Stomp Boxes: Magical Tone or Magical Thinking?

A stomp box is a guitar signal processor of some kind, usually built into a small metal box with a footswitch on top.  Stomp, and it’s on.  Stomp, and it’s off.  In the quest for a unique tone, most guitarists go through lots of guitars and amps.  At some point, the quest will lead to stomp boxes.

Back when I started playing in the late ’60’s, the only stomp boxes around were fuzztones.  Fuzz is created by overdriving a small transistor amplifier circuit into clipping.  This creates a fuzzy, buzzy sound, thick and full of harmonic content.  Perhaps one of the most glorious examples of early fuzztone use is Sam Andrews’ psychedelic guitar on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, especially the opening track, “Combination of the Two,” and of course, “Summertime.”  Andrews’ tone ranges from gnarly full on assault to chimey, flutey textures (some of the chimier moments are James Gurley, the other guitarist in the band).  Big Brother was sometimes sloppy, and not always quite in tune, but their arrangements reflected an unusual blues/classical fusion with loud, loud, passages and quiet transitions.   They were underrated, in my view, eclipsed by their very famous lead singer, Janis Joplin.

But why not play clean?  Fender amplifiers in the 1950’s and early 60’s, the so called “tweed” and “brown” amps, tended to break up when pushed even a bit.  The distortion was very musical and warm, with lots of even-order harmonics.   This is a characteristic of tube amplifiers, and it is why tube amps are preferred by most guitar players today, even though they are heavier, less reliable, and more expensive than solid state amps.    However, Leo Fender was more oriented toward country music, and he saw the distortion as a problem.  The “blackface” amps of the ’60’s, Deluxe Reverbs, Super Reverbs, Twin Reverbs, Bandmasters and Dual Showman, were designed to be cleaner, to have more headroom before they begin to significantly distort.   To get a thick, sweet, distorted tone one had to play really loud.  The later Silverface models were even worse.

Still, why not play clean?  I think guitar players have always been jealous of horn players.  Before electric guitars were invented, orchestra guitarists had to play big arch top guitars with really heavy action.  They were loud, bright, and hard to play, but the player still had to struggle to be heard.  When electrics came in, the guitarist could play lead lines (T-Bone Walker is a pioneer), but the notes didn’t have much sustain.  They went “plunk” and decayed.  Horns can play long notes, and they are effortlessly loud.  In fact, it is harder to play a horn soft.

Distortion and feedback make the guitar sing and sustain.  Now the guitarist can play lines like a trumpet player.  However, if you are using a clean Fender amp, like the Fender Twin Reverb that Sam Andrews was playing through, you need to turn it up really loud, and it still won’t break up that much.   Thus the need for the fuzz.  Apparently, like Jimi Hendrix a bit later, Andrews used a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, a discus shaped unit with two controls and a switch, arranged to look like a face.

The only fuzz I ever played through back then was a Jordan Boss Tone, which was not technically a stomp box because it plugged straight into a guitar jack.  That meant it couldn’t fit into a Stratocaster, but it fit into the Gibson Melodymakers we tended to use at the time.  The most famous use of a Boss Tone was probably by Randy California on the first two Spirit albums.  It produces a smooth singing sustain, very different from the harmonic rasp of the Fuzz Face.  Cool stuff!  But Boss Tones didn’t tend to last too long.  They got pulled out of the jack a lot, and the innards tended to stop working after a while.

Nowadays there are many different kinds of stomp boxes.  Chorus pedals split the signal in half, delay one half slightly, detune it a bit, and give it a pulse, making a 12 string guitar sort of effect.  Andy Summers’ guitar on “Message in a Bottle” is a well-known example.  Tremolo and vibrato pedals create volume wavers and pitch wavers electronically.  On David Gilmour’s latest solo album there is a cut where a guitar note drifts upward a whole octave, something not possible by bending the string or pulling up the tremelo bar.  It turns out he is using a “whammy” pedal, a stomp box capable of such tricks.  There are digital and analog delay pedals that produce echo effects.   Compressor pedals smooth out the dynamics and increase sustain without distortion.   The list is endless.

Of course there are new fuzz boxes too.  And overdrive pedals, which make the guitar sound like the amp is on 10 when it is actually at a much lower volume.  Very handy, and they can prevent hearing loss.

Pedal types and manufacturers have proliferated.  And of course, as with guitars and amps, vintage mystique enters in here too.  Early transistors were made of germanium, while today’s are made of silicon, so Jimi’s Fuzz Face had different components than the same unit today, unless it is made to vintage specs.  The search for vintage mojo led to boutique builders who recreate vintage effects, or design new, better than vintage units.  To buy a Zendrive, an overdrive unit favored by Robben Ford, one has to get on a waiting list and pay $199.

Companies with large-scale Chinese manufacturing capability, such as Danelectro, have allegedly begun to clone some of these boutique offerings and sell them very cheaply.  One can also buy kits to build vintage effects, and there are groups that reverse engineer popular effects so that hobbyists can build their own.  Some manufacturers put plastic goop on their circuit boards to hide the components and prevent reverse engineering. It’s a crazy business.  Crazy, but big.

I recently bought an MXR Dyna Comp, the current version of a famous compressor pedal.  It’s a modernized design, with upgraded features, but Dunlop (who bought MXR) has just come out with a reissue of the “script logo” 1976 version, which uses a chip that is no longer made.   In the online forums that discuss such things, guitar players are gushing about the wonders of the reissue.  They told me that my new pedal, just ordered and on the way,  was junk, that it sounded bad.  I asked, “What is it that you don’t like about the sound?”  They just said it sounds like junk.  Well, actually it does just what I wanted.  It makes the sound clucky like country, and jangly like Roger McGuin’s Rickenbacker 12 string on “Mr. Tamborine Man.”  To me it sounds great.  I find that one should not believe a lot of the perceived wisdom on forums.  As they say, Your Mileage May Vary.

Why are guitarists obsessed with stomp boxes?  Well, imagine that you could step on a switch and change your sound, your personality, your talent, and your image.  It is actually only the sound that changes, but it is easy to think that there is more.  If I have the same type of Fuzz Face as Jimi Hendrix, or the same Tube Screamer that Stevie Ray Vaughn used, there is a bit of a connection.  And I think we’d all like to step on a switch and transform ourselves into something more, louder, bigger, more complex.  Step on a switch and . . .Wow!


About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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1 Response to Stomp Boxes: Magical Tone or Magical Thinking?

  1. craigsaxon says:

    I think that my fascination with stompboxes originated with a simple footswitch designed to enable or disable the reverb on a deluxe reverb. It usually stayed on. Turns out, everything would have sounded better with the reverb “off” in 95 % of the places I played in those days-mainly cavernous auditoriums and gymnasiums with ambient reverb permanently enabled.

    Thanks for the engaging and effective manner in which you clear the muddy river when it comes to perpetually misunderstood matters of guitar and amplifier technology.


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