If you are a guitar player and you use effects there are traditional analog and digital pedals, and then there are digital modeling effects. This can be very confusing if you don’t know much about either one. This article is an attempt to give you a brief understanding of each, so you’re armed with a enough information to start doing some discovery on your own.

Preface: This is the information I wish I would have had about new fangled guitar modeling pedals (in the early 2000’s) versus traditional stomp boxes (before I burned up 2 amps!).

I’m 39 years old, and I grew up in the 80’s when effects mainly consisted of a Boss Distortion and maybe a chorus or a flanger pedal. We didn’t really have pedal boards, and most players just had a few pedals in front of them on the floor by their mic stand. I knew guitar players that had more money that maybe had a delay or something (and real ‘pros’ had some rackmount stuff), but many of us just plugged straight into the amp. Most of us had Peavey or Crate amps (because that was what we could afford), there was only one guy who had a Marshall – and he was the local “guitar god” if you know what I mean. When I was 25 I quit playing and sold my equipment to pursue family, career, and the American dream.

Fast forward to 2003 when, at the age of 35 – I decided it was a good time to get back into music. My career in IT was going well, and my wife convinced me to not just ignore the fact that music is a part of who I am. At first I had a cheap guitar and a practice amp. Not much different than when I was a kid I guess. Then I bought a Marshall (Valvestate) 65W combo amp and just played straight through that. It had some built in chorus and reverb effects – so it wasn’t so bad. It even had an overdrive channel. So at least I had my main guitar sound, and the second channel could be my lead sound. I had one footswitching pedal that came with the amp and that was it.

Marshall Valvestate Combo

I started a cover band and that setup was ok at first, but in a cover band there are so many songs in different genres that you need a lot of different tones and sounds to make it sound right. My Marshall had one sound all the time, and basically you made a decent stab at AC/DC or Skynyrd tone and that was about it. We played party dance music, and I needed both a good clean tone and some basic effects. Like, how was I supposed to get the shimmery echo on “Melt With You” by Modern English with an AC/DC sound? How could I get the clean sound on things like “Far Behind” by Candlebox, or even something as simple as “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd, or Red Hot Chili Peppers tones?

I was in the store looking for some new stompboxes when the owner showed me a Digitech “modeling pedal”. He explained that the little computer chip inside contained nearly all the effects one could ever need – it was like 50 stomp boxes in one. He also talked about 50 “amp models” – something I really didn’t understand (yet). It seemed like quite the deal for $89 (basically the price of a single stomp box) – so I bought it and took it home. That was the Digitech RP80, which I review here.

At first this was a real piece of work, I plugged my guitar into the box and ran it out into the effects loop in the back of my Marshall. Most of the preset effects were awful, and just made my amp feedback and squeal no matter what I did. I thought this was a real piece of garbage, through the effect loop anyway (because the sound was horrible).

The way these units work, there are preset “patches” with loaded sounds you can try. My digitech unit had 64 patches, 32 – each loaded twice. You were supposed to program over a set of them with your own preferences. When I started creating my own patches, I just set some up with individual effects, like chorus, delay, reverb, tremelo, etc. That was kind of cool, because I got those effects I had been missing for a bunch of those clean sounds for the songs I mentioned before, and it was the only way I could keep the amp from squealing really loud with feedback.

After about 6 months of playing that way I discovered some of the “amp models”. I didn’t know what an amp model was really, but I knew I liked the distorted sound the patch made. I found that if I took the one that emulated a Fender Hot Rod Deville amp and cut the volume (in the pedal) down to about half, and through the effects loop of the Marshall ran the effects blend volume at 60% I could get an absolutely awesome classic rock sound! It was the combination of the amp model in the pedal with my Marshall distortion that made a blended sound I just loved. About a month later I added an DOD boost overdrive pedal (for solos) and connected the digitech to that, so I had both running together through the effects loop of the Marshall. I had these 2 pedals on the floor (only).

I had a lot of intermittent problems with my Marshall for the next 6-12 months. Sometimes it would quit working and it would “come back” minutes later – and sometimes I would have to turn it off and back on before it would. After about a year it just died, and when you turned it on it either squealed or just had nearly no volume at all. I bought a Marshall (Valvestate) head and a 4×12 bottom and began to use that instead. After a few months it started giving me trouble too. I took it in and had all the pots cleaned (which helped), but then it started cutting out and clipping a lot. I took it back in and they said they fixed something, but when I took it home and plugged everything in to practice it started to smoke big time! I turned it off just before it appeared to nearly catch on fire live in a gig. It was in the first set. Strangely enough, I sat out that set and the band played on without me. After cooling off for that set, apparently that was good enough – because I was able to play it the rest of the night without issues.

Guitar Amp on Fire

When I took it back to the Marshall repair shop the next day – they replaced all the main transistors for me (which apparently is what was smoking at the gig).
I didn’t play it as much for awhile, and took my Valvestate combo back to have it revived from the dead too. The amp tech told me the preamp was burned out and needed to be rebuilt – so I had that done (same guy that fixed the head). When I went to pick the amp up I started asking questions about whey the preamp would go out and described my new pedal setup to the tech. It was during that conversation that I realized I had blown up 2 amps – and didn’t even know it. I didn’t know it was my fault, and I didn’t know if was my pedal setup.

A traditional effects pedal or stompbox can be used in an “effects loop” or direct through the front of an amp. One sounds slightly different than the other, but they both work fine. Straight through the front the effect is just added to the total sound. But by using the “effects loop” you add the effect to only the pre-amp, and you can choose the level of the effect before it gets to the main portion of the amp. This is great if you want to choose how mild or harsh the effect will be added into the total sound. What I didn’t know and what the “modeling pedal” (and Marshall) instructions failed to say was that – modeling pedals aren’t meant to be run through effects loops – EVER! Modeling pedals are supposed to go straight into the front of the amp – ONLY! well at least that’s what I thought at the time.

What I have learned since is that in the guitar amp world there are tube amps and there are solid state amps. In a tube amp you can put most anything in the effects loop (modeling pedal or not). If you jack up the signal so high the amp squeals, it just squeals with feedback. Tubes are designed to get hot, so they get hot and that’s that. I’ve never seen anybody send a effects loop signal so hot they blew out a tube (although I guess it’s possible). However, if your signal in the effects loop has a modeling pedal with a really hot signal, it make make the transistors so hot the heat sink can’t cool it down (and they smoke, like mine did). Then you have to replace them. I learned years later that tube or solid state amp, the effects loop is generally designed for things like tremelo, delay, echo, chorus, reverb, and things like that. Things that enhance the sound, but that don’t double or triple the signal. That’s why many distortion pedals sound like hot garbage through the effects loop, but sound great through the front of the amp.

The problem is this, in a modeling pedal the “patch” contains both an amp model and effects. These together, going through an effects loop “drive” (or overdrives) the pre-amp before the signal even gets to the main part of the amp. The end result sound is great, but too much for the amp (slowly burning out the preamp!). In a tube amp, it would just get hot and start clipping. Once you turn it off and it cools down, you could turn it back on and do it again over and over without damaging the amp. But my (Valvestate) amps are solid-state, and while there’s a governor in the main part of the amp that protects it from burning up during clipping, the pre-amp doesn’t have one. Hence the reason I burned up my pre-amp!

Once I learned this when I went home I plugged my Digitech modeling pedal straight into the clean channel of my Marshall and started to play around. All the pre-set effects now sound great with no squealing! I even downloaded some patches from the Digitech forum and using the amp models was able to get some great Van Halen, Weezer, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Ozzy, and U2 sounds! It kind of opened up a whole new world for me.

After doing some research online about modeling pedals, and now having gone through the good bad and the ugly with them – I can honestly say that as a guitar player they take a lot more getting used to than a traditional stomp box. With stomp boxes (other than the settings for each box) they are either “on” or “off” and that’s it. In a modeling pedal you have a “patch” that is basically a pre-set that can contain your amp model, an amp cabinet (speakers), the intensity of the amp model, the volume of the patch, any effects (chorus, delay, reverb, etc), and even some EQ – like bass, mid, or highs. You may have to setup a dozen patches for sounds you like, one for lead, one for rhythm, one for clean, etc. I found that I had 2-3 for different classic rock songs, some for harder rock, and quite a few for clean.

Guitar modeling pedals take TONS more time to setup at first, but are much more versatile in the end result. The CON is that if you love the natural distortion or tone of your amp – you won’t get to hear it using the modeling pedal. Having said that – having a good amp with quality speakers is kind of key to getting a good sound with a modeling pedal. If you have a cheap amp with cheap speakers, a modeling pedal will not make it sound good. You’ll just have a good sounding model through tinny speakers. So you still need a quality amp, it’s just not as important that you have a $3,000 Mesa Boogie or Bogner, a lower end Marshall or Fender will do just fine.

Here are some posts I have written since that might be of some help to you:

How Much Are Guitar Pedals

PODxt Live vs. POD X3 live