The first amplified guitars appeared in the early 1930s when big bands were popular. Horn players were the soloing superstars. Guitarists wanted to solo too, but the sound of early amplified guitars was thin, reedy and lacked punch. So, it comes as no surprise that guitarists began looking for ways to make their sound bigger and fatter. A huge variety of guitar effects is the result of their experiments.
The very first guitar effects were built into the instruments themselves, like the 1935 Epiphone Vibrola. We know these effects today as whammy bars. Eventually, electronic effects were built directly into amplifiers. For example, by the 1940s, tremolo circuits were included in many combo amps.
Around this time, many guitarists were looking for ways to reproduce the natural reverb and echo they enjoyed during sound checks in empty halls. And by the mid to late 1940s, recording engineers and experimental musicians such as Les Paul began manipulating reel-to-reel recording tape to create echo effects. However, these earliest sound effects were strictly studio productions and didn’t lend themselves to touring and live performance. So, in 1950, the EchoSonic amp became the first amp to feature slapback echo. This sound quickly became popular with Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore. By the late 1950s, many guitar amps manufactured by Gibson, Fender and others, featured built-in tremolo, vibrato, echo and reverb effects. But not everyone wanted the effects hard-wired into their amp, so, stand-alone effects made their appearance.
The DeArmond company released the first commercially available stand-alone tremolo effects unit, the Trem-Trol in 1948. However, most of the early stand-alone effects were powered with vacuum tubes and were therefore bulky, expensive, fragile and impractical for live performance. Because of this, the original stand-alone units were not especially in-demand. But all that changed in 1958 when the first popular, and relatively portable, stand-alone tape echo effect unit was introduced.
Distortion was not an effect originally intended by amplifier manufacturers! But distortion could easily be achieved by overdriving the power supply in early tube amplifiers. In the 1950s, many guitarists deliberately increased gain beyond its intended levels to achieve distorted sounds. These heavier, grittier, nastier, and more ferocious electric guitar sounds were created by turning the amp’s volume knob all the way to the right until the speaker was screaming. Link Wray’s 1958 recording Rumble inspired countless young guitar players to explore distortion. In 1964, Ray Davies of the Kinks slit the speakers of his amp with a razor blade to achieve the distorted guitar sound heard on You Really Got Me. Then, in 1966, Jim Marshall began producing guitar amplifiers that were capable of producing this desired distorted crunch. By the late 1960s, as the transistor became widely available, everything began to change from analog to digital, and for the first time, engineers were able to create affordable and portable standalone effects demanded by the masses. And by the late 1970s, availability of solid-state guitar effect units had exploded, creating a whole new gear market that continues to thrive today.
Simply stated, guitar effect units are electronic devices that alter how the electric guitar sounds. Some effects subtly affect the sound, while others transform it dramatically. Effects are used during live performances and in the studio. And their circuitry may be either analog or digital. Effects come in many forms, they may be housed in amplifiers, stompboxes, rackmounts, table top units, or they may be built directly into the guitars themselves. However, the most common effects unit by far, is the Stompbox.
A stompbox, also called a pedal, is a small metal or hard plastic box designed to sit on the floor in front of the player and is connected between the guitar and the amp. Stompboxes may be analog or digital. Stompbox style pedals are the smallest, least expensive and most rugged type of effect housing. The most basic pedal is typically controlled by one on-off switch, containing only one effect and a single LED display to indicate whether the effect is on or not. As was stated earlier, the electronic transistor, which replaced vacuum tubes and allowed for much more compact formats and greater stability, made it possible to cram the aural creativity of the recording studio into a small, highly portable unit.
Rackmount digital effects units began replacing stompboxes as the format of choice in the mid-1980s. A rackmount is an effects unit mounted on a standard 19-inch equipment rack. Rackmounts, unlike stompboxes, usually contain several different types of effects. Rackmount effect units are relatively expensive because of this fact. Rackmounts are commonly used in recording studios and front of house live sound mixing situations, although many players use them in place of stompboxes. Rackmounts are controlled by knobs on their front panel. During live performances, the player switches effects by using a digital MIDI foot controller.
Multi-effect units, or, multi-FX, can be stompbox, rackmount or tabletop devices that contain many different effects. These units allow users to preset combinations of different effects, enabling the musician to access many different effect combinations quickly. A tabletop unit is a portable multi-effects device that rests on a table or desk and is controlled manually. The Pod guitar amplifier modeler is a good example. As was stated earlier, effects are often built-in the amplifier, and since the 2000s, many guitar amplifiers have built-in multi-effects units or digital modeling effects devices.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different guitar effect units. And while there is no consensus on how to categorize effects, they may be simply divided into three general categories: volume, frequency, and time. However, since some effects alter more than one category at a time, perhaps we should expand these three categories into the following seven classifications: dynamic/volume, distortion, feedback/sustain, frequency/pitch, filter, modulation and time/delay/echo. In this lesson, we will only explore dynamic/volume and distortion effects. In the next lesson, we’ll look at the remaining effects and chain them together. Now, let’s continue.
If you were to ask most guitarists which pedal they would choose if they could only choose one effect, it would probably be some sort of dynamic/volume pedal. This is because, in the journey toward the weirdest guitar sounds imaginable, pedals that make a guitar louder is generally the first choice.
Dynamic Effects, also called boost pedals, increase the volume of an instrument and were the first effects to be introduced to guitarists. In fact, a volume control knob is essential on the electric guitar. Volume and boost pedals amplify a guitar’s audio signal in a clean, non-distorted way. Dynamic effect units are generally used for increasing volume during solos and preventing signal loss in long effects chains. A guitarist switching from rhythm guitar to lead guitar will use a boost pedal to increase the volume of the solo.
A Compressor or Limiter is an automatic volume control that reduces the volume when the input gets too loud. They make also make quiet sounds louder by setting the dynamic range of an audio signal. This setting is called the threshold. A compressors and limiters are used to normalize, or stabilize the volume and smooth out a strum by dampening its attack and amplifying its sustain. Since the compression/limiter pedal narrows the dynamic range by limiting the volume, be sure to place this effect before the rest of the effects in the chain.
As an aside, sustainer effect pedals, which we’ll discuss in the next lesson, provide distortion-free sustain. Many compressor pedals are often marketed as sustainer pedals, which isn’t true. This is because as a pitch is sustained, it loses energy and volume due to the diminishing vibration of the string. And so, because compressor pedals only boost the weakening electrical signal to a specified dynamic volume range, it only slightly prolongs the duration of the pitch. And also, the longer the compressed sound lasts, the more quiet and distorted the sound becomes.
Noise Gates eliminate electrical 60 cycle hum and amplifier hiss by silencing sounds that fall below a set threshold. In other words, only an audio signal above the set dynamic threshold will pass through the gate and be heard. Place the noise gate effect at the end of your chain to silence unwanted noises generated from other pedals. Remember to be careful using noise gates, as they may clip off your guitar’s sustain, creating an unnatural and untimely silence.
Though clean-sounding volume control effects are all well and good, what many guitar players want is a way to add a distortion to their sound. Here are three different effects which will dirty up your tone: Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz.
Overdrive originally occurred when players first cranked their tube amplifiers up to 10. Or as SpinalTap so famously stated: 11! Overdrive is literally the sound of vacuum tubes pushed to their limits. Overdrive effect pedals either boost a guitar’s signal gain, sending the tube amplifier into an overdriven state, or, they seek to replicate, or emulate, the sound of an overdriven tube amp through a solid-state amp. Overdrive effect units produce cleaner distorted sounds at quieter volumes and dirtier distorted sounds at louder volumes.
Distortion pedals boost volume levels and alter wave shapes. Distortion re-shapes by clipping an audio signal’s wave form so that it has flattened peaks. Distortion can sound warm if harmonic overtones are added to the wave shape, or gritty if inharmonic overtones added. Distortion effects differ from overdrive effects in that they produce roughly the same amount of distortion at any volume. Distortion effects are sometimes called gain effects, as distorted guitar sounds were first achieved by increasing the electric power supply, or gain, to tube amplifiers. More distortion effect pedals are sold than any other effects pedal.
Fuzz pedals are a type of overdrive pedal that clips any wave shape until it is nearly a square wave. This results in a heavily distorted fuzzy sound. Fuzz pedals distort distortion itself to create a kind of buzzy, hum-like tone. Many fuzzboxes contain frequency multiplier circuitry to achieve an even harsher timbre by adding complex harmonics. One of the earliest recorded fuzz tones was heard in the 1951 Ike Turner song Rocket 88. This fuzzy guitar tone wasn’t the result of a fuzz pedal, as they weren’t invented yet, rather, it was the result of a Fender Bassman amp that had blown a tube after being dropped. In 1962, Orville “Red” Rhodes made a one-off fuzzbox for The Ventures which they used to record the 2000 Pound Bee. The first purposely designed commercial transistorized distortion circuit was the Gibson Maestro Fuzz Tone, which was released in that same year. In 1965, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones used a Maestro Fuzz Tone to record (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
There are a lot more mind-blowing effects pedals to inspire your sound and your songwriting. In the next lesson, Modulation of Frequency and Time , we’ll discover them and learn how to use them.
‘Til next time, have some fun creating affects with your effects… I’ll be listening!