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“Real men don’t use pedals”: can this idea go away?

June 11, 2012

During any online or interpersonal discussion involving guitar pedals, somebody always appears to announce that they don’t use any pedals. This is also inevitably accompanied by some predictably macho posturing involving “real”, “natural”, “genuine”, or something to insinuate their superiority over anyone who would do otherwise.

While the value of anyone’s feelings is not really a matter for debate, the thought processes that can inform these feelings is worthy of examination. In my humble opinion, these processes, and the feelings that using pedals make you less “real” of a guitar player, are ridiculous.

First off, in any discussions about any effect pedals, no one is asking for or cares the slightest about the opinion of people who categorically don’t like pedals. While the Internet is a wonderful medium that expedites the broadcasting of a personal opinion (as I am doing here), I’m always curious about what motivates the person who categorically dislikes something to show up uninvited to express their feelings. Imagine you start a chat thread or post a status update or tweet with something like “Those of you who’ve seen The Avengers – how did you like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk?”. Now imagine you get a reply such as “I didn’t see The Avengers because I think movies suck. People should get back to reading books” – excuse me, but what on earth is that person contributing towards the discussion, and who the hell asked them?

If you think not using any pedals makes you more “real” or “natural” of a player, you’ve got to be kidding me. Let’s think about what is physically happening when we play electric guitar. The sound is created when a guitar string is plucked by a pick, likely made from some polymer (oh wait, the “real” guys use their thumb, okay) causing it to vibrate. This vibration also creates a corresponding vibration through a magnetic field above your pickups. The pickup converts this into electric current, which passes through a simple low-pass filter tone circuit and a passive volume attenuator (we presume you’re not using an active pickup, being that you’re keeping it “real”) that does some equalization before it even gets to the cable. The standard cable consists of stranded, >99% oxygen free copper wire usually measuring between 18-24 gauge thickness, creating another filter in conjunction with the guitar circuitry based on cable capacitance.

Now, let’s get to the amplifier. If you’re a traditionalist, this means you aren’t using some kind of high fidelity audio reproduction system to expose that weak signal for the anemic, naked thing that your tone really is at this point. You’re like the rest of us, depending on that signal working with a classic tube guitar amp to shape your sound and help you get awesome and loud. Well, that amp has got a host of things going on. The signal hits the high-impedance input and visits the preamplifier. See, the “natural” sound coming straight from our guitars, as big and tough and old school special as we might think think it is, really isn’t strong enough to directly power the power amplifier. It’s depending on a series of fairly intricate pre-amplifer gain stages to give the Popeye signal the spinach it needs before any filtering or equalization (oh, they don’t use them? Really? What do those knobs marked ‘bass’ and ‘treble’ say? Just because someone leaves them at “5” doesn’t mean they aren’t in use). It then may visit a phase inverter before hitting the tube power amp section, which finally gives you the high current signal to cause those speakers to go back and forth.

If you’re a player performing live or in a studio, all of this is just the opening pre-credits sequence to your signal then being captured via a microphone, which then sends current through another cable to a mixing board, which then has its own preamplification, equalization and filtering, which either goes to the power amplifiers of a public address system or to some kind of recording device, which then involves…aw, I’m getting tired, and I think we’re getting the point: how can anyone call *any* of this “natural”? Does *any* of this occur in nature? Does any of this sound like we’re carving a flute from driftwood or clapping a couple empty coconut shells together?

And how does adding a pedal, basically one more optional pre-amplification stage that you can turn on or off at your leisure, make somebody less “real”? Imagine some old-school guy is just using guitar to a (insert amp brand)? Great! I love them too. Which one? Ah, nice amp! Did they know that amp has one more gain stage than that amp over there? If I plug into that one while they play theirs, did I make them less real or genuine, or did I become SUPER-real? Are they going to start fading like Marty McFly when the outcome is in doubt at the end of Back To The Future? Will they spring back to life and start playing “Earth Angel” properly once I unplug?

“Well, the legends didn’t use pedals.” Whenever somebody says something like this, and you ask them to whom they are referring, they’re often misinformed and factually wrong. “Jimmy Page”. Uh, ever see him use a Tone Bender Mk II? “Jimi Hendrix.” Please feel free to complete a Harry Potter novel while I finish laughing. “Stevie Ray Vaughan.” Ibanez and Maxon should retire a green Tube Screamer colored banner with his name hanging from their company rafters. This list goes on and on. Yes, there are lots of cool dudes back in the old times who didn’t use pedals to help them create some classic tones, but once they had the chance, they chose to.

Now, if you are an electric player who doesn’t like using any pedals, that’s perfectly fine. Just be honest about the reasons. If you just like the sound of your guitar and your amp, cool. If you just want to keep things simple, I understand. That’s your preference, and it doesn’t make you better in any way than someone else who does. If you’ve been a genuine listener of music, you’ve seen and heard players who’ve blown their audiences away on un-amplified classical guitars, and players who blow us away with lots of pedals on their boards.

Using, or not using, some piece of gear doesn’t make a player more genuine, harder, tougher, more real, more natural, or better than players who do. What does make people those things is the honest pursuit of their art, the skills and experience earned from practice and performing, their genuine expression, feeling, and the ability to play something that has an effect on the listener. All of this is MUCH more difficult and real than simply choosing not to use a piece of gear.

However you choose to pursue that goal is up to you. If you think there is something that we make that might help you get there, drop us a line.