The Journey to my First Pedalboard

The Journey to my First Pedalboard

Over the last 10 years at JAMS I’ve been fortunate to experiment with different amp and pedal combinations. Although I own the store, my day to day responsibilities don’t normally allow me to test out guitars and pedals all day. So, when I find myself with a rare spare moment I’ll grab a pedal off the shelf and stick it on my board with hopeful anticipation that it makes magic. My motto has always been, “less it more”, prioritizing the least amount of pedals I can use to get the tone I need. It’s birthed some interesting pedal combinations. Using pedals has not always been my method for tone. In fact, until I opened the store in 2013 I almost exclusively just used modeling amps or guitar processors. 

Through this three part series post I’m going to share with you my experiences. First, I’ll share where it all started, my first amp/pedal combinations from the folklore of my youth. For part two, I’ll discuss my favorite gear that I’ve used over the years, and my unfavorite gear. Finally, I’ll share my tips and tricks, and warnings on the steps to make a great board. 

For this week I want to share where it all began. Reflecting on the past is key to understanding the path on where I am today. 

It all started my senior year in high school. I had many years of piano lessons, and six years of high band playing the saxophone. Unfortunately, with those years of learning I still didn’t comprehend how I could fully use those instruments to make music that suited my taste. My teachers taught a more traditional approach. So, I didn’t understand improvisation and was limited to using sheet music. I saw the guitar as a pathway to play music that was more my taste. I’ve shared the story of my first guitar in previous blogs so feel free to read that story. But the gear I used is an untold story. The first piece of equipment I used with my beloved Epiphone Les Paul was a Crate Half Stack with matching cab. Oh…boy!

I can’t remember the exact model of the amp. The picture above is not mine, but pretty close. It was a 90’s era two channel solid state amp with built in reverb and chorus. I didn’t pick out his amp. It was my dad’s, it was there, so I played it. I had no idea how to use this amp or what it did. I had no idea what a chorus effect was. I had no idea how to dial in tone, I had no idea why when I hit the amp head it made this awful noise, which I later discovered was the spring reverb tank. Knowing what I now know about Crate amps, it probably wasn’t the greatest, and I probably played it too loud, and awful. I mean, I was just learning how to play so I’m sure it was terrible for anyone who listened. After all, all new players should have a high powered amp to accentuate the learning process, right? 

But, I cherish those moments experimenting with that amp: utilizing the classic clean with quirky yet beautiful chorus, playing power chords loud and proud with that solid state distortion…with added chorus…and more reverb. Oh boy, a Epiphone Les Paul with a Crate Solid State Half Stack. I’m sure the tone was incredible. But it was my first amp, so it has a special place in my heart. (Not too special though, I did sell that amp years ago in the store.) Sorry dad.

Even at a young impressionable age I was obsessed with gear. But, I had other interests at the time that took my money, such as collecting basketball cards. (Hey, it led to a Kobe Bryant rookie card). I knew I needed to improve my Crate Half stack, but funds were limited. Thus led me to purchase my first ever guitar pedal, a Digitech RP-200. 

So, I took my “awesome” Crate amp, lack of knowledge, and multiplied it by a 1000. “What is amp modeling?” “ What is chorus?” “ What does compression do?” I had no clue, but I had them all in that little box that was going to solve all my tone needs. I had the magic formula, unlimited options for ultimate tone. The RP-200 was the answer. Yeah, so we all know it didn't work out that way. I just had more creative and unique options to sound bad.  I recall my dear older brother sat down with me one time to help me refine my tone. After going through a number of tone options he asked me which ones I like. After expressing how I thought they all sounded great he let me know that he was only using the amp and the guitar to change the tone. Just had the Digitech on bypass. Well, at the time the RP-200 sounded good to me and I needed it.

Again, as I reflect on this purchase, I realized that the RP-200 probably wasn’t the best choice. But, it was affordable and was another path of learning.  I started to discover more about reverb, chorus, delay, and started to scratch the service of a vast new world.  

Somewhere along the way, I became a huge Line 6 fan. (Probably blame it on Musician’s Friends catalogs and those trips to Mars Music Center.)  Not sure how it started but the idea that you could have so many amp models and different effects in one unit, and it sounded good, appealed to me. The Pod 2.0 quickly topped my want list. One day I found a good buy on a Line 6 DL4 demo model at Mars Music Store before they closed. Why did I buy it?  What did I use it for? I have no idea. But it was Line 6 so I needed it!!!

Even though it was also a digital pedal, it was the first individual pedal that was easy to navigate and I could understand the interface and functions of the pedal. That’s when my love for delay began and I discovered the vast category for the delay effect. Ping Pong, Digital, Tape; all these types of delay effects were at my disposal. Didn’t ever quite figure out Reverse though.  That turned out to be a great purchase, althoughI never fully utilized it to its full potential. I still own that pedal, but once after my next purchase the DL4 hit the bench. 

I was convinced that the Crate was not the solution to tonal bliss, and the RP-200 and DL4 helped, but didn’t satisfy. I began to work on my dad and tried to get him to buy me a Line 6 Flextone amp. The amp was basically a Pod 2.0 in an amp form. My dad…well,  he’s an all or nothing type of feller sometimes. So his idea was an instant upgrade from the the Flextone to the high end flagship amp at the time, the Line 6 Vetta. 

In the year 2000 the Line 6 Vetta was what the Line 6 Helix is today. Unlimited amp models (48), a vast array of cabinets (24), an endless list of effects ( 50). Those specs may seem average by today’s standards but it was amazing for 2000. This is one of the first effects processors that actually modeled amps and pedals, emulated them, and confined them to 100 watt 2 x 12” combo amp. It took awhile, but after months of asking and reminding dad he finally pulled the trigger and ordered the amp for me. 

It turns out that no matter how much you spend on an amp it only sounds good if you know how to use it. I was under the impression that if you spend $1600 on an amp it should sound good no matter what. Plug it in and play and sound amazing right? Well, not exactly. I didn’t know what a Fender ‘53 Tweed Deluxe was, or a Matchless 2 x 12” cab, or an Arbiter Fuzz Face, or any of the models featured on the amp. I didn’t know how to dial it in and make those fine adjustments.I only knew what the presets sounded like, and most of them were bad. So again, with my limited knowledge the full potential of the amp fell short. But it was still loud so… 

Although the Line 6 Vetta was way over my head at the time it still was a quality purchase for me. I still have the amp and use it for practice. Yes, a 100 watt 2 x 12” combo amp is overkill for a practice amp but I make the most of it. Over time I learned about those amp models and effects and learned how to tweak the amp to suit my taste. When I first started I didn’t know what tremolo, or phaser, but through trial and experience I learned. 

From 2000 to 2013 the LIne 6 Vetta was all I knew. I never messed with individual pedals. Never messed with any tube amps. Everything I needed was in the Vetta. Boy I’m glad when I opened my eyes to individual effects and amps. Playing the digital version was satisfying, but playing the real things is a different level.

We all have similar stories in our pursuit of tone. We all start from square one, some of you are there now. I love the JHS Show motto, “Just try stuff”. With the process of exploration and trying things, you never know what you will find. The best teacher is experience. 

For Part II I share about my favorite amps and pedals I’ve used over the last 10 years.