Modulation effects, particularly the phaser pedal, are ambitious and often troublesome sounds when combined with the guitar.
Because often times they don’t fit.
They’re awkward and interfering, causing more noise then music and often drowning out melody or muddying chord progressions.
It’s difficult to place them and to use them effectively in a way that doesn’t distract.
Where does it fit? | image download
It sounds cool and makes you think it’ll work just about anywhere.
But, musically it’s a tough sell and will often sound intrusive or out of place if not used carefully.
In this article, we’ll show you how to use it in the most optimal context.
Effects pedals are always a double edged sword.
They give you tremendous versatility with your instrument but, can easily overstay their welcome and cause the listening ear to grow weary. They can even ruin the reputation of a good guitarist who relies on them too heavily.
So if we have stompboxes or a digital effects processor, we’ve got the responsibility to learn how to use them correctly.
Especially when you’re dealing with saturating modulation effects.
The Phaser Pedal
Your phaser pedal is one such effect. Closely associated with the classic tape flange the phaser is, in simple terms, a series of peaks and troughs generated by all-pass filters, also called “stages.”
The number of stages will determine the number of notches or peaks that the phaser effect will produce.
|Wiki Commons Image Courtesy of Selket|
In the above processing diagram, wherever you see the All-pass square you have one “stage.”
On your phaser pedal, this is how a “rate” or “speed” knob will change the number of peaks and troughs you hear.
Science settings | image download
However many stages (n stages) will be divided by two, giving the number of notches in the signal.
n/2 where n = stages: Thus a 4-stage phaser will produce two notches or peaks in your sound.
The more intense or the higher the rate of your phaser, the more peaks you have in your sound.
As peaks increase the signal becomes more disruptive and chaotic.
Peaks can be a problem | Image Download
This is why we’ve got to be deliberate about where we use this kind of effect. Though it’s not distorting our signal in the technical sense, it’s definitely changing it, which will impact our sound and the music being played.
We need to learn to use a phaser where it’s going to benefit what we’re playing; where it will optimize the melody or chords behind it.
Not understanding these nuances can hurt our reputation as a guitarist, annoy those we collaborate with and ultimately downgrade the maturity of our sound.
That’s a lot of damage from a little orange pedal.
You can avoid all that and use your phaser pedal to make your playing better, because it has a purpose and a place where it’s most functional.
Let’s talk about those places.
What We’ll Cover
As the title implies, we’ll cover this topic in two portions.
- Where a phaser effect fits and should be used.
- Where a phaser effect doesn’t fit and should be avoided.
For the purpose of avoiding overuse, we’ll learn to recognize the type of music and the areas of a song where a phaser pedal might be a good fit.
We’ll also look at the segments of a song that don’t benefit.
Let’s jump in.
Where the Phaser Pedal Fits
The most accommodating genre of the phaser sound is modern rock.
Though it does find a home in pop, jazz, blues, classic rock and a number of musical subcategories, it’s primary use and relevance is in the post-grunge era of rock and roll.
Think 1995 and later.
Thus it’s going to be easier to implement if that’s the type of music you’re focusing on.
That’s not to say it can’t work elsewhere but, I’ve found that modern rock is where it becomes the most useful and functional.
1. Arpeggios with Three or Less Notes Per Chord
Particularly during a verse, if you have a chord progression that you can breakup into a light arpeggio, with three or less notes per chord, that can be an ideal spot for a phaser pedal.
Something like this open chord movement through G-F-B♭-C would work well.
Generally, the less notes being used the more “effect-friendly” a pattern will be. A phaser will sound better when the melody behind it is less crowded, perhaps with only a few notes.
Remember this song?
Marcous Curiel (P.O.D’s guitarist) used the phaser sound a lot.
With delay and slow phaser.
This lick is really just three notes; the open C, the E♭ and F, with the short walk-down segment at the end.
Thus a phaser sounds good here, giving the notes some added depth and making the melody a little more dynamic.
It adds-to instead of distracts.
2. When You’re Strumming Each Chord Only Once
When you’re playing through a chord progression and you’re only hitting each chord one time before moving onto the next, that’s an ideal location for a phaser.
Omitting the extra strumming means you’ve got some space in the progression to fill.
It leaves room for a heavier effect and will sound more satisfying than distracting.
A good example of this is Tom Morello’s riff on “Like a Stone.”
He doesn’t use a phaser, but he’s playing each chord only one time.
While Morello uses a light tremolo effect, which works well with the other aspects of the song, this chord progression technique is phaser-friendly and a good place to use the sound.
Consider a similar approach from Mike Einziger in the introduction to “Warning.”
In this case, Einziger is actually using a phaser.
Notice at 0:44 of the video, Einziger drops the phaser effect and goes with just the distortion for the pre-chorus and later the chorus itself.
3. When your Tone Sounds too Thin
Sometimes a clean signal just doesn’t cut it.
When coming off a heavy chorus or a distorted sound, the drop to a clean channel can leave your guitar sounding small, without presence.
Often you’ll want a drop in intensity, but if the drop is too obvious, then it’ll sound like something is missing in the song.
Signal stays constant, effect thickness comes up, rate and speed of effect comes down – everybody wins | image download
A phaser pedal can help thicken your sound and provide tonal depth.
If you slow down the rate or speed, you get that tonal depth without the fluctuating peaks and troughs.
They’re still there, but happening at a slow speed so that they’re not as noticeable.
So if your sound just needs that extra “something” the thickness of a slow phaser is worth trying.
4. Low Note Count Solos
Solos used to be about speed and volume. Now they’re more about melody and emotion.
I think that’s a good shift.
It’s also a shift that makes it easier to incorporate effects (other than heavy distortion) into our solos.
For any lead pattern that has a low note count, a phaser can be a good fit even alongside other effects.
The thickening quality that a phaser brings, along with the dynamic movement of the peaks and troughs give your solos more presence and should accentuate the melody if the notes are spread out far enough from each other.
At that point, your guitar is supposed to be more noticeable, so adding a thickening effect like a phaser will make sense.
Where the Phaser Sound Doesn’t Fit
Now let’s talk about where not to use a phaser.
In short, wherever you have a lot of strumming or a lot of notes close together, don’t even consider it.
The phaser’s sound does best when it’s allowed to ring. If the effect doesn’t ring out because of repeatedly fielding a signal from a plucked string on the guitar, your picking will be fighting the peaks and troughs of the phaser.
That’s going to make the rhythm of whatever you’re playing sound a bit off and your tone will sound like it’s fighting itself.
So anytime you have consecutive, rhythmic picking or strumming patterns, chances are good that a phaser won’t work.
1. Portions of a Song with Heavy Strumming
While we did make an exception earlier in this article, chords are generally a bad place for a phaser.
Picking several notes so close together means you’re starting a line of peaks and troughs every time you hit a string, which can quickly begin to sound ambigious.
Throw in a repetitive strumming pattern and the fluctuation of the effect becomes chaotic.
There might be times where that makes sense and you want to produce a chaotic sound.
A Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter pedal | Flickr Commons image via Roadside Guitars
But generally, that’s not musically helpful.
Repetitive strumming patterns are better served by non-repeating effects like distortion, reverb or a clean signal.
2. High Note Count Solos
Sure, the guitar solo has changed, but there’s still plenty of speed play and shredding to go around.
And that isn’t likely to ever go away.
Nor should it.
But fast, busy solos aren’t commonly paired with the phaser effect. In fact, modulation effects as a whole are generally omitted from this type of playing.
One notable exception is Billy Corgan’s guitar solos on the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” track. where he uses a slow flange effect. The sound is interesting and clean on the record, which gives that solo part of its memorability and unique appeal.
So modulation effects can work, but the speed and rate should be on the slower end and it shouldn’t be a common occurance.
Another thing to note is that the Smashing Pumpkins don’t use any other effect on that song.
Outside of a heavily distorted guitar, they keep it simple through most of the track.
That leaves room for the modulation once the solo kicks in.
So if you are going to use a heavy effect like a phaser, make sure you don’t overpopulate your song with effects that will drown out the music and tire out the listener.
Make your Effects Count
Effects are just fun.
Guitar players love to have them, even if it’s just for the pride of ownership. The temptation then is to use them just because we can, which can mean they fight our sound and end up being more of a distraction.
So be sure that your placement and usage of effects has a purpose and that it’s filling a void in your music.
If you use a phaser pedal, make it count.
Understand the effect for what it is and how it can help your sound.
Is your experience different?
Have you found that your phaser works in other areas, or fights your sound in ways that weren’t mentioned?
If you’ve had a different experience or more insight into using the effect, share it with us.
Could you use more gear help?
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Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Claudio Matsuoka