I never intended to play electric guitar. I would have been content to forever spend my time in the wholly acoustic realm. But our worship team had a season when we were light on personnel and I was recruited to cross over to the dark side (that is, they asked me to rotate in to the lead guitar spot on occasion).
I like to have my fun with my electric guitar friends, poking fun at their tendency to add noise to an otherwise pleasant musical enterprise–but I do have to admit. . . they’ve got some very cool toys! My foray into the land of lead guitar has forced me to get comfortable with the marvelous variety of pedals available to contemporary musicians that allow us to shape, shift, and mold tone. A mandolin player will never need all the same effects as an electric guitar player, but some of them are indispensable for your mando rig.
Guitar traditionalists have a different physical pedal for every effect. The result is a pedalboard that takes up more floor space than most keyboards. Unless you’ve got your own roadie, that’s way too much stuff to drag around. A more reasonable approach is a multi-effects pedal so that you can have access to all the effects you need in a single, compact unit. By way of example, in the past I’ve used a Zoom A2.1u Acoustic Effects Pedal, and I am currently using a Line 6 HD500 (which is more complex, but also more versatile). Both units allow me to pick and choose how I’d like to shape my signal.
Each of the individual components discussed below can absolutely be added one pedal at a time for your mando rig, but using one of these all-in-one devices simplifies things a lot.
So now you’ve got yourself a multi-effects processor–what do you do with it? Here are the top three things you are likely to use:
Direct Input (DI)
Often overlooked, yet indispensable. The DI will allow you to send your shiny, processed mandolin signal to the sound board. Your sound engineer will appreciate being able to hand you an XLR cable to plug in without needing to go through all the trouble of a direct box plus battery and/or phantom power.
The most useful trick to have in your bag is the ability to increase/decrease your volume at the touch–or stomp–of a button. This is so that you can quickly switch from a lower volume while strumming out rhythm parts (which have a higher natural volume) to a louder, boosted signal when you are ready to play those killer solos and fills. There are different ways to accomplish this. You could use a true Volume Pedal with the foot rocker that you roll down to get quieter and up to get louder. Another approach (the one I use) is to have a second patch that adds 4-6 db of extra volume. When it is time to solo, I patch up. I patch back down again when I’m back to a rhythm part. Proper use of a volume pedal or volume boost patch really helps your sound engineer out. They won’t have to ride your fader quite so much to make sure that you are heard properly.
Rounding out the list of the most indispensable electronics for a mandolin player is EQ. Using EQ is often more art than science, and as such there aren’t many rules that are universally applicable (even to mandolins). A good rule of thumb is to remember that you are using your EQ to help make your amplified signal resemble as closely as possible what your instrument would sound like if you didn’t HAVE to amplify it. I like to use a selective subtraction approach. I setup an EQ effect with a narrow width (or ‘Q’), set the EQ to moderately remove the frequency, and then sweep through the frequency range while I play to see if there are any frequencies that standout that actually improve the tone of my mandolin when they are removed. I had a mandolin bridge pickup once that created an awful “thumping” noise in my signal, but I was able to tame that by reducing some of the low-mids with EQ.
D.I., Volume Boost, and EQ are the three hardest electronics to live without. In the next issue, we’ll look at more ‘advanced’ effects that can polish your live mandolin tone even further!