One of the greatest guitar tones I’ve ever achieved was my Stratocaster through my dad’s rig: a Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive and a late-70s Marshall 2203. My dad usually set it up for a clean tone and used the overdrive sparingly for the odd lead here and there, but whenever I had a play with it, I always maxed out the pre-amp volume. With my single-coils, it had a rock/blues sort of sound, crunchy but not overly so. When I stepped on the overdrive, I was immediately floored. I didn’t know that I could play that well! It just flowed, it was like the guitar was playing itself and I was just there to guide it along. We jammed and wrote a song on the spot! This was my first proper introduction to the concept of gain stacking. If only I had learned something from it! But then I realize that this was during a time of pedal aversion, and if I could save myself the money and the hassle, I would. It wasn’t until I bought my Fender G-DEC that I started getting into the concept of gain stacking for real. That amp had a number of different amp models, a whole bunch of modulation and ambiance effects, but most importantly, it allowed you to simulate an overdrive or boost pedal in front of the digital gain stage. I immediately found that it felt so much more natural to choose a lower-gain amp model and then add the distortion back in via an overdrive sim. It gave me a lot more fluidity and definitely more sustain.
I have always been a big fan of the Eric Clapton signature Fender Stratocaster. It has a 25 dB active mid-boost that sort of allows you to approximate the sound of humbucking pickups. I was very inspired when I first saw the Cream 2005 reunion DVD, I just couldn’t believe how many cool tones Eric was able to get out of his signature guitar straight into an overdriven tweed Fender. With the mid-boost off, he gets that nice pushed Stratocaster blues sound, and when he dials it back in, it breaks up so sweetly. I was very taken by the idea of playing with a totally clean floor, handling all the tone selection from the guitar. Many times, I have considered buying one of those mid-boost kits and installing it in my Stratocaster, but I always chicken out since I am very much not a tinkerer and I would probably only end up messing up both my guitar and the mid-boost kit. That’s when the idea hit me to find a pedal that could do the job, and the minute that occurred to me, TC Electronic released the Spark Booster. Unfortunately, by that time, I was on my way out of the cover band, and therefore I never got to use the boost pedal the way I had originally envisioned it. It was a fixture on my pedalboard for a little while, but it got phased out when I started adding more modulation pedals. I figured that with the volume levels I regularly play at in my metal band, there is simply no need for more distortion or sustain, and it’s not that I have a lot of sound to punch through. It was a lot more fun having a flanger to accentuate certain parts, or the vibrato to spice up my clean sound.
I have always liked the Ibanez Tube Screamer. I borrowed a TS10 once from a teacher at our old high school, and I enjoyed the more mainstream rock tone, which was a world apart from the scooped Marshall sound that I was used to. It worked well enough set up as a mild distortion pedal, but when I finally bought one myself, this one a TS7 Tonelok, it was mostly to get over-the-top quasi-feedback when playing through digital amp sims, as well as a solo boost here and there. It never occurred to me to have a boost or an overdrive as part and parcel of my main distorted tone, and it definitely never occurred to me to use an overdrive pedal as a boost, until very recently. This was another piece of wisdom I learned from That Pedal Show. Damn those guys, they have made me spend thousands of crowns on new pedals! Anyway, I was intrigued by the sound of the Mini Tube Screamer, and I noticed that I kept reading about metal players using Tube Screamers as boosters. Even on a Peavey 5150, which isn’t exactly a gain-poor amp to start with. Since I didn’t want to record a third Namlar disc with the exact same tone, I figured that it was time to start exploring new territories, and why not start off with some classic gain-stacking? So I went to the store and bought myself two overdrive pedals: the aforementioned Mini Tube Screamer and the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food. The latter is supposed to be an affordable clone of the legendary Klon Centaur. I’ve obviously never played through a Klon, and the Soul Food didn’t really nail the sound when TPS did their shootout, but it was close enough, had a fine sound in its own right, and was still different enough from the Tube Screamer that I felt it was worth it to give it a shot. I was amazed when I ran them through my regular recording setup. Naturally, I couldn’t put the Tube Screamer on top of my usual heavy sound, that would have been a tad too extreme. Instead, I set up a sound that eased off on the bass control, added a bit more mids and above all backed off on the gain. Then it was just a matter of twisting the knobs on the ‘Screamer until I found the “a-ha”, which turned out to reside with the tone at noon, the gain at 9 o’clock and the level at about 3. How strange that I managed to discover such an awesome metal tone by pushing the mids rather than scooping them! I am all for mini pedals. In a way, I’m kind of bummed that TC Electronic and MXR have released mini versions of my favorites, since I am sorely tempted to buy the smaller versions to save space on my big board, or to be able to fit six pedals comfortably on the small board. The only thing I don’t like about the Mini-TS is that the level and tone controls are hard to see down there. I basically have to set them by feel. The Soul Food worked similar magic: focus in the lower register, but with more pronounced upper mids for a more biting lead sound. I read somewhere that the main difference between a cheap overdrive pedal and a more expensive one is how usable the tone control is, and there appears to be a bit of truth to that. The Soul Food works best with the tone control at noon or just before; push it further and it gets unduly harsh. It does look rather cheap with its unpainted aluminium enclosure and tacked-on label, but hey: it’s a pedal. You’re supposed to step on it and get a sound out of it, not sit around and look at it. If that’s what it takes to be able to make effects pedals in the heart of New York and still sell them at non-boutique prices, I’m all for it. At first, I was a bit bummed that the knobs were a bit slick and had a bit of resistance to them, it sure takes some deliberate action to dial a sound. But upon further reflection, I realized that that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not very likely that one of the controls is going to get nudged out of position by accident!
After a couple of months with the Tube Screamer and the Soul Food, I realized that I just wasn’t using the Spark Booster any more. I’m not the sort of player who wants to have unused gear just lying around. Use it or lose it, has always been my philosophy, especially with effects pedals. But then it hit me that I could try to work the pedal to see whether I could get new sounds of it. And I did! As far back as last year, I set the Spark to its clean setting (i.e. not “fat” or “mid” boost), dialed in some grit on the Gain control and added a touch of volume. That worked wonders on my Fender silverface tone, and if you listen to Temptation from Namlar’s Winter album, you’ll hear that pedal during the main riff. There is a cleanish guitar shadowing the distorted melody guitar for a rather neat effect. Not that long ago, I discovered that using the Fat boost setting, setting the Gain between 7 and 9 o’clock, the Level at 1-ish and adding some bass really fattens up a regular British-style crunch tone. It is surprisingly versatile and I have found that under the right circumstances, it is the closest candidate to an always-on pedal in my entire rig.
And, finally, this just in: today I took delivery of a TC Electronic Mojomojo overdrive pedal. They’ve been around for years and years, and a while back, they cut the price in half, seemingly just to get rid of them. But recently, I’ve heard more and more people talk about them, and my curiosity was sufficiently aroused that I figured I would get one and try it out. If nothing else then for the fact that soon enough, a star player is going to gush over the Mojomojo and TC will raise the price from 500 to 1800 crowns. I like what I hear so far, but I’d have to give it a bit more stick time.