stomp school

Tom digs into pedal guts and says goodbye in his final Stomp School column.

1. Here’s a point-to-point wired Triangle Big Muff, built by my friend Alex Carpenter (ATC). Alex built this pedal using terminal strips laid out in the shape of a triangle. Pretty cool, huh? 2. Look! Some builders actually want you to open their pedals and poke around. The Foxrox ZIM has several interchangeable modular cards that the user can swap out to get different sounds. 3. The “guts” of this Landgraff Dynamic Overdrive reveal a truly impressive example of a well-crafted, handbuilt boutique guitar pedal. Nearly all of the components are socketed on a tiny piece of perforated board.

Greetings students of stomp and welcome back to Stomp School. Your homework last month was to look inside one of your guitar pedals. Did you do your homework? Good! This month we’ll continue discussing what’s inside your pedals, and check out some more photos of what we gearheads refer to as “pedal guts.”

Let’s face it: In this day and age, if you’re using any type of gear it’s essential to have a certain amount of technical knowledge. Back when Zachary Vex first introduced the Z Vex Machine, he declared, “Pedal users in 1999 are very sophisticated ... we’re living in a ‘been there, done that’ pedal world.” Well, that was 12 years ago. We should be even more sophisticated now, right? Well, maybe.

No doubt, anyone using electronic music gear should probably have some degree of technical aptitude. But there seems to be a further assumption that guitarists should also have a basic understanding of electronics, as if our guitar lessons naturally included a course in Electronics 101. In truth, our education in “electronics” has been given to most of us in the form of advertising and other questionable sources.

Over the years, manufacturers big and small have converted various bits of electronic lingo into marketing jargon and then bombarded us with it. We’ve been told, for example, that our gear is “germanium powered” or that it uses MOSFETs. Seriously, do you know what a MOSFET is? I mean, everyone knows a MOSFET is a Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor, right? Even if we happen to know that particular acronym, how many of us can actually explain what it is, or more importantly, why we would want it in our gear? Marshall thought we understood well enough back in the ’80s when they offered us the Marshall Lead 100 MOSFET amp. A few years later, we had the MosValve series of amps from Tube Works, and more recently we’ve been given the Fulltone Full-Drive 2 MOSFET overdrive. Clearly, there are some things guitarists are just supposed to know.

For the most part, I think Zachary Vex is right—we pedal users really are a pretty sophisticated lot. The technical expertise required to set up and operate even a modest pedalboard is usually quite a bit greater than the average person needs to hook up a DVD player, or assemble IKEA furniture. But knowing how to operate a complex gadget isn’t quite the same as understanding electronic circuit design. Likewise, developing a large vocabulary of misappropriated terminology is a poor substitute for true knowledge.

Still, as guitarists we inevitably pick up these random bits and bytes of tech-speak, often taken out of context and given a brand-new definition that’s been conveniently translated for the uninitiated gearhead. Thus, the meaning of MOSFET becomes “sounds like the thing has tubes in it.” Never mind the acronym. There often is quite a bit of validity behind the techno jargon, but it’s easy to see how a little knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing. The language of electronics is a strange and mysterious sound, and guitarists seem especially drawn to its magical appeal. We’re also more prone than most to superstition and mythological folklore. This tends to make us particularly susceptible to electronically enhanced snake oil. Even the savviest of us can fall prey to the electro-hype machine. I see it happen all the time, especially on certain internet guitar forums, with players who I thought should know better.

The bottom line is we’re responsible for our own education. The goal is to gain a better understanding of what goes into our gear so we can make more informed decisions about the gear we choose to play. But nobody said you have to know Ohm’s Law or own a soldering iron to do that. You can start anytime, right from where you are, and just keep moving forward. There are some great resources available to help you along your way and Premier Guitar is definitely one of them. Of course, a vast amount of information (and misinformation) can be found on the internet. A little diligence and common sense will help sort the mumbo from the jumbo. Then there’s always the hands-on approach—go pop open a stompbox and take a peak at some pedal guts.

This concludes our final semester of Stomp School. Hard to believe, but it’s been four full years since our first day of class. We’ve managed to cover a lot of stomping ground in that time. I know I’ve learned a ton of new things about the gear I use—I hope you have too. It’s time for us to graduate, but remember, your education doesn’t end here. There’ll always be new things to discover and learn—it will continue for a lifetime. And though our classes have come to an end, you’ll still have access to the entire Stomp School archive, available for reference anytime on the PG website.

I’d like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be your “Personal Purveyor of Pedals.” I’d also like to thank my colleague Mike Piera (Analog Man) for his collaboration on many of the earlier Stomp School columns. Finally, special thanks to Premier Guitar for providing this space for our virtual classroom. That’s all for now ... class dismissed. And until we meet again, keep on stompin’!

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Assess your gear to find out what pedals you should be using.

Greetings, fellow seekers of the tone! Welcome back to another edition of Stomp School. This month we’re going to discuss choosing the right pedals to match the rest of your rig. I often receive emails with questions such as “What’s the best pedal for…” and they go on to describe a certain tone or effect, sometimes citing a particular artist or recording. In most cases, the person asking the question neglects to mention the guitar and amp they happen to be using. In order for me to answer accurately, that information is essential.

When considering what the “best” pedal might be for your situation, you really need to look at the rest of your rig. Each component affects the performance of the others, so it’s not realistic to assess the merits of a particular pedal without at least considering which guitar and amp you intend to use it with. To best achieve your desired tone, it helps to think holistically—as if your entire signal chain, from string to speaker, is a single vehicle of musical expression. Or maybe you just want to find a pedal that sounds good with your setup. That’s okay too.

Before recommending a particular type of pedal, here are the questions I ask: What guitar do you play? What pickups are in your guitar? What amp are you using? What speakers are in your amp? And finally, what type of tone are you trying to achieve? A pedal that sounds incredible in one setup may sound mediocre (or worse) in another.

Start with Your Guitar…
So let’s start with your instrument. The pickups in your ax certainly impact the pedals you use, particularly dirt pedals. In most cases, humbuckers produce a much hotter output signal going into your pedals than single-coils. There are pros and cons to this, of course. For example, the original MXR Phase 90 was notorious for clipping when used with high-output pickups. However, a certain overdrive or fuzz pedal may respond rather favorably to a good goosing from a hot bridge humbucker. Conversely, a good buffered boost pedal may help an otherwise anemic set of Strat pickups sound more open, dynamic, and muscular. Yet the same pedal used with hot pickups might end up sounding too distorted. In many cases, it’s all a matter of personal preference. I really like the sound of single-coils with a Fuzz Face, but prefer humbuckers with a Tone Bender. (I should note here that I’m using the terms “Fuzz Face” and “Tone Bender” in the generic sense, which would include any pedals based on these designs as well as the originals.)

…Then Move on to Your Amp
Next, let’s talk about matching pedals to your amp. The same pedal may sound radically different in a high-gain stack than it does with a low-watt combo, so you definitely want to have the best match for your amp. In addition to sheer wattage, there are other factors that come into play, such as circuit configuration, types of power tubes, and what speakers are being used. A typical comparison would be “Fender vs. Marshall”—or, even more broadly, “American vs. British” amplifiers. Each has its own characteristics.

British-made amplifiers most often use EL34 or EL84 power tubes, while the power tubes found in Fender and other American-made brands were often 6L6 (or sometimes 6V6). The characteristics of a 6L6-type tube are wide frequency response, tight bottom end, and greater headroom. In contrast, the EL34 and EL84 typically have more of a midrange emphasis with an earlier breakup. So again, the same pedal will react differently depending on the type of power tubes in your amp.

Which Amp Style Is the Perfect “Canvas”?
The consensus of many players (including myself) is that blackface and silverface Fenderstyle amps are probably the most versatile, pedal-friendly format there is. The scooped midrange and clean headroom inherent to the blackface Fender design help to create a nice, open backdrop that you can use as a neutral starting point for any number of styles and sounds. In fact, some consider the Fender Twin Reverb to be the ultimate “clean canvas” for using pedals. Yet, this is not everyone’s ideal.

A good number of players prefer to get at least some of their overdrive from the amp itself, rather than relying strictly on pedals. The easiest way to go about this is to actually go pedal free—just crank the amp up all the way and use the guitar volume and playing dynamic to adjust the range from clean to scream. But this old-school method has many limitations and isn’t really practical for most players today. A more common practice is to use an overdrive or boost pedal to push the front end of the amp to overdrive the preamp tubes. This works particularly well with an amp that’s on the brink of breaking up, especially when the right blend of power-tube saturation and speaker breakup is achieved.

Next time we’ll discuss classic pedal and amp combinations. Until then, keep on stompin’!

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More on how to get to know your pedals better.

Hey, tone tweakers! Welcome back to “Stomp School.” This month we’re going to pick up where we left off last time, so let’s dig in and get started. In Part 1 of “Doing Your Homework,” I described how to “quick test” an average guitar pedal. I might add that it’s sometimes more efficient to do this test without actually playing, but rather by hitting the strings with one hand while the guitar sits in its stand, and turning the knobs of the pedal being tested with the other hand. This helps to reduce distraction by focusing your attention strictly on the functionality of the pedal you’re testing. It also eliminates the temptation to fall into noodling rather than listening to the specific features of the pedal.

Even more helpful, try having a pedal-testing session with a friend and let them do the playing. You’ll likely be surprised at how differently you listen when you’re not the one who’s playing. There may also be aspects of another player’s technique that will bring out certain qualities of a pedal you may not have noticed when testing it yourself. Whenever I get a chance to visit the Analog Man workshop, Mike always has a new pedal or a prototype that he wants me to try. He rarely demos the pedal himself; rather he’ll plug it in and hand the guitar to me. He then puts his full attention to tweaking knobs and getting tones. Sometimes he’ll even dial in a setting and walk around different parts of the room, just listening. So before dumping that boutique overdrive that’s been sitting on the sidelines, try listening to it while someone else is playing. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a volunteer to help you!

A pedal can be doing everything it’s supposed to, and you still may not like it. But you should probably know everything it can do before you make that decision. The above suggestions will insure that you’re completely familiar with the entire range of that pedal’s capabilities. Black Cat Pedals builder Greg Radawich told me, “A lot of pedals just aren’t plug and play and take some experimenting to find ‘the sound.’ People often dismiss these as ‘not for me,’ because they don’t spend enough time with them. I recently picked up an Ibanez AD-80. I remember the first time using one I didn’t like it at all, until I took the time to understand how the controls interacted.”

Set It, but Don’t Forget It
Okay, let’s talk about Settings. One of the questions most frequently asked by guitarists is, “What’s the best setting?” for a particular pedal. It’s a recurring topic on most of the online guitar forums that I visit, and no matter how many times the question comes up, it never seems to get old. I’ve always had a problem with the idea of blindly copying someone else’s recommended pedal settings, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it fails to account for personal preference, which is entirely subjective. My preferred settings may not be your ideal sound, and vice versa. Another problem with copying settings is that it doesn’t always account for the other components of the rig being used, which will have a huge impact on how a particular pedal will react. For example, are you using humbuckers, or single-coils? Are you playing through a 22-watt Fender combo or a 100-watt Marshall stack? I’d have a hard time recommending any settings without considering this first.

As a rule, I’m not an advocate of “marking” your settings either. Although it may be helpful in some instances, such as finding the perfect speed to simulate a Leslie sound on a modulation pedal, I find the concept as a whole to be somewhat flawed. There is an assumption that sound is static, rather than dynamic, and nothing will ever change or affect your tone. In reality, we may find that the same marked settings sound one way in your practice room, another way with a full band at the rehearsal space, yet another way during a club gig, and still another way at an outdoor festival. Ideally, you should be able to dial in your sound blindfolded under any conditions. So when dealing with tone, I find it’s best to use your ears rather than your eyes.

Acquiring the skill and mastery to take full command of your gear is an ongoing process that will take some time, as well as persistent practice. For some players, this process seems to come naturally (especially the unabashed gearmongers among us), so the ideas we’ve been discussing may just seem like common sense. Yet there are just as many highly accomplished players who are easily challenged, even intimidated, by the complexities of an average pedalboard setup. Regardless of your level of skill, the most important thing to remember is that this should be fun. It’s about the joy of discovery, turning the knobs, finding the sweet spots, and getting the tone you want, just the way you want it.

Next month we’ll discuss matching the right pedals to the right amp, among other things. Until then, KEEP ON STOMPIN’!

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