Old School Pedal Users: A Primer
Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.
At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments at prices accessible to gigging musicians and garage band virtuosos
In recent weeks, we’ve taken a look at some early history, exploring how the electric guitar emerged as a working man’s instrument with unprecedented versatility (check out Parts One and Two here). We’ve explored how different guitars became home to different musical personalities for Eric Clapton. We’ve also discussed how guitar-type doesn’t have to pigeonhole your sound.
These days, a different approach to versatility is becoming common: it’s not rare to see a kid with a cheap electric guitar, a beginner’s guitar, plugged into a $1000+ pedalboard. This trend can certainly go too far: at some point knob-twiddling gets in the way of learning how to make new sounds with your fingers and the guitar.
So, today we’re taking a look at classic uses of pedals—but not the ankle-level production studios of today’s player. We’re looking at how a few classic artists incorporated a few effects to help define the sounds of entire genres. It’s all part of the same tradition: these guys were using relatively cheap electronics to milk every sound they could imagine out of relatively cheap guitars.
Our readers almost certainly don’t need a history lesson on Hendrix, who continues to exert influence on rock-blues players everywhere. Everything about his sound and approach was innovative, and it was all built on the still ubiquitous foundation of a Stratocaster into a Marshall.
As he crafted his vision for a more psychedelically-inflected blues rock, he also pioneered the use of effects pedals. First, and most famously, he milked the sound of a Vox wah-wah pedal like no one had before:
Clearing liking the sound of added movement in his notes, he melded the Vox with aggressive use of a Uni-Vibe, especially on albums like Electric Ladyland. The effect—a sort of swirling phase shift—was originally designed to sound like a Leslie rotary speaker. Hendrix’s use is especially apparent in “Machine Gun:”
Finally, we can’t move on from Hendrix without talking about Fuzz. He pioneered the effect that would come to dominate the sound of entire bands, milking unprecedentedly explosive tones from his Dallas Arbiter Fuzzface Pedal, which you can hear a stunning demo of here:
Pops Staples’ "Nervous Guitar"
Pops Staples represents the other end of the spectrum from Hendrix: an unduly forgotten great rather than a Rushmore of Rock statue. His own tone quest demonstrates that it wasn’t just harder rockers using pedals to find new sounds.
Pops “Roebuck” Staples (his brother was named “Sears”) is the quintessential gospel guitarist. He was the key instrumental backing for the Staples Singers—comprised of his daughters—as they charted a career as an all-time great gospel and soul group. His life was a fascinating story, and worth reading about in more detail.
Pops employed virtually every type of Fender single-coil over the course of his career, but there was one constant: tremolo. Standard on brown-face Fender amps for a few years, tremolo was one of the first widely available guitar effects. Adding a sense of ethereal movement to elegantly simple blues finger-picking, tremolo is all over classic Staples Singers recordings.
But Pops was “pop”ularizing this old-school effect even before Fender, utilizing the DeArmond 601 Tremolo unit. This was a “pre-pedal” effect and was designed to be set on top of an amp:
You can check out Pops in a rare solo performance below. Effects were still so unknown that many fans simply called the sound “Pops’ nervous guitar.” When flying to gigs (in later years using amps with built-in Tremolo) Pops himself would simply request “a Fender ’65 with a shake on it.”
We can’t discuss seminal pedal users without mentioning Keith Richards’ “Satisfaction” riff. Richards wrote the part while trying to come up with a horn arrangement. He likely would have forgotten it after he fell asleep, he claims, if not for a tape recorder that happened to be running. It’s hard to imagine rock and roll without this riff, however overplayed it may have become.
Interestingly, the sound was created using the first ever Fuzz pedal, a Maestro Fuzz Tone. The device was marketed as a way to make your guitar sound like a saxophone!
Another classic combination we’d be remiss to leave out: SRV’s Tube-Screamer into a Fender Vibroverb. Silver-face amps like his Vibroverb are known for having a relatively scooped midrange. The Ibanez Tube screamer—which Stevie is selling by the bucket load to this day, RIP—provides a big mid-push to nudge this stereotypically clean amp into raunchy saturation. It’s a sound you can hear imitations of in bar-room blues bands all across the country today, making it easy to forget how this tone was innovative, even as it nodded to classic blues sounds, for its own time.
You could have purchased Vaughan’s own little green monster just two years back, and all for a cool $11,000. If that’s a tad out of your price range, there are more spouse-friendly methods for fulfilling your SRV obsession.
Warning: don’t start the final video if you don’t have a spare hour and a half.