The Electric: Overdrive, Distortion, and Noise

Each Week I’ll try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music.

This week we’ll talk about using the electric guitar and distortion: How Much is Too Much? or how I learned to Stop Worrying and love my TS9.

This conversation is pointless in certain churches so let’s assume that yours isn’t one of them and it would be ok for you as the electric guitarist to have a “dirty” tone signal of some kind. At that point you would be talking about 3 Basic Catagories: Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz.The Wikipedia definition of these three is as follows: The terms “distortion”, “overdrive” and “fuzz” are often used interchangeably, but they have subtle differences in meaning. Overdrive effects are the mildest of the three, producing “warm” overtones at quieter volumes and harsher distortion as gain is increased. A “distortion” effect produces approximately the same amount of distortion at any volume, and its sound alterations are much more pronounced and intense. A fuzzbox (or “fuzz box”) alters an audio signal until it is nearly a square wave and adds complex overtones by way of a frequency multiplier.

How Do I Get These Sounds?

Amplifier

The easiest way to get a overdriven tone is to crank your tube amp and let it “break up”, which is how they did it back in the 60’s before pedals. I have a Vox AC4 that can be turned down from 4watts to 1/4 watts and it’s gets a great ‘dirty’ sound without being over bearing.

Pedals

There are countless pedals and effects out there that will get you the sound you want or need.

What Do I Use?

Overdrive

Generally speaking for church bands this is the one I would go with. It’s warmer, cleaner, and clearer. I have 3 on my board: a Xotic AC Booster, a Ibanez TS9, and a Fulltone Plimsoul.

The AC boost is really just a “dirty” clean boost and I treat it as such with barely any over drive. I use it for rhythm parts that don’t need much edge but a little bit of punch. I also can use it for the clean boost if I needed to for a lead part.

The TS9 is the middle of the road, and I use it for my straight overdrive sound on Rhythm and some lead parts. (Tip: this pedal is used by EVERYONE from Joe Banamassa to The Edge, it is THE go to pedal. there are better ones out there, but this is a great one to start with.)

The Plimsoul is the most versatile of the three and before I got my TS9, I used the Plimsoul like the TS9, but now that I’ve got one, I have the Plimsoul set for a harder clipping mild distortion sound. I use it for songs that need that punch.

Distortion

This is up to you. I stay away from distortion pedals in general because I prefer overdrive and fuzz. You know what would best serve the song, and by extension the church. But in general you may find that you get a better fit from just cranking a tube amp than a Boss Metal Zone. Where I would use distortion for church music is if you had your volume down a little or you were using it to add “layers” and atmosphere, especially in a minor key song (Exalt the Lord, More Love, Rise Up Oh Men Of God, etc)

Fuzz

Same as distortion. You know what will fit with your church or youth group or band. I love the sound of a good fuzz pedal. I own a Sovtek Big Muff PI which is a cross between a distortion and fuzz box. I haven’t put it on my board for worship yet, but it is possible it’ll get on there eventually.

Where Do You Use Your Pedals?

It’s up to you. You know what best fits your sound, the songs you are playing, and the church you are serving.

When I’m leading worship with an electric i keep the sound pretty simple, clean tone or mild overdrive, maybe with some reverb and I don’t change much through out the whole set.

When I’m backing up the leader with an electric, I listen for what’s going on, and I tend to use the TS9 or Plimsoul for more up beat songs, the AC boost if i want a “cleaner” sound for the rhythm parts. I use the Plimsoul or eventually the Big Muff to strum Whole Notes or finger pick lightly to “fill in the sound” and give the song “atmosphere” especially on minor chord songs.

What’s The Point?

The point as always is to glorify Jesus, serve His church and make good music. These pedals and effects are just tools for that purpose. If you know how to use and utilize guitar effects you’ll have more tools to offer in building the sound of the church’s music.

The Electric: Pedals

Each Week I’ll try and address different practical aspects of playing the electric guitar in church music.

This week we’ll talk about Effects Pedals.

The electric guitar can be an amazingly versatile tool. You could spend years perfecting the sounds you can get just from messing with the volume and tone knobs and pickup selectors. Then you add pedals to the mix and you basically have a stringed synthesizer at your disposal. I will say it again, the electric guitar is an amazing tool.

What Pedals Do I Need?

Tuner

If you’re not in tune then you’re not in business. I use the Boss TU-2 Pedal because it’s fairly accurate and you get a lot bang for you’re buck.  The TC Polytune, Korg Pitchblack, and Peterson Strobe Tuners are also very popular and you’d probably do ok with any of them. (I also have the Peterson strobe App for my iphone which is a great tool for the guitarist on the go). If you are just starting out you should probably have (in addition to an electric guitar and amp) a tuner, volume pedal and overdrive. That would be a good start, especially since a lot of amps have effects like reverb built in.

Overdrive/Distortion/Fuzz

Something to give you that “edge” or dirty sound for Rhythm parts on up beat songs, lead worship or to give atmosphere to a song in a minor key. I have several all set to different settings depending on what I need. I’ve been building up my pedal collection over many years so if you’re just starting out I would recommend the Fulltone Plimsoul because it’s incredibly versatile or the Ibanez TS9 because 1. EVERYONE, every guitar player you’ve ever heard of seems to have one and use it. 2. You can get them at a good (cheap) price on Craigslist (which is where i got mine).

Compression

Evens things out, keeps the louds from being too loud, and the quiet from being too quiet. I leave my compression on 99% of the time.

Delay

Get that U2 Rhythem or that Coldplay effect. I use a TC Electronics Flashback but any of the Boss series (DD-3, 5, or 7) would do just fine. Note: some of the delays with all the bells and whistles are also the most time consuming to dial in… take that into account before you buy.

Tremolo

Great effect to fill in the sound of a song, give it atmosphere or just sound cool. Several amps I’ve had over the years (VOX AC15, Fender Vibro Champ) have had this effect built in so you may not need the pedal. I use a Fulltone Supa-Trem and love it but a Boss TR-2 would work just fine for a lot less (another great Craigslist option)

Reverb

Again, many amps come with this build in. Reverb is basically that sound you get when you’re in a room so big the echos start to bounce off each other. I usually leave mine on all the time. I just fills the sound in nicely. I use a TC Electronics Hall of Fame. For the money there isn’t much better.

Other options

I don’t use Flanger, chorus, rotary speaker, or phaser but I could see uses for any or all of these pedals in a church band. Just because I don’t use them doesn’t mean you wouldn’t or that they wouldn’t serve the music you play. Did I miss one?

What Pedals Should I Avoid?

For a church band I try to avoid any pedal that is distracting, performance based, not useful or doesn’t fit the sound. A pedal that makes crazy sounds is not only distracting but not practical, and while it may be fun to mess around with, it’s probably a waste of money for what you’re trying to accomplish. If the band I serve with plays CCM, then a heavy distortion is probably not the best call. If you’re playing folk/country hymns do you really need a ‘pulsing filter’ effect?

I have my pedal board set up for versatility (I can do rock, pop, CCM, country, and indie rock) and I’ve gotten rid of pedals that were great but I would never use in a worship setting (Adrennalinn III to name one)

What Makes This Worship and Not Preformance?

That’s up to you. I see my guitar and my pedalboard as a tool to shape a sound that helps people express their love, praise, reverence, adoration, and worship to Jesus through song. I try not to be center of attention, but just another part of the whole. I pick my effects to that end (as talked about above) and use my tools to serve Jesus and His church to the best of my ability. When I’m leading the band on electric or acoustic, I do as little as possible because enough attention is on me as it is. When I’m just part of the band I prefer to hang in the back. It’s starts in the heart, is worked out in practice, and lived in how I play and comport myself.

What’s the Point?

The point as always is to glorify Jesus, serve His church and make good music. These pedals and effects are just tools for that purpose.