Tuning Up: The Periodic Pedal-Purge Imperative
The straight dope on why a stripped-down sonic self-inventory is a must for every stompbox junky.
It’s been more than four years since I took to Tuning Up to share my first pedalboard-purge experiment [“To Stomp, or Not to Stomp,” October 2011]. I talked about how, inspired by both a band-practice epiphany and the au naturel prowess of some of my guitar heroes, I discovered newfound zeal for the guitar after clearing off most of my pedals and paring my stomp station down to just tremolo and reverb pedals. The exercise in simplicity helped me concentrate on listening to intricate details of timing, texture, and attack, as well as try new techniques and improve execution of go-to ones.
A year later I felt like my playing was much better—more nuanced and dynamic. But I also found myself with a serious case of pedal lust. I was convinced my improved playing could go even further if a new color or two were added to my pedal palette.
Since then I’ve totally relapsed. My board has seen about a dozen different pedals, with nine or so becoming permanent residents. A delay. A different fuzz. Another tremolo. A compressor. Another reverb. A bit-crusher. An overdrive and a boost. A Uni-Vibe clone. I even added a new chapter to my tumultuous, on-again/off-again relationship with the wah. But now it’s gotten to the point where I face the same problem that led to my 2010 epiphany: I’m often so focused on activating cool pedal combinations that it detracts from my playing—and that’s got me seriously considering investing in a loop-switcher.
But something unexpected happened recently when I took a new distortion pedal home to put it through the PG review wringer. Because I’d tidied up my messy pedalboard just a couple of weeks before that, I didn’t want to re-route anything in order to integrate it into my regular signal chain. So I plugged straight into the dirt box, then into my amp. I’m sure you get where I’m going with this….
Even with the pedal dialed to produce just a nice, clean boost, I found myself marveling at the raw, gritty glory of a great tube amp on the verge of nastiness. The unadulterated, primal immediacy of hot EL34s was as riveting and fraught with dynamic possibility as the craziest, boutique-y-ist pedals on my board—even sans reverb. (And that’s saying something, considering what a notorious ambience addict I am.)
Now, I’m not saying this happy accident is going to send me on another pedalboard purge. It might. It might not. Maybe it’ll just help me resist the urge to stomp on something simply because it seems like a unique way to create a contrasting mood. Maybe I’ll simplify a little bit and change my mind about the loop-switcher. Or maybe I’ll end up with one but I’ll remember to consider the un-effected option more often.
The big takeaway for me is that this type of stripped-down sonic self-inventory is an absolute imperative—something every pedal lover should periodically indulge in. The Greek aphorism “know thyself” comes to mind. More orthodox players than I might preach that the better a player you are, the less gear you need. Or that you can’t really know yourself as a guitarist if you’re always slathering stomp sauce all over your riffs or progressions. I wouldn’t go that far, but I don’t think it’s such a stretch to say that occasionally bypassing all the doodads is a healthy way to assess your music—to reevaluate who you are and where you want to go.
It’s not a question of pedals being good or bad, or whether there’s a certain threshold at which you’re just a junky who needs a fix in order to get a momentary musical high. No one can tell you when you’ve reached that point. But at the very least, quitting cold turkey every now and then might help you see how to get more out of the stompboxes you decide to plunk down on your board at any given moment.