Lost Pedalboard Lessons

Most musicians know to expect the unexpected when touring. Tires go flat, guitar strings break, and front-of-house engineers are grouchy. We’re mentally and emotionally prepared for minor inconveniences, but most of us still keep our fingers crossed and hope that nothing too sketchy happens.  Our band was about to take the stage in Raleigh, halfway through a week-long set of dates throughout the southeast U.S, when my own experience took a particularly sketchy turn:

I realized my pedalboard was missing.

I tried to keep my composure while combing the venue for possible hiding spots, and eventually came to the realization that my board had been left in Charlotte the previous night. While still processing what was happening, I attempted to make it through our set by plugging my Telecaster straight into my Deluxe Reverb, and while I love the base sound of my amp, our set felt a lot like that dream where you show up to middle school without pants.

Worried and embarrassed, I spent the rest of the night franticly trying to get in touch with the venue in Charlotte to see if my board could be recovered. Luckily, this story has a happy ending, as a few heroic individuals managed to locate and secure my board, allowing me to pick it up on the way to the next date.

While I made it out of the experience mostly in one piece, I definitely learned a couple things about my board and about myself: 

I learned just how many important things are on my board

When I realized my board was missing, my initial reaction was panic at the thought of being without my El Capistan delay, and it was only through actually setting up my rig that I realized how ill-equipped I’d actually become. Even basic items like my tuner, instrument cables, power sources, and slide were all contained either on my board or in its case, so its absence turned out to be way more detrimental than just leaving me without sound design options. 

I learned that my board is an extension of my creativity

It’s common knowledge that a player’s identity is forged primarily through the way their hands interact with their instrument, but let’s face it: our pedals are a valuable, personal part of our sound. Our tone is created through an entire ecosystem of parts, and while I wouldn’t compare the importance of technique equally to our interaction with pedals, being without my board felt as much like I wasn’t myself as if someone had tied a couple of my fretting fingers together. As a lead guitar player, I care as much about making my sounds work as I do about making my parts work, and being without my board felt like being an artist who can only paint with half a rainbow’s worth of colors. 

I learned to stop agonizing over settings

If given the option, I can become a relentless setting tweaker. I’ll spend a half hour to only turn a knob a few degrees, and most of the time, I chalk the practice up to “caring so much.” When I got my board back, I stopped caring almost altogether. I was so pumped to have any delay at all that it didn’t matter if I got exactly 8 repeats, and I was so pumped to have my drive section that it didn’t matter if the volumes weren’t perfectly balanced. When someone offers you a shower on tour, you don’t fret over whether it’s a little hot or cold, and the same was true for my board. I was just glad it was there. 

I learned that I don’t need pedals

I was embarrassed, stressed out, and frustrated by the time our sans-pedalboard set was over, but even though I’d never ask to feel that way again, I have to acknowledge that we made it. For the most part, I could play the songs the same way, and important facets of our performance like dynamics, feel, and intonation were are just as accessible and important as they were when I had my pedals. My playing style is certainly augmented by my board, but it wasn’t defined by it. 

I learned that I need pedals

Everything I said in the last point is true, but I’d still never want to play another set without my board. I LIKE having the ability to oscillate a delay for transitions, I LIKE the way modulation gives a part a unique identity, and I LIKE the way my looper lets me create more sonic depth than four instruments can on their own. Whether I like it or not, our set can only be properly executed if I have the right sounds at my disposal, and my job is way more about presenting the songs faithfully than it is about simply “playing guitar.” In the end, the way the music sounds is the only thing that really matters, and if we need pedals to make it sound the way it’s intended, it’s simply a case of having the necessary tools for the job. 

Ultimately, the lesson here is a common one: You need the right gear to execute your music. For some people, that means plugging straight in, and for others, it means lugging a mothership rig around. There’s no inherent shame in either practice, and in the end, we should choose (and try not to misplace) the gear we use solely because it helps us make our music say what we mean.