The Argument Over Pedals is Pointless

The recurring debates that rage within guitar-based internet communities are like eating fast food. Most of us would admit that the debates aren’t good for us, but many of us regularly participate anyway. Of these recurring arguments, one of my personal favorites is the one that rages over pedals. Raise your hand if you’ve seen any of these phrases pop up on your favorite guitar page:

“I’m so tired of seeing people with big pedalboards that can’t actually play.”

“I have the Timeline and the Bigsky but I only use two patches.”

“My favorite player uses a compressor. Does that mean I need one?”

“A guitar should sound like a guitar, and not like a synth.”

Familiar? We end up turning off the notifications on these posts, because they inevitably spiral into nonsense, and seem to imply an irreconcilable divide between “the pedal junkies,” and “the straight-in purists.” Maybe, if we were a little more mature, we could simply agree to disagree, but I think there’s something deeper going on here. Like everyone on the #JusticeForBarb train, we sometimes lose the plot.

When we construct a guitar sound, we make countless decisions along the way, some (or most) of which may be completely unconscious: 

  • We elect to play our parts in particular parts of the fretboard, striking the strings (with pick or fingers) closer to the bridge or neck, with particular accenting and dynamics.
  • We use our guitar’s controls in particular ways, with particular pickups, sending our signal through a particular path, through a particular signal chain.
  • We amplify that signal through a particular amp with controls that are set a particular way, out of a particular speaker.

Regardless of how much attention we’ve given to each part of the chain, they all contribute to the way we sound, leaving only one fundamental question to be answered:

Did I mean to sound like that?

It really is that simple. We can spend as much time as we want jawing about strategies, the value of gear, or the merits of practice, but at the end of the musical day, it’s impossible to argue with a player who’s intentionally constructed a sound that they love. A great sound can take infinite forms, but in almost every case, it requires a deep investment of time and effort to achieve, albeit in unique directions.

A player with great “touch” is really a player who understands minute mechanical details about their instrument, and has developed control over those intricacies through time and care, while simultaneously developing their ear to inform the way they manipulate their sound.

Conversely, a player with an immense array of effected sounds at their disposal is really a player who understands the minute sonic details of their own gear, and has developed control over those intricacies through time and care, while simultaneously developing their ear to inform the way they manipulate their sound.

The sobering reality is that we can’t hack and slash our way to great feel and technique OR great effected sounds. Both pursuits require time, care, and patience, and most of us will find ourselves somewhere in the middle of both paths. Having a huge board doesn’t magically grant amazing sounds, just like removing pedals doesn’t magically grant superhuman touch.

Let’s honestly ask ourselves these questions:

Do I sound the way I want to sound?

Is my touch where it needs to be to sound the way I want?

Do my effects help me sound the way I want?

For most of us, the answers will be somewhere between a hard “no” and “almost,” and therein lies the beauty of the process. A posture of equal parts humility and determination in the pursuit of our sound means that we encounter obstacles and deficiencies with patience and clarity. We don’t buy pedals because someone else said they were a tonal silver bullet, and we don’t practice a technique we’d never use just because some YouTube shredder said it was necessary. We press diligently towards our sound with sureness, not because we’re beyond reproach, but because we’re enjoying the journey.

It’s time to stop arguing about pedals, and start making our music say what we mean.