So I am always conflicted when I hear a talented guitarist using effects, whether machine created or done by the player. For example, I recently listened to and watched a very talented young guitarist via some links he posted on one of the guitar forums. He has great chops and his arrangements of popular songs for solo guitar are quite advanced and pleasing to hear, except for one thing: he insists on “tapping” and “slapping” on the back beat between just about every chord or phrase he plays. Now I realize this is a widely accepted technique in flamenco music and also in some forms of latin guitar music, but to me it is just….annoying. After listening to a few of his tunes my reaction was – just STOP that!!!! You don’t need to do that!!! Your playing and arrangements are awesome on their own, why insert percussive noise that detracts from the sound of your guitar? Is he afraid the listener won’t know where the beat is?!? Who knows?
In flamenco music – which is essentially back up music for dancers – I guess it makes sense. Being totally bonded with the dancer in a rhythmic sense is vital. But my guess is that the young guitarist I mentioned doesn’t play for many people who are going to dance to his arrangements of Stevie Wonder or Phil Collins songs. I could be wrong of course. In any case, to my ear it is a distraction from some otherwise excellent playing.
How about effects boxes? They are hugely popular these days with hundreds if not thousands of new ones coming out every year. I confess that back in the 70s when I was enamored with the style of players like Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Larry Carlton I used a phase shifter and stereo chorus quite a bit with my electric guitars. But when I stood back a bit (perhaps after realizing that I was never going to be as good as any of those guys!) and began again paying attention to my blues idols I realized that except for perhaps a bit of reverb and subtle distortion produced by their amps they didn’t need any of those stomp boxes. They also didn’t need to play a zillion notes a minute to convey emotion, but that’s a whole separate discussion (!). So those phase shifters and chorus boxes are gathering dust in a box in my cellar.
Perhaps most used and abused device is the distortion box. Now, I know I’m an acoustic guitarist who has no practical use for those things anyway but most if not all electric guitarists you will hear at your local bar could not imagine playing without one. I also readily admit that long ago in my much younger days when I first began playing an electric guitar it was so, so cool to crank it up with plenty of distortion and flail away on “Smoke On The Water” and “Sunshine Of Your Love.” And I have the damaged hearing today to prove it! I just wonder how many younger players are confident enough to play without depending upon a distortion box to cover up any deficiencies in their playing? Harsh, yes. Sorry.
Wait a minute, Gene, you may be thinking. You’re talking about electric guitar technique and players. What about acoustics? Certainly some effects have value.
Some do, when used judiciously. A touch of reverb adds depth and if the reverb unit or on-board effect is of good quality it will not color your sound to the point of being noticeable. Some players add a bit of compression to even out the highs and lows but my experience has been that those devices, when doing what they are supposed to do, tend to make the sound have an artificial edge. It’s entirely possible that I just haven’t used a good one, though. Or perhaps I just am not adept at setting them correctly.
A good quality DI or pre-amp can be very useful in shaping your acoustic sound to account for variable environments, amps, PA systems (and the person controlling it!). I ALWAYS use a RedEye pre-amp with my K&K pick-ups in my acoustic/electric guitars. It allows me to tailor the sound subtly for the room I’m playing or even as the room fills with sound-absorbing bodies.
Many, many acoustic guitarists who perform regularly as singles use loopers and/or harmonizers. On one or two occasions I’ve heard a looper used to good effect (no pun intended), meaning they were used only occasionally and not on every single song. Yes, a looper can make your night go faster: recording a loop and noodling endlessly can turn a 3-minute song into a 10-minute song and your set listed doesn’t have to be as long. I guess I’ve heard too many guitarists playing every blues lick they know over a 12-bar blues loop to be very interested in those things. A longer and varied set list holds the audience much better. A short solo over a loop once in a while can still be interesting though.
I predict that harmonizers (used primarily with vocals) are a passing fad. One guy I know who is a recreational guitarist who goes out to clubs often told me recently that if he’s listening to a performer who suddenly is singing along with multiple singing clones of himself it is time to get up and leave. I’m not quite that severe about harmonizers; a duo or trio of singers who use a harmonizer can effectively beef up their vocals without the audience thinking – hey, wait a minute, where’s the other singer?! But in the long run I consider them a curiosity rather than a vital part of a performer’s pedal board.
Ah, peddle boards. With so many sonic toys available these days they seem to be a necessity for many performers. Putting aside the question of expense for all those boxes, I guess a performer has to ask him or herself: do those things REALLY add to my sound or are they just some new and fun toys? If the answer is yes, I think they sound great and I couldn’t imagine playing without them then God bless, go for it.
The big question all guitarists need to address is this. Is my playing good enough to not NEED devices? Because if the answer is yes, using devices and effects in a subtle way will enhance the listener’s experience. If the answer is no, practice will do more for you than any stomp box.
Peace & good music,
Martin Ambassadors Frightened Rabbit recently released their acoustic leaning three song EP.
Last Friday, "Recorded Songs" was released and shows off a different side of the Martin Ambassadors. The band says these three songs existed happily next to each other and didn't deserve to be wedged into an album in which they didn't fit well.
You can listen to "Recorded Songs" from Frightened Rabbit here.