Step Away from the Digital Delay: In Search of New Guitar Pedals
After playing guitar in a wide variety of worship settings since 1996, I’ve noticed one thing: Christian guitarists really like digital delay pedals. I have certainly enjoyed them myself over the years. But it’s not just the general use of the pedal—millions of secular guitarists love delay too—it’s a specific technique combined with the pedal that we Christian guitarists can’t resist.
When Classic Sounds Get Old
I call it the “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” sound. Maybe not the catchiest name, but if you know the song, it drives my point home. If you don’t know, it’s the name of a classic U2 song from the mid-eighties. As explained in the Wall of Sound series on this site, the modern Christian worship world owes much of its sound to those four lovable Irish mates whether we like it or not.
And, in case you need a refresher on the guitar sound from that U2 song, the delay effect is a basic echo. It’s not overwhelming or elaborate. When The Edge hits a note, the pedal repeats it a few times but not so much that it prevents him from playing subsequent notes. It doesn’t muddy things up, but it produces a smooth cascade of guitar notes as he arpeggiates the chords. It creates an illusion of liquidity as if the guitar’s voice were flowing uninterrupted from the speakers. It sounds ethereal and rather heavenly.
However, legendary sounds sometimes get overplayed, and they become tiresome. When The Edge was working on guitar parts for the song Beautiful Day in 2000 and was revisiting his usual echo sound from the ’80s, Bono complained about it immediately, saying, half-jokingly, that it sounded too much like the band U2. Even Bono got tired of sounding like U2.
If you’re a guitarist like me who has gotten weary of relying on a delay effect or if you’re just stuck in a rut with whatever sound you have at the moment, let’s take a quick journey through some lesser known pedals and see if we can change things up a bit.
Electro-Harmonix Freeze Sound Retainer Compression
Try saying that five times fast. I’ll just call this gem of a pedal… The Freeze. Its concept is astonishingly simple: you play something, turn the pedal on, and it freezes whatever you play with an elegant sounding sustain. You can then continue playing other notes over whatever is frozen. Think of it this way: have you ever played a piano with the sustain pedal on indefinitely? All of the notes hold and mix together in a wash of overtones. In that way, The Freeze has an ethereal quality like delay, but it is much different. It is subtler and fresh sounding, and, with very little effort, it allows you to build exotic, haunting chord layers. Some guitar players say it makes them sound like a cathedral organ, especially if you “freeze” a big chord and add subsequent layers to what is frozen. Because of its sonic density, it’s best for sparse situations where the tempo is slow and few other instruments are playing. It can create such a big sound that some guitarists especially like using it when there’s just the guitar and a vocalist on stage. The Freeze can single-handedly create an ocean of sound upon which the singer’s voice floats.
Digitech Whammy Pedal
Although probably more well-known than The Freeze pedal, the Digitech Whammy Pedal functions as a foot-controlled whammy bar, which bends your guitar’s pitch up or down at will. It requires practice, however, to use it tastefully and avoid a gimmicky sound. That’s always the burden of a good worship band guitarist: add sounds that enhance the worship instead of sounds that are simply a novelty. In fast celebratory worship songs with syncopated funk rhythms the Whammy can add a fun, party-like feel to the music as you slide between notes and chords or suddenly shoot up like a rocket to the high ranges. In slower songs, you can use the pedal to transform your guitar into something else entirely. In fact, I would recommend that Whammy guitarists try imitating the erhu, the Chinese violin, which relies solely on glissando (sliding between notes) to create some of the most expressive sounds ever heard in music. Watch this video to see one of the finest examples of the Chinese violin ever caught on film. A Whammy pedal can achieve the same beauty if used with care.
Morley FXB FX Blender Expression Pedal
The Blender functions as a universal expression pedal. You can plug any of your effects pedals into it, and the Blender controls how much of that pedal is heard in your mix. For example, you use the Freeze pedal mentioned above to create a massive layering of notes, but instead of just abruptly turning the Freeze pedal off or waiting for it to fade out on its own, you plug it into the Blender and control its volume in the mix by slowly fading it out with your foot. This allows you to smoothly bring in effects or fade them out however you wish without changing the volume of your guitar signal. It’s a fun way to control how your effects fit into the song. For example, if there’s one measure at the end of the chorus of a song that would sound amazing with a sudden wash of flanger, you can use the Blender to quickly swoop the flange into the mix and then take it back out without an abrupt start and stop. This also gives you total control over the volume of the flange as you smoothly add it to the song’s live mix. That’s just one small example. The possibilities are endless.
Subtlety is Key
Probably the biggest errors of judgment that I’ve made as a guitarist happened when I got a new pedal. I would use it too much or too loudly in worship services, and it would become a self-focused activity. The fun of having a new pedal can quickly become an exercise in self-indulgence where we remove the spotlight from Christ and shine it on our cool new sound. It’s best to practice extensively with your new pedal before taking it into a worship service. This will get you past the over-excited, enamored phase we guitarists experience when we have a new audio toy. In that early phase we just want to use the pedal non-stop, and it’s a bad idea to bring that preoccupied mentality into a worship service. Master the pedal first, get used to it, and then debut it.
Just remember: subtlety is key.
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