My First Effects Pedals and How I Came to Sound Like Me
When I was an impressionable 18 year old in the 90's just learning guitar, I walked into a Guitar Center one day riding that fine line between excitement and intimidation. Though I could play a few chords and riffs I basically knew nothing when it came to effects, gear, or guitar playing either if we are to be perfectly honest. Guitar Centers were vast places with gleaming guitars far and high, with long haired day warrior salesmen talking the talk and eager to make a sale. They saw me coming a mile away no doubt. I had some vague notion that I wanted to buy a delay pedal because I really liked U2 at that time, and the guitarist the Edge created such memorable songs using delay as his effect of choice.
A talkative salesman in his twenties walks up to me standing next to the floorboard of Boss pedals, what kind of music I like. Nervously, I stammered that I didn't know too much about effects but I liked U2. He confidently sat down on the stool in front of the vast board of pedals, kicked a few on and off and proceeded to play the opening riff to "Bad". I was amazed! To get that sound he said I'd definitely need a DD-3 Digital Delay(at that time Digital was the rage, and Analog was inferior!), a Super Chorus pedal, and a CS-3 Compressor if I really wanted to do it right. I made a mental calculation quietly: the three pedals combined would be over $250 dollars plus tax. An absolute fortune for me. I had worked as a pizza delivery boy that summer and had made roughly $2000. Though I had to save for college, I decided to buy the three pedals because I didn't want to look like a cheapskate idiot kid who wasn't willing to go all the way and get the tone he wanted.
When I got home, I plugged the three pedals in and proceeded to play through them with my $150 Squier Stratocaster and $90 10 watt amp. (roughly equal to the price of my 3 new stompboxes!) Confusion enveloped me as I realized I sounded nothing like what I wanted. I proceeded to twist and turn the knobs, step on them in different combinations, twist dials on my amp in hope that I could get a sound I was happy with. While I sounded better than before I had spent the $250 dollars, I didn't know what I was doing nor what I actually bought! The Delay was fun because I could make weird endless echoes and twist the time know to warp them. I even figured out how to make my guitar sound like a sitar (short time, high repeats). With the other pedals I was totally lost: I could hear that the Boss Chorus (terrible btw) made me sound "watery" but why did I want that? I could also definitely hear the squeezed quality in the compressor, but wasn't sure why I needed that at all. I feel frustrated; not knowing to be upset at the salesmen or to blame myself for not knowing what I'm doing.
Fast forward 5 years or so, and I sell the Chorus pedal because I realize the Edge never uses Chorus. I sell the Compressor because it is harsh, clicky, and noisy to boot. I bought other pedals good and bad trying to figure out exactly what I was searching for. Then gradually over the years it began do come into my consciousness that I was beginning to develop my own sound. No matter what I played and with who, I was developing both a sound built upon my guitar, pedalboard, and amp but also from my choice of notes and how I articulated them. In the end, this journey of taking up an instrument is to really discover what our voice is and how to express that truly. When we start playing guitar, the natural thing is to start trying to copy our heroes and influences. Copying gives us an easy satisfaction and goalpost for our playing. Then day by day we start to put together a musical vocie, and we are discovering how to sound more like ourselves. It's not always an easy process, and definitely not cheap(especially without the Internet back then).
I still have the Boss Digital Delay DD-3 pedal I bought that day. It is banged and scratched up from all the years. It's still a great pedal today. I don't use it anymore because I have others that have more features but it's like my first love. It's the one all the other ones have to live up to, and you feel that sweet wash of sentimentality when you think of her and those simpler times. I keep her in her original box and every few years look a open it up and remember where I come from and the joy of the musical journey (expensive mistakes and all).