An ambient guitar pedal setup can play a big part in creating guitar-based ambient music. The sometimes intricate interaction between the sounds generated from the pedals can turn them into unique instruments. The sounds you’ll be able to create might inspire and motivate you to make new music you never thought possible.
This post will cover all the different pedals you might find on an ambient guitarist’s pedalboard. Details will be given on the style of effects these pedals produce and what they can do for your ambient guitar sound.
Ambient guitar playing is about creating unique textures and soundscapes to inflect and flavor a tone of emotion within a song. Many types of sounds can help achieve this, as different pedals and combinations can create unique effects that can be highly potent in ambient music settings.
The nature of this style of guitar playing requires experimentation to be able to find unique settings and pedal combinations to achieve tasteful ambient sounds. Suppose you are an ambient guitarist looking for new sounds or a guitarist simply looking to add some ambient tools to your disposal. In that case, this article will help to give you some ideas.
The delay pedal may be the first pedal most guitarists will opt for in their quest for ambient tones. There is a good reason for this. Delay pedals can be highly versatile for ambient tones, offering long, swelling repeats that create a textured sound tapestry.
Some delay pedals also offer reversed delay, creating uniquely bizarre sounds. Delay pedals can also self-oscillate, creating odd sounds, which can then be morphed by manipulating the delay time knob.
There is a distinction to be aware of, as delay pedals come in two varieties:
- Digital Delay
- Analog Delay
Each of these types of delays has its own sound characteristics. However, both can be used in an ambient guitarist’s rig. Analog delays tend to have a darker tone, allowing the repeats coming from the delay to sit deeper in the mix in a more subtle way due to having less treble in the EQ. The digital delay repeats tend to have clarity but can also be used subtly.
A typical setup on an ambient guitarist’s pedalboard is to have 2 delay pedals, with one feeding into the other (essentially delaying the delay). This can open up a broader spectrum of soundscapes to be shaped and manipulated until your heart is content.
Like delay pedals, reverb pedals can be a very effective pedal to add to an ambient guitar pedalboard. Reverb pedals add depth to any signal, with possibilities ranging from a short echo slap-back reverb to a long and resonant swell as heard in cathedrals.
Reverb pedals can be incredibly potent when placed after a delay pedal (or two). With this combination, the swell of the delays is given more depth and resonance, as well as a sense of spatial texture.
For a pedal that has an extremely basic function, the volume pedal can be a great addition to an ambient pedalboard. One of the most iconic tones of ambient guitar, especially when used with a delay or reverb pedal, is the volume swell. An example of a volume swell would be playing a chord with the volume knob of your guitar turned down and subsequently turning the volume knob up after the initial attack of the chord.
On some guitars, the volume knob may not be placed conveniently to allow for volume swells. For this reason, a volume pedal is convenient. Even if you have a convenient volume knob, a volume pedal can give you a longer sweep distance for volume, allowing your swell to come in more gradually than a volume knob would allow.
What would ambient music be without modulation pedals? Truth be told, modulation pedals can be essential in creating truly unique and memorable soundscapes. Modulation pedals essentially add a sense of movement to a tone.
However, as this categorization of guitar pedals is extensive, we will help narrow down the types of modulation pedals available. Trying to decide which modulation pedals are best for you can be a bit overwhelming.
Chorus pedals can be a great tool to add a moving sense of depth to a guitar tone by thickening it so it can sound like multiple guitars are playing the same notes. A chorus pedal can also provide an extremely watery sound at times, which can be a great tone to help style your sound textures.
Suppose you’re looking for a bizarre sound characteristic that has a classic and recognizable sound. In that case, the phaser may be what you are looking for. Phaser pedals color a guitar tone by applying a smooth LFO wave to the signal. The resulting sound is a moving whoosh sound that moves up and down. Phasers could be thought of as putting your guitar tone on a rowboat in a wavy ocean.
Flangers are similar to phaser pedals, but they sound completely different. While phasers and flangers add a sense of whooshing movement to a guitar tone, flangers provide more of a wide-sweeping sonic texture on top of the tone. They are not as wavy as a phaser could be. Flangers are the pedals that can provide that iconic airplane sound texture on top of a guitar tone.
For truly out-of-this-world types of sounds, a ring modulator can help you achieve extreme weirdness. Ring modulators can color a guitar tone to take on robotic characteristics. When paired with a delay pedal, the ring modulator can create some very spacey soundscapes that could sometimes sound like a sci-fi horror movie set in space.
Pitch shifters can also be practical pedals in an ambient rig. One of the things pitch shifters could do for your tone is raise/lower the pitch of your guitar an octave (sometimes 2 octaves). Some pitch shifters have harmonic effects, such as intervals (minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.) in relation to the initially played pitch.
Loop pedals, also called loopers, can work exceptionally well for ambient guitar, mainly due to the ability to stack layers of recorded sound to create a sonic landscape. Some versatile loopers have a long record time, so you could record an entire guitar part for a song and play a solo over the loop. Building an ambient vibe with a loop pedal can become relatively easy and fun when you master the operation mechanics of your looper.
Of course, you may not need a loop pedal if you have a few delay pedals, as some delay pedals have looping capabilities. However, the looping time on delay pedals is often very short compared to dedicated looper pedals. This pedal can be utilized in several ways that can be ideal for solo performances. Often, loop pedals will have a sync function that will sync the start of each loop with the master loop.
The ambient guitar tone is often thought to go hand-in-hand with time-based effects (such as delay) and modulators. However, an overdrive, distortion, or fuzz pedal can give your guitar character for creating sound textures, as these pedals add texture to a guitar signal’s sound wave.
One of these pedals is almost required if you’re looking for a pedal to help you create guitar hero moments featuring a glorious guitar solo washed in echoing delay. A tastefully overdriven or distorted guitar solo can sound wonderful against a sonically textured backdrop.
Overdrives are excellent pedals that can give your guitar a slightly distorted tone or a clean tone with a bit of dirt. Many guitarists have an overdrive pedal on at all times. It helps to raise the guitar’s tone out of the flat EQ ranges that a clean and dry (no effects) guitar tone can have. These pedals can also add more sustain and resonance to the tone of your guitar.
Fuzz pedals are another type of distortion effect that gives the guitar a tonal range from loose and gravelly to tight and fat, but with some added gain. With these pedals, it sometimes feels like the guitar tone has a tangible physical quality, similar to a synthesizer. Not to mention, some of these pedals can have extreme sustain.
Distortion pedals can also be unique to have on an ambient pedalboard. Distortion pedals typically deliver more distortion than overdrive pedals. Like the fuzz pedal, the distortion pedal can shape the sound characteristics of the guitar tone. Distortions such as bit crushers can make a guitar tone sound like it is in a 16-bit video game.
Ambient music and synthesizers are sometimes synonymous, depending on the subgenre of ambient music. Synthesizers have a classic sound, and a synth pedal can turn your guitar into a synthesizer.
These can sound anywhere from a 16-bit video game tone to a plush synth sound directly from the 1970s (plus everything in between) and the clean synth sounds as heard in the 1980s. Some synth pedals even allow your guitar to sound like a sitar, organ, or strings. Textured sound can add character to a sonic landscape, especially with a loop pedal.
Compressors can be a tremendous always-on pedal you enjoy having on your board. These pedals help to balance out the dynamics and the EQ of the guitar signal, producing an even signal that can, at times, sound fat and beefy. Using an overdrive/distortion/fuzz can help widen the sonic picture of your distorted tone. This pedal can help your guitar signal feel more alive, even though it does not add motion to the guitar’s sound.
Playing ambient guitar can be a lot of fun, especially if you are the type of guitarist who enjoys experimenting with pedals to pursue new sounds. Experimenting is almost necessary with ambient guitar, as you will need to know the parameters of your pedals and how each pedal combination can work for you.
The only way to learn these things is by spending time, having fun, and exploring with your guitar. Pedals can be played like an instrument, and this approach can aid in creating new sonic textures and landscapes.
Unfortunately, the best ambient tones can only be achieved with more than one pedal. If you are on a tight budget, starting small with what you have available is more than okay. Not only will you learn about the details and parameters of your pedal, but you won’t feel overwhelmed by having multiple pedals to learn how to use at once.
Delay pedals can have a learning curve that, once mastered, can be employed and played like an instrument. Oscillations and long delay times often play an essential role with ambient guitar. These pedals help fill up musical space with an airy, spacey presence. Reverb pedals can help with this as well.
Loop pedals can help build textured sonic landscapes by allowing you to loop multiple loops in synchronicity. These pedals are wonderful tools for practice and have a wide range of ways they can be used.
Pedals that affect the guitar’s tonal characteristics, such as distortion pedals, modulation pedals, and synth pedals, can make your guitar sound original and unique by adding motion or shaping the tone to sound different. These pedals are essential additions to any ambient pedalboard.
Volume pedals, mainly when paired with a delay pedal, can help you achieve those iconic swelling tones that are signature to ambient guitar styles. The effectiveness of this simple pedal can not be overstated.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of playing guitar is trying new things and finding new sounds. Ambient guitar has the benefit of needed experimentation with pedal combinations to grow as a guitarist constantly.