Talking Pedals with Juan Alderete of the Mars Volta and Racer X

Juan Alderete has an impressive resume. From Racer X through the Mars Volta, and most recently Deltron 3030 and Zavalaz, Juan's particular blend of noise-laden bass can be heard on countless projects and collaborations.

Juan also authors a fantastic blog over at pedalsandeffects.com complete with awesome reviews, demos and shoot-outs.

We recently talked to Juan about some of his favorite pedals old and new, choosing the right gear for the job, and the ongoing quest for tone.

Reverb: As someone who's played with a lot of different players across tons of styles, what goes into choosing the right gear for each project?

JA: I think it's a lot of the individual and how they're inspired. If they called me, they have an idea of what I've done and want me to help them stretch sonically whatever they're doing. For example, I just had a session where I went in to work with these two hip-hop artists. In this Ableton world of electronics, they can make loops and beats and songs as fast as you come up with the ideas. They constantly need sonic loudness to keep it fresh. So for that I took my best wildest pedals that I could get the freakiest stuff.

So it all depends, but mostly it's how wild do you want to get. Of course, the equipment matters to me a lot but you also have to know how to play it. And it helps that I play fretless. I am absolutely convinced that fretless responds better with pedals than fretted bass. It has all those different overtones that a fretted instrument doesn't have. A vibrato like the VB-2 sounds way better and different on fretless than it does on fretted bass.

Reverb: Speaking of basses, you're someone who uses both Precision and Jazz basses. How do you choose which one to play when? Is there a style that suits each best?

JA: Typically I like P's for heavier stuff and distortion. I just think it distorts better than the Jazz bass. Not to say that a Jazz bass doesn't distort well. It distorts well if you're not going too crazy. But if you really want it heavy and you want it to be the heaviest thing on the recording -- I'll use my Sovtek with my CS-2 compressor and my fretted P-Bass. I rarely hear bass sounds that heavy and huge.

With Cedric [in Zavalaz], I just know Jazz Bass with flatwounds, and I typically put the pickups out of phase. The high-end gets a really '60s sounding bass tone. A lot of this also just comes down to recording. I just recorded with Zavalaz, and I played 5 or 6 basses and just went with what sounded best on the track even if I wasn't expecting it. Recording is a whole different animal. Playing live, even with Deltron, I can use flatwounds even through my Goya bass, and it just sounds like the '60s.

Reverb: Speaking of Deltron, I know you just finished a tour with them. As a bass player, what's different about playing with a producer and MC vs a traditional rock format?

JA: The biggest thing is the backing track. It's just so easy. You got backing tracks and drum loops, so you have this gigantic guide to play to. And since you can't get lost, you have way more freedom to mess around if you want to. With a rock band like Mars Volta, it's an insane challenge that terrifies you every time you walk on stage. Everybody would go up on stage thinking this could be my last time playing music. You go up with that mindset. With Mars Volta, we'd walk off stage and it just took so much out of you. And if the show was good or not, it just took its toll on you, but that's what it required.

The first in Juan's series of Fuzz War videos. Hear the mighty Sovtek Muff in action.

Reverb: I know you've done a long series of Fuzz shootouts on your site, you've done eight or nine of them with four pedals each time. What's the best Fuzz pedal you've played?

JA: By far, my Sovtek. Jonathan Hischke [Hella, Dot Hacker] -- my favorite bass player -- he's always saying, 'you're so lucky you own that one.' We've put other Sovteks against it, Russian Big Muffs, Electro-Harmonix Big Muffs, let alone any of the modern ones, and it just kills it. I've owned a bunch of them and anyone who's owned them knows they don't all sound the same. They can be close, but they have certain characteristics. I've had some that are super swirly in the high-end, but this one is just the beefiest. It kills all. We've actually had to retire it, so now it wins by default. We did another Fuzz shootout yesterday with Justin Meldal-Johnsen [Beck, NIN], and we had a Fuzzrocious and a few others. I can definitely say that my Sovtek would just kill all of them.

Reverb: It's cool that you still have that old school fall back when there just so many fuzzes on the market these days.

JA: And there are some really great ones. I think Dwarfcraft really makes a great one, and I think EarthQuaker Devices makes a great one too, and so does Wren and Cuff. And there's more, it can be hard to keep up. The Fuzzrocious one did sound insane yesterday, I was pretty blown away, but you start to split hairs after a while. When Justin brought in his Diabolik that Malekko makes with him, it's a completely different animal. I'd rather have that than 50 million Russian copies. I know for a lot of these companies, people will ask: You got a Russian Clone? And you've got to show them a Russian Clone. You got a Tube Screamer? They just have to have these clones, because people will buy it whether they have 50 Tube Screamers or not.

Reverb: I know you're a big fan of Red Panda and the Particle granular delay. What do you love about that pedal?

JA: It's absolutely insane. Josh Klinghoffer, the guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has a billion pedals, and we were hanging at his house and plugged that one in and I just asked: what is this thing doing? Who would make such a thing? I like using it for freakouts, and for sounds that you can't get otherwise. I used it on that recent hip-hop session, and it kicked out stuff you have not heard and couldn't fathom before you plugged it in.

I like to have that running in conjunction with something else. I'll split my line, and have it add weird glitchy hiccups while I'm playing. The electronic world now is all about glitching things out, so it's nice to have something that gives you that element. Kids really react to it. That pedal is genius, and his Context Reverb is insane too. The guitarist in Zavalaz, Dan Elkan uses that thing and it's awesome as well.

Reverb: What's one pedal every bass player should have?

JA: That's a hard one. I always get asked two things: What compressor do I recommend and what overdrive do I recommend. I've only used one compressor and it's the Boss CS-2. The CS-3 came after that and just doesn't sound as good. The CS-1 is fine, but it's different. But I like the CS-2 for what it does harmonically to pedals. It just freaks them out and adds this content that doesn't come with straight bass into a pedal. You've got to have a good fuzz, but it's hard to recommend one you can't get. Like my Russian Sovtek Muff, they don't all sound good and I wouldn't want to steer you wrong. It's just not consistent. The early Boss stuff is what I cut my teeth on and I always have a bunch of them lying around. As far as newer pedals, I really love the Organizer by Earthquaker Devices. I use it a ton on bass and it works perfectly.

Reverb: What can you tell us about what's coming up with Zavalaz?

JA: We did 6 songs in the studio and we're waiting to finish the mixing. And hopefully we'll be putting out a full length and seeing where it goes. With the labels it's complicated, and it just takes so long. But that's just the new music world, and we don't want to rush it. And I'll be definitely doing some more Deltron stuff this year too.

Reverb: And one last question I like to ask everyone, what's your favorite recorded bass tone?

JA: It changes a lot, but right now and over my life, I'd say James Jamerson's bass on any of the Motown records.

Read Juan's Blog here

Check out Juan's YouTube Channel

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