Multi-effect vs. single-effect guitar pedals

DigiTech RP360

When it comes to pedals, I'm really particular about what I use and why.

The only effects I use right now are all contained within the DigiTech RP360, a very nice multi-effect unit. Compared to a single-effect pedal, the RP360 is big, but when compared to other multi-effect pedals, it's quite compact. It's not as compact as the Korg Pandora Stomp (I don't think you can get any smaller for multi-effects than the Pandora,) but the extra switchgear on the RP360 makes it far easier to change sounds, use the built-in looper, and so on compared to the Korg.

Single-effect pedals are not meant to be used at home

This is a fact that escapes most guitar players for some reason. The majority of single-effect pedals are meant to be used live and loud, and not in a quiet, controlled environment at a computer.

Take the classic distortion pedal, the BOSS DS-1. You play that at home, and you will hate it. That pedal was designed in the late 1970s at a time when amp channel switching didn't exist. In other words, designed for use with an amplifier. BOSS designed that pedal for use with a live rig and not a set of computer speakers or ear buds.

Take that same DS-1 and run it through an amp on a clean channel and output to a 2x12 or 4x12 cabinet, and only then you'll say, "Okay, now this pedal actually sounds pretty good."

Multi-effect pedals must have all modeling OFF when running live

"Wow, my multi-effect sounds so good at home... why is it so difficult to run through an amp?"

Answer: Amp modeling. Turn it off. All of it.

For any setting you have on your multi-effect pedal or rackmount unit that you really like, you have to create a copy of it for your live rig that has all the EQ and all the amplifier modeling 100% turned off. For example, you could name a preset "GUITAR-S" for studio and the copy "GUITAR-L" for live. Yeah, you have to do this.

"Separate your rigs" is still valid advice today

Amplifier modeling has only existed since the 1990s. Affordable amplifier modeling that actually sounds right has only been around for about 15 years.

And as far as affordable amp modeling that absolutely sounds right out-of-the-box, that's only existed for less than 5 years at the time I write this. The RP360 is an example of that.

For live rigs, however, pedals are still necessary.

The standard advice given by many is that your home rig and your live rig should be completely separate things. Do you have to do this? No, but it helps.

What makes for a good live effects rig?

The answer is simple, but some players have a really hard time understanding this.

A good live effects rig should be as stupidly easy to use as possible.

Now I'll explain what that means where your effects are concerned.

Is there any display that shows letters or numbers? FAIL.

If the effect shows any sort of number or letter on a display no matter how basic it is, that's a recipe for failure for a live rig.

Live pedal effects should never require any number or letters you have to read at any time.

Does it not have obvious knob level indicators? FAIL.

Some pedal designs in an attempt to by stylish use knobs that look good but from a standing position can't be read. That's a fail.

A quick test of good pedal design is to put it on the floor in a dimly-lit part of a room, stand in front of it and see if you can read the knobs. If you can't, the design sucks and you'll have to get some coding dot labels, clip with scissors and stick them where the knob level indicators are for extra visual assistance.

"Only old guys need to do that."

Wrong... so very wrong. It doesn't matter if you're 15 or 55 or someone with 20/10 vision. Bad design is bad design. If the knob design sucks, watch how much using cheap coding labels improves things.

Does it require a power supply? FAIL.

Every pedal in your setup should have the option of running on battery alone. If the pedal requires a power supply, that's a fail.

The only thing you should have to plug in to a wall should be the amp itself and nothing else.

Examples of near-perfect pedals for a live rig


Seymour Duncan Vapor Trail

This is a delay effect pedal, and a darned good one. The knobs are really easy to figure out, really easily seen at a distance, and the Delay knob is clear because its light pulses to the delay time you set. Very nice design all around. And yes, it sounds good too.


MXR Phase 90

The Phase 90 is an old-school pedal, but then again, nothing ever needed to be changed about it. One knob and one indicator light is all you ever needed.


DigiTech Bad Monkey

This is one ugly-ass overdrive pedal, but it sounds great. You will also never mistake this pedal for anything else since it's green. The Bad Monkey is straightforward simplicity. Level (volume,) low-EQ, high-EQ, gain. Simple and easy, one indicator light.

When you're at home...

...then by all means, use all the segmented, digital or whatever kind of displays you want. Use all the computers you want. Use all the amp modeling you want. Use it all. At home, you're not kicking around your gear or subjecting it to abuse of any kind, so yeah, go for it.

But when you're not at home, use a different rig that can handle being kicked around, and use one that can be read at a distance. Avoid numbered/lettered displays, use coding dot labels if you have to, and so on. Most importantly, KEEP IT DIRT SIMPLE. If you don't, you'll just end up frustrated.

Published 2015 Jun 15