You won’t be surprised to discover that, here at GuitarHead, our single favourite toys all have 6-strings attached to them. We play with them, we cuddle them, we love them, and we don’t share nicely with the other children in our office. Most of our other favourite toys tend to be ones we can attach to our guitars, and pride of place in the collection of electronic musical knickknacks currently littering my desk belongs to the loop pedal – possibly the most fun a guitarist can have when making noise by themselves.
We’ve already take a general look at this relatively recent musical phenomenon in our recent ‘Loop Pedals – an Introduction’ article, charting the history of looping even before the game-changing Boss RC-20 was unleashed upon an awe-struck public in 2001. These devices, which should absolutely be regarded as ‘pedals’ rather than ‘effects’, have opened completely new directions in both the composition and performance of music across multiple genres, powered by an incredible mix of instruments and a bucketload of imagination.
Everyone from beatboxers to bagpipers have got in on the act somewhere over the past two decades, with hundreds of guitarists playing a major role in exploring the possibilities of this truly fresh musical discipline from day one. Let’s take a closer look at seven of our favourite loopiest players...
Two separate but memorable television performances in the mid-noughties were absolutely key to showcasing the possibilities of the loop pedal for solo artists performing live. And both involved the same artist playing the same song. Scottish-born singer-songwriter KT Tunstall took her beloved Gibson Dove to the British television stage of Later... with Jools Holland in 2005 (with only 24 hours’ notice following the cancellation of another artist), and then wowed the US audience of Jay Leno in 2006, playing her folk blues stomper Black Horse and the Cherry Tree on both occasions to enormous critical acclaim. The track subsequently charted at #28 in the UK, at #20 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and ended up being used by a contestant on American idol. Acoustic guitarists, both female and male, had suddenly found both a new icon AND a new way of playing!
Not to be confused with the biggest real estate franchise company in America, Keller Williams has to be one of the most frenetic solo performers ever to use a loop pedal on guitar - not to mention bass, synth, theremin and other instruments. Spanning and frequently combining genres as diverse as bluegrass, folk, funk, and jazz into his music, Williams remains a live and festival circuit favourite in the USA, and any opportunity to watch him jamming (something he can be relied upon to do in front of ANY audience) should not be missed...
Two-time Grammy nominee Phil Keaggy definitely deserves the qualification of 'a guitarists guitarist', having been frequently cited as one of the worlds top three finger-style players by various Guitar Player Magazine readers polls. An active musician since 1966, he also stands out as probably the world’s foremost exponent of using looping within contemporary Christian music - whether rock, jazz or new-age based. A number of guitar, string and effects companies have, very sensibly, called on his skills to showcase their products over the years!
It might surprise you to learn that, out of all the named artists within this article, Ed Sheeran is the least prolific user of loop pedals. But as the most highly visible international ambassador for live looping, he's probably done more to popularise the technique than anyone, with tracks like You Need Me, I Don't Need You and Shape Of You helping to propel this legendary solo troubadour to truly Olympian heights - he's the second most streamed Spotify artist ever, and holds the record for highest grossing tour of all-time. Sheeran’s own custom loop pedal is called 'Chewie 2', designed with his tech Trevor Dawkins and boasting an internal Boss RC-20.
You can't help but sometimes feel envious of multi-instrumentalists. Indie-rock genius Andrew Bird is just as likely to be singing, whistling, playing some mean violin (his primary instrument) or even hammering a glockenspiel, as he is to be strumming a guitar into a loop station during his magnificent solo performances. But his skill at combining these sounds has led to 15 studio albums (not including EP's, live records and appearances on other artists works) and a seriously busy tour schedule.
Another multi-instrumentalist to have truly capitalised on the potential of looping is Norwegian Jarle Bernhoft, who’s frankly astounding vocal stylings combined with some subtle guitar genius on his Islander album contributed to a nomination for the 2015 Grammy Award for Best R&B album - the first ever time a non-American had ever been considered. Categorising his style remains tricky - think somewhere between modern soul and seriously open-minded jazz - but the rhythms this man creates are breath-taking. His performance of C'mon Talk on The Ellen DeGeneres Show was another pivotal moment for loop pedal exposure in the mainstream American consciousness.
We won't even attempt to categorise the work of this musician, producer, composer, and student of such luminaries as Pat Martin and Leonard Bernstein. The skills of guitarist David Torn have appeared on recordings by Madonna and Bowie, films like The Departed and Velvet Goldmine, and within his own releases that range from 'jazz' to 'seriously abstract' in description. These sonic landscapes take the sonic possibilities of looped guitar in some beautifully original directions - not 'easy listening' but 'essential listening' in our opinion.
Wrapping it up
And there you have it – just a brief snapshot of the talent currently using loop pedals to make the world of guitar playing that little bit more interesting. From bedroom players to professional buskers, and from open mic nights to stadium gigs, the digital looper has cemented its place in musical performance discipline – and is definitely here to stay.
One of my colleagues is eyeing my RC-30 up from across the office even as I type this. Hmmm – to share or not to share? Until next time...