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I used to think that the more feature-rich, the more versatile a piece of gear is, the better. I’m turned on by the Swiss-Army-ness of gear, one piece that can meet many needs. I used to own a Line 6 Flextone (remember those?) amp, and it was exactly that — a digital modeling amp that can sound like many different amps.
The problem I found, though, was that while I was happy with its versatility — I could call up sounds that were needed in most situations — I also spent a lot of time fiddling. In fact, fiddling was addicting, and it distracted me from practicing. That’s when I realized that more choices don’t always mean better.
The System Is the Instrument
When you are an electric guitarist, the first thing you must realize is that your instrument is, actually, not the only thing you play. The electric guitar “system” — the whole signal chain from the guitar to the amp/speaker is the instrument you play. So, every piece in your system should be “playable” — meaning, you can learn to use it, you can wield the power it bestows on you to make music with it. That means usability is just as important as the sounds it can create. Otherwise, how do you “play” something you have a hard time getting command of? If it’s so complex that you cant coax a good sound out of it quickly enough, when it derails you in your creative process because you have to pause and figure out how to do something — then features, options and choices only get in your way, the more the worse.
Hitting the Right Balance
There’s something to be said about minimalist approach: won’t it be awesome, if you just stepped on a guitar pedal and it just gave you the tone of your dreams? Some builders do build from this approach. For example, if your compressor’s attack time is already set to the perfect amount, the one setting you need already, then you don’t want a knob for that. The problem, of course, is that you may need more than one setting or the factory-default setting isn’t right for your needs. Adjustability is there so that the player can set it to suit his/her needs. It should be intuitive, and the range of choices/adjustments should be enough to coax different sounds, but not so wide that at extreme range the sound becomes unusable.
The Classic 3-knob Dirt Pedals: Beautifully Simple
Perhaps because Tube Screamer originally only had 3 knobs, it’s kind of become the standard for dirt pedals to sport 3 knobs. Volume, Gain, and Tone, which usually affects the treble. These knobs usually don’t change the fundamental sonic signature of the pedal — so if you like the basic sound, then you can probably find a setting that works for you. Set it and forget it, you get one sound out of a pedal. (That’s all you can really get out of an analog dirt pedal for live use anyway. Do you really bend down and fiddle at knobs between songs?)
My current go-to choice, LovePedal Gold Dragon, has a pre-gain bass roll-off knob instead of a traditional tone control. More and more builders are realizing that adjusting that gives their pedals more range. My opinion is that a 4-knob setup, with pre-gain bass roll-off and post-gain treble roll-off (cut) controls, gives a dirt pedal the most range-for-the-number-of-knobs. Nowadays, dirt pedals with more options than that gives me a mixed feeling. On one hand more range sounds exciting, but I can easily picture myself twiddling knobs and playing with switches for a long time. When it comes to dirt pedals, I don’t want too many choices. I just want to get my sound out of it, fast.
Delay: Taming the Beast
The high-priority item on my list is a delay pedal. I can’t believe I lived without one for so long. I used to have delay on all the time, as the Edge is one of my heros and turning it on gives me the comfort of wet sound that allows me to noodle more freely. Then I got rid of it because I thought I was being over-reliant. The last pedal I had was DigiTech DigiDelay, which was a very versatile and well-built pedal, but I was never that thrilled with that sound. Oh actually, I did briefly own a Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man. It made a beautiful, old-fashioned sound, but I realized that I needed a longer delay time, and also — I’m a digital delay guy. The warm, fuzzy repeats of analog delay sounded good on paper, but actually trying to apply it to my music, I really missed the clarity of a digital delay.
Modulation on delay is all the rage now, but first and foremost, I need clear yet warm delay. Tap tempo is nice but I also want a knob for delay time, too. That’s the basics. For a while I thought I also wanted a looper built-in, but I think I’m going to get a dedicated, simple looper pedal instead, as my primary need for a looper is for practicing (recording rhythm track to practice soloing over) and usually loopers built into delays don’t have much capacity.
But a good delay pedal, more than a dirt pedal, is like an instrument on its own — if I get a feature-rich one, I can see myself learning how to “play” the delay. Delay can be a compositional tool, interacting with delay can yield a huge range of interesting guitar parts. A lot can be done with just a basic delay, but having more choices in this case may mean more range of expression. I’ve seen people do some great things with Line6 Delay Modeler.
So — should I go simple or versatile? I don’t know yet, but I think I narrowed down my choices to just a couple:
Strymon El Capistan
I thought I wanted a digital delay, and it is, but it’s a tape delay simulator. And well-done demos. What a sound! It’s highly tweakable but I imagine I’ll just figure out the setting I like and will never touch any knobs except time and mix. This is my current “simple” option. 3dB boost is nice.
Damage Control Timeline
This one, I’ve been wanting for a long time, and it seems to strike a good balance between range and simplicity. No menus to scroll through and the stacked knobs make it seem less overwhelming, though that’s still a lot of knobs. This pedal’s discontinued and replaced by their child brand Strymon’s version — which is a completely different pedal, with even more options.
Either way, I think I’ll end up being Strymon/Damage Control’s customer. ;-)
Which Will Work for Me?
It’s still going to be 2-3 months before I’ll probably get a delay pedal, as there are other, higher priorities — but if you asked me to be honest today, I’m leaning toward the simplicity of El Capistan. My primary needs for delay are just ambiance over solos and simple repeats to play off of. Timeline is definitely getting into the “delay being an instrument on its own” territory. I’m sure I’ll grow to love and use the Timeline, but it has many things I’m not sure I’ll use, too.
We’ll see how it goes. When I get one, I’ll report here for sure.
To sum up, here are some insights I can pass on to fellow tone seekers:
- As an electric guitarist, you should consider your whole system to be your instrument.
- Playability is just as important as the sound.
- Too many choices are more distracting than productive.
- Consider your intended usage/application, and don’t acquire gear that has a much bigger range. Having a little wider range, however, can possibly help you broaden your horizon.