A hands-on guide to using chains of pedals to create enigmatic, spooky, and downright crazy sounds.
Have you ever wondered how to combine guitar effects to create unique and unusual sounds? If you’re willing to experiment and think creatively about your gear, it’s not too hard. For starters, let’s agree on one thing: a new guitar color means very little if it lacks a musical context. Without a song or composition to frame your sounds, you’ll quickly become that self-indulgent internet guitarist who just bought the latest gadget and insists on showing it off with no point of reference or practical application.
Conversely, consider Tom Morello’s brilliant use of the DigiTech Whammy pedal in Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” or Adrian Belew’s pachyderm-inspired trumpeting (which he purportedly created using an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff running into a Deluxe Electric Mistress flanger) on King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk.”
Think about the Beatles, who always wrote a great song first and then modified it with effects. This is true for “I Need You,” with its subtle volume swells, which John Lennon created by manipulating the knobs on George Harrison’s guitar while he was strumming the chords. Another Fab Four highlight is “I’m Only Sleeping,” which features some out-there (for the time) backwards guitar sounds that were created by flipping over the tape.
So do yourself—and your listeners—a favor and put your new sounds in an environment that displays musical creativity, not simply gear lust. To help you reach that goal, we’ll explore different ways to coax fresh sounds from an assortment of pedals, and then showcase these colors in a variety of musical settings.
Mix and Match
For these particular sound experiments, I was fortunate enough to borrow some gear from various friends, which I augmented by rummaging through my own meager collection. But don’t let this vast selection of gear dissuade you from taking the plunge into sound design. You don’t need to have these specific brands and models of pedals to try out the following ideas. For the most part, my pedal choices were rather ordinary. I focused on the basics—chorus, flange, rotary, delay, and distortion—with the occasional modern or boutique pedal thrown into the mix. Ultimately, it’s about generating compelling sounds with the gear you have at hand.
On all the sound clips, I played an American Standard Telecaster equipped with JBE HB humbuckers. I used a variety of amps—all clean and with the reverb off—including a Fender Princeton Reverb, Fender Deluxe Reverb, Marshall JCM 900, and a Marshall G80R CD. But honestly, the amps made very little difference because all I needed was a clean, full sound.
Let’s start with something relatively straight-ahead. Clip 1a offers a space-age effect with a playful, sci-fi feel. This sound gives the impression that you’re tremolo picking, when you’re actually playing only one note at a time. To that point, a tremolo pedal could work, but I’ve found that most flangers pulse faster than most tremolo devices. A fat, distorted tone is particularly helpful for this sound. (If you elect to go clean, use heavy compression.) One of the tricks to using this sound is to match the song tempo to the pulse of the effect. In this clip, the tempo is 140 bpm.
I started my signal with an MXR CAE Boost/Overdrive with all knobs, except the boost, set at 50 percent. From there I ran into a Boss BF-2 Flanger with the rate maxed out, and the depth, manual, and resonance at 50 percent. In Clip 1b, you’ll hear the short riff without any effects.
Signal Chain: Guitar > MXR CAE Boost/Overdrive > Boss BF-2 Flanger > Fender Princeton Reverb
Arpeggios: More Than Meets the Ear
Keyboard arpeggiators have been around for decades. Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” keyboard intro is a prime example. Some might also point to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” but my research suggests that was generated by a Lowrey organ marimba with the repeat function on. Still, it’s a similar effect. An arpeggiator pedal will generate a stream of arpeggios or scalar runs after you hit a single note. Sometimes they can sound stiff and lifeless, but adding in another effect can give the sound a new dimension.
In Clip 2a, the guitar just goes through an EarthQuaker Devices Arpanoid set to run a minor-scale sequence. Pretty funky, huh? In Clip 2b, I added a Boss PS-6 Harmonist set to harmonize down a perfect fifth. At about 0:22 into the clip, I added a TC Electronic Flashback 2 Delay set to reverse with almost no feedback, and a delay time that matches the tempo. I also put a 1960 Old World Compressor at the beginning of my signal chain, so the sequence doesn’t decay as quickly.
Signal Chain: Guitar > 1960 Old World Compressor > EarthQuaker Arpanoid > Boss PS-6 Harmonist > TC Electronic Flashback 2 > Marshall G80R CD
Time for Techno
These days there are plenty of synth-emulator pedals, such as the DigiTech Dirty Robot, the Pigtronix Mothership, and the Subdecay Octasynth, just to name a few. As great as these pedals sound, if you really want to emulate a classic ’70s or ’80s synth, I recommend you connect your synth pedal to some sort of modulation effect. We’ll use the most ubiquitous one—a chorus.
For this example, I plugged an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth into an Analog Man Bi-Chorus. The Micro Synth is dialed to an Arp Synth setting I nabbed from the company’s very helpful templates. The trick here is to make sure you have enough modulation effect to give the synth depth and movement, but not so much that it throws the synth sound out of tune. I’ve set both the speed and depth to about 60 percent. Clip 3 is pure ’80s synth, à la Yaz or Eurythmics. The transformation is so drastic that one could be excused for doubting this is a guitar.
Signal Chain: Guitar > Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth > Analog Man Bi-Chorus > Fender Deluxe Reverb
“Well, that’s just fine,” I hear you say, “but what if you don’t have a synth pedal?” The fact is, you can emulate certain synth sounds with just about any high-gain or high-fuzz distortion pedal running through any stomp that adds movement to your signal. For faux-synth fuzz, I’m usually partial to boxes that let you adjust the bias, such as the EarthQuaker Devices Dirt Transmitter. It can go from ultra-thick and smooth fuzz, reminiscent of a Les Paul through a Hiwatt stack, to a tone that sounds like a slowly dying 9V battery. I then run the fuzz through something like a JHS Unicorn vibe effect.
But for this example, I used a Keeley Dark Side, which contains a multitude of sounds in one small unit. For Clip 4, I set the Dark Side’s fuzz to maximum and the fuzz filter to 50 percent. On the mod side of the pedal, I maxed out the U-Vibe’s depth and chose a rate of 50 percent. The result: an ultra-clean distortion with a pulsing triplet feel and very little attack tone.
Signal Chain: Guitar > Keeley Dark Side > Fender Deluxe Reverb
While this effect is a bit of a novelty, you could easily use it in some other context, which is to say, one that doesn’t evoke the islands. To create Clip 5, I used the Electro-Harmonix POG with the dry guitar signal set low (be sure to keep it in there, otherwise the effect sounds very artificial). The “two octaves up” setting is at 100 percent, and the “one octave up” setting is at 50 percent. This gets you pretty close to steel drums but, once again, the trick is to include movement. To create it, I also added a small amount of tremolo using a T-Rex Tremster, with both the depth and speed set to about 15 percent. The tremolo is so slight that when it’s on, you don’t notice it, but if you turn it off, you miss it.
Signal Chain: Guitar > Electro-Harmonix POG > T-Rex Tremster > Fender Princeton Reverb
You’ll notice I’ve used the word “faux” several times to indicate that these effects get you close to emulating other instruments, but not completely there. I’ve chosen this word because I’m not interested in precisely cloning the original tones and timbres. If I wanted total accuracy, I’d simply play those instruments or at least find samples. The whole point here is to do something slightly different. Use these faux ideas as starting points and then try manipulating them to discover even more sounds.
In that spirit, I offer Clip 6, which goes after some faux 12-string tones. Once again, I’ve used the Electro-Harmonix POG, this time with the dry guitar signal and the “octave up” set at maximum. Theoretically, that will get you the octave-string sound of a 12-string. Still, that doesn’t provide the natural chorus of a 12-string. But that’s easy to remedy—just add a chorus pedal. For this example, I went with a Fulltone ChoralFlange with everything set low, but with a wide sweep.
Signal Chain: Guitar > Electro-Harmonix POG > Fulltone ChoralFlange > Fender Princeton Reverb
East Meets … West?
This is a sound I discovered by doing what you’re not supposed to do. The EarthQuaker Devices Tentacle is a one-button, no-knobs, octave pedal. The manual states, “The effect will become much more pronounced when using your neck pickup and playing above the 12th fret.” Being somewhat contrarian, I decided to use the bridge pickup and play below the 12th fret. Wow—was it biting! It sounded kind of like a sitar, or maybe a Japanese shamisen, or is it a Turkish cumbus? Actually, it doesn’t really sound like any of them.
Nevertheless, I played a hybrid lick using all those instruments as inspiration. I played the so-called Japanese pentatonic scale (R–b2–4–5–b6) and incorporated some phrasing and articulation more akin to a Middle Eastern taqsim. But it was still missing something. I added a mysterious texture I cajoled from a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb by selecting the Church setting, turning the tone all the way off, and dialing decay and level to 75 percent. Suddenly there was a sound that sparked childhood memories of watching badly dubbed Kung Fu movies on Saturday morning TV (Clip 7).
Signal Chain: Guitar > EarthQuaker Tentacle > TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb > Fender Deluxe Reverb
Living in Stereo
Clip 8 is a concept I’ve thought about for a long time but have not pursued as much as I’d like, even though it’s relatively easy to accomplish. The idea here is to play in stereo with two different amps with different sounds going to them. You can achieve this in a number of ways. First, you need some sort of signal splitter. In this case, I ran through the Fulltone ChoralFlange, which has stereo outputs, with the chorus setting at about 50 percent. I could have easily used any number of other stereo effects or even a stereo splitter, but for this experiment I wanted the chorus on both signals. From there, one line went directly into the Fender Deluxe Reverb, which I’ll call Amp 1. The other line ran into a Death By Audio Echo Dream 2 with the original signal muted and the delayed signal at 300 ms. This meant that Amp 2 would be heard 300 ms after Amp 1. But there’s more.
This delayed signal also ran into a Line 6 POD with the flange set to 75 percent and then into a Marshall JCM 900. So I had two different signals going into two different effects set to two different times, running into two different amps!
Now this is a radical idea on its own, and you can get a lot of unusual sounds by just playing freely, but I wanted to take it one step further. I started with a shifting arpeggio sequence that moved between A major and G major. I wanted the signals to sync up and harmonize, and I did this by playing two different rhythmic patterns—the first consisting of eighth-notes, the second one of 16th-notes. This yielded a hip, synth sequencer-inspired idea, but the sound is both guitaristic and futuristic.
Signal Chain: Guitar > Fulltone ChoralFlange > Fender Deluxe Reverb
Second output of ChoralFlange > Death By Audio Echo Dream 2 > Line 6 POD flanger > Marshall JCM 900
This last sound grew out of wanting to imitate Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics tape loops. I began by using a long loop on a Boss RC-20 Loop Station that I swelled into with my guitar’s volume. From there I ran into a Radial Trimode Distortion with the drive gain set on high and a Wampler Nirvana Chorus with all knobs set at 50 percent. What I ended up with was much heavier than the normal Frippertronics, probably due to my choice of low notes, but I still liked what I heard.
Rather than soloing over the loop, which is what Fripp normally does, I decided to play the loop like a keyboard, using the pitch knob on a Boss Harmonist. I started with no harmony, then moved up a fifth, then a sixth, back down, down again, etc., finally ending an octave up from where I started. I really like this sound and find it highly musical, if not particularly guitaristic. After experimenting with some drum loops, I finally settled on something I thought Fripp and Peter Gabriel might use in collaboration (Clip 9).
Signal Chain: Guitar > Boss RC-20 Loop Station > Radial Trimode Distortion > Wampler Nirvana Chorus > Boss PS-6 Harmonist > Marshall JCM 900
Frequently, after having found the right combination of pedals to create a certain effect, I had to add a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor to the end of the signal chain because the signal would have unwanted hum, buzz, or some other sort of white noise. I’ve found that in a live environment, a noise suppressor can mess with your signal in unexpected and unwanted ways, but when recording at home in a controlled environment, it can be a tremendous help.
As you start to experiment with your own unusual combination of pedals—and trust me, these are just the beginnings of endless possibilities—do yourself two huge favors.First, write down every setting. I know you’ll think, “That’s so cool! I’ll never forget that.” But you will. After three or four experiments, you won’t be able to tell your flange from your fuzz, let alone the discreet settings each knob requires. And don’t rely on taking photos with your phone—the knob markings are too small.My last piece of advice is a mantra: Put it in a song, put it in a song, put it in a song.