An overachieving overdrive that gets way bigger than its name suggests.
Sweet balanced crunch tones. Dynamic. Sparkling, full, and clean at attenuated guitar volume. High-quality build.
Great Eastern FX Small Speaker Overdrive
Overdrive pedals don’t often set my world alight—even great ones. But I’ve spent a month with the England-built Great Eastern FX Small Speaker Overdrive, and it remains attached to the other end of my coil-y cable. Ostensibly, the Small Speaker is meant to be a variation on the tweed-Fender-Champ-in-a-box theme. However, both the pedal’s name and the Champ associations fail to do justice to how large and alive it sounds and feels tethered to a bigger amp.
For one thing, the Small Speaker has more headroom and low-end ballast than a hot, wide-open tweed Champ. You can certainly summon the focus and midrange-y punch that makes that amp a star in front of a microphone. But thanks to the Small Speaker’s excellent EQ, you can also conjure a substantial measure of tuneful low end that is a perfect counterweight to its open, aerated highs and mids, and makes this little pedal a wrecking ball.
The Small Speaker is also super dynamic. If you set the pedal up for a crunchy, high-gain setting, it gets much cleaner at attenuated guitar volumes—not sort of clean and thin, or slightly crunchy, but full-bodied and sparklingly clean. This characteristic, among many others, makes it a dream pairing for a black-panel Fender. I’ve had the black-panel Tremolux used for this review for decades. It’s flat-out my favorite amp. But in all that time, I don’t ever remember it sounding quite as sweetly crunchy as it does when hooked up to the Small Speaker Overdrive. What an impressive little pedal.
It’s all in the details.
- Understand the inherent challenges in rhythm guitar playing.
- Develop new strumming patterns.
- Cultivate practice strategies to keep yourself motivated.
Last updated on May 12, 2022
Rhythm guitar is arguably the most important aspect of guitar playing, and it’s also one of the most challenging skills to develop. The discouragement many players feel when working on rhythms forces too many of them to oversimplify the nuances, and this can reduce a performance from exceptional to fine. In this lesson, we’ll investigate why rhythm guitar can be so puzzling and look at a few ways to keep yourself motivated enough to persevere and improve.
Why So Hard?
In my many years of teaching I have found that students can learn the basic open-position chord shapes relatively quickly. The same goes for the pentatonic and major scale patterns. Even riffs and hooks like “Smoke on the Water,” “Crazy Train,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” come relatively quickly to beginners. The biggest challenge for most guitar players is mastering rhythm guitar.
I’m not referring to the basics, such as four down strums in a measure of 4/4, a down and up eighth-note strum, or even the slightly syncopated strum of Ex. 1.
Rather, I’m talking about the rhythms in countless classic rock, folk, and pop songs, which are the mainstays—for better or worse—of every oldies station, cover band’s setlist, and many aspiring beginners’ guitar dreams. Why are these rhythms so challenging for most players?
Dictionary.com defines idiosyncratic as “something peculiar to an individual.” Well, there’s your answer. Many of our favorite songs and guitarists, such as Neil Young, Malcolm and Angus Young, Joni Mitchell, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince, possess idiosyncratic strums. How can something peculiar to an individual be easily reproduced? It can’t. Imitation takes hard work, hours of practice and refinement, and highly developed listening skills. That is not to say that idiosyncratic strums can’t be reproduced, only that they can’t be imitated easily.
What Can Guitar Players do to Improve Their Rhythm?
The first priority is to confirm that you genuinely know how the rhythm was originally performed. In this day and age, with reliable, professionally created guitar transcriptions and instructional videos (as well as an abundance of isolated rhythm guitar tracks on YouTube), there is ample opportunity to both hear and see accurate rhythms. This doesn’t make the rhythm immediately easier to play. It will help you avoid practicing it incorrectly and allow you to generate modifications based on the original, rather than through guesswork.
Play the Part Correctly and Slowly
The second step I recommend is to endeavor to play the part correctly and slowly. This requires playing the rhythms with slower tempos and one measure at a time rather than the more common four-measure patterns. This second aspect is important as many idiosyncratic strums vary from measure to measure. Such a lack of uniformity adds to the artistry of the music, but it can be frustrating to imitate.
For instance, look at Ex. 2, which is similar to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” While the chords themselves, G–C–D–Am, are easy enough to fret, the strum pattern is a nightmare of mixed rhythms, with each measure not only containing a different pattern, but different string choices as well. (To make it even more tricky, David Gilmour continues to vary his rhythms throughout the song.) Let’s consider just the first measure. There’s only one chord, but three different rhythmic figures. It gets even worse than that. Sometimes the strum includes all six strings, other times one note, two notes, or three notes. Maddening! This is one of the most challenging aspects of idiosyncratic rhythm. And these types of variations show up over and over again in accurate portfolio transcriptions. Yes, it is correct, but it’s an ordeal to decipher.
Here’s a tip. First work on the strum, not the individually plucked notes and strings. Strum the entire G chord (Ex. 3). Next, isolate the lowest note in the chord (Ex. 4). If you can play this correctly then you can begin mixing it up with a combination of full chords, single bass notes, and partial chords. Trust me, Gilmour wasn’t thinking, “Gotta play just the top three strings on the 16th-note upbeat of beat two and the two bottom strings on the ‘and’ of beat four.” It’s idiosyncratic! Once you have measure one correct, move on to measure two, which is slightly different. Measures three and four are also marginally altered.
Hopefully you’ll find that one new rhythmic pattern on its own is relatively manageable. Having to generate four different patterns in the space of four measures? In that situation, strums become exponentially more complex. As this lesson moves forward, all the examples will be variations on this theme, in different contexts, and citing different specific artists. The idea here is to demonstrate the vast complexity idiosyncratic playing can generate.
Neil Young's Strumming Patterns
In my experience, Neil Young has some of the most seemingly random strums one can find. He’ll play a song with only four chords but there will be 16 different strum patterns. It’s both inspiring and infuriating. Ex. 5 is an example of such an exasperating figure, based on “Heart of Gold.” There are four chords in two measures, each with a different strum, followed by variations on the same four chords! Brilliant and unbearable.
To make mastering this a bit more tolerable, as with the previous Gilmour-esque pattern, break it down into smaller parts. You’ll also want to add full chord strums on the Em and C. Ex. 6. and Ex. 7 demonstrate measures three and four of Ex. 5, isolated and repeated. Do this for the first two measures as well.
Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi"
Another icon of individuality is Joni Mitchell, who deserves a lesson all to herself. For now, Ex. 8 will suffice. In this example, based on “Big Yellow Taxi” (although the original is performed in open-E tuning), there is the added complication of muted strums.
If these muted strums are new to you, I recommend you focus on the mutes, as shown in Ex. 9. Once that is comfortable, return to Ex. 8 and incorporate the barre chords into the pattern. As with all our examples thus far, break them down, making sure each measure is solid before moving on to the next. At the risk of belaboring the point, these strums are demanding—there is no instant gratification here. “Practice and refine” should be your mantra.
Let's Talk About Jimi Hendrix
It would be impossible to write about either guitar icons or 6-string idiosyncrasy without mentioning Jimi Hendrix. Jimi’s use of his thumb to fret chords is alone worthy of attention. For now, let’s stick with his eccentric strumming patterns. A good place to start is probably Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe.” It consists of a three-and-a-half-minute loop of the circle of fourths chord progression C–G–D–A–E, yet Jimi finds a new way to play the pattern every time. Ex. 10 offers one of countless variations you can attempt. Ex. 11 demonstrates how to break it down.
While it’s true that most AC/DC songs feature the same riff or chord pattern played repetitively, you’ll also find that many of those patterns are four measures long, with multiple, highly syncopated rhythms found within each measure. “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Bad Boy Boogie,” and “Highway to Hell” are all excellent examples of this. Ex. 12 demonstrates Malcolm and Angus Young’s penchants for such patterns by imitating the rhythms of “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).” As you can hear, there are four measures with an immense amount of space in them and four different rhythmic figures. The key to perfecting this sort of rhythm is to not rush. Either tap your foot or use a metronome to keep your tempo steady.
Our final example isn’t exactly idiosyncratic, though the referenced artist is. While Prince’s music and personal style is incredibly diverse, he often wears his influences on his sleeves, whether those be James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, or Joni Mitchell. Nevertheless, he habitually put his own spin on the source inspiration.
Ex. 13 provides you with a funky rhythm that will improve your playing, no matter what genre you specialize in, as it features muted strings (similar to those in our Joni Mitchell example), a fast syncopated 16th-note strum, and a four-measure pattern that requires you to focus on the subtle variations found in the pattern. Once again, I’ll remind you to practice such patterns one measure at a time. Goodness, any one of these measures is funky enough on its own and would satisfy most funk musicians: It’s the idiosyncratic nature of Prince to go beyond.
Ex. 14 is measure three of Ex. 13 isolated and repeated. I’ve chosen this measure because for me it’s the easiest to play (always start with what’s easiest for you). Note that in Ex. 14, I removed the muted strums. We know they’re in the original and we can add them in soon enough, as demonstrated in Ex. 15.
Finally, let’s play all four measures without the mutes, as demonstrated in Ex. 16. It is this sort of compartmentalized, methodical, attention-to-detail practice that will improve your playing.
Words of Encouragement
Ironically, one of the best things I can tell you about practicing the guitar is, “Learning to play guitar is hard!” I don’t say this to discourage, but to give perspective. If it’s taking you a week to learn a certain rhythmic pattern, guess what? It might take you a month to really get it down. Still, the rewards are worth the effort. Good luck with your rhythms!
How a Jazzmaster and unorthodox echo placement help the bandleader fuse psych-rock and cumbia.
A smart, potent boost that’s much more than meets the eye.
A well-built and truly great-sounding boost/line-driver pedal boasting a handful of clever bonus functions.
Some buyers might find it a little pricey.
Source Audio ZIO
Source Audio nicknamed the new ZIO pedal “the Better Box,” which is a fair summation of what this thing will do for your tone. Purists may rant endlessly about the virtues of plugging straight into an amp. But many legendary players understood that a little extra “hot” between guitar and amp can add up to magic. From Jimmy Page’s Echoplex preamp to Brian May’s Rangemaster to Angus Young’s Schaffer-Vega wireless system, a lot of signature sounds have been shaped with a little extra kick—and often from unexpected sources that are something other than simple boosts. Source Audio’s first all-analog pedal is more than a conventional booster, too. And, to some degree, it celebrates these alternate paths to boosting tone.
Designed in collaboration with Christopher Ventner of SHOE Pedals, ZIO is short for Impedance (“Z” in electro-speak), Input, and Output, which hints at the front-to-back thinking behind the design. The pedal’s input impedance is calculated to optimize the signal from a traditional high-impedance guitar pickup and send it down the line as a sweetened low-impedance version of itself. In doing so, ZIO helps your signal survive long chains of pedals and cable runs. Four selectable modes each offer up to +20 dB of gain and three levels of cable-mimicking capacitance to subtly brighten or darken your tone as desired.
- 0:00 – ZIO pedal off.
- 0:08 – ZIO on, JFET setting.
- 0:44 – Change to Sudio setting.
- 1:04 – Change to E-Plex setting.
- 1:24 – Pedal off again.
Got Some Front
Though its methods for tone shaping might seem slightly esoteric on the surface, ZIO is easy to use. The knobs are a single control for output level and a 4-position rotary switch, dubbed circuit, which selects the preamp voicing. The JFET mode uses Burr-Brown op amps to generate a transparent, low-distortion boost, mimicking the response of a clean tube amp input. Low-cut mode reduces frequencies that can cause mud and rumble, lending more presence. Studio mode successfully replicates the effect of using a Pultec compressor to cut muddy lower-mids and enhance presence. The E-Plex mode, meanwhile, replicates the rich, clear, and just slightly colored sound of a vintage Echoplex preamp.
Source Audio is mindful of the fact that a long cable’s capacitance is an essential part of some players’ overall sonic brew, and that a booster/line-driver in front of the chain can negate the capacitance effect. So ZIO includes a tone toggle that offers three levels of cable-capacitance emulation. Bright represents a low-capacitance load and the brightest tone—as you might hear from a very short, high-quality cable. Med approximates a 15-foot cable and softens highs just a bit. Dark achieves the mellowing effect of longer or coiled cables.
A 2-position mini-toggle to the right is specifically tailored for players that will keep ZIO on at all times and allows the user to configure the footswitch as a mute function in place of the traditional off setting. That means one of the two outputs on the left side of the pedal can feed a tuner running independent of the signal chain or deliver a line-level signal to any amp, console, interface, or input that you want to keep live while muting the main output. Nine-volt DC power feeds the ZIO, with a center-negative input on the crown. It’s all housed in a rugged brushed-aluminum enclosure that’s not quite mini-pedal small but compact at 4" x 2.3" x 2.2" tall (including the knobs).
I fast fell I love with ZIO’s variety of boost tones and easy integration into my pedalboard.
All Lined Up
I fast fell in love with ZIO’s variety of boost tones and easy integration into my pedalboard. It flat-out sounds fantastic. Some players will no doubt consider ZIO pricey for a booster pedal with a few extra bells and whistles. But the enhanced tones will be well worth it for many guitarists, even if they only ever use one circuit mode.
That said, switching between the circuits is half the fun. And at times I fantasized about a rig based on two ZIO pedals: One that I could use as a transparent always-on line driver and tone juicer, and another as a proper boost. Used in the latter application, ZIO made my tweed-style combo bite and break up a lot more readily. It was also secret sauce for a Friedman Mini Dirty Shirley, making its Plexi-style crunch and lead tones extra delectable. While all four preamp-emulating modes proved effective—and I could certainly find many useful applications for each—I really fell for the Pultec-inspired studio mode. It’s sweet, juicy, clear, and articulate, and it simply makes everything more luscious. It can also offer a playful dose of extra drive when you crank the output past 11 o’clock. It sounds fantastic as an amp-input driver in this setting. The tone switch settings are pretty subtle, but that’s the idea: You use it to fine tune the feel and character of the signal once you’ve dialed in the other functions to near-perfection.
Boosts are often one-trick ponies. But Source Audio and Christopher Ventner’s sly and very smart selection of features make ZIO a whale of a tone enhancing machine—and a sneakily versatile one at that. Yes, the ZIO is a simple device in principle, but it does what it does exceptionally well. And while many players will regard the tone switch and switch modes as minor bonus features, I suspect they will prove invaluable to many exacting tone crafters and super-functional in some rigs. For me, at least, they help make ZIO one of the tastiest boost pedals I’ve tried in quite some time.