Build a genuine relationship with your amp and your pedals.
Everybody who drives a car should have to learn stick shift.
My first reaction to a blunt platitude like the one above is to immediately dismiss it. It reeks of knee-jerk, reactionary, nostalgic bullcrap. It’s outdated canon, confusing old methods for timeless qualities. It reminds me of my youth and how teachers made students learn how to use a typewriter before they were allowed to use a computer. It’s memorization of multiplication tables and “carrying the one” because we purportedly wouldn’t always have access to a calculator. It’s algorithmic, procedural, and—considering only one major automotive manufacturer still offers stick shift for all its models—borderline pointless.
And yet, I still think everybody who drives a car should have to learn stick shift—especially if you play guitar and use pedals and effects in your signal chain.
I remember a friend many years back once mocked my preference for manual transmissions. “Oh, is this rooted in some masculine need for control?” she laughed, rolling her eyes as she settled into the passenger seat. To some, the stick shift can be a proxy for micromanagement, authority, involvement, physicality, or other machismo tropes. Just watch how Sly Stallone keeps angrily yanking on the thing from that post-Apollo death montage in “Rocky IV” over the tough guy sensitive wails of “No Easy Way Out.” My history with stick was much more basic and “beta male” than my friend assumed. My car with an automatic had broken down, my girlfriend owned one with a stick, and for us to both continue to stay gainfully employed, I had to ask her to teach me how to use it.
“Control” was never the correct term for how I felt with a stick shift. What came to mind was the deepened relationship I had with the vehicle. Ease off the clutch too fast or fail to give it gas in first gear, and the car will stall out before you even get moving. Switching gears too early will make your ride anemic and lazy, turning you into a nagging parent of an apathetic teenager who slumps his shoulders and drags his feet as you keep bothering him with each new request for something he’s just not feeling ready to do. Hold out to shift later and the vehicle loudly roars, revs, and delivers a burst—but sometimes inappropriately and uncontrollably for the setting.
Drive any car with a stick long enough and you can feel a car telling you how tightly its clutch operates, how it wants to drive for each setting, and when you should change things up. And the old daydreaming I used to partake of with an automatic transmission in a densely populated area was long gone. I had to be present when driving a stick. Stuff always seemed to happen and I had to be ready for it.
I find myself thinking of an analogous relationship with my electric guitar and the various devices we have the privilege to enjoy in our modern age. Fail to give your dry signal any juice from your amp or pedals and you might as well be Fred Flintstone propelling the car with your bare feet. Shifting into a dimed higher-gain bridge pickup can deliver definition and punch, but if it’s fed into too much gain, the whole thing can turn into an undefined slurry. Go too wet with your time-based or modulation effects and your notes catapult past the crowd. Sometimes with cleaner signals a neck pickup can deliver infinite sustain and warmth, but it can lack the form and clarity you might need. Going to notched pickup positions can reduce inductance and output voltage, opening your sound and bringing air and sparkle, but if your bandmates don’t yield that sonic space in the mix, you’ll just disappear. And sometimes what you need for your high-gain single notes to stand out is to roll your guitar volume back down. Much like driving stick, all of this requires an ability to adapt to your environment, to be truly present in the moment with your music, bandmates, audience, and venue, and to have a genuine relationship with your gear and setup.
So what’s a trick to help make this happen? Instead of just thinking of your devices one-dimensionally as stand-alone flavors, or even stackable levels of gain or sequential links in a chain, think two-dimensionally in terms of different EQ, and then three-dimensionally in terms of compression and response. There might be that one pedal that’s too brittle or bright for rhythm work, but really shines with a neck pickup and single-note lines. There might be that fuzz that you have to wrangle with a mid-boosting drive or feed with the bridge pickup. There’s that one overdrive that shines just for when you’re in a notch position. And sometimes you have to work the volume and tone controls to make something amazing actually jibe with the band and room. But stay present, stay alert, and be willing to trust your ears to tell you where to go, and your hands to get you there. Tone really is in the fingers ... after all, they’re what you use to change your settings.