Anybody embarking on a journey of personal development will find that their needs change and develop along with their skills. This applies to hobbies and leisure pursuits just as much as the world of work and education; a footballer might require better boots to finesse their tackling, an artist will certainly want to expand their range of brushes, and an electric guitarist will probably wish to expand the range of tones available from their existing rig.
Unless you're firmly devoted to a pure jazz route in your guitar playing (where TOTAL cleanliness of voicing is king), there's a good chance you've already started considering ways of tailoring your sound beyond what can be achieved with just the controls on your guitar and amplifier. This can easily be achieved through one of two routes - assembling a collection of Stomp Boxes or investing in a Multi FX unit. But which route to follow?
Our Colleagues Conundrum...
This conundrum was recently forced upon our content manager, a guy whose devotion to learning the blues had already landed him in a pretty good 5-piece band with some other cheerfully determined rookie musicians! And it was at their second gig that the issue occurred. Our man was blissfully unaware that most small venues DON'T provide amplifiers, and turned up with only his Stratocaster, guitar strap, and a pocket full of green Dunlop Tortex picks. Oops...
Fortunately help was only minutes away. A guitarist friend was due to come along to the show, and just in the process of leaving his apartment when the SOS phone call came through. Unable to carry his impressive Marshall stack system on the bus, the friend instead loaded his trusty BOSS ME-80 Multi-FX AND beloved Electro-Harmonix Big Muff stomp box into a small rucksack, arriving at the show in plenty of time for our colleague to try both units. Despite loving the awesome dirty blues sounds that the E-H is famous for, he elected instead to use the much more versatile BOSS, which the venue engineer connected straight into the desk.
I'm told by the rest of our colleagues’ band that, despite ten hilarious minutes of absolute terror as he tried to figure out the settings on the BOSS unit, the guitar sound at the gig was actually pretty sweet. This naturally didn't stop them from telling him off for forgetting his amp in the first place!
Which Way to Go?
This incident has inspired our content manager into exploring way to enhance the basic blues tone he gets from his amp by trying out Stomp Boxes and Multi-FX units. Let's explore the advantages and disadvantages of both.
These devices come in a huge variety of sizes and price ranges, with an enormous choice of effects built-in. And the BOSS ME-80 that saved our colleagues gig even featured a functional pre-amp, with built-in tone controls that helped to create the illusion of a 'normal' guitar amp. So many good points to think about, including...
- Physical simplicity: One Multi-FX unit, one power supply, two guitar cables, and that's it - you're good to go!
- Range of sounds: Even basic beginners Multi-FX units will contain loads of effects to play with - many of which you won't have considered even trying – along with some kind of pre-amp to provide basic overall tonal colour. And some will allow you to edit the effects signal chain, altering the sound even further.
- Pre-sets: An often-overlooked bonus. Rookies won't be too sure how certain effects should be dialled in, so some pre-set sounds can really assist that learning curve.
- Figuring it all out: With 5 different stomp boxes, you get 5 different manuals. One Multi-FX unit has one manual. You have to admit, that sounds easier!
- Price: It's possible to pay over $500 for some individual boutique stomp boxes. That sort of money buys a number of different Multi-FX units.
But on the flip-side...
- Range of sounds (again): Choice is a good thing. But too much choice can be overwhelming. And enthusiasm can lead many inexperienced players to dial in too many effects at the same time, which almost always sounds terrible.
- Difficulty in use: Most modern Multi-FX units tend to use a graphical menu-based control - tricky enough to operate even at home, never mind trying to edit or dial-in new sounds in the middle of a gig.
- Failure risk: if your Multi-FX unit experiences a fault or even a simple power-supply issue, your entire FX setup is wiped out.
- Quality: This varies massively between different models of Multi-FX, but frequently tends to be lower than that of individual stomp boxes
A boutique pedal like the Electro-Harmonic Big Muff is an absolute thing of beauty, doing one simple specified job VERY well. And this goes for most individual guitar stomp boxes - the advantages are numerous...
- Unique sounds: BOSS, Vox, Electro-Harmonix, Ibanez, the list of manufacturers famed for particular sounds and pedal uses is pretty much endless, making it simpler to more exactingly tailer your tone.
- Practical simplicity: Distortion? That’s the green pedal! Tremolo? Hit the yellow one! Wah-wah? Wiggle your foot on the black one! One-pedal, one-job – frequently much easier than remembering to hit the right pre-set on a Multi-FX unit...
- Quality: Stomp boxes are built to be - well - stomped on! Manufacturers know this, and tend to screw them together very, very well indeed.
- Flexibility: Like LEGO, you can connect stomp boxes together however you choose. Units can be swapped out and in at your whim, and signal chains simply assembled in any order you need.
- Re-sale potential: Stomp boxes hold their value much better than Multi-FX units, and some can even appreciate over time!
However, there's always disadvantages
- Purchase price: There's a reason why the re-sale value is so good - Stomp boxes aren't the cheapest toys in the first place. And a collection of individual stomp boxes will ALWAYS be more expensive than assembling an equivalent set of sounds with a Multi-FX.
- One-trick pony: The pre-amp functions on the multi-FX meant that our colleague was able to manage without an amplifier. Whereas a stomp box will cover its intended purpose – and nothing more...
- Hidden costs: Even after you've paid for the pedals, you'll still need the patch cables, power supply unit(s), not to mention the pedalboard/case itself, none of which are especially cheap. And then there's the next nightmare...
- Assembly: throwing together all those pedals on one floorboard takes some serious space, and can involve serious complexity. Meaning....
- Fault finding: Yup, if just one pedal goes then your signal chain is immediately compromised. Which one went wrong? And is the middle of a show REALLY the best time to try and work this out?
There's a great deal to consider when working out how to expand your sound with any sort of guitar effects. Our colleague went for the multi-FX option in his moment of need, largely due to the built-in pre-amp offering the most immediate solution to his problems. Having said this, we also know he's right on the verge of ordering a Big Muff, purely due to the incredible quality of tone from E-H Stomp boxes that's hard to replicate elsewhere!
Fortunately, the range of options out there right now for all guitarists is fantastic, and continues to grow each year. And that's great news for rookies wondering how to tailor their tone. Go to your local music shop, try a handful of stomp boxes, spend a while playing with the options on a Multi-FX, and seriously consider how you might use either of these going forward in your guitar journey. We guarantee you'll find something that suits! Until next time...