The perfect gig is the one where I don’t have to sing and where I can play the entire set with a clean floor – no effects pedals or switches whatsoever.
My most flexible setup in this regard is my Fender Telecaster into the OD channel of my 20-watt Blackstar amp, with the gain set at about 9 or 10 o’clock. I can get a whole range of rock tones using nothing but the pickup selector. On the bridge pickup (a DiMarzio Super Distortion T), I get a searing, penetrating lead sound, whereas the bridge + neck combination backs off on both gain and treble for a very smooth rhythm sound. The neck pickup alone (DiMarzio Area T) is more focused, but obviously not as distorted or toppy as the bridge pickup. If I introduce the volume control on the guitar into the equation, there’s even more flexibility. The aforementioned middle position, but with the volume at about half, gives me a clean sound that works very well for basically anything but the funkiest and twangiest stuff.
With a Gibson, which typically has individual volume controls for the two pickups, I get even more flexibility. I can basically preset one pickup, usually the bridge, to a distorted tone and then use the neck pickup on half volume as an ersatz clean tone. Then I just use the pickup selector to flick between clean and crunch. Still, I tend to use my Fenders, primarily the Telecaster, simply because the Fender sound just fits the cover bands better.
This practice of mine has drawn a bit of criticism from audio purists around me. Their argument being that adjusting the guitar volume on the fly is an arbitrary and imprecise method, that I will never be able to be consistent, that for instance two verses will not have exactly the same settings and sound. Like that matters! As if rock n roll was ever supposed to be exact and scientific! I’d gladly give up that precision for the luxury of being undistracted by searching for pedals and switches on the floor. It’s a lot less gear to carry, fewer cables to trip on, one power outlet less to worry about. I don’t have to glance down, I can maintain eye contact with my band members and the audience. Ultimately it means a better performance, and that’s what it’s supposed to be about, not audio perfection. I’ll bet that at the end of the show, people are not going to come up to you and tell you that one of the guitars dropped out during a verse here and a bridge there.
Sticking to one amp setting and playing without effects is a major challenge. I have to be at my very best to coax every possible tone and nuance out of my instrument. It is at the end of the day a more stimulating challenge than having one pedal for each sound. I am forced to play my instrument and not just touch the strings.
This method works really well for my session work: gigs, rehearsals and recordings with cover bands. In my more serious metal band Namlar, it is sadly not an option. I use way more distortion and volume, which means that I have to use the channel selector – backing off on the guitar volume doesn’t clean the tone up enough. More gain also necessitates a noise gate, and if I have one pedal and one switch on the floor, I might as well use a pedal tuner. It quickly snowballs from there, and that is how I entered the current phase of expanding my pedal board.