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I love overdrive pedals. I have a bunch of them. But I realized that part of why I have so many has a lot to do with not really understanding how to set them up properly. I’d get an overdrive pedal because a demo I heard sounded great, or I loved how it was voiced. But when I’d get it home, it just wouldn’t sound quite right, so I’d put it in my “storage” area.

But as I got more experienced with setting up my amps, I similarly got to understand how to set up my overdrive pedals. And now that I have a bunch, I’ve got a variety of pedals to choose from to get the sound I want depending on my sets or my mood – okay, I admit it: It’s mostly due to my mood. 🙂

Admittedly, I did a lot of forum lurking as well to gain insights on setting up an overdrive, so a lot of what I’ll be sharing here comes from the things I’ve learned from others in addition to the stuff I’ve learned on my own.

What actually motivated me to write this was a conversation that I had with a friend. I asked him what he thought of a particular overdrive pedal, and he said he didn’t like the way it sounded. I looked at him a little puzzled and said, “Maybe you didn’t set it up right.” And that led me to say that not all overdrives are created equal, and you have to set them up according to how they work best. Truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him since that conversation, so I have no idea if he tried what I suggested. But in light of that, I decided to share my thoughts.


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Types of Overdrives – Not Necessarily What You Might Think

Before we get into the actual setup of an overdrive, I thought I’d go into a discussion about types of overdrives because how you set up an overdrive has a lot to do with the type of overdrive it is. No, this isn’t a discussion about circuit types or transparency. I suppose this could be related to the circuit type on which an overdrive is based, but I’m not that electrically savvy, so I’ll discuss this in more practical terms.

From my experience with having played several overdrives, I’ve found that they fall into roughly two different categories (mind you, these are my own terms): Interactive and Standalone. Interactive overdrives are meant to interact with the preamp of your amp, and together they produce the overdrive sound.

Standalone overdrives are typically purpose-built to mimic an amplifier, and though they can certainly be set up to be interactive, they can function just fine on their own in front of a clean amp.

Notice that I haven’t named any specific overdrive models. The reason why is that overdrives sound different with different amps. For instance, the EHX Soul Food sounds great as a standalone overdrive in front of my Fender amp. But it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a standalone overdrive in front of my Plexi-style amps, so I set it up as an interactive overdrive for those amps.

So the idea behind interactive vs. standalone has little to do with a specific type or model of overdrive; rather, it has to do with how the overdrive sounds with your amp.

Setting Up an Overdrive

I have two processes that I go through to set up an overdrive. At this point, I know all my pedals and whether they’re standalone or interactive, but I still follow the same processes for my different pedals when I set them up on my board. Also, if I come across or get a new overdrive, I first assume that it can be a standalone overdrive, then if I find it doesn’t work well that way, I’ll then set it up to be interactive. Here are the step-by-step processes I follow:

Setting Up a Standalone Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp:
    1. Clean
    2. Set EQ to work with your guitar
  2. Set guitar volume to the middle
  3. Guitar EQ where you want it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs to the middle.
  5. Engage the overdrive and get it to unity gain (so that when you engage it, your volume doesn’t change), or to just get a small volume bump when the pedal’s engaged.
  6. Set the EQ on the overdrive
  7. Adjust the overdrive/gain knob to get your desired amount of distortion from the pedal.
    1. You will probably have to make adjustments to the level knob to maintain unity gain.
  8. Evaluate the sound and feel by playing around with chord progressions and licks.
    1. All the while, raise and lower your guitar volume to see how the pedal responds.
  9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you dial in the right volume/sound/feel.
    1. If the volume, sound, and feel are fine for you, then you’re all set and ready to gig and the overdrive pedal will work fine as a standalone device.
    2. If the sound doesn’t feel “right,” chances are you’ll have to do some interaction with the preamp of your amp, so continue to the next section.

Setting Up an Interactive Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp
    1. Set Gain/Volume so the amp is at the edge of breakup.
      1. You’ll know it’s there when you turn up the guitar’s volume and the amp begins to distort, then cleans up when you turn it down. Also, if the guitar’s volume is set to the middle, if you strum hard it will break up.
    2. Set EQ on the amp
  2. Set your guitar volume to the middle
  3. Set guitar EQ when you like it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs at their middle positions
  5. Engage the overdrive
    1. More likely than not, you’ll get a big volume boost when you engage at this level, so you’ll have to adjust both the overdrive’s level and amp’s volume/master knobs to get to the right volume.
      1. If you don’t have a master volume, turn down the overdrive’s volume/level knob to get to a management volume.
    2. Because you want to get both overdrive AND amp distortion, you’ll want to get a small volume bump when you engage the pedal as you want the amp to go over the edge of breakup.
  6. Now, play around.
    1. See how the combination responds to volume swells on your guitar.
    2. Make adjustments to the overdrive gain to get the right combination of pedal and amp distortion.

The Importance of EQ

Notice that I mention setting EQ on the amp, guitar, and overdrive pedal. Setting EQ is extremely important because it can be the difference-maker in your overall tone. There’s no “ideal” EQ setting. But for me as a rule of thumb, I want to get a rich, slightly bright tone that sits well in the mix and isn’t so warm that compared to the other instruments, won’t get washed out when we’re all playing together.

Also, for live gigs, I usually don’t touch my amp or pedal EQ once I get them set up. I use my guitar’s tone knob to adjust how warm or bright my sound to be.

Amp/Pedal Combinations

All that said, if you’ve followed the steps for setting up an interactive overdrive, and it still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do, then the pedal sucks. Just kidding. 🙂 Truth be told, I’ve found some overdrives work better with different amps. If you have another amp, then try the pedal out in front of it.

For instance, Paul Cochrane of “Tim” and “Timmy” pedal fame recommends not using the pedal in front of a Fender Blackface amp. I don’t have a blackface amp, so I had to take him at his word, but the Timmy works great in front of all my amps. For me, I will not use my venerable Ibanez TS-808 TubeScreamer in front of my vintage Marshall-style amps. It just doesn’t sound good to me, no matter how I set it up.

I think it’s because the TS produces a big midrange bump when engaged, and my amps are voiced bright, so it ends up sounding piercing like little ice picks on my eardrums. Even EQ adjustments don’t work for me. But in front of my Fender Hot Rod, the TS truly screams! My Hot Rod has the classic Fender “scooped” tone, so the predominant midrange of the TS fills in the mids.

What About Stacking Overdrives?

That gets a bit more complicated, but I’d follow the basic procedures above, treating the trailing pedal as the amp. In this case, I’d tend to set up the amp as clean and have the trailing pedal always on. There lots of ways to approach this as well. I know one guitarist that uses three at once to get his “sound.” More power to him! 🙂

But truth be told, I hate to dance on my board, so even though I will use a couple of overdrives, I only use one at a time depending on the kind of voicing I want. I also, don’t like complicate my sound finding the right balance of multiple overdrives. I just want to play. Granted, I could do a lot of pre-gig work to get that, but for me, employing the KISS theory works best.

Many people like to stack, and that’s great. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to use two TubeScreamers stacked together; one as an overdrive and one as a booster.

Wah-wah and Overdrive

If you don’t use a wah-wah pedal, then you can ignore this section. But I thought it would be important to add this to the mix, mainly because I’ve found that certain overdrives work better depending on where the wah-wah pedal is placed. Admittedly, my personal preference is to place the wah pedal after my overdrives. But there are a few boutique overdrive pedals that I have that work much better when the wah pedal is in front of them. Not sure why this is. Luckily, I only have a couple of pedals that act this way, so I know not to use a wah pedal with them if I have it set up after my overdrives.

Exploration

To close this out, I have to admit that I’m a bit of an overdrive junkie. I may not buy every single one that piques my interest, but I do check out new overdrives when I run across them. The great thing about overdrives is that they really are all different, even the knock-offs, so I’ll continue to explore overdrives. I never know what I might find. 🙂

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Okay… I’m feeling a little guilty… I’ve had this pedal for review in my possession for months, sent to me by Peterson Tuners, who’s the US representative for Sonuus. It’s not that I didn’t want to review it, but when I got the pedal, it was before I got my hip replaced, and in the few months leading up to my surgery, I was always in way too much pain. But now that I’m healing up, I finally opened the box to give this pedal a try.

First of all, this pedal is just dang cool! It has the ability to produce virtually any wah/filter sound you can think of. The sweep of the expression pedal is super-wide, which is something I dig – especially in wah mode – because it allows me to add subtle to dramatic sweeps. Then the filter stuff takes this pedal way over the top, giving you the ability to make very cool vowel sounds to even flute sounds – yes flute (albeit synthesized, but it’s still cool).

Admittedly, I was a little overwhelmed and intimidated by the pedal when I first started playing with it. The thought that crossed my mind was, “Dang, if I want to create a different sound, do I have to continually tweak parameters?” That usually drives me away from high-tech gadgets because I just don’t have the time to mess around. Luckily, I had an “RTFM” moment, and picked up the manual. Turns out that there are 100 presets on the pedal, so it was a simple matter of finding presents that I liked and remembering them. But the pedal also allows you to edit the preset, so if a preset needs to be tweaked, it’s a simple matter of making your adjustments, then holding down the “Save” button for a couple of seconds.

I’m still playing with the pedal, so a review is pending. But what I’ve discovered in the hour or so I’ve played around with the Wahoo has really impressed me. I especially dug preset 78, which employs what seems like a high-pass filter that produces a haunting flute sound. But thus far, I’m having fun just discovering the different sounds the presets make.

Stay tuned for a full review with sound clips! For more information, visit the Wahoo product page!

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In my First Impressions article on the VOX Big Bad Wah, a reader commented that “I think this looks like the one Vox Satch pedal that they got right.” After playing with it for the last couple of days, I heartily agree. With both the voice, UK/US inductor and wah mode switches, the Big Bad Wah opens up a ton of possibilities with respect wah tone. So far, I’ve been happy as a clam with the Wah I mode and the US-style inductor (Voice and Drive don’t become active until you activate Wah II). I’ve been playing with Wah II a bit, and it really kicks butt. I dig the Drive knob that adds up to a 10dB clean boost, so you can get a nice gain boost for solos. I still have more experimentation to do, but so far so GREAT!

Having a really great wah pedal makes all the difference in the world to me. I used my Original Cry Baby only sparingly because it was so quirky, and because it was a bit noisy – even when disengaged – I sort of refused to use it on recordings. Well, with the Big Bad Wah, that’s going to change. The sweep on this pedal is perfect. It’s nice and even, which makes it incredibly controllable. It is really a joy to play.

In any case, here’s a clip that I made this morning. It’s a little minor jazz-blues tune. With this clip I wanted to feature Wah II with the darker, more “vowelly” voicing. No boost in this because I didn’t want the amp to break more. Signal chain is: Squier CV Tele –> Big Bad Wah –> Boss CE-2 Chorus –> VOX Time Machine Delay (for a little slap-back). BTW, the Big Bad Wah really plays nice with other pedals. I’ll have some other clips when I do my full review of it. But for now, here’s the current clip:

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VOX Big Bad WahThe one thing about pedals is that eventually, they wear out; especially pedals that have moving parts like a wah. It may take years, but they do wear out. It’s a fact of life.

My Dunlop Cry Baby has been on the fritz on and off for the past few months. Not wanting to take the time to replace it, and considering that it is easy to clean and adjust, I’ve occasioned to just do a DIY job on it and get it working again. No problem. But I finally just got tired of doing that, and decided to look at a new one.

About a year and a half ago, I evaluated several wah pedals but finally just went with a used Original Cry Baby, figuring it would tide me over for my wah needs. It certainly served me well, and I got a lot of mileage out of it. At the time of my original search though, the VOX Big Bad Wah hadn’t come out, so I really couldn’t consider it. But time went on, and I completely forgot about it until I saw the announcement for the new VOX Ice 9 overdrive pedal. Then suddenly, a light went off in my head, and I just nodded to myself, “That’s right. Joe helped design a wah pedal.”

So I did a bit more research, and saw an excellent video on YouTube with Joe discussing the idea behind the Big Bad Wah, and I knew I had to try it. So I immediately hopped into the car and went down to my local Guitar Center to try it out. I spent about an hour in the GC isolation room playing around with the different settings, and I have to say that Satch and VOX really did well putting their heads together on this wah pedal.

One thing that struck me before I played it was a comment that Joe had made in the video and how he described how Jimi Hendrix used a wah-wah pedal as an “extension of the music,” and the notes that were being played, and not something that was merely a rhythmic effect within an ensemble. That really spoke to me because even though I couldn’t hope to have their chops, I’ve always looked at the wah pedal in that light. So it was with great hope that when I did play it, I could use it in that way.

To make a long story short, the Big Bad Wah (“BBW”) lived up to my expectations and even more! I was thoroughly impressed! The sweep is perfect on this pedal, and unlike other wah pedals I’ve tested, doesn’t have a “breaking point” where the wah effect comes on suddenly. It’s nice and gradual. The total physical sweep of the pedal was also well-though out. It’s wide enough so you can add subtle portions of the effect in, but not so wide that you have to travel a lot to create a dramatic wah effect.

The one thing that used to irk me with my Cry Baby was how it would sound REALLY thin when I got to its full extent. Not so with the BBW. It gets trebly at the top, yes, but not so much that it’ll shatter glass, which means that in the middle of a lead, you can peg the pedal and get some great trebly voicing! On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest setting didn’t put a complete muzzle on my tone. It’s more of a compression effect, with a bleeding off of the highs. That means that your notes still stay fairly clear. Very cool!

Another thing that got me diggin’ the pedal was the different voicings. It has two: Vintage and Modern. The Vintage is a classic VOX wah tone, while the Modern includes the Vintage voice and adds a 10 db boost which is controllable via a Drive knob. Not only that, the Big Bad Wah also has an inductor switch that allows you to choose between a classic UK type of inductor, or a more modern USA type of inductor. The tone shaping possibilities with the BBW are immense!

Needless to say, I walked out of the store with the pedal. 🙂 Once I got a chance, I got a backing track going from one of my songs called, “In the Vibe,” and recorded a quick clip. I realize that I could probably have been a bit more dramatic with the wah effect in certain places, but I’m still getting used to the sweep. I’ll have better clips once I do a full review. In any case, give it a listen.

Also here’s the video I was talking about earlier:

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Ran across these demos on YouTube, and thought I’d share them here. This first one is from VOX at the NAMM show, and sound quality stinks, but the dude’s explanation of the differences between the two different voices (British or American):

This next clip comes from someone apparently in Japan, where the pedal was recently released. The sound quality is much better, and he inserted little conversation bubbles to show his settings. Picture quality isn’t that great but the quality of the sound makes up for it. Plus, it’s kind of amazing that this dude has such clever and articulate feet that he can make all the adjustments with his toes! HA! He’s not bad at guitar either! Check it out!

Especially after viewing the second clip (despite Mr. Clever Toes), this is definitely my next pedal – at least until after I try it out for myself. 🙂

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Big Bad Wah by VOX and Joe Satriani

Big Bad Wah by VOX and Joe Satriani

Ever since I tried out the VOX Satchurator a few months ago, I’ve been waiting for the this wah pedal to arrive. If it is anything close to the quality of sound that the Satchurator produces, I know that this is going to be a great pedal. The pedal features two modes: Mode 1 is classic VOX wah; while Mode 2 features the ability to variably adjust the gain and voicing profiles of the wah to dial in a variety of tonal possibilities.

One thing I take note of when evaluating pedals is if I can reproduce the manufacturer’s or endorser’s claims about a particular feature. For instance, when Satch touted the “More” switch on the Satchurator, during my tests, I was expecting more volume when my amp was clean, and more balls when my tubes were saturated. The pedal definitely lived up to that claim.

With the Big Bad Wah, VOX states, “Designed to Joe Satriani’s custom specs is the design of the pedal pot itself, delivering a smooth, musical tone throughout the entire sweep of the pedal.” This is huge, because I’ve found in my evaluations of different kinds of wah pedals that when you back off the pedal, your output becomes a bit muddy, so you end up never fully backing off because the wah will just suck your tone. Or seemingly to protect against this, manufacturers will narrow the sweep range, so the wah becomes much less dramatic. I found this to be the case with Morley Steve Vai Bad Horsie, which was very musical throughout its sweep range, but overall, didn’t have that dramatic of a sweep as compared to others I tried. So I ended up just getting a Dunlop Cry Baby, and despite its shortcomings, I’ve come to love it.

But I’ve always loved Satch’s wah tone, not because I want to necessarily sound like him, but because it’s just a killer tone, and highly expressive. And as with the Satchurator, Joe was involved in every aspect of the design process, so the Big Bad Wah promises to be of the exacting standards for which Professor Satchifunkilus is known. Once the Big Bad Wah is available in stores, which should be soon, considering the announcement of its release was made at NAMM, you can be assured I’ll be running down to the local shop to try one out!

Some online retailers like Sweetwater, are doing pre-orders for $219. That’s not a bad price to pay, especially for a signature pedal. And I dig the fact that Joe really wanted all his signature pedals to be affordable and within the reach of a wide range of people. In any case, all this combined makes for me taking a serious look at the Big Bad Wah

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Dunlop Cry Baby GCB-95

Dunlop Cry Baby GCB-95

About a week ago, I wrote an article about getting a wah pedal. I had tried out and listened to several, and actually dug on a lot of them, but I just kept on coming back to the original Cry Baby. There has just been something about the classic sound of the Cry Baby that just makes me close my eyes with a smile of complete satisfaction while I’m playing.

For other players, this classic wah sound may not be their cup of tea, but this is the sound I grew up with. Every cop show on TV in the 70’s had a guitar played through a wah, and of course, let’s not forget Jimi who took it to another dimension. And it’s not like I’m going to try to play like Jimi – frankly, no one can – it’s just a sound that I’m used to, and it puts me in a time warp, back to when I was a kid.

Did nostalgia make me pick the GCB-95? It probably had a lot to do with it, but that’s the thing about tone: It’s what you like that matters. I didn’t get that nostalgic feeling of my youth with a lot of the other pedals. Yeah, I do admit there were some really awesome ones out there that I was ready to buy, but I figured that those could actually wait. I just couldn’t justify making a substantial investment into something that was so new to me. But I could get a Cry Baby at a fraction of the price, and I figured that since I was so new to playing with a wah, it would be best to instead make a minor investment to try out the technology before I spent a couple of hundred on a more expensive model. So, I forked out a reasonable $49 bucks at my local used gear shop for Cry Baby in excellent condition and saved even more money to hedge my bet.

So after a day, what’s my take? Well… I should’ve gotten a wah a long time ago! Don’t know what it is about it, but I’ve taken to it like a fish to water! Not to say that I’ve completely mastered it in a day, but it sure does feel natural. And you know what? The Original Cry Baby may be bordering on the vintage with respect to tone, it may only cost $69 used, and may be considered way too low tech for more modern players’ likings, but it totally does the job for me. I’m very satisfied.

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