In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll talk about playing without effects or pedals.
I’m a little hesitant to write this post. When I write in general it just about my experience and things I’ve picked up over the years. But I’ll fully admit that I’m still learning more and more about how the guitar and amp work on their own. Effects pedals are great, but they can do us a disservice by letting us cut corners and thus not forcing us to learn about the relationship of the guitar and the tube amplifier.
Younger players often rip on older player who seem to only want to relive the classic rock glory days of the 70’s and 80’s (and if that’s you it’s time to learn some new tricks 😉 ) but I’ve gained an invaluable amount of insight from those older players who can do more with just a guitar and amp than you or I could with 12 pedals. So here’s some thoughts on what happens when you choose to or are forced to play with out effects in your rig.
NO PEDAL, NO PROBLEM?
You’re asked at the last minute to play in the band.
Something happens and your favorite pedal stops working just before church starts.
You just plain forgot to grab your pedal board.
Two out of those three things have in fact happened to me. Here’s why I mention this: you don’t need all your effects pedals to contribute to your church’s band. One of the downsides in the rise of effects pedals in recent history is that more and more, guitarists don’t know how to use their guitar and amp in the way that guitarists in previous generations did; the effect pedal is doing all the work. Amp EQ’s are all set at noon while a guitar’s volume and tone knobs are turned all the way up, with little or no thought as to whether or not this should be the case. This isn’t a fault that’s limited to church players, but it’s all the more glaring for two reasons. 1. Church players are generally much more limited in what effects than can and can’t use than those playing out in bars and clubs. 2. Often times we are working on a much tighter budget than guys playing out, because unlike the Saturday night set, the Sunday Morning crowd doesn’t get paid to do this.
So, in the interest of making us better guitarists and because a lot of us are broke, here’s some thoughts on playing without pedals. These thoughts will be general since every guitar and amp is different. Let’s start with the guitar.
Depending on your guitar’s design you can get a wide range of sound and tone by using your pick up selector. On a Gibson Les Paul the switch is generally on the upper half of the guitar’s body and is labeled “Rhythm” and “Treble”. Gretsch has theirs on the upper half two but it’s unlabeled, as is the Fender selector switch on the Strat and Tele although those are on the lower half of the body near the volume and tone knobs. Other guitar will have them in different places, but they’re pretty easy to spot.
Some guitars will have very little difference between the neck and the bridge pickups. Even then you could still get some varitey if they have individual volume and tone knobs. One could be set for rhythm and one could be set for solos, etc.
Other guitars have a great deal of variety between their picks ups, here’s how I’ve used mine: When I played a Gretsch Pro Jet the bridge pick up was wound a little hotter, so if i selected it by itself, I got a slight crunch out of my guitar without the need for an overdrive pedal. Also, if you need a little extra during a bridge or solo, but already had your overdrive on, this was a great way to cut through the mix at just the right moment.
Generally, the neck pickup on a guitar is smoother sounding, so if I’m going to be driving the song and/or using a lot of overdrive, I’ll probably switch to this pickup.
VOLUME & TONE
Often, (and I’ve been guilty of this) a younger or inexperienced guitarist will set their volume and tone knobs to maximum, and control everything else through the amp or pedals. I encourage you to mess around with these controls and see how they can affect your overall sound.
As a general rule I set my volume knob to 8 on any guitar I play. This gives me somewhere to go if I need a little extra volume on a part or if one song needs a little more “ummf” than the rest, but the sound guy has an aversion to electric guitar. Also, if you have a tube amp, you might try setting it a little dirty, then backing your volume knob down. It’ll clean up the sound of the amp, and if you want it grittier you can always turn up your knob, or just dig in and play harder on the strings.
I’ll admit that I still don’t fully understand my tone knob and it’s relationship to my sound. Generally speaking I set my tone knob around 7 or 8 these days depending on the guitar. If I want a more ambient sound I’ll go lower, and on my Jaguar which has two tone circuits, I’ll sometimes set one all the way down with a lot of reverb/delay for some very interesting sounds. The point is that you can get more out of your guitar than you might realize.
Younger guitarist may want to write off older “classic rock” players, but the truth is that they understand the guitar and amp way more than most of us do, and I’ve benefitted a lot from their knowledge.
Amp settings are a funny thing, Reverb is rarely set above 9 o’clock while Bass may be turned up to 11. Here’s some quick thoughts.
EQ- Take your amp and start with Bass, Treble, and Mids (if you have them) at Noon. Then mix from there. Some amps (Fender Blues Deluxe and Deville) are kinda bass heavy so I’ll keep the Bass at noon or back it down. Some amps like the Fender Princeton or the Egnater tweaker can see the Bass set at 3 O’clock or higher. On most amps I’ve middle of the road in my EQ, with Treble and Mids around 1. Sometimes the mids will go down to 11 O’clock, but not often. I set Bass starting at 1 and I move it up or down depending on the amps particular sound.
Mid Range- There is a lot of mid range on a church’s worship band. Acoustic Guitars, Vocals, and Piano players who don’t know better will all dwell in the mid range. Unless you’re running a Octave pedal, your guitar will rarely or never sit in the low or high end that the bass or piano can, even when you’re playing the high notes. The idea of “scooping the mids” is popular from both classic rock/jangle to heavy metal sounds. It may get a great tone on it’s own, but you will get lost in the mix in a full band. When playing on a Sunday morning, I keep my mids up around 1 O’Clock, and if I want to cut through a little more, I know which pedals add to the mid range to put me over the hump.
Bright/Deep- Some amps have Bright Switches (More common) and Deep switches (less common)- they add more treble or bass respectively. Here’s the thing, mess around with them, but remember that you’re adding something, so you might want to back down their counterpart on the EQ knobs to balance out the sound.
Volume/Gain- Some amps have two knobs labeled volume and gain, some have two knobs labeled Volume and Master. It’s the same idea at it’s core. If you turn the gain down as low as possible and the volume up as high as possible you will have the amp at it’s cleanest and loudest setting. If you are running effects like Mod/Delay/Reverb into the amp without an effects loop then you want to set your amp up as clean as possible, but if you are running an effects loop, or you aren’t running any effect (which is the point of this post) then you have more room to play. If you set your gain higher and your volume lower then your amp will start to go into overdrive quicker. If your amp is in close proximity to you, then you can mark out two settings and have an overdrive setting and a cleaner setting, depending on the song. Or you can set the amp to stay clean if you pick softer and “break up” when you start to play harder, or if you turn up your guitar’s volume knob.
WHEN YOU DO BRING THE PEDALS BACK
The more you know your guitar and amp without pedals, the more versatile you will be when you have them. Knowing how to get a better tone of my guitar and amp have helped me to better dial in the pedals on my rig and also, in the case of gain pedals, to better understand how to get a good sound out them.
Playing guitar is a skill and a craft. Playing electric guitar is even more so. I’m hardly an expert on these things, but like you, I’m trying to grow in the gifts and skills God has given me, so that I can fulfill the calling to serve the church in song and music.