Pedals? We Don't Need No Stinking Pedals!

A primer on how to get a wide range of sounds out of your guitar without using all kinds of pedals, effects, stompboxes and channel switching.

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Hey everyone! I've taken a small departure from my usual style of writing about big issues and causing all kinds of controversey, and will instead be doing a sort of "beginner's lesson." I'll be talking about how you can get a greater range of sounds from your guitar without effects pedals, stompboxes, or even channel switching on your amp. For some readers, this article will seem like common sense, but I've been seeing more and more people on these forums who have no idea how to coax a good range of sound out of their guitars, and I thought I'd post a bit of my knowledge in hopes that newer players can learn from it. You might realize that you don't need that fancy footswitch, or that distortion pedal to get the sound you want. We'll start with the basics. Picking: I often see newer guitarists who only know one way to use their pick. They basically just strum or pluck at a medium pace and apply the same pressure regardless of what they are playing. This makes their playing sound flat, and unlively. What I'm getting at here is playing with feeling. If something is soft, slow and intricate, use a ligher pick attack. Simple as that. Don't pluck as fast as you would normally pluck. I'm not talking about the actual speed at which you play the song here. I'm talking about the tiny amount of time it takes you to touch the pick to the string, and move it off of that string. Consider the very beginning of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," which is an excellent song to learn if you want to improve you pick technique. This song MUST be played with a light touch. If you try and slam this song out, it sounds like crap. Click here to see the tab. Using Hendrix once again, let's look at the song "Fire." You can't just strum those riffs without enthusiasm. You've gotta be libusting it out! The song is fast and urgent. Why not play it like that? Click here for the tab. Even when you're playing your own songs, think about how the song feels, and play it that way. People always blame this type of problem on their gear. I always hear people say "well, I'm not playing a pimped out Stratocaster through a Marshall stack, so no wonder it doesn't sound that good." This can attribute to the problem (an acoustic guitar just can't sound like an electric), but as any good guitarist knows, you don't need the greatest gear to sound at least reasonably good. Think of some songs you just can't get to sound right, and try playing them with feeling. What's Your Fretting Hand Up To?: Not only is your fretting hand responsible for what notes you play, it's also responsible for what notes you don't play, and for how long you play your notes. There are countless examples to use here, but I think we'll return to Jimi Hendrix once again for our lesson. Consider the verse riffs for "Purple Haze." Jimi uses the popular 'thumb-over' technique to make his barre chords sound a little different than the standard bar. He places his thumb over the top of the neck to fret the root note on the low E string, and to mute the A string. Click here to see the tab. Now, if you want to play this riff properly, there are a few things you must do:
  • First, make sure you let that open E note ring as you are strumming the E7#9 chord. It's important not to let the finger that is fretting your A string mute that note.
  • Second, you must make sure that when you are playing the 'thumb-over' power chords, you don't let the A string ring open. Be sure to mute it, or your riff will sound like ass. Once again looking at Purple Haze, we'll examine how important it is to be aware of what notes you are allowing to ring, and for how long. Look at the very first notes, which are an octave of A#. You must mute these notes immediately after you play each one, to achieve the sound you hear on the record. But when he starts in with the signature lick, you need to make sure you let the proper notes ring after each phrase, and throw a little vibrato on there as well. This version has a better tab for the intro section. How About Those Pickups?: If your guitar is like most, you have two or three pickups under the strings of your guitar. There is a reason for there to be more than one of them. The inner wiring of each pickup, as well as it's distance from the bridge of your guitar affects the tone that it puts out. On a Gibson-style guitar, there are two pickups. One located closer to the neck of the guitar, and one located closer to the bridge. The neck pickup is designed more for rythm playing, and gives a chunkier, bass-ish, smoother sound. This is due to the fact that it is farther from the bridge, and the strings directly above the pickup are not carrying as much tension as they are at the bridge. Don't think this pickup is ONLY for chords and rythms though. It gives a very "vocal" sound to your solos as well, due to it's smooth output. The bridge pickup, on the other hand, produces a sharper, more treble-ish sound, which is more suited to riffs and solos. A Fender-style guitar has a third pickup, between the bridge and neck pickups, and it simply throws another sound into the mix. It is quite common for a guitarist to switch between different pickups in the same song. This is done by using the pickup selector switch. On a Gibson-style guitar, the switch (3 positions) will probably be labeled. Just move the switch to whichever setting you want. Putting the switch in the middle will leave both pickups on, and you will get a combination of both sounds. On a Fender, there will probably be 5 possible positions. Moving the switch all the way towards the neck will activate (you guessed it) the neck pickup. One position back and you will be using both the neck and middle pickup, then just the middle, then middle and bridge, and then just the bridge. It's quite intuitive once it's been explained to you. Now for an example. Let's look at Slash's work on the Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City." Click here for the tab. For the intro, since it's largely an unacompanied electric guitar, I would set my Gibson to the middle postion, activating both pickups. This gives a fuller sound, and makes up for the lack of bass. For a Fender, probably use the middle pickup, or the middle and neck pickups. When the slamming power chords come in, I would use my bridge pickup, to produce that super-distorted, powerful sound. Then when the little solo/interlude section (around the 12th fret) kicks in, I would switch over to the neck pickup to get Slash's trademark "vocal" sound from this interlude. Once the heavy riffing starts, i would switch back to the bridge or middle pickup. There you have it. All that music, and the most you had to do was turn on distortion after the intro. A Nifty Little Trick: Listen to the songs "What Is And What Should Never Be," and "Stairway To Heaven," by Led Zeppelin. Notice the sudden switch from the beautiful clean tones of the first part of the songs to the insane distortion of the choruses and solos. Now, consider what Jimmy Page was working with for these songs. He was playing a Les Paul through a Marshall 1959 SLP 100W head. This amp had no channel switching, as it only had two settings: ON or OFF. If you wanted distortion, you had to crank it up to 11. That's how almost everyone using a Marshall got their distortion in this era. Now, it wouldn't be reasonable to have someone come and literally turn your amp up at the right time when performing these songs live. So how did he do the clean / dirty switching? The answer is simple: It was all done with his guitar's on-board controls. The trick is to turn the volume on your neck pickup down to about 2/10, but leave your distortion cranked up. You will get a beautiful, full-sounding clean tone. But if you leave your neck pickup's volume on 10, you can switch between the pickups the same way you would with a footswtich for your amp. The advantage is a better clean tone and less pedals to lug around. Once you get used to using your selector switch and volume knobs, you'll wonder how you ever did without them. So there you have it. If you're trying figure out how a guitarist gets their sound, there's a really good chance that the answer lies somewhere in this article. This information may be elementary for some of you readers, and if it is, I urge you not to be a retard and post about how everyone knows this stuff. And if this was enlightening to you, I'm glad I could help. Peace.
  • 76 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      Bubonic Chronic
      Excellent advice! Much of the same advice I give to my students. Very complete, and I like the "less gear, more technique" approach.
      frigginjerk
      ^ nope. the lead pickup is ALWAY closer to the bridge, because that's where there's the most tension in the strings, and that produces the clearest, crispest sound. you CAN use the neck pickup for solos and such, since it's all relative anyways, but by definition, the bridge pickup is for leads.
      azerty_66
      great article man, really. lagwagon uses this technique in the songs alien8 and love story and it has a nice effect, although stairway to heaven is much better of course. i don't really switch alot between clean and distorted sounds during a song , but i used to do it using my toes to push the button to switch channels... now thx to you i don't have to do any complicated manoeuvres to switch from clean to distorted, thx man.
      frigginjerk
      ^ suck a dick, buddy. one of the best ways to solidify useful guitar knowledge in your head is to teach it to others. and that knowledge will come in mighty handy when i am pursuing my career as a professional musician. and if that falls through, this article-writing stuff will be helpful when i pursue a job in journalism with my UNIVERSITY DEGREE IN COMMUNICATIONS STUDIES. there is very little that i do that could be considered wasting my time.
      Oswald
      I think that frigginjerk is the best article/lesson writer there is on this site. WRITE MORE, MAN!!!
      Weiser
      good stuff mate but i was suprised with the amount of people who didnt know how the pickup systemis set up
      frigginjerk
      also, please rate the articles if you haven't already. That's one of the best forms of feedback for me.
      NirvanamanX
      I always use your distortion trick with my LP and my SWR Workingman's Fifteen bass amp it's big pimpin'. Puddn
      Geldof the Grey
      PS: What I mean is, even to a seasoned guitarist, that article raised some interesting ideas. I'm not sucking up... HONEST!!!
      frigginjerk
      i really want to thank everyone for the good feedback on this article. I'd never written anything regarding the actual PLAYING of the instrument, since I have only recently been beginning to understand all the theory and technique to it. look for my new article on power-chord theory coming soon!
      Mr_Fooz
      "Pedals, we dont need no stinkin pedals!" Aint it the truth. And one of the greatest guitarists of all time from the best band of all time can vouch for that line, Angus Young of AC/DC
      ludwigstrat-man
      Hey...that thing your talking about sounds cool, but it can't replace my danelectro Fab tone...that distortion is the best thing...it's full, and i like alot of bass in my dist. even my Peavey specials stuff can't get that sound, you have to have a good dist. pedal or a marshall dist. channel to do Metal...that's all there is to it...
      Born2Riot
      Sometimes pedals make your music sound better e.g. jimi hendrix uses wah in most of his songs and is like the best guitarist in the world
      d.floresumana
      Hello... I am looking for, what I like to call, non-pedal effects... Like the slide bar, the tremolo-sih effect with the pickup selector and the ebow... Maybe the Jimmy Page thing with the violin bow... any other ideas or stuff you have heard?
      mp3stalin
      ryanph2421 wrote: pedals kick ass look at Incubus's mike einziger he is the master of pedals and makes them sound awesome.
      TRUTH.
      ryanph2421
      pedals kick ass look at Incubus's mike einziger he is the master of pedals and makes them sound awesome.
      ScarredFaith
      For one, Ozzy doesn't play guitar and he's not a band. He's a singer, I think you where referring to Zakk Wylde. Two, Staind's acoustic stuff is better then all there gay heavy stuff because the acoustic is a)musicly cool and b) not gay nu-metal. Three, never put Trapt in the same sentence with Ozzy. Ever.
      alaskanbassist
      your article is not true. Where would Staind, Trapt, or even Ozzy Osbourne be without distortion and pedals. Only a few bands sound good acoustically half the time.
      ithilien046
      thanks dude, i'd do that, except that i have a strat w/ 1 volume knob so the volume thing can't really work, and i have crappy guitar amp so it wouldn't work anyways, and my good crate bass amp has a limiter on it so it wont let itself get distorted. but once i get a decent guitar amp, i'll look into doing that. thanks a lot
      ludwigstrat-man
      oh, and 1 more thing...if your dist. channel isn't sounding to good on your peavey, on the lead channel turn your mid down to like 4-6, and on ultra, turn your body down to like -6, it makes it sound way fuller...it took me a while to get that full sound...but it's still not as good as the danelectro, I love that thing!!!
      Geldof the Grey
      I'm not giving up my nice shiny ME-50 so I can make the guitar stutter by cocking about with the pickup selector. nice article, someone really had to write all that down, but no-one else would have done it as good as that
      heavyaxeplaya
      this article sucks! You are writing this for people who are so bad (read new, i don't mean it negatively), that they don't even know how to nuance their style, and you give them Hendrix!
      heavyaxeplaya
      ahum, it sounds weird now ^. But what i meant was, that Hendrix could be way to difficult for people who don't even know they can hit the strings 'softly' :s
      nunley
      i found ur article very helpful to beginners.(like me) but alot of people dont play, or can't afford a good-ol' Marshall half-stack...and for that, there's nothing wrong in investing a few dollars into a nice overdrive pedal. i dont think the article is saying pedals are bad, just that you can change you sound without them.
      ~Rock~Guitarist
      Great article!!! After reading it I now realize how some of my playing is starting to lack some unique pickwork and pickup-switching.
      frigginjerk
      well, if you only have one volume knob, you'll have to figure it out yourself. although one of my guitars has only one volume (and only one pickup) but i manage to get some range from it. just be really quick when you're turning up or down
      Brand Nizzle182
      Ive been pissing around with just a cheap acoustic guitar for a little over a year now. i've never touched an electric in my life so i obviously know nothing about effects pedals. but i def. agree with the author about playing with feeling. i've read a bunch of interviews with tom delonge who says he never uses effects petals at all. that is my favorite guitar to listen to. I know artists like tom morello make awesome music with effects pedals but there def. not nessecary to make good songs. just a comment thats not really all that relevant to the the topic. just something i wanted to share about what i thought of effects pedals nessecity.
      chasteh
      first friggenjerk article which i have read, that was actually good
      gnr8801
      Does the natural distortion trick work only with Tubes, or does it work w/solid states also?
      frigginjerk
      oswald: don't get me wrong. sometimes you DO need a pedal. there's not really a good way to get a chorus effect without a chorus pedal. and if your amp can't provide the distortion you need, then you will need a pedal. but lots of people see on-board distortion as useless, or get a disto pedal to use for clean / dirty switching. another point i should have made was to listen to some older rock and see that the actual level of distortion / gain / noise is not that high. what you are hearing is a cranked up volume knob, not a pedal.