I was listening to a live track by Exodus, and thought how pleasant it might be to employ a thrash metal setup, containing little more than an amp, guitar, and perhaps an overdrive pedal. In some scenarios, one might not even require more than a single pickup. For quiet passages, kick off the overdrive and roll down the volume; for everything else, keep all the guitar knobs wide open and couple overdrive with the amp’s distortion.
In my variety gig, I use a Line 6 JTV-89 (pictured). It contains modeling circuitry which enables me to emulate Teles, Strats, LP’s, and various hollowbodies, semi-hollows, and acoustics. Not counting a tuner, six pedals lie between the guitar and the amp, and there are three more in the effects loop. The amp has three footswitchable channels, plus there’s a footswitch for reverb. From my pedalboard, I can complement the guitar’s on-board volume controls with pedals that will boost or cut my signal, depending on how I want to be perceived in the mix (our group runs sound from the stage — set and forget). An EQ pedal stays engaged, offering a subtle mid-boost; when I disengage it, I have yet another way to blend into the mix. In fact, of the ten pedals on my board, five are used for dynamics rather than special effects: specifically, a Boss CS-3 for sustain and clean boost, EHX LPB-1 for additional clean boost without added sustain, Boss GE-7 for mid boost, ISP Decimator noise gate for cutting hiss on my amp’s OD2 channel, and an EHX Signal Pad for cutting volume in the loop without cutting pre-amp gain.
I use this setup because, due to the nature of variety shows, from one song to the next the overall group sound could be vastly different. In a Lady Gaga medley, I use a Tele with an MXR Phase 90 to cover synth parts while our keyboard player thumps out analog bass lines. In a Huey Lewis tune, I need the the compressor to beef up super-clean Strat tones. In Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” my guitar’s 12-string patch with the volume rolled way down works quite well; but for Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry,” I’m cranking out big cowboy chords through the Gibson Jumbo patch with the CS-3 engaged. For one song that requires a slight overdrive, I might use the amp’s OD1 channel because of its more transparent tone; but in the next song, I’ll opt for the more piercing honk of a Boss SD-1. For rock leads, sometimes I want the SD-1 paired with the amp’s OD1 channel, but in other cases, I like the more crunchy OD2 channel by itself, maybe with compression. My point is, no single lead tone, no single rhythm tone, no single clean tone will get me through the night.
When I recently performed a reunion show with my college grunge band, I almost completely ignored the SD-1, the LPB-1, the GE-7, and the Signal Pad. Having only to rely on one clean sound, one crunch sound, and one heavy sound with a sound guy tending to my solo boosts meant far less tap-dancing for me. I could concentrate more on what my hands were doing.
Once, I forgot to bring the battery for my JTV-89. I was frustrated for about ten seconds, then realized that before guitar modeling, I played for decades with only 3 to 5 electric guitar tones at my disposal, and audiences never complained. The ensuing show was a fun exercise in how to survive with fewer options.
On one hand, we could make the case that the technology we employ is mostly for our own satisfaction. I faced this realization some five years ago, when I was using an 8-space rack containing a MIDI-controlled multi-effects unit, and I was reconfiguring the effects patches. I took stock of the two or three banks of sounds I was using up to that point: rubbery phasers, echoes, flangers, multi-tap delay (for the one U2 song we did at the time), reverse reverb, gated reverb, and at least three other reverbs set to emulate different room sizes, to name a few. I whittled my list of go-to effects down to about three. None of them were reverb. I decided to let each room give me natural verb, and whenever we had a sound guy, let him include me in whatever spatial effects he chose for the band. Highly specialized effects went out the window. I was sliding away from the King Crimson end of the scale of gratuitous effects usage, and I could just feel my inner rocker surging with pride, even if I knew I wouldn’t ever reach the bliss of the AC/DC end of the scale.
We overestimate our audience’s capacity to care about the fine details of our sound. I first began thinking about this while reading an interview with Paul Gilbert just after he formed Mr. Big. To paraphrase, he basically said that in large, reverberant venues you can’t even hear all the notes he plays when he’s shredding, so what ultimately matters is the quality of the music, and that’s what carries through the noise. I have since reflected on what other things audiences might miss. What of special effects like flangers and wah? In some cases, like wah and flange, I believe the audience would only notice their absence if they already expected their presence. Certainly a wah is essential to “Let’s Get it On”; but at a wedding show, without having recently heard the original track, would listeners even perceive something was missing?
On the other hand, I believe that effects, when best used in a cover band, are not used for the purpose of satisfying a listener’s demand to sound like the original (even we guitarists frequently err in our reverse-engineering of a sound), but to optimize the sound. My choice of a Gretsch over an ES-335 in a rockabilly song isn’t driven by the need for a listener to think, “What an accurate sound for this genre.” It’s driven by my desire to make the song sound as authentic as possible, even if the listener doesn’t recognize why it does.
Conduct this thought exercise: How many elements of your current rig could be removed before you are utterly incapacitated? Consider how differently you would play with fewer pedals, fewer instruments, even fewer pickups. What would your minimum setup entail? For me, I’m thinking an HS Tele, two-channel amp, and my Tonebone Hot British distortion (currently collecting dust) would be enough for me to get paid at the end of the night, even if I don’t sound exactly as I may have hoped in every moment of the show.
Identifying your minimal rig — your Naked Setup — is a valuable exercise, for multiple reasons. First, it allows you to mentally rehearse how you’d perform if you suddenly lost one or more key pieces of equipment. Second, it encourages you to reflect on what shapes an optimal sound, not for you, but for the less discerning club or event audience. Finally, it may guide your next decision regarding the purchase and installation of new gear.