EQ pedals may not be the most thrilling pedals out there, though if used creatively, they can transform your tone in ways you might not have imagined. When I bought my first EQ pedal, I viewed it purely as a utility pedal. Unlike my reverb, delay, overdrive, or modulation pedals, it was there to serve a more direct purpose without adding any effects to my tone.
However, after many years of allowing it to collect dust, I realized that it had some serious potential to shape my tone beyond a notch at 200Hz here and a boost at 3kHz there. In this article, I’m going to share a few ways to utilize EQ pedals to maximize your tone.
1. Unearth New Tones
As you probably already know, an EQ pedal is meant to shape your tone. It is made to give you more precise control over your tone, more so than you could get from the three-band EQ found on most amplifiers. Out of the box, EQ pedals alter the tonal balance of your signal — but where EQ pedals really shine is when they are taken to extremes.
Let’s consider the notorious scooped tone from the ‘90s. This tone was used to great effect by the likes of James Hetfield (Metallica) and Dimebag Darrell (Pantera). The idea here was to turn down frequency bands from around 300Hz to 800Hz while boosting the lows and highs. The result was a graphic EQ that looked like it was smiling back at you.
While many reject this approach because removing the mids gets rid of the fundamental body of the guitar, there’s no question that the approach helped define an era of heavy music.
A great example of scooped tones can be heard on Metallica’s 1988 album, “… And Justice For All.”
One of my favorite modern guitarists is Ruban Nielson, from the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. While he runs his guitar through many effects, I have found that the lo-fi, nasally sound remains consistent throughout most of his playing. This works by removing the lows and boosting around the 800Hz-1khz area to get a bit of honk. (Listen to UMO’s “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” for an idea of what I’m referencing.)
2. Compensate For Live Performances
Do you ever find that the tones you practice with at home don’t cut it for live performances?
When playing with three or more people on stage, the guitar’s bite tends to get lost in a wall of sound. Almost every time I play live, I feel the need to boost my high-mids to help my guitar cut through the mix. Having an EQ pedal at my feet, instead, is helpful for several reasons.
For starters, it provides me with greater control over my tone without having to run back and forth to my amp throughout a performance. Secondly, I can switch it on and off depending on what role the guitar is playing in the song at the moment.
I typically place a boost somewhere between 2-5kHz when playing live and keep the pedal off during most of the performance. Whenever a solo or lead section comes up, I’ll kick the pedal and let the guitar cut through the band. You can essentially think of it as a concentrated boost pedal.
Lastly, depending on the band I’m playing with, I might boost the low-mids to give my guitar a bit more girth. I’ll usually do this if I am the only guitarist in the band, and I need a thicker sound to try and imitate the double-tracked sound on the recording.
3. Emulate Various Guitars
Session guitarists know how important it is to have versatile setups. Of course, you can’t always bring ten guitars to the gig. However, what you can do is bring an EQ pedal to the gig or recording session to emulate various guitars. Let’s think about the two most popular guitars for a minute: The Stratocaster and the Les Paul.
While I love my Les Paul, I can’t stand taking it to gigs. It’s bulky and heavy and a huge pain to take anywhere, especially when I need to use public transport. Having to carry the Les Paul and the Strat along is even worse. I found that I could emulate the sound of my Les Paul using my Stratocaster and my seven-band EQ, just enough to fool the audience.
As we all know, Stratocasters and Les Pauls are two completely different beasts. Stratocasters have sparkly single-coils with snappier resonance, while Les Pauls have a much stronger low-end with a punchy mid-range. If I need the sound of a Les Paul during a gig, I’ll simply turn down the highs around 2-5kHz, turn down the mid-range around 800Hz-1kHz, and boost the lows around 150-200Hz. While the sound won’t be a perfect emulation by any means, it is enough to trick the average listener.
4. Make It Lo-Fi
I love lo-fi guitar tones more than anything. One lo-fi guitar tone in particular, what I’ve dubbed the “50’s Transistor Radio” tone, is one that I’ve used countless times during recordings and live performances. Take a listen to the very beginning of “Make Yourself” by Incubus to get a better idea of what I’m getting at:
This lo-fi effect is meant to imitate the sound of an old radio without any low end. In fact, old radios from the mid-20th century were mostly upper mids (around 700Hz-5kHz). Essentially, they weren’t full range by any means. To get this sound, you can wipe out everything below 200Hz, pull down around 400-500Hz, pull down around 6kHz and above, and boost anywhere from 800Hz-3.2kHz.
5. Turn Your Guitar Into A Synthesizer
One of the most popular ways that people utilize synthesizers is with filter sweeps. Listen to just about any piece of electronic music, and I guarantee you’ll hear a filter sweep (typically where one section transitions to the next.)
Filter sweeps help create movement during transitions, though they can be used subtly throughout a performance to create small nuances throughout a piece. This is why a house track can go on for nine minutes without feeling lifeless. While it might be easier to produce this type of effect using a filter knob on a synth, you can achieve the same effect using a parametric EQ.
There are many ways you can go about sweeping, though I tend to start by playing a sustained chord or getting a loop going. I’ll then search for the center frequency that I want to sweep around. Once I have found that center frequency (let’s say 1.5kHz, for example), I can turn the decibel knob to boost and cut that frequency in a sweeping motion.
Do note that you need a parametric EQ to do this, as a graphic EQ will only give you access to a much narrower frequency space, which doesn’t work for this type of effect.
The Great Equalizer
EQ pedals might not be the most exciting pedals in the world at first glance, though as you can see, they are far more powerful than most guitarists give them credit for. If you have never had the opportunity to try one, I highly recommend picking one up. You can buy some incredibly powerful EQ pedals for very little money. Some of my favorites include the Joyo JF-11, the Boss GE-7, and the Tech 21 Q\Strip.
There are plenty of new opportunities for an EQ pedal in a signal chain. Pick up an EQ pedal and find yours!