From the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By John W. Warren
In the right hands, the sound of a steel-string acoustic or classical guitar, played on the couch, strummed around a campfire, or performed in a concert hall, is perhaps unparalleled in beauty and harmonic richness. Efforts to amplify acoustic and classical guitars for performance often focus on projecting a natural, uncolored sound. Nevertheless, creative breakthroughs and new approaches to your acoustic playing can be found through experimentation with effects pedals that are often associated with electric guitar and bass.
1. Get Creative
Pedals designed to help acoustic guitarists accurately project the natural sound of their instrument, such as the L.R. Baggs Align Series, the Fishman Aura, and a wide variety of others, are frequently reviewed in AG and elsewhere. Acoustic guitarists can also generate exciting new sounds by experimenting with the plethora of pedals designed for electric guitars and other instruments. Tip: Add texture to a livestreaming performance, break out of a creative rut, and inspire improvisation and songwriting by exploring the sonic possibilities offered by electric guitar stompboxes on acoustic guitar.
2. Commence Clean
Begin with an acoustic or classical guitar that has a good-quality pickup, which, although not absolutely necessary, will help you to run your guitar through effects pedals. A vast variety of different pickups are available, including undersaddle piezos, soundboard transducers, and soundhole pickups; the L.R. Baggs Anthem, for example, combines a pickup and internal microphone. Some pickups may sound brittle or be prone to feedback if not conditioned by a preamp, compressor, or DI. If your guitar sound is not clean before feeding it into effects pedals, the results will be less then desirable.
3. Break the Rules
It’s easy to swap around a couple of pedals, but as your effects chain grows, your tone can get muddy or sound boomy without the right approach. Tuners are generally placed right after your instrument. Compressors are typically placed near the front of the chain, but often after effects like pitch, fuzz, distortion, or overdrive, to get full dynamic response from these effects.
Modulation effects, which introduce instability and change over time, are often best placed later in the chain. Delay generally goes before reverb. Reverb is usually best near the end of the chain, as it diffuses and dissolves the sound. Loopers and experimental time effects like freeze, granular, and glitch, are flexible and can be placed last to record your instrument through the entire chain, or anywhere at all.
These guidelines may be helpful in ordering your effects from instrument to output, but find the approach that works for you, your instrument, and your musical style. Tip: Try placing certain effects, such as delay and reverb, in your amp’s effect loop, after its preamp, while running other effects from instrument to amp.
4. Tame Your Dynamics
Compressors control your tone’s dynamic range, making the quiet notes louder and the louder notes quieter, for a smoother listening experience and improved sustain. A good compressor may even sound like it’s not doing anything, until you turn it off and notice the difference. The Gurus Optivalve and Effectrode PC-2A are tube-based compressors that sound stunning with acoustic guitar. Tip: Overuse of a compressor can squash your instrument’s dynamics, while judicious use can help you play more dynamically and avoid sharp or harsh transients.
Freeze, essentially a very short loop, allows you to produce sustain, add a supporting chord beneath your playing, or stack layers of sounds for floating polyphony or ambient pad effects. Dedicated freeze or sustain pedals include the Electro-Harmonix Superego+ and the Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal, among others. Many reverb pedals, including the Walrus Audio Slö, Cusack Music Resound, and Chase Bliss Audio Dark World, offer the ability to produce sustain or latching, pad-like sounds, via a momentary footswitch. Tip: Pair freeze with modulation to create movement that provides harmonic interest and change in your frozen sound,
6. Make Modulation
Modulation is a family of a variety of effects, but what unites them is movement. Waveforms and their shapes, such as triangle, sine, square, saw, and ramp, form the heart of modulation effects. Low frequency modulators (LFOs) create movement by adjusting parameters such as depth and rate. Tremolo is the modulation of volume (not to be confused with the classical guitar technique), while vibrato is pitch modulation; some pedals allow you to alternate or mix these two.
Flangers can create psychedelic sounds but can be subtle and natural-sounding as well. Phase is a bit more refined, producing pleasing and even dreamlike phase cancellation. Rotary and vibe are gateways to swirly modulation. Chorus, ubiquitous in the ’80s, doubles your signal, and can make your six-string guitar sound like a 12-string. Many reverb and delay pedals also include modulation effects to create movement. EarthQuaker Devices offers several innovative modulation effects to try on acoustic guitar, including the Pyramids stereo flanging device and the Sea Machine chorus. Tip: Use creative modulation such as detuning, random modulation, glitch, and more, to add momentary interest or provide the basis for loops.
7. Definitely Delay
Delay—comprised of a recording buffer and feedback loop—produces copies or echoes of your playing that trail behind you and create ambiance. The late British guitarist John Martyn pioneered the use of the Echoplex, a tape delay, to create massive soundscapes of his acoustic (and electric) guitar playing.
The number of high-quality delays is vast, including the Dawner Prince Boonar, which emulates the classic Binson Echorec, a multi-head magnetic drum delay; Electro-Harmonix’s Grand Canyon delay and looper; and the Meris Polymoon. Tips: Moderate use of delay can make your acoustic guitar playing sound more expansive. Create momentary bits of chaos by experimenting with self-oscillation; cascade multiple delays to create blooming effects and flexible ambience.
8. Explore Altered Ambiance
Reverb simulates space, as if you’re playing in a large hall or cathedral. Use reverb—actually a cluster of small, diffuse delays—to balance your mix, make recordings sound more natural, and make your sound more epic. Altered ambience such as shimmer, glisten, and pitch modulation can produce glittering, shifting undertones. Death by Audio’s Reverberation Machine and Rooms, Earthquaker Devices’ Afterneath and Avalanche Run, and many others, can create abstract, fictional spaces to broaden your acoustic guitar palette. Tips: Use delay and reverb trails for graceful transitions. Stack two or more reverb pedals in sequence to create dreamy soundscapes, atmospheric harmony, and other complex sounds. Split stereo reverb with different effects to create asymmetrical reverb.
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9. Get Loopy
Adding a looper to your effects chain—either by itself or as a part of a multieffects unit—can help liven up your practice sessions and performances. Widely associated with musicians like Ed Sheeran, a looper can turn a singer-songwriter into a band, provide inspiration for songwriting and arranging, and allow you to practice improvising solos over an indefatigable rhythm guitar part.
Start with a small loop and layer overdubbed parts for added complexity. Many loopers, such as TC Electronic’s Ditto+, allow you to save your ideas, or even bring in backing tracks. Timing the start and end of loops can be tricky, but with practice you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Tips: Record and loop a short riff at the end of a song, overdub a few additional chord voicings, and then solo on top of the loop (alter your tone between these layers with different modulations or other effects). Place multiple loopers in your pedalboard to capture moments that can play against each other like different orbits of song and sound.
10. Bring It All Together
It’s not necessary for all the pedals in your chain to work together if you don’t necessarily want to use them that way; think of your pedalboard as having different pockets, or mini-chains, that work well together. Try recording a dry, direct guitar track and use a reamp box to add effects after capturing a solid take; some audio interfaces also offer reamp capabilities. Find the combination of pedals that works for you, that shapes your sound and fits your artistic vision.
This is a golden age of effects pedals, and acoustic guitarists can take advantage of these tools, as can players of other acoustic instruments. While effects should ultimately be used in service of the song, experimentation and happy accidents can lead to creative breakthroughs in performance, composition, and improvisation. You’ll soon learn that effects pedals can be instruments in themselves.
John W. Warren is a guitarist and composer in the Washington, D.C., area. johnwwarren.com
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.