Archive for the 'Back To The Basics' Category

08 5th, 2010 BenCirillo

Effects part I: Primer

ben-cirillo-pictureSo, you’ve gotten as far as you can go with your tone, and now you want to add some more. Where do you go from here?  Many beginner guitarists ask themselves that very question and most don’t really know the answer.  Today’s post is going to hopefully answer that for you all.

toneIt’s time for tone

Adding effects is the quickest and easiest way to enhance your tone, regardless of what you play. A properly placed effect can do anything from a subtle enhancement to complete spaced-out weirdness.

As with anything else, though, you can’t just slap together effects and hope for sound. Well, actually you could, but you’ll still save a lot of time and money if you at least kind of know what you’re doing.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to effects, but I’m going to avoid getting into specifics in this article. There’s plenty of other resources on the internet if you want to tech out, and I may even add more later. But for now, I just want to give you a basic overview of what’s out there and what can be done to get you started.

effectsEffect Basics

So what is an effect and what does it do? An effect, as we’re talking about here, is anything that will change your electronic signal and therefore your sound. It’s like a GOBO on a light rig or a camera, it goes between the source (guitar, bass, or microphone) and the output (power amp and speaker) and changes things along the way.

An effect can be in the form of single stompboxes, multieffects, or built in to an amplifier or recording program. They can be digital or analog, solid state or tube.

Any instrument can take an effect. Electric instruments, like electric guitar, acoustic guitars with pickups, basses and electric drums, can be plugged right in. Microphones that pick up acoustic instruments, like voice, drums, or horns, can also have effects. With a little know-how, you can create wild new sounds.

types-of-effectsTypes of Effects

There are hundreds of different effects pedals and processors. Fortunately, most fall into some pretty basic categories. I’ll cover the most common effects and their uses, by no means is this list going to be complete.


Just about the first thing any guitarist ever owns is some kind of distortion pedal, usually a Boss DS-1. Distortion is also built into most amps, either with a switch or simply by turning it up too loud.

Understanding the basic physics of distortion helps you understand how to use it. The basic principle is this: an incoming signal is too loud for an amp or circuit to reproduce, so the waveform gets cut off, or “clipped.” This causes it to sound distorted.

If you want a better answer to how all this works, our friend Wikipedia ( will explain all.

A little bit of clipping is called overdrive. This sounds natural but “pushed.” Moderate to heavy clipping is called distortion and now sounds completely different from your “clean” (unaffected) sound. Extreme clipping is called fuzz and turns your sound into something unrecognizable.

The most important thing to know about distortion of any kind is its relationship to volume. Remember, distortion is created when your incoming volume hits the clipping ceiling. Once you’ve maxed out your signal, increasing your incoming volume increases distortion, not overall output volume!

This fact will affect you in several ways. One, distortion is a dynamic effect, the better ones more so than the cheaper ones. This means the effect will respond differently to different incoming volumes. If you roll down the volume on your guitar, the distortion will go away. Bring it back up, it will come back. Plenty of guitarists use this fact to their advantage. A good distortion circuit will even be sensitive enough to respond to changes in how hard you pick.

Second, if you choose to use a boost or volume pedal, where you put it will dramatically change its functions. Like the name implies, a boost pedal gives you a straight boost in volume, while most volume pedals give you a cut in volume you can sweep with your foot. Put these in front of a distortion circuit, they will change the amount of distortion. Put them after, they will change the amount of output volume. If you get your distortion from your amp and you want a solo boost, not a distortion boost, you’ll have to put the pedal in the effects loop (more on this later).

compressionCompression and EQ

Some effects aren’t about wacky sounds, they’re just there to enhance your tone.

Compression is basically an automatic volume regulator. It takes the loud parts and quiet parts of your tone and compresses them together so they’re closer in volume. This helps quieter notes pop out and keeps your peaks under control. This is very useful for fingerstyle guitarists and essential for slap bass.

As your notes decay (get quieter) a compressor will bring the volume back up, which will give you more apparent sustain. Guitar players love this for solos.

Equalization or EQ is just like it is on your home stereo. It’s basically a set of volume controls for select bandwidths. Therefore you can boost bass and cut treble while leaving the mids alone. The more bands you have, the more control you have. EQ in pedal form is useful when you want to switch settings on the fly, otherwise the EQ built into your amp is usually sufficient.


The second pedal most guitarists end up with is a wah. Like an EQ, it boosts and a specific band of frequencies and cuts the rest. Unlike an EQ, the specific band that’s getting the boost is sweeps from low to high and back again, creating a sound similar to a trumpet mute.

Wahs come in two main varieties: A traditional wah is a pedal you can rock back and forth with your foot to create the effect. An auto-wah is touch-sensitive, i.e. it listens for your attack then automatically creates the wah effect.

An auto-wah is nice for when you need your feet free or don’t want to coordinate the timing with your feet. Many of these pedals often have synth settings on them that can make your guitar or bass sound like a retro analog keyboard.

A traditional wah is nice for when you want complete control. Some guitarists even use a wah as a kind of notch filter, leaving it in one position to create a very narrow, concentrated tone.


There’s a wide variety of different modulation type effects, but they all do the same basic thing: grab a parameter of your tone and change it in a repeating pattern.

phaser-ph-3Phaser, Flanger and Chorus are all very similar. All three split your signal in two and create a contrast with the second signal.

Flanger puts a very slight delay on one side of the signal, creating a jet-airplane sound. Think “Unchained” by Van Halen or “Barracuda” by Heart. The drums in Zepplin’s “Kashmir” also use flange.

Phaser takes one part of your signal and puts it out of phase, creating sound similar to that of a rotating speaker cabinet. The bass on Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” is a good example of this. It’s more funky and a lot less hair metal sounding than the flanger.

Chorus detunes and delays one half of the sound, creating an effect of multiple instruments playing the same thing at the same time. On guitar, it can make a 6-string sound like a 12-string. I like this one the most, because of its subtlety. It creates atmosphere and depth without hitting you in the face with effect. Harmony Central has sound samples (

tremeloVibrato and Tremolo are terms often used interchangeably, but they are not the same effect. Tremolo modulates volume (moves it up and down) in a repeating wave pattern. Vibrato modulates pitch.

Leo Fender decided to confuse the guitar playing world by labeling the tremolo effect on his amps “Vibrato” and the pitch-bending arm on his guitars “Tremolo.” So it can be a little confusing as to what you’re actually getting when you get into this stuff.

Tremolo can be used to create a nice surf-rock sound, or you can crank the controls and get a slicer effect (think Green Day “Boulevard of Broken Dreams). Vibrato can create a wacky little flutter, but too much will make you sound out of tune, so be careful when using this one.

vocal-harmonizerHarmonizers and Pitch Benders

These effects are a little more wacky, so I won’t dwell on them too much.

Harmonizers add a note above or below the one you’re playing, allowing you to play essentially two parts of a harmony by yourself. On guitar, you can be both guys from Judas Priest at the same time. On vocals, you can be a one-man barbershop quartet.

digitech-whammyPitch Benders like the Digitech Whammy work like wahs, except instead of sweeping tone they bend the note up or down. Think every guitar solo by Tom Morello and you’ll get the idea.

boss-dm2Delay, Reverb and Loop

Time-based effects allow you to play way more than you could on your own, and are some of the most fun.

Reverb essentially creates the same kind of echo you would get in various sized rooms, from a small room to a grand concert hall. This can be used subtlety to fill out your sound or cranked to create psychedelic space-notes.

Delay is very simple. You play a note, it plays again; like an echo but this time it’s bouncing off the Grand Canyon. Turned down, you can create reverb-like space effects, turned up you can make it sound like you’re playing twice as many things as you actually are.

Loop pedals work on the same principal as delays, but instead of repeating every note and letting it trail off, it repeats a selected phrase over and over. This allows you to lay down a harmony section and then play a lead over it. For the one-man acoustic act, this is a must-have.

all-togetherPutting it all together

You can, of course, chain more than one effect together. Since each effect changes the sound before passing the signal on to the next, the order in which these effects are arranged can drastically alter the sound.

The following is the preferred order of effects. You aren’t going to break anything by not following this order, you just might not get the sound you were after. If you get the sound you want following a different order, go for it. No one is going to argue.

The preferred order, starting from the instrument going to the amp, is:

Tuner -> Wah (esp. AutoWah)-> Compressor -> Distortions (low gain to high) -> EQ -> Pitch Effects -> Modulations (any order) -> Reverb -> Delay -> Loop.

If you have a separate out for your tuner, use that. If not, and you use a tuner pedal, put it first (closest to the instrument) so it tunes the guitar and not the effects.

Since touch (auto) wahs respond to your picking volume, it should get the cleanest sound possible so it can “hear” what you are doing and respond appropriately. In general, wahs narrow and enhance certain frequency bands, which can get out of hand of there’s a compressor or distortion before it.

Compressors boost low volume notes, which also means they enhance noise. Therefore, you want to keep these close to the beginning of your chain so they are fed as little noise as possible.

Like compressors, distortion can also enhance noise. Distortion can also create noise, especially when used in combination, which makes placement very important. If you use your amp for distortion, the effects loop can help you with this. I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but basically anything outside an effects loop (plugged into the input) is before the distortion, and anything inside the effects loop (send and return) is after the distortion.

EQ can be placed before or after your distortion, depending on where you want to shape your sound.  I prefer after, to shape the final product, but you don’t have to listen to me.

Pitch effects work best after distortions. I have no scientific reason for this, it just seems to work.

You are very unlikely to use more than one modulation at a time, since the competing waveforms will cancel each other out and likely produce nothing but muck. Keep them after distortion and before delay, but it doesn’t matter if phaser precedes chorus or vibrato precedes tremolo.

You most likely want your reverb to capture your whole sound, so put it at the end. You want your delay to capture your whole sound including your reverb, so put it even further at the end. You want your loop to capture everything up to and including your delay, so put it at the very, very end.

start-playingStart playing

There’s lots more to write about the subject of effects, and this will just be the first of many posts to come. Meanwhile, take your new found knowledge of effects and start playing with whatever you might have at hand. There’s no such thing as a fatal mistake, so go nuts!

Contact Ben

ben-cirillo-picture1Controlling Complexity

Geddy Lee was always my hero from the first time I followed my older brother to a Rush concert at Alpine Valley. He was fast, and he played crazy riffs in odd time signatures and, oh yeah, he was fast. When I started playing bass, I wanted to play just like him.  And so I did. Every new song I learned (mostly Rush songs, go figure) had me playing faster and faster and crazier and weirder stuff. If it didn’t have twenty billion notes per second I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t want to even listen to it, much less play it.

stand-up-bassWhere’s The Groove Gone?

Then I grew up I found myself with a few dilemmas.  One, while I was focusing on my speed I’d skipped over the basics. I could play a fretboard-exploding riff but couldn’t hold down a simple groove. Two, my music collection sucked. I’d skipped over a lot of good music just because I thought it didn’t have enough notes.  Somewhere along the way every beginner gets the notion that the quality of a song is directly proportional to how difficult it is to play. When you grow up, you realize that complex ? good, and in fact sometimes the best things are the simplest. Even Geddy Lee figured that one out, and did so well before I did.

less-is-moreLess Can Be More Sometimes

Jeff Goldblum had a famous tagline in Jurassic Park: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” That applies to us as musicians. Just because you can play 27,000 notes in that section doesn’t mean you should.  A simple, repetitive chord structure or riff can make a catchy song. Add in too much complexity and a song will stop sounding like music and start sounding like what it is: musical masturbation. Of course, there’s a flip side: If the song is too simple and repetitive, it’ll be boring, uninspired and probably annoying.  You have to strike a balance between so simple it’s boring and so complex it’s noise. There is no magic formula; this depends on you and your style of music.

complexityUsing Complexity Wisely

When we talk about a complex piece of music, our minds go to one thing: lots and lots of notes, usually in a very short period of time. But there are lots of different ways to add complexity to your songs other than just adding notes. Here are some ideas:

1. Add More Instruments:

Pink Floyd were masters of creating complex music out of simple parts. Break down any Floyd song, and neither the bass part, guitar part, keys or drums are particularly difficult to play. But by cleverly layering these simple parts in a complex arrangement, you get songs that are both interesting and easy to listen to. Years later, bands like Radiohead and The Beta Band mastered the art of taking a simple thing and just adding a part, then adding a part, then adding a part until you had a huge symphonic sound made from simple pieces.

2. Play The Same Thing In A Different Place:

For solos, the oldest bass player trick in the book is to play exactly the same thing you were doing, just one octave up. It’s the stupidest, easiest thing in the world, and it gets people every time. Pull out some Jaco riff and people ignore you (unless they’re also bass players, in which case they hate you). Play one octave up and people think you’re a god. This works on guitar, too. Change octaves and people respond, and unless they’re also musicians they probably won’t realize you didn’t really do anything special. If the octave thing is too cheesy, try playing a fifth up or down. This creates movement and also contrast against the rest of the band, but in most cases it still fits without having to change anything.

3. Create Dynamics:

Dynamics in music officially refers to changes in volume, used to create a sense movement and mood in a piece. Rock music, however, is usually so overcompressed that any actual changes in volume are leveled out and lost to the world. So a better way to think about dynamics is changes in intensity. By switching back and forth between more and less complex sections, you can create a change in intensity. Note that simple is often more intense than complex. In Tidal Wave ( we used a more complex pattern for the verses then switched to a simpler rock-anthem feel for the chorus. In Wide Awake, we use complexity to build tension in the verses and simplicity to release it in the chorus. The outro gets crazy complex, then dissolves into simplicity to end the song.

4. Use Odd Notes And Chords:

Sometimes, instead of playing lots of notes, it’s playing the right note that makes all the difference. Venture outside the pentatonic scale to find those underused intervals and chords. Again I return to Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, who could move you more with a well-placed major 7th as all the shred gods with all the sweep arpeggios and pinch harmonics in the world.

5. Use Different Rhythm Patterns:

One of my favorite tricks is to use different rhythm patterns rather than lots of notes to create a complex bassline. I use this all over Mercury Rising and Wide Awake. Rhythm complexity doesn’t have to mean odd time signatures like 7/8 or 5/4. It can be as simple as changing up your subdivisions or playing unusual accents. In “Spirits in the Material World” by the Police, Sting creates a funky feel by starting his 2-bar bass phrase on the “and” of 2 instead of the downbeat. The song is still in a simple 4/4, but it sounds quirkier than it is.

6. Use Effects:

A well-placed effect can transform a boring chord or riff into something way more interesting. I’ll go over effects more in a future post, but for now consider that a creative use of effects can create as much texture as the creative use of a scale. Remember, though, that effects also come with an off-switch. Just like with everything else, overuse can quickly jump the line between interesting and annoying.

listenLearn To Hear, Not Fear

For those of us that like to play more complex music, there’s always that secret fear that if you don’t play enough notes people will think you suck and will come take your guitar away.  With time, you learn that difficult doesn’t always mean good. Music is not an Olympic event; you don’t get skill points for pulling off tough stunts. For the thoughtful musician, adding complexity is not about showing off, it’s about creating movement and balance.  If you always play as technical and complicated as you can, where do you go from there? Thirty-second notes in 7/8 all the time is just as boring as quarter notes in 4/4 all the time.  When you learn to listen for musicality instead of stunt guitar, you might just find that creating interesting music isn’t as complicated as you thought.

Until next time keep on grooving, and let me know how I might help you out by leaving a comment

Contact Ben

ben-cirillo-pictureMy Musical Debut

When I was a teenager, I was playing bass with my friend Tony on drums in my basement.  I came up with this little groove off the top of my head and was playing it over and over.    “That’s pretty cool,” he said. “What time is it in?   I honestly had no idea, so I calmly looked at my watch and said, “It’s about 4:30.”   We’re still playing together all these years later, and Tony will still tell that story to anyone who’ll listen. The main point of that story is that I’m a smart ass who is not to be trusted.   But the secondary, more important point – and the reason I bring it up here – is that, unless you play drums, you probably don’t think about your rhythm and timing as much as you should.

empty-barWhy Timing Matters

Why does timing matter?  Good timing is what makes a band sound tight and unless you want the picture to the left to be your fan turn outs at gigs you will read this post very carefully, commit it to memory, and become a timing God.    Now where does timing start?  It’s the drummer’s main job to keep time, and if he wants to keep his job he’d better be pretty good at it. Meanwhile, the rest of us haven’t thought about eighth notes, quarter notes or sixteenths since we were in fifth grade tooting on a recorder.  But timing is a fundamental issue for any musician that can make or break your band. It’s so fundamental, it’s often overlooked, but bad timing can spell disaster for your sound.

Take a band like AC/DC.  Their music is so simple a child could have written it. Yet I’ve seen more than one band fail miserably to cover them. Why?   Timing. Get it right and the song will rock your face off. Get it wrong and you’ll face plant.

drummerTempo: It’s Not Just For Drummers Anymore!

OK, so timing is important, but why not let the drummer handle the timing so the rest of us can work on our harmonic minor scales and our rock faces?   Well, for starters, the band has to stay together as a unit. If the guitarist suddenly takes off like a rocket during a solo, half the band will try to catch up to his tempo and half will try to hold to the original tempo. The whole thing will fall apart.    Also, the drummer is not always there for you.    I found this out the hard way on “Derelict”   (see

I’d gotten pretty comfortable leaning on the drummer to be my metronome. But on this song, I’m by myself for nearly a minute. What’s worse, there’s a lot of empty space, meaning I have to worry about the notes between the notes. The drummer’s actually listening to me to pick up on the tempo, and if I don’t want a stick to the forehead I’d better be consistent.

metronomeMetronomes To The Rescue!

You wouldn’t play your guitar without tuning it, would you? (Maybe you would. I don’t know you. Still, the correct answer is no.) Just like you need a tuner to be in tune, you need a metronome to be in time.

Metronomes can be as simple as a box that clicks or as complicated as you like, with every subdivision and time signature option you could dream of. Personally, I like to use one that plays in measures with a downbeat rather than just straight clicks. It helps point out when you’re getting off the metronome and really helps when you’re working in alternate time signatures.

Another option is a drum machine. These are great for jamming at home because they give you a pattern to play against rather than just boring clicks. If you’re doing drills or trying to solve a timing problem, a straight metronome is better; however, most drum machines will have a metronome pattern built in.

Tap tempo is a handy feature to have if you can get it. This feature allows you to set the tempo by tapping a button in time rather than setting a number. This is very useful when you don’t know the numerical value of the tempo you want. You can buy a decent metronome like the Korg MA30 for not much money ($29.99), or if you’re broke and/or cheap there’s a free one at So there, now you have no excuses for bad timing.

metronome-iiHow To Use (And Not Use) Your Metronome

If you’ve never played with a click, it can take some getting used to at first. Start with some simple drills. Set your metronome to 80 and play straight eighth notes for one minute. Then increase the speed and repeat several times. Do the same thing with sixteenth notes. Now try mixing it up with combos of eighth and sixteenth notes. If you have the option, try to experiment with different time signatures.  These drills aren’t exactly the most fun things you’ll ever play. Don’t give up when you get bored, though. It’s tough now, but it will make your life easier later.

The songs you play should be checked against the metronome as well. I’ve heard plenty of people struggle with X guitar riff because they couldn’t keep up with it – and no wonder, they’re playing the song twice as fast as it was originally written! If they’d used a metronome, they’d know to slow down and then they could hit those notes.   DO NOT, however, use your metronome when first learning or writing a song. There’s a lot going on with a new song – chord changes, fingering, melody – trying to put that all together while also trying to keep it in time will cause you to chuck that metronome right out the window.   Once you’ve got a handle on the basics of the song, however, it’s time to bring out Mr. Clicky to even out the timing. Practice in a range of tempos. If the tempo of the song is 120, start at 100 and work your way up to 140.    If you’re playing cleanly, the song will hold together at any tempo. If you’re slopping through your grooves and solos, the metronome will out you.

band-rehearsingThe Metronome At Rehearsal

Not only should you be working on you’re timing as an individual, but locking it together as a group. After all, what’s the point of great timing if only one band member has it?  When using a metronome in a group setting, you’ll need something with an external output. Route the metronome output through the PA or another amplifier, and set it so everyone can hear it. Finding a way to get the metronome loud enough so the drummer can hear it but not so loud as to cause cerebral hemorrhaging in the rest of the band can be tricky, but well worth the effort.   If the drummer complains about not being able to play to a click, go to and look for a new one.

Again, DO NOT use the metronome while learning or writing a new song. This will likely cause the band to break up. Once everyone has settled into their parts, only then bring out the metronome to lock everyone together.   Pay special attention to the transitions between parts of the songs. Often the jumps from verse to chorus to bridge are where the tempo gets off. This makes the different parts sound incongruent rather than come together as a cohesive song.  Also pay close attention to intros and outros, especially if someone other than the drummer is setting the tempo for the song.   Play the song with the metronome until you are comfortable with it and everyone has the tempo locked inside his or her head. Then, shut the metronome off. After all, you’re not going to take it on stage with you, and you need to make sure you can still play the song in time without it.

carter-beaufordPerfect Timing

So what is perfect Timing?   I will say this when you hear a band that sounds great that is becasue they are tight, have practiced a lot and have perfect timing.   Want an example look at Carter Beauford from The Dave Mathews Band he is a perfect example of a drummer with perfect timing.  Is it necessary to have absolutely perfect timing? There’s been a lot of debate about this over the years, but the short answer is no.  Music is a human endeavor, and as such it is imperfect. It breathes and moves and flows. Just like you won’t always have perfect pitch, you won’t always have perfect timing.   Still, there’s a difference between letting the music breathe and letting it hyperventilate. There’s a difference between “feel” and “no idea where the beat is.” There’s a difference between groove and slop.

The click is a tool, not your lord and master. It brings focus to your music. The point is not to obsess over time – after all, your audience isn’t out there with metronomes checking your accuracy – but to become comfortable enough with tempo and rhythm so you can be free and loose but still hit that pocket every time.

Contact Ben

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