It’s almost always a bad idea to label something a manifesto. It’s pretentious, and it makes you sound like a crank, especially if you were born between 1890 and 1990. But it is dramatic. And would anyone pay attention if I gave this post a more accurate title, like “Please Participate in My Stompbox User Interface Focus Group?”
Anyway, I’ve been having this recurring workbench experience. (No, not the solder burns.) Every time I breadboard a stompbox project, I poke through the circuit, looking for places where I might add a switch or knob to unlock cool sounds. I usually find nice variations and build accordingly. But as soon as I plug in the pedal, I always seem to like one setting a lot more the others. Then I rebuild, hard-wiring the preferred value and ditching the switch or pot. Eventually almost everything I build winds up with only one or two knobs. (Unless I’m making it for personal use, in which case it often has no knobs.) It’s not a love of minimalism, and it’s certainly not an assumption that users are too stupid for anything more complex. It’s just that time and again, the simplest solutions sound best to me.
Meanwhile, I just had an interesting experience reviewing a (gulp) $5,000 amp for Premier Guitar, which crystallized some of my thoughts. The amp in question is a Little Walter 50/22 (which is actually two independent amps in a single housing), and I’ll link to the review when it goes live in a few days. But suffice it to say that Little Walter amps draw their inspiration from the earliest Fender tweeds, and have minimal controls to match: one volume knob and one tone knob. Furthermore, builder Phil Bradbury all but advises against using the tone control, pointing out that vintage-stye tube amp tone controls are strictly subtractive, and that you get maximum impact and richness with the tone circuit wide-open. And Bradbury is right. As on many great vintage amps, the Little Walter controls are practically superfluous. If you locate the right sweet spot, you can park the controls there and make any needed gain or tone adjustments the old-fashioned way: by playing them. Dig in harder for more distortion. Back of the volume to clean up. Use your angle of attack as a tone control. Like that.
But you don’t encounter many new-production amps that adhere to the philosophy. I get the sense that a lot of designers would like to create minimalist amps such as these, but they fear that the public wouldn’t get it. How could the one-knob amp possibly sound as good as the one with 11 knobs? But I suspect that the more experience you have with amps, the likelier you are to believe that simple sounds better. Now I want to build a great-sounding tube amp with only an on/off switch.
I’m finding the same to be true with distortion/fuzz/overdrive stompboxes. For many players, the minimum complement of controls is gain, tone, and master volume. But almost every circuit I’ve explored sounds better without a tone control, and it’s hard to make a gain control sound great throughout its entire range. So more and more I find myself fine-tuning circuits to what I feel are the best gain and tone settings, hard-wiring them there, and then just slapping on a master volume for level-matching. (And if the pedal doesn’t add a great deal of volume, I often skip the master as well.) If you “tune” the distortion, you can control the gain perfectly well via your hands and guitar.
“But,” I hear the inquiring player ask, “don’t you need a tone control so you can use the same pedal with different guitars?” (Sadly, I sometimes believe I’m hearing the voices of inquiring players when I’ve neglected my meds.) Increasingly, I think not. In almost all cases, there’s a sweet spot where a circuit sounds good on everything from a bright Tele bridge pickup to a tubby neck humbucker. Those extremes don’t sound the same, of course. But if you’re playing distorted on a Tele, can’t we assume that you want a bright edge? (And vice-versa with the neck humbucker.) And if you do want to modify the tone, isn’t doing so with via fingers, amp, or mixing board a better solution than using a tone-sucking stompbox tone circuit?
Another example: I spent countless hours pursuing a stompbox vibrato circuit. (I mean true pitch-shift vibrato, not tremolo.) I’d obtained great tones, but I couldn’t get the effect to sound good at all rates and depths, because the perceived depth changes along with the rate. Finally, it occurred to me to go the one-knob route, using only a rate control, and letting that determine the depth. That may sound like a half-assed non-solution, but I’ll be danged if I didn’t suddenly have the most gratifying vibrato pedal I’ve ever played. Like the minimal controls on ’50s amps, the arrangement just worked.
Other factors influence my one-knob attitude: Since I’ve spent much of the last few years in the digital guitar realm, analog guitar has become a refuge from that sometimes math-based approach. When I switch on the analog rig, my goal isn’t maximum user options, but a primal experience. Also, there’s probably an element of advanced-player snob appeal. I don’t know much about cars, bicycles, motorcycles, or sporting goods, but there’s probably a parallel between minimalist musical tools that demand a fair amount of technical finesse, and vehicles and sports gear with stripped-down, featherweight, only-for-pros features. Not every bicycle needs a kick-stand, and not every fuzz pedal needs a gain control. (Or something like that.) Additionally, I hope to bring my pedal designs to market, and what a crowded market it is! Sure, it’s mainly crowded by clones, but many brilliant builders are creating complex mad scientist boxes. Maybe there’s a niche for one-knob mad-scientist boxes…
I’m not sure it’s kosher to conclude a manifesto with questionnaire. But I’m eager to hear your replies to these queries—or anything else you feel inspired to add. Thanks!
- Do you tend to change tone settings on amps and pedals when you switch guitars?
- How often do you fiddle with stompbox knobs mid-performance?
- Do you use your guitars’ tone knobs much? If so, how and why?
- Does anyone out there actually use their guitar volume knobs to veer from clean to dirty sounds? Or is just the wishful thinking of pompous guitar “journalists?”
- Would you consider using a no-knob stompbox that pretty much requires you to use your guitar’s knobs?
- What’s your favorite Nickelback song?