Diving Down the Rabbit Hole of Guitar Effects Pedals

Danish electronic musician and author talks with Making Music about creating his ninth book, Pedal Crush

How do you write a guitar effects encyclopedia that is exhaustive but not exhausting? You dive down the rabbit hole of guitar stompbox pedals and see where it takes you, said Kim Bjorn, Danish electronic musician and co-author of the new book, Pedal Crush. When you pop your head back above ground years later, the goal is to have created something inspirational as well as informational, he says.

“Pedal Crush” by Kim Bjorn and Scott Harper

“There’s been some books about guitar pedals, they’ve mostly been vintage stuff or specific areas, and I needed a book myself that simply gave an overview and also explained the different kinds of effects, and the difference between them,” Bjorn said. “I thought it would be a great thing to have on your studio desk, or on the floor, beside your pedals.”

As Pedal Crush shows, the significance of effects pedals in guitar music cannot be understated. Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai agrees: “Through the years, the ability to phase, distort, flange, delay, harmonize, compress, reverberate, spin, twist, and explode the sound of a conventional guitar going straight into an amp has stimulated many guitarists to write pieces of music that completely depend on those little boxes,” Vai writes in the foreword to the book. “Stompboxes allow the player to delve a little deeper into their own imagination and find things that may have been missed if the pedal wasn’t there with its splendid sonic offerings.”

Guitar legend Steve Vai wrote the foreword to “Pedal Crush.”

Bjorn had been thinking about a book like this since he wrote Push, Turn, Move — a massive guide to electronic music instruments — in 2017, but it took him a few years to figure out how to begin such an ambitious project. When Bjorn stumbled across Scott Harper’s YouTube channel about music objects, “Knobs,” he knew he had found the right guitar expert to join him on the Pedal Crush project.

From primordial tremolo pedals, to pedals that defined the sounds of the 70s (like MXR’s Phase 90), to the holy grail of overdrives (the Klon Centaur), to the 2000s boutique revolution, and into modern software and the fringe pedals of today (like the Korg Miku Stomp, which turns a guitar tone into the voice of anime character Hakune Mitu), Pedal Crush guides readers through over 800 guitar pedals. Even after all that research, Bjorn said one of his biggest takeaways is that less is more.

“Inspiration has always been a big thing for me, you know, to inspire people with these books,” Bjorn said. “You don’t want to read a book and feel bored while you’re doing it, you want to learn, and feel entertained, and you want to discover new, interesting things.” Bjorn also believes that demystifying the complexities of guitar pedals and effects makes them more interesting, rather than removing their magic. “When you get a magical trick explained, it’s just like, ‘Wow, how could they actually do that without me noticing?”

Scott Harper, co-author of “Pedal Crush”

The book starts out with the very basics, defining the parts that make up any given stompbox and defining analog versus digital. Next comes amplification, signal chains, power supply, MIDI, control, multi-FX, and software — with discussion on effects pedals in each category — and advice on putting together a pedalboard. Over 50 interviews with industry veterans — including musicians like Ed O’Brien of Radiohead and Mels Cline of Wilco, as well as pedal engineers from industry giants like BOSS, TC Electronic, and Electro-Harmonix — are interspersed throughout the 372-page anthology.

Accessibility is a key feature of the book, and the authors strove to put descriptions into terms that anybody, novice or expert, could understand. The authors make sure to provide clear and concise definitions of EQ, gain, and clipping, foundational terms that become ubiquitous through the rest of the book. On top of that, Pedal Crush concludes with a thorough timeline of pedal evolution and features a glossary containing succinct definitions of over 150 terms.

“That’s also why I write a book, or get books done, because you can’t keep it all in your head, and I think that’s one of the most important things,” Bjorn said. “And having somewhere where you can just look up things and dive deeper, or just remember again.”

Constructing this deep dive, though, was a daunting challenge. At times, Bjorn and Harper were confronted by inconsistent histories of stompbox creation, which sometimes relied on oral accounts. In some areas, the duo was forced to make educated guesses on certain details. Their hunt for sources to verify their claims paid off: as the authors worked to compile as accurate a history of pedal effects as possible, they uncovered details that previous books on the same subject had overlooked.

Accessibility is a key feature of the book, and the authors strove to put descriptions into terms that anybody, novice or expert, could understand.

Another big hurdle was describing in words nuanced, complex sounds to a reader who cannot hear them; distinguishing similar effects — phaser versus flanger, distortion versus fuzz, reverb versus chorus — was an especially difficult task. “We wanted to put so much into this book, and we still wanted people to be able to lift the book up without any help from mechanical devices,” Bjorn said.

Harper, as a guitarist himself, was the “explorer” for the project, deciding what pedals and effects to cover, while Bjorn handled the organization and research work.

Bjorn jokes that his eyes are square now from researching so many different pedals on YouTube — a happy sacrifice to save his readers from the same square-eyed fate. Even so, he enjoyed navigating the obstacles of this unconventional journey. “One of the things I really learned diving deeper with pedals was that you listen a lot more; you’ll listen more closely to what you’re actually doing, because you might turn that knob one millimeter to the right and you get a different feel to it, or your pedal responds differently to the instrument and to the signal,” Bjorn said.

After years of intense learning and exploration to create Pedal Crush, Bjorn said he has already moved on, and is currently juggling three or four different projects. Like an artist shooting to release an album a year, Bjorn’s goal is to release a new book each year. Though navigating the rabbit’s hole of guitar pedals, with all its twists and turns, was overwhelming at times, overcoming these challenges was rewarding. With all his projects, Bjorn cherishes the writing and research process as much as he enjoys holding the finished product.

“I have so many more things I think would be valuable to do, and I want to see myself on paper in nice color print,” Bjorn said. “For me it’s like solving puzzles, it’s like a Rubik’s cube: You fiddle around with it and suddenly, ‘This is the way I’m going to do it,’ and the pieces fall into place in your head.”

 


A LIFE OF SONIC EXPLORATION

Kim Bjorn

Electronic musician Kim Bjorn had dipped his toes in the waters of guitar effects before, but his new book Pedal Crush was more of a 40-foot cliff jump. That said, Bjorn is a veteran of sonic exploration, and this was far from his first voyage into sound waves unknown. In fact, Bjorn’s passion for music is in large part a passion for sonic experimentation.

“I think that’s part of the adventure of listening to music, that there’s something new that you can’t quite figure out,” Bjorn said. He doesn’t have a favorite band or artist, only favorite songs and sounds. His sonic curiosity makes for an ever-changing listening rotation. “I can equally enjoy a two-hour noise live set in Tokyo, a techno set in Berlin, or a jazz night in Copenhagen,” he said.

For Bjorn, music is and always has been a physical thing, something you feel in your stomach when the bass thumps at a nightclub, something to envelope yourself when you need to depart from everyday monotony.

“Music kind of becomes a tapestry or a part of your surroundings — something you can disappear in.”

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Patrick McCarthy is a graduate student in the Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism program at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and Making Music magazine intern. Find more of his work at https://www.linkedin.com/in/patmcca/

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