier breakup. So again, the same pedal will react differently depending on the type of power tubes in your amp.
Which Amp Style Is the Perfect “Canvas”?
The consensus of many players (including myself) is that blackface and silverface Fenderstyle amps are probably the most versatile, pedal-friendly format there is. The scooped midrange and clean headroom inherent to the blackface Fender design help to create a nice, open backdrop that you can use as a neutral starting point for any number of styles and sounds. In fact, some consider the Fender Twin Reverb to be the ultimate “clean canvas” for using pedals. Yet, this is not everyone’s ideal.
A good number of players prefer to get at least some of their overdrive from the amp itself, rather than relying strictly on pedals. The easiest way to go about this is to actually go pedal free—just crank the amp up all the way and use the guitar volume and playing dynamic to adjust the range from clean to scream. But this old-school method has many limitations and isn’t really practical for most players today. A more common practice is to use an overdrive or boost pedal to push the front end of the amp to overdrive the preamp tubes. This works particularly well with an amp that’s on the brink of breaking up, especially when the right blend of power-tube saturation and speaker breakup is achieved.
Next time we’ll discuss classic pedal and amp combinations. Until then, keep on stompin’!
(a.k.a. Analog Tom) is the owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only (formusiciansonly.com) and author of Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Effects. Questions or comments about this article can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(analogman.com) is one of the largest boutique effects manufacturers and retailers in the business, and it was established by “Analog” Mike Piera in 1993. Mike can be reached at AnalogMike@aol.com.