A maze of modulation and reverberations leads down many colorful tone vortices.
Deep clanging reverb tones. Unexpected reverb/modulation combinations.
Steep learning curve for a superficially simple pedal.
A lot of cruel fates can befall a gig. But unless you’re a complete pedal addict or live in high-gain-only realms, doing a gig with just a reverb- and tremolo-equipped amp is not one of them. Usually a nice splash of reverb makes the lamest tone pretty okay. Add a little tremolo on top and you have to work to not be at least a little funky, surfy, or spacy. You see, reverb and modulation go together like beans and rice. That truth, it seems, extends even to maximalist expressions of that formula—like the SolidGold FX Ether.
The Ether is tricky enough to bewilder if you’re not careful. The three modulation modes—tremolo, harmonic tremolo, and vibrato—all feel, sound, and interact with the reverb differently. An economical but mildly complex control set definitely demands that you put in a little study. And few settings fit neatly into tidy categories like “vintage spring emulation” or “light hall.” But what the Ether lacks in super-intuitive operation it makes up for in surprises and a fluid user experience that can drag a player in new directions.
For guitarists accustomed to simple pedal reverbs, the Ether will take some work to master. There are just five knobs for tone (color), modulation depth and speed, reverb decay, and a wet/dry mix that functions as the level for both the reverb and modulation. A 2-way toggle switches between the three modulation modes or introduces a shimmer effect. What looks simple on the surface, however, belies great complexity among the available sounds. The modulation depth control alone, for instance, is full of tricks. It controls modulation waveform intensity but can also significantly re-cast the voice and response of the three modulation voices. In addition to intensity, depth also changes the shape of the modulation. On one side of noon the pedal generates sawtooth waves; on the other side, softer sine waves. Somewhat counterintuitively, waveform depth is most intense at clockwise and counterclockwise extremes and least intense closest to noon. Additionally, the noon position is a quasi-random waveform in vibrato mode, a square wave in tremolo mode, and a flutter triangle wave in harmonic triangle mode. So, while it’s fun to twist knobs at random to see what you can conjure, getting some semblance of control over the sonic outcome takes paying close attention to how these variables relate to each other.
There are cool, subtle sounds in Ether, even if subtle isn’t exactly a specialty.
The knobs are sensitive, too. This is great for fine-tuning settings when you have an intuitive, muscle-memory-based handle on how the controls work. But they can feel twitchy at first. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reverb decay and level. They each have considerable range. But the lowest level and decay settings primarily yield big reverb sounds. There are cool subtle sounds in the Ether, even if subtle isn’t exactly a specialty. On the mellower side of the Ether’s envelope, I dialed in a reasonable-enough facsimile of an old Fender black-panel spring reverb set to noon, as well as some really cool tile-like, fast-reflection sounds. But the differences between them on the level and decay controls were small and it can be hard to nail in-between sounds reliably. If you largely live your reverb life on the subdued side of splashy, you might want to look elsewhere.
The Ether’s controls are expansive on the modulation side as well. But each modulation mode also moves through very different ranges of intensity. Vibrato modulation, for instance, sounds very intense at high depth settings in relatively dry mixes. Harmonic tremolo voices, however, need a much wetter signal to stand out prominently. Regular tremolo settings tend to require high effect levels (which means you need to mind your reverb decay settings as well). Again, these differences make practice key. But relinquishing control can be just as satisfying. The harmonic tremolo reverbs can span phasey washes and noirish throb. Standard tremolo, while not the most radical effect, provides fast-twitching or hypnotic icing to metallic hyper-springy surf-ish settings. Vibrato’s reverb settings, meanwhile, can range from surreal, robotic modulations to sweet near-rotary sounds. Finding the points where these sounds intersect and mingle is a joy if you have the time to spare.
Apart from the Ether’s lack of low-key, conventional reverb sounds and interactive, trickier-than-it-looks controls, it’s hard to not fall under the device’s spell. If you have time to kill, getting lost in the mega-expansive controls, many combinations of modulation textures, and fields of reverb-based overtones can create pure joy. If you’re inclined toward option fatigue or dread getting lost in quirky controls onstage, there are simpler ways to get your reverb fix. But if it’s big-to-bigger spaces you’re after and the ability to render them distinct, mutant, and wild with washes of tremolo, vibrato, and phasey textures, the Ether is an almost endless amusement park of clanging, bouncing, ringing, and resplendent modulations.
You could WIN an El Hombre Overdrive, courtesy of J. Rockett Audio.
Enter Below!PG Perks: J. Rockett Audio El Hombre Giveaway
A pair of peculiar pickers show off slimmed-down setups that swirl, snarl, and speak!
Matt Sweeney doesn’t want to dazzle you with rock guitar. That’s boring. That’s lazy. At least to him. He wants to mesmerize you.
“Really, that’s the point of music: to get people’s minds off of whatever and to hypnotize them a little bit,” Sweeney told PG in 2021. After beginning his Superwolves collaboration with Will Oldham, “that’s when I thought, ‘Cool, I did the thing that I wanted to do. I can fingerpick now and I can play with a really great singer who is working in an idiom that I hadn’t worked in before.’
“I started playing with Will and that gave me the opportunity to keep developing the way that I was playing, because it went well with his singing. After a couple of years, that led to Will suggesting that we write songs together.”
The audible opiate that Sweeney provides has also cast his spell over the works of Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Adele, Cat Power, Run the Jewels, Chavez, John Legend, Zwan (collaboration with Billy Corgan), Tinariwen, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Billy Gibbons, and Margo Price. And with every episode of hypnosis comes a trance-breaking snapback. Providing that rhythmic recoil is Sweeney’s current foil, Emmett Kelly. Both have worked with Oldham, but until now—in the current Superwolves line-up—never together.
Kelly steps into the fold with an indie and outsiders Rolodex filled with names like Ty Segall, Angel Olson, Azita, Cairo Gang, Mikal Cronin, The C.I.A., Earth Girl Helen Brown, Magic Trick, Doug Paisley, and Joan of Arc. Sweeney sums up their guitar-nership with his typical, sly-and-dry snark: “What’s important about the way me and Emmett play together is that we never talk about it [laughs]. It’s true! He’s like the best guitar player. He’s a master at making everything sound better. We’ve both worked together—but mostly separately—with our singer Will Oldham, and it was his suggestion that we should all go out together [without bass and drums] because it should be good. But really, we’ve never had to talk about it, and we just play. It’s been a lot of fun.”
So, when PG’s Chris Kies recently connected with Sweeney and Kelly, they were providing a guitar backdrop for a headlining set fronted by Bonnie “Prince” Billy Oldham at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge, supporting Sweeney and Billy’s 2021 release, Superwolves. While the conversation with both does cover their spartan setups, the meat of the message is how gear is a tool for storytelling, humility, and liberation. Oh … but Kelly does reveal a Japanese gem that takes a guitar signal and reanimates it into anime speech-like phrases!
[Brought to you by D’Addario XS Electric Strings.]
The Lone Wolf
Matt Sweeney is a simple man. He tours with just one guitar: the above 1976 Gibson ES-335TD. He’s favored flatwound strings (La Bella Jazz Flats or D’Addario ECG25 Chromes gauged .012–.052) for nearly two decades. And he’s dropped the pick for nearly as long. Sweeney had an interesting take on fingerstyle playing with flats in an interview with PG in 2021: “I don’t know any other way to get a tone other than from your amp and fingers. Otherwise, you’re not getting your tone; you’re processing your tone. That’s another thing that fingerpicking brought out: Your right hand is your mouth. That’s what’s making the sound come out. But again, speaking of tone, we seem to largely agree that the guitar recordings everybody freaks out about are usually from before the ’60s. They’re using flatwound strings, they’re not using pedals, and it sounds really great.”
“I recommend the shit out of these Fender recreations,” concedes gear novice Sweeney. “It [the above Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb] sounds good out of the box and I frequently use its reverb and tremolo.”
Planning for Pedals
Sweeney told PG “I love pedals. Pedals are really cool, and they’re fun,” he says. “But I established the way I sound without relying on pedals at all.” And then Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal) dropped some science. “He pointed out, ‘Get any kind of pedal that will make the sound wave a little different.’ Pedals that put things out of phase and make it poke out a little bit are cool.” Well, Sweeney’s current economical, waveform-changing pedalboard includes a couple of EarthQuaker Devices (Grand Orbiter Phase Machine —“I love using phaser because people hate it”—and Dispatch Master delay & reverb), a Blackstrap Eletrik Company Greenleaf (based on the 1960s John Hornby Skewes Zonk Machine fuzz), and a Crowther Audio Hotcake. A Voodoo Lab Pedal Power ISO-5 gives everything life.
Not Your Dad’s Tele, but Donahue’s Tele
Emmett Kelly’s only touring companion is this 1990s Fender (MIJ) Jerry Donahue Signature Telecaster that’s based on an early ’60s model—aside from the ’50s V neck profile, per Jerry’s specs.
“I never liked a Tele until I found this one, and now I love it completely,” gushes Kelly. “To the point that I’m actually in the process of modding my Strat to be electronically identical to this guitar.”
It’s stock, including a unique pickup pairing (an alnico Tele in the bridge and an alnico Stratocaster in the neck) and versatile 5-way switching. (Learn more about the wiring and how to implement it into your T-style with this helpful Mod Garage guide.) Kelly uses various brands of strings (.011s) and plucks the Tele with Herco thumbpicks.
A Stompbox Platter
Kelly normally plays in more aggressive, louder bands, but for this gig the stock Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb is the perfect platform for unveiling crisp clean tones and a terrace for the tone twisting goodies on his board.
Speak of the Devil
“I like to have movement. I like to have things morphing, constantly have things imaging,” says Kelly. The pedal party starts with the always-on (albeit, subtly slow) MXR Phase 90. Next is his favorite pedal—the Crowther Audio Double Hotcake. (“It’s the clearest distortion and I love that I can get notes to be saturated and crystal clear.”) Following that is a trio of Fredric Effects: a Nouveau Super Unpleasant Companion (a combined Shin-Ei FY-2 and FY-6 Superfuzz clone), a Verzerrer (a recreation of East Germany’s only distortion effect, the Bohm Trickverzerrer), and a Regent 150 preamp (a revamped reproduction of a 1970s East German preamp that peels out the EQ circuit from the Vermona Regent 150K amplifier). The Boss TR-2 Tremolo is there when he backs up opener (and Nashville production icon) Dave Ferguson, who actually provided Kelly with the pedal. Possibly the most bizzaro pedal the Rig Rundown has encountered is this Korg Miku Stomp that employs 11 lyric patterns that basically turn your guitar (or anything, as Kelly elaborates in the video on his own exploration with the effect) into a teenage-girl Japanese anime character. You have to hear it to believe, so tune in! And lastly, Kelly turns everything on with the MXR M238 ISO-Brick.