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Just as mastering your instrument takes a certain amount of study and practice, the ability to skillfully operate your equipment also requires a good bit of work. It’s not just the technical knowledge of how each piece of gear works, but the actual experience of using it that will yield the desired results. I’m continually surprised at how many players try to sidestep this part of the process. I’m sure you never expected that just buying a nice guitar would give you the ability to play it. So it stands to reason that mere ownership of other gear doesn’t necessarily give you great tone. You need to do your homework.
I was reminded of how important this is last week when the owner of a local music store called me in a quandary. He had just ordered a batch of Black Cat pedals and was having a problem with one of them. I asked him what was wrong with the pedal, and he said he wasn’t sure—it just “didn’t sound right.” Obviously, this had me greatly concerned, so I headed down to his shop as soon as I could. When I got to the store, the owner told me, “a kid wanted to try this pedal, and when he plugged it in, it sounded terrible.” He then suggested I try the pedal myself, adding “maybe we were doing something wrong.” Sure enough, once I got set up with an axe and amp, I fired up the pedal in question, took a minute to dial it in, and started jamming away. It sounded great!
“Wow!” the storeowner said, “it didn’t sound like that when we tried it.” Granted, I’m probably a much more skilled player than the prospective customer, but I was sure that the problem had nothing to do with chops. I asked him where they had the knobs set on the pedal, and he said, “Oh, we didn’t play around with the knobs too much.” Now, this may sound like the punchline of a bad joke, but it’s a true story. What’s more, this particular pedal only had three knobs, so it wasn’t overly complicated. It got me wondering how many people really expect to plug into a piece of gear and have it sound just the way they want it to without having to do anything. I mean, the knobs are there for a reason, right?
I tend to forget that tweaking knobs on guitar pedals is part of my job, and has been for a long time, so I take it for granted that everyone knows what to do when plugging into the average stompbox. Although the above example is a little extreme, it illustrates a tendency I’ve noticed in a lot of players to get locked into a certain way of using their gear without ever testing the full range and capability of each piece. Maybe it’s time to start thinking outside the (stomp) box. Whenever I get a new pedal that I’m not familiar with, I give it the “Quick Test.” Basically, I take a minute to quickly familiarize myself with the entire range of every control on the pedal. When I worked at Analog Man, it was a routine matter to test an entire case of 24 modified Tube Screamers in a few minutes using this method.
To “Quick Test” an average guitar pedal, first plug the pedal in by itself, using only your guitar, amp, and two cables, making sure the pedal is properly powered with a fresh battery or the correct adapter. Be sure to take a minute to set your bypassed signal to taste and let your ear adjust. If the pedal has a Volume control, you may want to turn that knob down before you start until you get an idea of how loud it will be. Next, set all the other controls at 12 o’clock, or whatever the equivalent midway point is likely to be. Turn the pedal on, hit some strings, and then listen. Now, test each control one by one, turning each knob through its entire range, from fully counterclockwise to fully clockwise, before returning to midway. You should be able to identify the function of each control as you’re turning the knob, regardless of what the label says. Having a better idea of the full range of each control, you can go on to see how they interact with each other. Most importantly, remember to listen, listen, listen…
Try this with some of your old stomps; I guarantee you’ll hear something new. Then get ready for the more advanced knob twisting, pedal tweaking tricks we have in store in our next session.
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, established by “Analog” Mike Piera in 1993. Mike can be reached at AnalogMike@aol.com.