In 2005 one of my friends in the Vancouver Ukulele Circle spread the word that U.S. ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro would be giving a free concert that evening in a local furniture store. It seemed a very unlikely concept but a few of us showed up to see if it was true.
Once inside the store, we saw little indication that a concert would take place, except for a PA system at one end of the showroom. Others drifted in and we relaxed on chairs, sofas and recliners, all with price labels dangling, and waited for the show to start.
Jake arrived and played his concert while sitting on a stool (which also had a dangly price tag.) He mentioned he had one like it at home and, between tunes, had similar complimentary things to say about the rest of the furniture (I think they were sponsoring him!) It was all pleasant enough anyway.
It was cool to experience Jake’s music in this way but I also found it completely mystifying because, for the most part, I had no idea what I was listening to. Yes, Jake was playing ukulele but, when I closed my eyes, all I heard was electric guitar.
At his feet was a small village of electronic pedals (essentially foot operated switches) producing effects that made his instrument sound like everything except a ukulele. I came away thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that?”
Why Use Pedals?
Ukuleles often come with a built-in pickup to plug into a PA system so as to be louder onstage. When I do this, I like my amplified sound to be as close as possible to my natural acoustic sound. But, if you want something different, you can plug into one or more pedals that go between the instrument and the amplifier, to change the sound in all manner of ways.
One of the most underrated values in music is the idea of tone. We focus so much on words, rhythms and notes that the tone, or quality of the sound, is all but forgotten. But listen to some great classic instrumental performances and discover just how much the instrument’s tone made them so perfect. Famous electric guitar examples include Dave Gilmour’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Gary Moore’s Parisienne Walkways and Carlos Santana’s Europa. These iconic guitar sounds, and countless more, were all created with help from pedals.
Musical pioneers also created their effects in analogue ways. Most famous is Dave Davies’ guitar sound on The Kinks record You Really Got Me. He says he cut the speaker cone of his amp with a razor blade (which is at odds with his brother Ray’s story of poking it with a knitting needle.) But, regardless of how it was made, that fuzzy sound has inspired endless rock and roll experimentation which continues to this day, albeit without the need to damage your gear with razor blades and/or knitting needles.
Once you get turned onto tone you open up a whole new area to obsess on. As an acoustic ukulele player there’s not a lot you can do, other than change your strings, stuff things into the sound-hole or get a new instrument, but once you get into electronics there is a world of variables to play with.
There are lots of options and I’m no expert, but even so, I do get why some people like to play with pedals. So, in case you’re thinking of tinkering, here’s what I know:
Tuner Pedal
The first in your line of pedals is the underrated tuner pedal. It’s basically an on-off switch. It turns your instrument off and the LED tuner display on so that you can tune your instrument without subjecting your audience to the process.
Distortion, Overdrive and Fuzz
These pedals are all gain-based pedals that add warmth, sustain and overtones by saturating the audio signal causing waveforms to clip. Once you hear them, you’ll recognise these sounds as being common to heavy rock. They are what make the lead guitar stand out in the mix of sound.
(These and all pedals have various controls to adjust things like tone, volume, distortion etc. so you can change the degree of whatever their effect happens to be.)
EQ, Wah Wah, Envelope Filter (Auto-Wah) and Talk Box
These pedals change the sound by altering the frequency output of the audio signal:
The EQ pedal does the same for your instrument that graphic equalizer sliders do for your stereo. They individually accentuate or weaken the low, middle and high frequencies.
Wah Wah has a footplate which, when rocked backward, brings out the lows, and, rocked forward, accentuates the high frequencies – do it quickly and you get the classic Hendrix waka-waka sound.
Auto-Wah is often heard in funk – it sounds similar to the Wah Wah pedal except it happens automatically from the action of playing the string.
Talk Box is a weird one. This pedal has a plastic tube that goes in your mouth and as you play you can affect the sound by altering the shape of your mouth. See it here if you don’t believe me!: Talk Box Demo
Phaser, Flanger and Chorus
These pedals make a copy of what is played and then play it back in ways determined by the control knobs. Adjustments can be made to create effects from futuristic dive-bombing to warm richness and tremolo-like sounds.
Tremolo and Vibrato Pedals
Tremolo is the rapid fluctuation of volume, whereas vibrato is the rapid fluctuation of frequency. (The misnamed tremolo arm on the Fender Stratocaster guitar should really have been called a vibrato arm because it is used to change pitch.)
Compressor, Sustain, Envelope Filter and Volume Pedal
Known as dynamic pedals these all affect the volume in some way.
The Compressor enables you to adjust the range between the loudest and the quietest sound.
Sustain is similar to the Compressor in that it makes the loud parts quieter and quiet parts louder.
The envelope filter adjusts the tone of your sound according to how hard and fast you play. (Don’t ask me how. I have a degree in applied physics but this stuff is like magic as far as I’m concerned.)
Volume pedals allow you to change the volume with your foot rocking on a footplate to work it like a volume button.
Octaver, Pitch Shifter and Harmonizer
These pedals listen to what you’re playing and create harmony notes to go along with it.
Octaver creates notes that are one or two octaves away from the note being played. Use it to make your uke sound like a bass maybe? But it gets messy when used for chord playing.
Pitch shifter allows you to create chords out of single note melodies, even to the point of allowing you to add harmonies and backing vocals without the need for other singers.
Harmonizers are similar to pitch shifters but are designed to make sweet sounding harmonic variations according to the note or notes being played.
Reverb, Delay and Looper
These come under the category of timing-based pedals.
The Reverb pedal emulates the acoustics of different spaces electronically. (The amount of time taken for a hand-clap to die away is the reverb time. This is why singing in your living room sounds so different from your bathroom or indeed a cathedral.) A reverb pedal puts the cathedral sound at your feet.
Delay plays back the note you just played and can be adjusted according to the number of repeats, the speed of repeat and the volume level of the repeats.
Loopers allow you to record a segment of playing and have it repeat for as long as you want while playing over the top of what you just recorded. Whether for home practice or onstage it has become such a common tool for solo performers that loopers deserve a column all their own.
There you have it: a very basic introduction to guitar pedals. Having to use mere words to describe these sounds is beyond unsatisfactory for me but thankfully we have Youtube where you can hear plenty of demos of these pedals if you’re interested.
Once you’ve got yourself an array of foot pedals you can then connect them in a line to produce a seemingly infinite number of sound combinations. Personally, I find this concept more overwhelming than exciting. I’m happy to live in my analogue world of so-called “natural” sounds. But I do get it:
At the feet of an artist, who has taken the time to use electronics to find the perfect sound for a particular song, there can be rich musical rewards.