Electric Guitar Geekery

My good friend and Honest Iago bandmate Matt and I may be swapping pedalboards (not pedals) this weekend, mostly for the reason that his is about a foot larger than mine, but I have way more effects running than he does, and have run out of room. With that in mind, and the fact that I love talking about my equipment, I’ve hereby decided to subject you, dear reader, to a rundown of my guitar rig. This decision isn’t without some sort of merit for the study of composition, though. If you’re writing for electric guitar, which, aside from MIDI controlling keyboard, is capable of literally the largest range of sounds of any instrument (and, in my opinion, is the most expressive, because you actually touch strings to make sounds happen, as opposed to buttons), this is stuff you should at least be aware of. [Disclaimer: this post in no way implies that I don’t love the classical guitar and a lot of its repertoire.]

To be honest, a lot of music composed for electric guitar bothers me, because it tends to either force idiomatic gestures (bending a high note with a distortion pedal, divebombing, etc.) into “classical” contexts – which sounds fake and therefore ineffective – or just seems as if it was written for a classical guitar and transferred over, ignoring the fact that a zillion other things are possible when you’re plugged into an amp. Sorry, composers, adding an electric guitar does not automatically make you edgy or hip or whatever else. In most cases, it highlights the fact that you’re trying to look edgy or hip. You’ve really got to understand the instrument to write for it, and that does not mean fingerings and tunings and such. To write for electric guitar, you need to understand its sound.

As such, the task of writing for electric guitar with effects in mind is an enormous one, and most electric guitarists have idiosyncratic effect setups. Plus these things are expensive. If you tell someone to use an Empress Tremolo pedal (which I have and love), and they have a Boss Tremolo pedal (which I used to have, and is a great pedal for what it does), then you’d better be willing to buy them one. So my advice? Be general: just say “tremolo pedal, set to this speed, and this wave shape.” Odds are whatever guitarist you’re writing for will know what will sound best with the rest of his setup. This goes for everything. And if they don’t know, don’t use it. A discerning listener can tell instantly when a guitarist just bought the first distortion box he saw because a piece called for it, as opposed to having one on hand that he knows just how to control.

So where to start? I spend a lot of time watching demo videos on ProGuitarShop.com (link goes to their “standout stompbox” page, which lists their favorites), or playing with stuff at stores. Listening to some guitarists who are good at this sort of thing can take you a long way too. I definitely recommend getting your hands on everything by Nels Cline that you possibly can (for all sorts of reasons) and also listen to a whole lot of Tyondai Braxton, as well as his now-former band Battles.

Now, on to the meat of this post (this is totally for my own gratification, so feel free to stop reading here if this is all Greek or Martian to you). Here’s a photo of my pedalboard:

And here’s my gear list, in order of signal chain:

  1. Me (the guitarist).
  2. Either .73 mm Dunlop Tortex Standard picks, or an eBow
  3. My reissued 1972 Telecaster Deluxe in maple.
  4. Boss TU-2 tuner – this has a buffered output so it makes your signal a bit steadier to put it at the beginning of your chain.
  5. Digitech Whammy 4 – pretty insane pitch bending/harmonizing.
  6. Sola Sound Tonebender Fuzz – meaty, gritty, beautiful fuzz.
  7. Electroharmonix Nano Freeze – acts like a piano’s sostenuto pedal, holding onto whatever sound is coming in when you press it. I love this thing.
  8. Empress Tap Tremolo – coolest analog tremolo pedal I’ve ever played with.
  9. Boss CH-1 Super Chorus – does what it’s supposed to do.
  10. Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter – really full featured for a compact phaser pedal, with a cool sounding step mode.
  11. Line 6 DL-4 Delay – really the go-to for most guitarists looking for a delay pedal that does everything. I use the loop mode a lot, and the rhythmic delays.
  12. T.C. Electronic Trinity Reverb – a limited edition variation on their Hall of Fame Reverb, I’m in love with how much space this thing can provide, and how many drastically different sounds it has packed in it. It’s also good for putting on just a subtle hint of reverb too, to make your sound more lively
  13. An Orange Tiny Terror combo – this is the best amp I’ve ever owned, and in these days of miking amps, probably the last one I’ll ever need (until I step up to a matched stereo pair). I wrote a blog entry when I bought it – one I’m pretty proud of – which you can read here.

As for the wish list? I’d like to replace the Boss CH-1 with a Sea Machine Chorus from Earthquaker Devices, add a Caroline Wave Cannon, Empress Multidrive, Death By Audio Robot, and Malekko Omicron Bit (and maybe something from Z.Vex) to my distortion/fuzz section, a Malekko Omicron Attack Decay in front of the Freeze, an Electroharmonix POG 2 after the Whammy 4, and an Earthquaker Devices Rainbow Machine in front of the PH-3. Plus maybe a second, simpler delay pedal in front of the DL-4, so that I could loop delays. Oh, and an A/B switcher on the very front of the whole thing, so I can switch between a guitar and a mic going through the effects. Oh and I should probably get a wah pedal in there somewhere. Oh, and, and…

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Nick Norton in the garden at Lupetti Pizzeria in downtown Los Angeles
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