‘Stompbox’ is an ode to the guitar pedal

‘Stompbox’ is an ode to the guitar pedal

Photographer Eilon Paz documents the wah-wahs, fuzz, cry babies and big muffs of 100 great guitarists

When most of us think of a guitar line, we’re recalling a piece of music that’s been distorted. Pick a lick from any amplified genre and you’re likely hearing an axe that’s been phased, looped, fuzzed out or made to wail with the kick of a switch. Yet the devices responsible for some of the most iconic sounds in music history — from the unmistakable intro on Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” to works by Prince and Michael Jackson — remain mostly unseen, the territory of musicians, audiophiles and anyone tall enough to actually see onto the stage floor at a gig.

Brooklyn-based photographer Eilon Paz and a cadre of musician-writers are aiming to change that with a double-volume photo book “Stompbox: 100 Pedals of the World’s Greatest Guitarists” and the accompanying “Vintage & Rarities: 333 Cool, Crazy and Hard to Find Guitar Pedals.”

“Pedals are kind of like the secret weapon of the guitarist, but nobody really knows what’s going on,” Paz said.“They’re lying on the floor, they’re not visible. So it’s almost clandestine; it’s not like the guitar [which is often seen as] the hero.”

Lee Ranaldo (right) gazes at a 70 pound pedal board owned by Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis (left). Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.
Lee Ranaldo (right) gazes at a 70 pound pedal board owned by Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis (left). Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.

Paz is best known for his seminal record collector photo book “Dust and Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting,” which took readers around the world and into the deep, occasionally dusty stacks of vinyl fiends. The musicians interviewed in “Stompbox” are similarly fanatical about their pedals, each of which is presented in sharp, vivid detail that almost bounces off the page.

“Stompbox” features actual pedals from celebrated guitarists past and present, including Hendrix’s legendary Fuzz Face, the Maestro PS-1A Phase Shifter used by Ernie Isley, and Marc Bolan’s Vox Clyde McCoy wah-wah. A photo of each pedal is set next to an interview with its owner, and the book broken into sections about history, innovation, design and use cases.

Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who is featured in the book and contributed an interview with Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, explained that “for musicians, stompboxes are kind of an everyday thing, but it’s also the kind of thing that we can easily obsess over to a really minuscule degree.”

“[‘Stompbox’ is] an examination of that obsession,” continued Ranaldo, who typically works with nine or 10 pedals and chose to share his Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay for his spread. “It’s so much a part of my sound. A lot of the pedals on my board have slowly, over time, been replaced with something different … but nothing has ever replaced that one.”

Lee Ranaldo on his Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay: "This is my desert island pedal. My attitude about pedals is, the fewer knobs, the better. I like a pedal that can do one thing really well." Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.
Lee Ranaldo on his Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay: “This is my desert island pedal. My attitude about pedals is, the fewer knobs, the better. I like a pedal that can do one thing really well.” Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.

Musicians have been distorting the sound of their instruments for decades, pushing their amplifiers and often marring them to get desired effects. In the 1960s, rock musicians began employing a variety of effects pedals — wah-wahs, cry babies, tube screamers, delays, fuzz faces, muffs and more — to create a new sonic standard that would reverberate throughout decades and genres.

More affordable tech entered the market in the ‘90s and, today, manufactures around the world (as well as close to home) create innumerable pedals. We’re in a golden age of stompboxes, said the book’s editorial director Dan Epstein, who explained that most contemporary players use a handful of pedals in studio and on stage.

“When I was learning to play guitar, I thought you got a cool sound strictly from being a good guitarist. Much later, I realized you just have to be an inventive guitarist who’s interested in sound, and you find the tools that you need to make the sounds that you hear in your head. Stompboxes are such an important part of that,” said Epstein, himself a pedal geek. “We want to know the stories behind the stompbox, and we want to see that actual stompbox — the nicks and the pieces of tape and the writing. The years of battle scars and abuse.”

Thunderpussy guitarist Whitney Petty, who also appears in the book, doesn’t consider herself a gearhead, but likes “to use pedals when I’m feeling stuck or something. I’ll grab one off the shelf, plug it in and let it inspire me to do something weird, something different.” Effects pedals, including her Roland Double Beat AD-50, can be a “gateway drug” to expression.

“I know what I like when I hear it, but I’m constantly in the pursuit of finding cool tones,” she said. “The pedals that I choose would be a reflection of who I want to be in a project.”

 Whitney Petty on her Roland Double Beat AD-50: "It's a very unique sounding wah wah; it's a little granier and a little more modulated sounding. It's also just kind of a rare pedal ... It's pretty beat up and I often wonder who owned it before me. I think that the older [pedals] get the more unique and personalized they can sound." Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.
Whitney Petty on her Roland Double Beat AD-50: “It’s a very unique sounding wah-wah; it’s a little granier and a little more modulated sounding. It’s also just kind of a rare pedal … It’s pretty beat up and I often wonder who owned it before me. I think that the older [pedals] get the more unique and personalized they can sound.” Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.
Securing stompboxes for the book presented unique challenges.

“Effects pedals are small; they’re easy to lose; they’re easily stolen; they’re easily broken,” Epstein said. “So the fact that we were actually able to track down people who still have these pedals was kind of an amazing thing in itself. But most [musicians], even if they no longer had the pedal, were very clear on what they used.”

Paz spent four years traveling to studios, the Music Hall of Fame and private collections in rural Pennsylvania in search of specific pedals. The books also required him to learn still life photography and significantly pare down his camera kit, while occasionally shooting in complete darkness backstage or outside.

Still, the “Stompbox” team regularly had to explain to publicists why they wanted to discuss effects pedals — the Boss Chorus pedal used by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, for example, is typically not part of a non-musicians’ vocabulary. And although “Stompbox” digs deep into tools of the trade, the book is not a guide about how to sound like a particular musician or emulate a style.

“This has come up a lot in the wake of Eddie Van Halen’s death. Eddie had an amazing pair of hands, and an amazing technique, and pretty much whatever he played through, he would have sounded like Eddie Van Halen,” Epstein said. “But he was constantly tinkering with his sound with the pedals, with his amps, with his guitars. He was chasing something, and I think so many of the guitarists in this book are chasing something.”

While pedals are designed to create certain effects, the best way to use one is to simply plug in and mess around.

“I remember being terrified [of pedals]. I was like, ‘I have to trigger them live while I’m playing? I’m too busy staring at my hands trying not to fuck this up,’” Petty said. “Sometimes pedals are exactly what you need to create a beautiful mistake that will kind of launch you in another direction that you wouldn’t have gone. Don’t freak out. There is no right or wrong way to use pedals.”

David Torn in his studio. Torn helped develop the one-of-a-kind Hexe reVOLVER DT sampler/ glitch/stutter pedal shown in "Stompbox." Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.
David Torn in his studio. Torn helped develop the one-of-a-kind Hexe reVOLVER DT sampler/ glitch/stutter pedal shown in “Stompbox.” Photo courtesy Eilon Paz.

Experimental guitarist and composer David Torn has long championed the use of electronics in music and shared his custom Hexe reVOLVER DT for the book. He’s developed stompboxes, was instrumental in pushing looping technology and has used his hundreds of pedals on film and TV scores, as well as records for David Bowie, John Legend and Tori Amos.

“However you use pedals, you have to learn how to integrate them into your playing. You can’t play through them, you have to play them as if it were a part of the instrument,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what style of music you’re in … there’s always going to be a place where some enhancement of the instrument will make the sound of the band something broader than it was before.”

As for Paz, he hopes his photography and the lesser-known histories in “Stompbox” will “bring the nerdiness of these tools to the masses, to the music fans that are not necessarily gear nerds.”