Tom Dunne's Music & Me: The axe-men cometh, and they've got loads of effects pedals

We tend to give drummers a hard time, but The Pedal Movie suggests it's the guitarists we should have been watching out for all this time 
Tom Dunne's Music & Me: The axe-men cometh, and they've got loads of effects pedals

J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, are among the guitarists chatting about their effects pedals in The Pedal Movie.

Long before there were Man Sheds there were bands. Your band met all your mental health needs. It was like being in a gang. These guys had your back. There were tattoos, matching ‘colours’ you name it, it was pure LA Crips. But instead of attacking people, you played them really bad songs.

In each gang it was generally accepted that the drummer was the one to be wary of. They were only there to hit things. The drummer in the Commitments: avoid at all costs! Keith Moon in The Who: run away. The drummer in The Muppets: simply called Animal.

But this was not my experience. David Grohl was more typical of the drummers I met: intelligent, well read, down to earth. The drummers I knew organised charity albums and drove multi artist collaborations. They were movers and shakers, which made sense when you think about it.

The one I knew best, now sadly on a witness protection program in Cavan, was one such. He read Thomas Hardy and Richard Brautigan during our US tours. At a gig in Galway he somehow discovered a hard to find, out of print, antique collection of books on ornithology. What he couldn’t tell you about peregrine falcons was not worth knowing.

But it was actually the guitarist I should have been wary of. This week saw the release of a two hour, thirty minute documentary about said breed. In it, luminaries such as Kevin Shields, Billy Corgan and Graham Coxon discuss, straight faced, their favourite effects pedals. It is called, with a clear indication that not all of these lads write the lyrics, The Pedal Movie.

It all suddenly made sense. As I thought back I recalled that during at least 15% of the time that I have known my guitarist he was scrambling about on his knees with a worried look in his eyes. Being a singer, I have never before, not for a nanosecond, asked myself, ‘What’s he up to?’. But now I see it. He was adjusting his pedals.

The Pedal Movie is a documentary on guitar effects. Picture: iStock
The Pedal Movie is a documentary on guitar effects. Picture: iStock

So, if you too are from that land that listens to music and presumes a Belcat TRM-607 is a Russian fighter plane or a Subzero Tundra is a fancy fridge, then you, like me, have a lot to learn. Apparently an electric guitar, without these things, just sounds like a loud acoustic. It’s the pedals make them sound exciting. Who’d have thought?

This explains a great deal. Our lad had several of these all wired together. Any one of them could break down at any moment and when one went down so too did the guitar. To further enliven proceedings each one had its own power source and any one of these could break down also. It was really a miracle we heard any guitar at all.

But when they worked, which this documentary will explain IN FAR GREATER DETAIL, they drove music forwards and at times defined its sound. The era defining sound of The Stones’ Satisfaction, that’s a fuzz tone effects pedal. The bendy bit of the Theme from Shaft, that’s a wah wah pedal. The Jet effect on Lucy in The Sky, that’s flange. Yes, I said flange.

Kevin Shields waxes lyrical here. Without various pedals it is likely there never would have been a My Bloody Valentine. His sound inspired an entire genre which became known as Shoe Gazers. Thanks to this documentary we now know what they were looking down at. It wasn’t their shoes. It was their vast array of pedals.

The most famous home grown use of effect pedals is, naturally, The Edge. His breakthrough signature sound on Out of Control and I Will Follow was achieved using a WEM Copycat tape echo. It was so signature that when my earliest band got one we had to immediately stop using it because, as both people in the audience pointed out, ‘You sound like U2'.

This documentary lifts the curtain on the shadowy world of guitarists and their favourite pedals. It is not for the faint hearted.

I caught a glimpse of that world once. A man made his way back stage at a gig in the US to admire our lad’s virtuosity. “I stroke the neck myself,” he said. 

Sadly I can’t tell you, in a family paper, what he said next. Suffice to say it involved female, sexual satisfaction. I haven’t held a guitar the same way since.

Grown men discussing their ‘best ever’ pedals. I’ll just leave that there.

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