Don’t get me wrong. Expression pedals may not be a necessity for everyone. If you’ve never used one, then you’ve certainly managed—up to this point—to get along just fine without one. But if you want to experiment with expanding your sounds, imagine using a foot controller to make adjustments while your hands are busy wowing the crowd. This one device can add a breadth to your guitar playing that goes far beyond turning effects on and off.
If you’re curious to try one, there are some basic things you need to know. First of all, to use an expression pedal you need to have an effect pedal that is “expression-ready”—meaning it needs to have an expression-pedal input jack. Your guitar doesn’t plug into the expression pedal, nor will an expression pedal directly do anything to your sound. That’s because the guitar signal doesn’t pass through the pedal; the pedal simply controls the effect’s adjustments. Also keep in mind that a 1/4" TRS cable is needed—a stereo cable, not a standard guitar cable. Paul Shedden of Mission Engineering, maker of a wide range of expression pedals, points to this as the cause of their most frequent “why isn’t my pedal working” inquiries.
A typical setup connects one expression pedal to one effects pedal, although some makes and models of expression pedals provide dual connections, which means you can simultaneously adjust two effects with a single movement of your foot. Not all expression pedals work with all expression-ready effects, so check compatibility. Aside from that, you may have personal preferences about the sweep of the pedal movement, the ability to spring back to the “heel” position, and other physical attributes.
From the Pros
Doug Wimbish and Vernon Reid of Living Colour are passionate believers. They’ve been using expression pedals in one form or another since the mid 1980s and have mastered their use. They are well versed in the intricacies of expression pedal design and performance, in the studio and onstage, and have learned how to make them deliver amazing results.
EXP ABCsHere are some basics you need to know about expression pedals:
• You need an effects pedal that’s “expression ready”—meaning it’s equipped with a jack designed to accept an expression pedal.
• The jack requires a cable with a 1/4" TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) stereo plug.
• A guitar doesn’t plug into the expression pedal. No audio signal passes through the pedal at all. The pedal simply controls the effect.
• Expression pedals need to match the effects pedal you are using. The TRS connections are not consistent for all pedals. To compensate, some expression pedals include a switch to make them more universal.
• Expression pedals use either a 10k ohm or 25k ohm potentiometer. The latter is more suited to MIDI effects pedals.
• You may have preferences concerning the sweep of the pedal or how much foot movement is needed. There’s no right or wrong; a short sweep and a long sweep each have advantages.
But despite his extensive experience with expression pedals, Wimbish says he’s still in “Discovery Channel” mode. Indeed, the possibilities can seem endless. Describing the expression pedal as “one of your best sonic friends,” he currently uses several Dunlop DVP3 units in conjunction with an Eventide H-9, a Pigtronix Echolution, and a Zoom G3. “It’s a lot of fun to make these sonic things happen,” he relates. “An expression pedal gives me the opportunity to get in and out quickly—or at least it gives it to my foot.”
For Wimbish, experimentation is mandatory and whatever works becomes part of his sound. He eloquently described his continuous experimentation as building “different layers of a sonic layer cake.” And expression pedals are a way for him to get more out of the effects he has, as well as a way to shrink the number of devices needed.
An expression pedal warning from Wimbish: Watch the chain position, and exercise extreme caution. It’s essential to know exactly which pedal is controlling what parameter of which effect. Otherwise, some unexpected things can happen during a performance.
“Sometimes the expression pedal will be your enemy, and admittedly that starts with me,” he says. “It can sound like we have a party going, and I don’t know if I was invited to it!” In other words, all can be going nicely until one unexpected movement of the foot suddenly lets Godzilla out. But when the beast is carefully leashed, the results can be sublime, as they are on his solo showpiece “Swirl,” where loops and expression pedals come into masterful play.
“Now that we’ve harnessed the sounds,” Wimbish says, “the things that Vernon and I tend to focus on are expression pedals. I see a lot of cats—bass players—who are using pedals now that never used them before. And while there will always be a lot of musical police officers telling you what to do and not do with your guitar, it’s best to just be yourself.”
Vernon Reid is of the same mindset. Fifty years since the birth of the wah, much has happened in the world of guitar effects, and expression pedals play a major role in his battalion of devices. Hooked to his Eventide H9, Red Panda Particle, and others, they’re a way to get more sound variation out of those units. A favorite is his AMT X-50 expression pedal. “It’s very, very cool, and super compact,” Reid says.
Vernon Reid’s onstage coterie of expression pedals includes those by Boss, Roland, Moog, Source Audio, and AMT, and he also employs an Ernie Ball Volume pedal hack as a controller, using a Y cable.
One of his favorite uses for an expression pedal is controlling gain: going from a clean sound to distortion. Another is dynamically adjusting delay times and repeats. “There are lots of cool and subtle things you can do,” he notes, including changing the rates of a chorus or phase shifter. Reid uses a wide range of expression pedals, from the sophisticated Reflex by Source Audio to various volume pedal hacks. The latter are described on the Strymon website in an article called “Strymon Tech Corner #1—Anatomy of an Expression Pedal.” To hear some intriguing changes in modulation, listen to Reid’s guitar solo on “Funny Vibe.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer is an expression pedal proponent as well. His guitar tech, Ian Sheppard, who also works for Robert Plant and has teched with PJ Harvey, among others, says Klinghoffer uses an expression pedal to control the filter sweep on his Robot Pedal Factory Brain Freeze as a more dramatic alternative to a wah.
For an example, check out the subtle-but-striking guitar sonics on the rhythm track in “Dark Necessities,” from RHCP’s The Getaway. Klinghoffer favors a Moog EP-1 Moogerfooger expression pedal because of its greater travel movement, although that model is now out of production. Sheppard jokes that sooner or later players notice the “EXP” jacks on their effects pedals and ask what they’re for, and estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the guitarists he knows are currently using expression pedals.