The term "off-label" comes from the medical world. It generally means prescribing a medication for something not listed on the FDA-approved label. Just as a medicine can be used to treat many diseases and symptoms, we can use our effects for secondary uses the maker never intended.
By now, you likely already know about the conventional order for routing your effects. And you know about the "proper" way to dial in your pedals for the desired sounds. But no one ever started a revolution with conventional or proper uses of musical instruments and gear. Speaking of “Revolution,” that perfect, fuzzed out, and massive intro riff was only created after the Beatles started breaking all of the rules and freaking out the engineers at Abbey Road.
So today, we're going to start breaking some rules and turning convention on its head. Today, we’re going off-label with our effects!
Buffer as Stabilizer
It's common knowledge that vintage style fuzzes, especially the Fuzz Face, need to come before any buffers. And if you want them to sound their vintage best and to interact with the controls on your guitar, that's the proper course of action. But the world is full of fuzzes that have sometimes cool and sometimes horrible (depending on the situation) interactions with the controls on your guitar.
Let’s use the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory as an example. Depending on how the five knobs on the Fuzz Factory are set, it can create some crazy, piercing feedback and other various noises. Most of the time that “unpredictability” is what I love about the Fuzz Factory. But by placing a buffer (or buffered pedal) between your guitar and the Fuzz Factory, you can decouple your guitar and the Fuzz Factory and eliminate much of this unpredictability. And while this may seem like sacrilege, Nels Cline runs his Fuzz Factory after a buffer for this exact reason. Sure, you lose the craziness, but you gain access to sounds that are otherwise masked in feedback and oscillations.
Extreme Use of EQ and Filters
If you don’t have an EQ pedal, get one. Subtle use of EQ can be perfect for mating picky guitars, to picky pedals and picky amps. That’s how “the man” wants you to use EQ—gently, economically, and transparently. Don’t listen to the man. He hates you and he hates your rock n’ roll (or whatever that noise you are playing is called). Screw him, use EQ to wreak havoc across your bandwidth. Tweak, tweeze, make shapes with the sliders, kick it D. Boon style and cut your lows and boost your highs. It’s your pedal. Burn the instruction manual and use it however you damn well please.
Oh, you want to get crazier, you want to make the “bad” and the “weird” sounds? Quick, go buy a used Boss AC-2 or AC-3 Acoustic Simulator. This pedal is intended to make your electric guitar sound like an acoustic. And it does this mostly be boosting some frequencies and cutting other; it’s basically a highly specialized EQ pedal. But don’t worry, we’re not going to play campfire songs, although we might catch some things on fire. The Boss AC series is expecting to see a clean, unaltered signal from an electric guitar. Surprise—we’re gonna hit it with the full fury of a cranked Big Muff. Now those carefully designed controls for dialing in the “Body” and “Top” tones of an acoustic guitar are going to further gut the mids from your signal and emphasize thundering lows and piercing highs. It’s a crazy sound. It’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not what Boss intended, but it is pretty damn cool. If you want to poke the bear further, place something like the SubDecay Octasynth before the Big Muff. The moving filters in the Octasynth drive the Acoustic Pedal even crazier and the resulting screeches, chirps, and burps sound like a giant, angry, robot hornet.
Delay and Verb Before Dirt
Once upon a time, amps didn't have effects loops. In fact, at the dawn of the electric guitar most amps didn't even have effects. The earliest delay and reverb pedals were run straight into the front end of an amp. And once that amp was really cooking and creating distortion, the character of those effects changed. Heck, with a small amp, the added harmonic content of those effects was enough to make the amp distort. There was no such thing as "clean repeats" in those situations. The early, stand-alone Fender reverb units were placed between your guitar and your amp. And when the amp distorted, so did your reverb. That’s part of the magic of those ‘60s dripping-wet-with-reverb surf guitar sounds. With an early tape delay, your delay sound running into your distorted amp was a smeared cloud of pre-psychedelic ambience. And it was awesome.
So while the current day conventional wisdom in that delay and reverb should be run in the effects loop, or at least last in your chain, there are some great sounds to be had by bucking convention. Catalinbread even suggests this type of placement in the user manual for its Belle Epoch. They say it should be placed before their foundation overdrives (overdrives that emulate the sound of classic tube amps), but don’t be afraid to try running your delay into your fuzz. Nobody is going to get hurt and you might just create something awesome.
Underdrive is the up-and-coming effect type or term for effects-obsessed guitarists, but it’s hardly a new concept. Back in the June 20, 2014 issue of Tone Report, I interviewed Tad Kubler of The Hold Steady. At the time, he was using a Boss Deluxe Reverb pedal in an underdrive role even if he didn’t apply that label to what he was doing: “I have one of the Boss Deluxe Reverb pedals that I use to clean things up. I brought the volume and the gain way down on it, so when I step on that it cleans up my tone and I have a little reverb and tremolo and a cleaner tone.”
The simple definition is that underdrive is the Yin to overdrive’s Yang. While the effect of overdrive is to push a clean amp into distortion, underdrive is the effect of using a pedal to “clean up” a distorted amp. Sure, you can do it by just rolling back on your guitar’s volume knob. But just like the best overdrives feature some element of tone sculpting (think of the mid-hump in a Tube Screamer), tone sculpting is helpful in underdriving as well.
These are just four examples of off-label uses for your effects. Don’t be fenced in by these ideas. Experiment with them and go further. If you come across a crazier idea, let us know. We’re all in this together. We just want to make cool sounds.