I recently stumbled upon some old gear and that took me down memory lane to my first ever pedal – a distortion pedal and all the questions I had about it back then. Over the years, I have come to learn a few things that I wish I had known back then. I am sure there are many who are starting their effects pedal journey now and would like a concise yet precise guide on how to proceed. This one is for all of you. So, without further ado, let us begin.
A couple of things to remember before we begin:
Usually, people tend to pay a lot of attention to the pedal itself but almost none of it on other things like patch cables and the power supply. Let us talk about patch cables. This is the cable that you will use to connect the pedal to the guitar on one side and the amp on the other side. The tendency for a beginner is to get the cheapest cable out there which can have several problems including affecting the sound quality of the pedal. Get a decent set of cables even if it means spending a little more money.
Even more important is the power supply. The question of whether to go for a battery or a dedicated power supply might seem confusing. Batteries might seem cheap at first but their cost can add up very quickly. When it comes to a dedicated power supply, your best bet is to spend some money and get one from a reputed brand. The dreaded noise when using a distortion pedal has driven many guitarists mad and I was one of them.
My guitar on its own wasn’t noisy but with the distortion pedal connected, there was this constant hiss that just ruined the whole experience. I tried everything from changing audio cables, amps, and guitars to no avail and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I borrowed another power supply from a fellow guitarist and the noise just simply vanished. The point I am trying to make is that this part of your journey as a guitarist is a delicate one. The last thing you need is something that constantly annoys you. When buying the pedal, research and get a dependable power supply and patch cables as well.
One last thing is to ensure that the power supply you get is compatible with the pedal. Ensure that it matches the voltage requirement exactly and the minimum current requirement. The other attribute that should match exactly is the polarity. Usually, pedals will have three sockets. The smallest in diameter is the one meant to connect the power source. If you observe closely, there will be a symbol somewhere near this socket consisting of circles and horizontal lines. Ensure that the power supply has the exact same symbol somewhere on it or on the box that it comes in. If you are buying the power supply online, this will usually be provided in one of the pictures.
Assuming you have done all of that, let us take a look at how exactly you can connect the pedal to the amp and the guitar.
Things you will need:
- A guitar
- An amp
- The pedal itself connected to a power source
- Two audio cables or patch cable with 1/4″ jacks at both ends
Step by step procedure to connect a distortion pedal:
- Step 1: Ensure everything is turned off:
This is important for two reasons. The first is to protect your equipment. There can be a sudden surge in current or voltage when the cables are first plugged in which can cause damage to the circuitry inside the amp and the pedal. Most modern audio gears are designed to withstand such fluctuations but it is still a good practice to avoid the risk completely by turning everything off. The other reason is that it will help avoid the popping sound that can be heard when plugging the cables in. This can be extremely annoying while also being detrimental to the speaker.
- Step 2: Some precautionary steps
Turn down the volume knob on your amp to 0 and the all the knobs on the effects pedal to its lowest value. This is also a precautionary step so that you can avoid any unsavory loud sounds such as screeches and howls as soon as everything is turned on.
- Step 3: Connect the audio and power cables:
Begin by connecting the connector of the power source to the pedal. Then connect the power cable to the amp. Again, ensure that everything is turned off at the main power outlet level. Take an audio cable, connect one end of it to the guitar and the other end to the input socket of the pedal. This will be marked usually with the word ‘in’. Take the other audio cable, connect one end of it to the ‘out’ socket of your distortion pedal and the other end to the input of the amp.
- Step 4: Turn everything on:
Turn the main supply on. Turn the amp on. Ensure that the volume level of the amp and the guitar is turned all the way down.
- Step 5: Engage the pedal:
Your pedal will have a footswitch. Step on that lightly. You can use your hands as well. This will engage the pedal and this will be usually indicated by a LED turning on.
- Step 6: Let there be sound
Turn the volume one-thirds the way up on the amp. Turn all the knobs on the distortion pedal to the 12-o clock position. Slowly increase the volume on the guitar until you can hear it at an acceptable level.
- Step 7: Fine-tuning and finding your tone
This is perhaps the most important step of all. Depending on the distortion pedal you have, you will have different knobs but they all usually control a similar set of parameters. There will be a level knob that acts as a volume knob. Then there will be a tone knob that works similar to the tone knob on your guitar, there is the ‘dist’ knob which controls the amount of distortion you have. There could be other knobs as well. Here is where a spirit of exploration comes in handy. Keep mixing and matching different values for each knob until you find a tone that you like. Do this enough times and you will get a fair idea of what each knob does. Eventually, you will get to a point where you will be able to dial in the exact tone that you want. Trust me, this journey of exploration and learning is a highly exciting one.
Once you are done, turn the volume down on the guitar and the amp, switch off the amp and then switch off the main power supplies to the amp and pedal. You can then proceed to disconnect the different cables.
There you have it. By now you should be equipped with all the necessary know-how to use a distortion pedal and get started on an incredibly fulfilling journey.