For many guitarists, bliss is playing a great acoustic with nothing but strings, wood, and fingers generating a beautiful tone. But it also can be fun to amplify your instrument—not only to make the guitar louder, but to shape its tone in myriad ways. Even if plugging in is something you do mostly because you have to, learning what processors achieve the biggest, fattest, and most pleasing tone will allow you to enjoy playing through an amp or PA that much more.
Before considering the following options for pedals and processors, don’t forget the elephant in the room: Your most crucial asset in getting a big amplified sound is your guitar and its pickup. If your guitar doesn’t already sound good without any processors, your money may be better spent upgrading, rather than adding.
Here are four general processor categories available as individual pedals or floor units, and included in many amps and multi-effect units.
Whether you plan to further process your sound with effects, it’s a good idea to run your signal through one of the many multi-function boxes that include a preamp, DI, and EQ. Say you want to boost a low signal, match a pickup’s high-impedance output with the low-impedance input of a PA, dial out problem frequencies, or shape the sound in a way that emphasizes certain tonal ranges—stand-alone units such as the L.R. Baggs Venue, Fishman Pro-EQ Platinum, Headway EDB-2, or D-Tar Solstice have become ubiquitous in achieving these tasks.
Units that include some kind of sweepable midrange control, in particular, can be real problem-solvers when it comes to either compensating for a pickup’s weak spot or dealing with a difficult room. Some units, such as Fishman’s new TONEDEQ and Zoom’s A3, even include built-in effects.
Without a doubt, the most popular effect used by acoustic guitarists is reverb. Simulating the sound of a lively room or performance hall, reverb can fatten up your tone, add sustain, make your sound “breathe” a bit more, and even add a touch of forgiveness to players whose technique is less than ultra-clean. Reverb is so common that it is included in most amps, and even if you’re playing though microphones at a venue with a sound engineer, it likely will be added from the mixing board.
Reverb types are typically named for the room size they simulate (i.e. “Small Room,” “Medium Hall,” “Cathedral,” etc.). Most acoustic guitarists prefer studio-like digital reverb to the grittier spring reverb found on many electric guitar amps (and simulated on some pedals); fortunately, there are many high-quality and easy-to-use compact pedals, including the Boss RV-5, TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb, DigiTech Supernatural, and Hardwire RV-7.
Once you’ve processed your signal in such a way that it sounds as organic as possible, you’re ready to add some effects that will make your guitar sound larger. Chances are, chorus will be your first choice. Chorus adds a shimmering quality to your tone that, when used sparingly, can sound a bit like a 12-string.
From a technical standpoint, the chorus effect is accomplished by doubling the input signal, with the processor adding a slight amount of delay and modulation to one side, while leaving the other side dry. Ideally, chorus is run in stereo, with each signal receiving its own speaker (Roland’s classic Jazz Chorus and AC-series amps function this way), but even when it’s run as part of a common mono setup, this effect can be used for anything from fattening up your sound with a slight shimmer to simulating an organ’s Leslie cabinet.
Popular chorus pedals include the Behringer US200 Ultra Chorus, Boss CE-5, Fender Competition Chorus, and TC Electronic Corona.
Even though using a heavy dose of delay may lead to a tone that has more in common with a spaceship than a flattop, when used in moderation it can be an effective tool in beefing up a basic sound. Adding just a few milliseconds of delay will have a similar quality as a short reverb, and even longer settings with repeats can be used to fatten up guitar parts. U2’s The Edge is a master of using delay in a way that doesn’t so much alter the instrument’s tone, but adds a highly musical and rhythmic addition.
Delay can come in analog and digital varieties, with the Boss DD-3, DigiTech Digidelay, and MXR Carbon Copy being popular choices.
Plug In & Twist Some Knobs!
Whether you use one simple stompbox or a pedal board the size of a coffee table, processing your guitar’s pickup signal can be a lot of fun. Used judiciously, these effects can take your natural tone to new heights. Who knows, even hard-core acoustic-only types may find themselves embracing the electric in “acoustic-electric”!