So, you have an electric guitar…
So you have an electric guitar. You have an amplifier. So, now what do you do with these? I am glad you asked me because I am going to tell you.
I have taught guitar and one of the things new student want to do is always set the extremes. They will crank the settings on the EQ and set the gain too high and put too much effects such as delay in the signal. Yeah, it may sound cool for the moment but a would-be listener can only handle about thirty seconds of that noise before they are turning their attention elsewhere. Remember that in the arena of guitar playing modesty is the best policy.
OK, now having said that let’s look at some famous guitar players and peek at what they do, shall we? If you have not heard of any of these guitar players I suggest you find some sound clips or look up their websites as you will most likely hear some samples of their work.
Jimmy Page: One thing about Mr Page is that if he is not playing electric but acoustic he is just as phenomenal as when he is cranked to the sky. Jimmy Page uses light distortion mostly with a taste of effects. On some songs you will hear him use what I refer to as base effects such as reverb,fuzz, phase, and then you will hear some effects like flange or wah. Jimmy Page has always had a grip on the proper time and place to use his effects.
Edward Van Halen: Eddie Van Halen refers to himself as a ‘Tone Chaser’ and he is justified in that self claimed title. Although the sounds he produces today are very dissimilar from the early albums you can still tell its Eddie playing just from listening to a short piece of the music. Eddie also favors a type of sound that he refers to as ‘brown’ sound. There is a warmth about the sound of the guitar. In the earlier albums you will hear some a lot of hi end but that is not what he preferred as he was at the mercy basically of the producers and engineers making the album. In the earlier albums there was the uses of a phase shifter, a flanger, a harmonizer, delay and the distortion itself came from the Marshall amps that he would turn way up to get the natural distortion from the amplifier itself. What a cool cool sound.
Guitar effects come in a few ways. There are what are referred to as stomp boxes or pedals. These are small devices that sit on the floor and your plug them in with your guitar on one side and the amp on the other. There are controls on these boxes so you can adjust the sound to your needs.
There are also guitar processors. These are also pedals that set on the floor but these have multiple switches that can be activated to produce various sounds. Generally these devices are a virtual clearing house of sounds and goodies.
With these items you really do not need to worry to much with the info I have laid out here. It is all done for you. But if you use these items with other devices you must be careful about placement.
There are also rack mounted devices. These look more like items you would see in NASA’s mission control that include manuals that take grads from MIT to figure out. If you have one of these chances are I am talking way underneath you anyway so you can go on and do other stuff.
Lets look at the effects available and see what they do.
Compression– What compression does is kind of what the name implies. It squishes all of the peaks in the signal down, levels them, so that the sound from the guitar rings out longer. This prolonged extension of sound is called sustain. If you strike a string on the guitar and let it ring until you can not hear it anymore, that time period of sound is the sustaining of the note. Generally the greater the sustain the better the sound.
Distortion– Here you are taking the signal and amplifying it until it ‘clips’ or maxes out. The signal gets fuzzy.
Equalization– This is what you all are familiar with on your stereos. This is your bass, mid-tone and treble settings.
Noise Gate– A noise gate kills all of the sound that is in the background when there is no signal being produced from the guitar. Anyone who has ever played a single coil pickup guitar like a Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, or a Danelectro knows what I am talking about. When you are not playing these older guitars especially like to hum. A noise gate stops that.
Chorus– One of my personal favorites, a chorus produces a ‘shimmering’ effect. It is simply to produce a type of twelve string guitar sound as you are delaying a portion of the signal and modulating it.
Flanger– Very similar to the chorus, produced much the same way, but produces as swooshy jet sound. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo Eruption is a perfect example of flange. Listen to the very end of the solo.
Phaser– A phaser does not allow you to shoot unruly hecklers, sorry. What it does do is splits the signal and changes the phase. If you are not familiar with electronics and sine waves this will mean absolutely nothing to you. Basically it plays Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with the signal only it does both characters simultaneously.
Tremolo– This is an effect that causes the volume to go up and down automatically repeatedly/ This was a very popular effect in the 1960’s. Listen to the song Crimson and Clover.
Ring Modulator– Signal Sum and Difference mixed with the original signal- um yeah, hard to explain that one.
Pixellator– This is when the signal is under sampled and then mixed back wit the original signal.
Pitch Shifter– This cause a signal to be produced that harmonizes with the original signal. Bands like Metallica use this sound quite a bit.
Detune– This duplicates the original signal then delays it and detunes it and then mixes it back with the original signal.
Wah– A wah is a filter that is swept through the signal.
Auto wah– This sweeps the filter through the signal based upon the ‘attack’ of the signal. In other words the harder you play the strings the more intensified the effect.
Enveloped Flange / Phase– This is a filter that sweeps the signal but is triggered by the picking. As you pick the strings the intensity and frequency will alter the signal.
Delay– This effect takes the original signal then duplicates it and repeats it for a set number of times.
Reverb– Similar to the delay this effect causes the sound to have the characteristics of being in a large room or a hall.
OK, so now you know what the effects are and what they do. How do you effectively use them? This is very important and not following these principles that I am going to lay out here can kill your sound. Ultimately though you set the sound effects the way you want, after all it’s your sound, but just like you don’t have to brush your teeth- if you don’t the affects can be disastrous to your relationships- same principle applies here. It’s just good advice coming from years of experience.
Let’s break these effects down into categories and create a sort-of formula.
These include effects like Phaser and Wah
Since these effects alter the signal they way the do it is best to put them where the effect a pure signal. If you place these effects before the distortion effects the the signal that gets distorted will be the one with the altered pure signal. In other words you do not want to put this after the distortion because the filter effects will have a dickens of a time processing a whacked out distorted and mangled signal. It will truly not sound so good.
All compression needs to be done before the distortion but after the filter effects. Why? Some filter effects can cause the signals intensity to fluctuate to extremes. Putting a compressor after the filter effects allows the signal to become more uniform. This uniform signal can then be sent out to the distortion effects.
It is best at this point to set your equalization to your taste at this point. Pay special attention to this setting. If I were you I would set this setting while the signal is clear, that is before sending it to the distortion. That way if you switch off to the clear setting during a song there won’t be such a tremendous jolt in sound. If you do it this way you will see that you have a better control on how your distorted sound will be and it will be easier for to produce your ‘signature’ sound.
Placing the devices that overdrive the signal and produce distortion should be last in the string. This will take the modified pure signal and put it in the blender and make it all fuzzy. This cause the sound to be even and warm. If you put the distortion before all other effects that out put sounds well, it sounds plastic- not real. A word of advice though if you are already heavily compressing the signal you need to go light on the distortion. If you go heavy heavy here then you can really muddy the sound.
These effects include Harmonizers, Vibrato, Pitch benders and they need to be place after the distortion effects. Otherwise the signal will sound noisy.
These effects include Chorus and Flangers. The new signal from the distortion effect now can be altered by adding a flanger or chorus effect. This keeps the sound warm and smooth.
Levelers include effects such as noise gates, limiters, tremolo, panning and volume pedals.
This effect needs to be last. What you are trying to achieve here is to produce the effect that you are in a large room. You are essentially taking your finished product and sending it out. It is that finished product that you want to sound like your are in a cavern or auditorium, etc.
To summarize guitar effects are neat but if used improperly can do you in as a performer. Remember that the order that you put your effects is crucial. Each effect deals with the signal from the source before it. Just like you do not put the caboose in front of the train engine putting the effects in the wrong position can produce some ill effects. Also remember that modesty is the best policy when using effects. Overuse can cause the listener to become bored real quick. using the effects lightly can help you achieve the signature sound that is all ‘you’.
Here is the rule of thumb for effect order once again:
1. Filter Effects
7. Volume and levelers
then to your amplifier
For my personal setup I use a Digitech RP-500