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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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