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A little over a year ago, I had an epiphany in the middle of a jam session with my pal and drum guru, Jeremy (who’s also a great guitarist). I faced the classic challenge confronting every guitarist with more than a tuner and an overdrive in their signal chain. You probably know what I’m talking about. It’s the idea that if you just hit one more pedal (or some super-ingenious combination of pedals and settings never before concocted by humankind), maybe—just maybe—aural ecstasy will ensue.
If you haven’t been there yet, just wait—you will. Or maybe you’re just much more focused and/or in touch with your muse than I am. Who knows. The point is, I was letting way too damn much of my creative energy, mental capacity, and groove be siphoned off by the shiny, brightly colored boxes on my pedalboard.
The thing is, it’s not like I had that many on there. Five, maybe six. I’d already jettisoned my DigiTech Whammy a couple of years before, but I still had a distortion pedal, a fuzz, a wah, a badass new reverb pedal, and my trusty tremolo pedal— one of the earliest, most iconic in the boutique world.
Yes, that’s all it took to befuddle this ol’ twangin’ bastard and convince me to simplify. It’s pathetic, I know. But, hell, everyone knows Jeff Beck is just about the most expressive guitarist on the planet—and he hardly ever steps on a stomp. Same goes for Brian Setzer, one of my other all-time favorites. So, I ripped the wah off my ’board, sold the fuzz and the distortion, and decided I was going to get all I could out of a cranked tube amp and reverb and tremolo pedals.
I don’t have any scientific before-and-after recordings that I can reference to make an open-and-shut case for the effectiveness of this exercise in simplicity, but I can say with absolute sincerity that I’m really, really glad I did it. I’ve never been one to sit down and figure out what my favorite guitarists and bands are playing, so it’s not like I’ve spent the last year trying to conjure the magic that Beck gets with his incredible use of a Strat’s tremolo—I’m not trying to be a virtuoso, anyway. But I did approach the instrument with the idea that I’d figure out how to alter my attack and use a different part of my thumb or fingers to get some portion of the expressiveness that Beck taps into with such aplomb. I improved my Travis-picking technique. I got so adept at tucking my pick up between my index-finger knuckles while I fingerpicked that I didn’t even realize when I was doing it. I got pretty good at snapping the strings in a way that’s like a cross between a Tele-wielding hillbilly and a funk bassist. And recently I hit on the gritty, darker articulation you get when you flip around one of those picks with the raised gripping surface and use the broad side rather than the pointed end.
And yet … recently I’ve been hankering for one of those new Whammys. A few years ago I wrote a tune that begins with an echo-drenched power chord having its harmonized thirds slowly bending into fourths, and then an inverted chord doing the same. The effect was simple, otherworldly, and gorgeous— and there are precious few pedals out there that can do something like that. Plus, the new Whammys are true-bypass, and therefore don’t suck out high end like they used to.
Besides, as the editor of a magazine and website that sees a steady stream of incredible gear go in and out of its doors, it’s pretty hard to not lust. Especially given how much I love effects masters like Vernon Reid, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, David Torn, Tom Morello, and J. Mascis.
I guess what I’m saying is the question of stomping or not stomping is just like anything else—if you’re such a hard-ass purist that you think there’s only one good way to do things, you’re just going to miss out on a lot of cool stuff and come across as a jackass in the process.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always treasure and take advantage of everything I learned over the last year of relative effect celibacy, but my tastes are too diverse to warrant walking any sort of puritanical path.
The other night I got out my wah, put it back on my pedalboard, played it, and … promptly ripped it off again. I’m just not a wah guy, I guess. But the boost pedal and compressor I recently added have already yielded big dividends. Yeah, I know they’re pretty much the tamest effects on the planet, but their powers are exponential when combined with a carefully considered approach.
And don’t you worry, I’m carefully plotting my next pedal moves. Because I’ve realized the answer to the question, “To stomp, or not to stomp?” How much one stomps is going to vary from player to player, but as long as you use them as an inspiration rather than a distraction and a crutch, you’re kind of crazy not to take advantage of them—especially considering how many ingenious and incredible-sounding designs are coming out these days.