You just heard a clip of another guitarist on Instagram and you’re hooked. Immediately, you start digging through the comments section to see if they’ve revealed what new magic pedal they’re using. You find out and dive headfirst into the endless sea of YouTube demos. Hours have gone by (heck, maybe even days), you’ve been on dozens of forums, checked the price on various websites, and now you’re back on Instagram watching that glorious video over and over and over again. You’re hooked.
If you’re anything like me, then you really, really love pedals, the search for great tone is a fun, never-ending journey, and you’ve gone through this scenario more times than you can count.
Why is this guy who says that he loves pedals telling me to stop buying them? That doesn’t make any sense… Well, that’s a great question, thanks for asking!
My name is Daniel Dauwe, and I have been playing guitar for a while now. I have always been fascinated by unique tones, sounds, and musical textures. Over the past several years, I have had the privilege to play with several worship artists such as Jason Upton and Bethel Music.
It’s taken me YEARS to finally get to a place where I’m really happy and excited about my tone and I wanted to take a couple minutes to share with you some of the secrets that I’ve learned. These are things that I have had to figure out the hard way, by trial and error, through reading countless forums, watching hundreds of videos, and asking way too many questions to way too many guitarists.
In the never-ending journey to find great tone, one of the best things that I have learned and been told by many guitarists (that are way better than me) is that I need to Stop. Buying. Pedals.
It sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain the five reasons why not buying pedals is actually going to give you that sound you’ve been searching for your entire life.
#1 Learn to use what you already have
“Daniel, don’t feed me these lies! Using what I already have isn’t any fun. I want to try some new stuff and anyways, my current setup can’t give me that sound that I’m looking for.”
As artists and creatives, we are always looking for that new best thing–that mystical piece of gear that will make us sound better and maybe even play better. We’ve all gotten a pedal that we saw another guitarist use, put it on our pedalboard, copied their settings, and called it a day. Don’t lie to me and don’t lie to yourself and pretend like you’ve never done this. We’ve all been there and we’re all guilty of tone thievery.
But do you know what the worst part about this is?
It’s the disappointment when you finally play that first G chord and it doesn’t sound like that magical video that you heard on Instagram that tempted you into buying this pedal in the first place.
This paradox has been boggling the minds of guitarists for hundreds of years (okay, maybe I’m stretching that a bit but you get the point). It worked for *insert name drop here*, but why doesn’t it sound the same for me?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel inspired, but it’s very easy for us to live in a place of ingratitude.
When I was in college, one of my good friends challenged me to stop buying pedals and instead, take the time to actually learn how to use the pedals that I currently had.
This was a game-changer for me.
Instead of buying pedals that I saw famous worship guitarists use, I slowly started spending time alone tweaking and turning knobs to figure out what all of these things do. At this point, I had been playing guitar for years but I really didn’t know how to use a lot of the pedals that were on my board. I learned that everyone’s guitar rig is different and copying someone else’s settings doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to get good tone. But when I began to take the time to learn how to use compression, overdrive, delay, reverb, etc. I slowly began to get better and better tone.
If you don’t know how to use a simple and cheap delay pedal, getting a Strymon TimeLine isn’t going to make you sound any better.
This takes me to my second point…
#2 Pedals aren’t the foundation
I can’t tell you how many people that I’ve talked to that have thousands of dollars worth of guitar pedals and they still aren’t satisfied with their tone. Most of the time, they actually can’t stand their sound and they are frustrated because they don’t know what they are doing wrong. They have all of the trendy pedals but why doesn’t it sound like they want it to?
When I begin to dig and ask them questions, there is usually one thing that all of these people have in common:
They have been building their sound house (go with me here) on the wrong foundation.
We have all heard Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:24-27 of the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. When the storm came, the wise man’s house stood strong but the foolish man’s house crumbled to the ground because it wasn’t built on the proper foundation.
He didn’t say there was anything wrong with the house or the materials that were used, it just didn’t have the proper foundation. I know that Jesus is talking about our lives in this passage and the immense value of making His words and His truths the very core and foundation to who we are, but it’s interesting how Jesus’ teachings are so packed with both spiritual and practical wisdom.
Any “house” that we build in our life will fall if it isn’t built on the proper foundation.
Obviously, Jesus wasn’t talking about pedals in this Matthean parable; however, this practical truth can be applied to our lives as musicians.
Pedals are the building blocks of great tone, they aren’t the foundation. Build your foundation on the essentials.
#3 Get back to the essentials
So if pedals aren’t the foundation to good tone, what is?
- Ear Training
- Finger Dexterity
Practice the guitar for a little bit (or a lot) every day. Studies have proven that practicing for a little bit each day will help you tremendously more than binge practicing for several hours once every week or two. A lot of your tone comes from your fingers and how you play the guitar. A great musician with a great ear can make anything sound pretty good.
- Music Theory
- Practicing to and Using a Metronome
This is one of the most important, yet one of the most overlooked things that will transform your playing. I like to use an app on my phone called Tempo by Frozen Ape. It’s the most versatile metronome app that I’ve tried and I love it.
This is a huge component of your tone. Finding a guitar that feels comfortable in your hands, is set up properly, and stays in tune will make the world of a difference. Don’t skip straight to pedals and get a bad guitar that won’t stay in tune. Trust me… A huge, lush swell with a 10-second reverb is not going to sound good if your guitar won’t say in tune.
I can’t tell you how important this foundational element is. I would dare to say that 90% of your tone comes from your fingers, your guitar, and your amp.
I would even take it a step further and say that your amp might be the most important piece of gear that affects your tone.
Try taking your entire pedalboard and plug it into a really poorly built amp and then plug your guitar direct into an amazing amp and you will hear the difference night and day.
If you are unhappy with how your tone sounds coming out of your amp, it could be a good indication that you might need to try another amp. Personally, I would rather have a really nice amp over a bad amp with a nice pedalboard anyday. You’ll really notice the difference when you start turning on your overdrive pedals.
- Mic + Mic Placement
Similar to how using a metronome is one of the most overlooked practice techniques, mic choice and mic placement may be the MOST overlooked thing in the gear world. For years, I had a really good amp, a really good guitar, and a really good pedalboard. I loved how it sounded coming out of my amp but it sounded dreadful in my in-ears and through the house system.
Eventually, I realized that I had invested all of this time and money into my sounds, but I was sharing my sounds with everyone through a really junky microphone that I didn’t know how to mic my amp properly with.
A friend of mine gave me a Shure SM7B microphone and taught me about proper mic placement and it made a DRASTIC impact to my tone. From that moment on I went from having sound guys complain to me about how thin my guitar sounded or how it wasn’t cutting through the mix to having them come up to me after events to ask me what microphone that I was using because they had never heard a guitar sound that good at their venue before.
I was blown away by how much my tone changed after I started using good microphones and placing them properly on my amp. I am currently running a stereo rig with a Shure SM7B on one amp and a Beyerdynamic M88 on the other amp. I have never been happier with my tone and my in-ear mix (with a flat EQ sounds just as good as when I’m practicing at home)!
- Power Supply
Save up and invest in a good power supply for your pedals. This seems like something you should just skip over because it doesn’t make any cool sounds, but it will help you keep a lot of unwanted sounds like buzzing, crackling, radio talkshows (if you know, you know haha!), and other noises out of your guitar rig.
One quick tip that I have learned about cables is that solderless cables are really cool and convenient but in my experience of traveling have proven unreliable over and over again. My current pedalboard is wired up with all soldered cables and it’s incredibly durable, super low noise, and sounds crystal clear. I can’t recommend soldered cables enough.
#4 Practice MORE and research LESS
I’ve tried to sit down and calculate how many hours, days, weeks of my life I’ve spent researching random things, but there’s no way I will ever be able to figure that out. Could you imagine how much more fun playing guitar would be, how much better you would be, and how many more gigs you would get invited to play if you took all the time that you spent researching gear and invested that time into becoming a better musician, artist, and creative?
What musical roadblocks would you have already overcome, what new sounds would you have created, and how many amazing licks would you have written if you would have devoted all of that time towards your craft?
#5 Have fun and be yourself
The most important tip that I have for you today is to create space to create. Comparison is the greatest enemy of creativity that I have seen. One of my good friends always tells me that
Comparison kills creativity.
And you know what, he’s right! When we spend most of our time trying to be someone else, copy someone else’s sound, we don’t leave any space for us to create something new. God created all of us in His image and each of us uniquely reflects an aspect of God.
You may also be interested in these resources!
- Building a Guitar Rig for Under $2000
- 3 Big Myths About Worship Guitar Tone
- 6 Things That Will Make You Sound Better Than New Gear
- Worship Guitar Tone Master Class
- Mastering Your Fretboard & Transposing Lead Guitar