By Casey van Wensem
Every guitarist has that one effects pedal (or two, or three, or 12) they just can’t live without. Maybe it’s a boutique overdrive pedal that gives you just the right amount of gain and saturation for crunchy leads or a vintage analog delay pedal perfect for lush, dreamy soundscapes and gigantic swells.
These stompboxes are marketed as electric guitar pedals, but to limit their use to electric guitars does a major disservice to the quality of these effects. Many of the guitar pedals you can buy today rival their studio-rack-unit counterparts but come at a fraction of the price. Plus, they’re tour friendly by virtue of their compactness.
Using your guitar pedals on alternative sources isn’t always as easy as just plugging a guitar cable into them, but with a bit of audio knowledge, you can find all sorts of creative applications for these handy little boxes. Here are a few ways to get more use out of your favorite guitar pedals.
Vocal effects are nothing new these days — many effects companies are starting to make pedals specifically for vocalists — but who’s to say you can’t use guitar pedals for the same job? If you’ve already got a good delay in your pedalboard, use it to give your voice an airy, cascading, and expanded sound.
Running vocals through guitar pedals does take some work, though. Because the signal level from a microphone is lower than the signal level from an electric guitar (amplified at source by a pickup), you’ll need some way to boost the signal before running the vocals through any pedals. The easiest way to do this is to use a single-channel pre-amp. This allows you to convert the microphone-level signal into an instrument-level signal that works with guitar pedals.
You can then run the signal from the output of the pedals through a DI into a mixer, or if you really want to make things dirty, send the effected vocal signal through a guitar amp and crank it up to 11 to see what kinds of sounds you can get.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “10 Vocalists Using Loop Pedals to Make Extraordinary Collages of Melody”
Once you’ve got a good setup for converting a microphone-level signal into an instrument-level signal, you can conceivably stick a microphone in front of anything and use your guitar pedals to manipulate that sound. One of the best instruments to do this with is drums, especially if you want to get electronic drum sounds using an acoustic drum kit.
With a cheap digital delay pedal like the Boss DD-3, you can add a great slapback delay to your snare. Or why not add a distortion pedal on the snare to help it cut through in the mix? And if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even take advantage of looping pedals to create drum loops on the fly.
3. Mixing Effects
We don’t all have access to fancy recording studios with rows and rows of expensive rack-mount effects, but most pedalboards will give you access to all of these same effects, just smaller and more portable versions. Some guitar pedals like the Boss RE-20 Space Echo are even modeled after specific studio effects units. Using them to replace bigger, more expensive rack-mount units is a no-brainer as long as you get the signal chain right.
Once again, you’ll have to do some signal conversion if you want to use your guitar pedals as studio effects, as the signal coming from your mixer or DAW will be too much for most pedals to handle. To solve this problem, most mixers use a reamp box between the output from the mixer or DAW and the input to the guitar pedals. This solves the problem of both reducing the signal level from a line level to an instrument level and converting the signal from a balanced to an unbalanced one.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Whether you’re recording your first demo or a new album, if you’re doing it at home, make it sound professional with our new, free course Demo Recording 101!
Running an analog keyboard through some guitar pedals is a simple and powerful trick, and it’s something keyboard players like Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock have been taking advantage of for a long time. Run a Fender Rhodes through an overdrive pedal and you’ve got instant grit and warmth. Add a tape echo simulator pedal to your favorite analog synth, and you’re all set to take off into space.
When it comes to digital keyboards, guitar pedals present more of a challenge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) use guitar pedals if you’re a digital keyboard player.
The problem with digital keyboards is the opposite of the problem with vocals; while a microphone-level signal is too quiet for a guitar pedal, the line-level signal sent out from a digital keyboard is too loud. Getting around this problem can be as simple as turning down the master volume on your keyboard, but sometimes, this will make the keyboard sound noisy, especially if you’re using compression, overdrive, or distortion pedals.
If this is the case, you can fix the problem by using an attenuator or reamp box to reduce the signal level of the digital keyboard before that signal hits your guitar pedals.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Intersections: 8 Classical Musicians Killing It Right Now Using Live Electronics”
These are just a few ways to get more use out of your guitar pedals, but why stop there? Want to play around with delay effects on your trumpet? There’s a guitar pedal for that. Wah-wah on a ukulele? There’s a guitar pedal for that, too. As long as you remember to convert any audio signal into an instrument-level signal (if it isn’t one already) before plugging into any pedals, there’s really nothing to stop you from getting any sound you want.
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.