Expressionism 101: Why You Need an Expression Pedal

If you’re anything like me, you like your pedals to do things. I’m not interested in something unless it makes a cool sound. Accessories are great, but who wants to spend money on something that is secondary to the effect itself? This used to be the way I approached gear. But, having seen and heard many wonderful devices in my guitar playing endeavors with Tone Report and beyond, I now see a need for the powerful device known as the expression pedal. Pedals nowadays are better than ever before, and the technology behind them is increasingly impressive, allowing us to achieve sounds we never thought possible. Many of these pedals have expression pedal capability, allowing players to control certain parameters on the fly and dig deeper into their tone tools. Let’s take a look at some ways you can use an expression pedal and why you should get one.

Delay Pedals

Delay is a staple on every guitarist’s pedalboard. It doesn’t matter if you use it for Edge-like rhythm, modulated ambience, or a slight thickening effect for solos; it’s a useful tool applicable to many styles and genres. Guitarists have long twisted time and feedback knobs to create spaceship oscillations, or used tap tempo to control the delay time in the middle of a song. Expression pedals allow for even more parameter control when it comes to delay pedals. Take, for example, the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man TT1100. It boasts an expansive and impressive feature set, not the least of which is the ability to control Blend, Modulation Rate, Modulation Depth, Feedback, and Delay time via an expression pedal. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities. For example, you can use the built-in tap tempo to control your delay time, then use an expression pedal to increase feedback for dramatic runaway washes. Or, set the expression function to control Blend, which allows for subtle, quiet background echoes on certain song passages, then bring it into a full mix for dramatic effect. You can also get weird, chirpy warping sounds by using the expression pedal to control the delay time. You get the idea. Once you’ve used an expression pedal with your favorite delay, it’s hard to go back.

Although not strictly a delay pedal, one of my favorite latest acquisitions is an EarthQuaker Avalanche Run. It’s a reverb-delay combo pedal with some awesome features, including expression capability. A knob sets expression control for Reverb Decay, Reverb Mix, Delay Time, Delay Mix, Repeats, or the switch itself. Using an expression pedal to control Delay Mix allows me to have an always on reverb, then blend in delay on certain passages. This is much more seamless than stomping on a separate delay pedal.

Dirt Pedals

Dirt boxes are probably not the first thing thought of when using an expression pedal. However, there are a lot of great pedals on the market that feature such capabilities to further enhance your dirt sounds. A prime example of this is the Moog MF Drive pedal. Besides standard Gain, Tone, and Output controls, it features a knob for Filter, allowing players to use Moog’s lowpass filter and create some gnarly wah sounds. It’s basically a wah built right into the pedal, and you can access that function if you use an expression pedal.

Another pedal that does this is the Stone Deaf FX PDF-2. The Parametric Distortion Filter holds a ton of tones inside that can be unlocked via an expression pedal. Using one in conjunction with the Bandwidth and Frequency knobs delivers wah and phaser tones with ease.

Modulation

There are plenty of modulation pedals out there that feature an expression pedal input. One such pedal is the Electro-Harmonix Good Vibes modulator. As the name implies, it is a Uni-Vibe inspired pedal. On its own, it’s a cool pedal, with standard control options for Volume, Intensity, and Speed, with a toggle selecting between Chorus and Vibrato tones. Adding an expression pedal gives control of the depth or speed of the pedal. If you’ve ever used a Uni-Vibe style pedal, part of the magic is being able to change speeds on the fly. Sure, you can try to move the little knob with your shoe, but it’s so much easier and a lot more fun if you have an expression pedal.

Multi Effects

Multi-effects probably don’t get as much love as they should. There are some good units out there, and they are the perfect solution for the guitarist seeking a library of tones without buying an entire pedal collection. The Line 6 “M” series is very respectable and gig-worthy stuff. It features all of the sounds you find in the ToneCore and Modeler pedals (Echo Park, DL4, DM4, MM4, and others). And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, it features expression pedal capability having not one, but two expression pedal inputs, allowing for substantial control. If you’re gigging with a multi-effects pedal, you need an expression pedal to get the most out of it. Once you’ve used one, playing without it is not an option.

Now that we’ve gone over some ways you can use an expression pedal, let’s take a look at some of the expression pedals on the market today.

Boss

Boss recently added some new volume/expression pedals to their lineup in the FV-30H and FV-30L, along with the ubiquitous FV-500H and 500L (the H and L denote high and low impedance). These options are reasonable priced and have the benefit of being both volume and expression pedals.

Dunlop

Dunlop has a few expression pedal incarnations out there, including the DVP4 Volume (X) Mini. It’s the perfect solution for the crowded pedalboard, and like the Boss offerings, you can use it in either volume or expression mode. It’s slightly more expensive than the Boss pedals, but if you need to go small, look no further. The other Dunlop offerings offer the same functionality but are much larger.

Electro-Harmonix

The most unique pedal of the bunch, the EHX Next Step expression pedal does not have any moving parts. Instead, it uses an internal sensor. Be advised that you won’t be able to mount this on your pedalboard (unless you purchase the optional cradle); it belongs on the floor or tabletop where you can get the full range out of it.

Mission Engineering

Mission Engineering is the king of high quality expression pedals. The company has made models to be used specifically with certain products, including the Eventide H9, Kemper Profiling Amp, and the Avid Eleven Rack amp and effects modeler. You can also purchase a standard expression pedal to use with any effect that has that capability. These guys know expression pedals—you can’t go wrong with anything from Mission Engineering.

Moog

As the cheapest pedal on this list, it’s the perfect choice for players looking to get into the expression game but don’t want to dive into the deep end of the pool immediately. It will only set you back $40 and it comes with a TRS cable so you can be up and running right away.

Using an expression pedal allows you to get the most out of your effects, and once you’ve become accustomed to using one, I doubt you’ll ever go without it again. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into creative expression, and I hope you’ll use this tool to make and share music with the world.

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