My Current Live Guitar Rig Rundown
Guitar player, teacher and recording artist Niko Lalangas runs through his Live Guitar Rig and provides a treasure trove of insight and tips we can all benefit from.
Like most guitarists, I’ve modified my live guitar rig setup from minor tweaks to major changes. Sometimes we get new gear, sometimes we just want a change of tone. With each new project, gear changes, too. I think a musician’s ear is an ever-evolving device. We don’t necessarily stop liking our old sound, but we start hearing new things that we never heard before and it can drive us to explore new sounds or deeper into the old ones.
When I write and record new music, I tend to experiment with and use all sorts of different gear. Live, however, is another story. Currently, I’m working every weekend with a cover band. Actually, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the same cover band for 5+ years now, and the band has been around for a decade! Unlike the creative engine that drives tone when writing music, playing cover songs brings out our need to match the song as closely as possible.
I used to think that matching the tone closely was so important that I would often go to our now massive online community for predefined patches to download. Patches are rarely great on their own, so naturally, they’d get a little tweaking before hitting the live show. However, if you’ve ever done this yourself you realise 2 dangers in relying on a wide variety of patches:
• The tone from one amp simulation and effects to the next is so drastic that the patches often don’t “bleed through” the live sound the same way.
• Volume levels are never perfect, they require setting up to avoid massive leaps and bounds in volume levels.
The best tip I can offer when working with effects processors that download these types of user-made patches is to examine the patches for ideas but make your own. And always, ALWAYS use the same amp simulation on most of the patches. This will keep the tone and volume levels as even as possible.
Anyway, onto my live guitar rig…
The band I play in plays about 4 decades worth of rock and dance music. We’re in the south in America, so I bit of southern rock is necessary, too. You can’t play in a rock band in the south and not play Sweet Home Alabama, it’s the anthem of the south!
Many great cover bands have a guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, bassist, and singer. Some or all of the other members contribute with backing vocals. These are necessities when playing in cover bands like mine. Unfortunately, we’ve never (in 10 years) acquired a keyboard player. I’m almost surprised by this, but it’s the lineup we’ve had. In the past, we’ve considered using (and sometimes used) backing track sequences that are triggered live to bring keyboard parts into the songs while the rest of us play our own instruments. We did have a bassist years ago who also played keys, but he wasn’t a full-time key player so he was more of a live human-run sequence machine.
So what do we do now?
I’ve been using a Line 6 POD HD500x effects processor for many years now. About a year ago, I purchased the Roland GR-55 guitar synthesizer. I tried out guitar synth in stores years ago. There was a company called Brian Moore Guitars, they were demoing the technology at my local music store, and the school I worked for at the time. The guitars were “okay”, but nothing that caught my fancy. The synth technology sounded great, impressively so, but the tracking was so slow that some of us “speedy players” were losing notes in our scales if we played a little too fast for the device. Between the guitar and the processor, I couldn’t justify the nearly $2000 (or more) price for the package. Now, however, the technology has made giant leaps and the tracking is much, much better. Also, you can purchase a pickup to install on any guitar, so you don’t have to buy a proprietary guitar. Granted, guitars like Brian Moore models and Godin make for a more seamless experience. However, if you’re on a tight budget, installing a picking on the outside of your guitar isn’t that difficult!
If a song features piano parts, horn parts, organs, or whatever other non-guitar sounds I program the settings into my Roland. Before we get there, let me explain how I’ve been using my POD. So we’ll take a look into how I design a typical patch on my board.
We play with the entire band running directly into the PA system. Even our drummer is on an electronic kit, so he’s direct, too. There are pros and cons to this, but I’ll discuss all of that another time. Perhaps a blog about different live setups, direct vs. mics.
The first thing I need is an amp tone. I don’t particularly lean towards the heavier amp sounds on my POD. I prefer a cleaner tone that I can mess with by adding other pedals and effects onto. So for example, I start with a clean Marshall sound, one of the classic models like the JTM-45 MkII. The amp sim has a nice warm clean tone.
Now, the board has some fantastic dirty amps, overdrives, and distortions I am partial to two of my external pedals. So through the POD’s effects loop, I will run my Sparkle overdrive and my Rat distortion pedal. The Sparkle is an overdrive pedal that has a great contrast of crunchy tones but with an added bonus feature: You can mix a little clean over the dirty sound to produce both sounds at once, and balance them to your liking. I absolutely love this sound for songs that need a little pep but have a lot of arpeggiated chords. The Rat, on the other hand, can provide anything from a bright crunch to a mean lead to a highly compressed fuzz tone. This has to be the most versatile distortion pedal I’ve ever owned, you just need to know how to use it properly. There’s a filter knob that acts like an extremely powerful high-pass filter. So you can crunch, growl, etc. As you adjust the overdriven sound, the filter will also take on a different shape. The possibilities for tone are wonderful with this pedal. Of course, some prefer the traditional Boss overdrives and distortions (or such) but I’m in love with the Rat. I’ve used it for about 20 years.
Now with those going into my loop ports, I leave them in the back line of my stage and add an FX block to the POD’s chain. This goes before the Marshall setup, obviously. I’ll simply turn on whichever pedal I plan on using with whichever song. Now, you might ask why I don’t keep the pedals next to the board up front. I have on occasion, but I like to save on real estate and I have my clever little ways of setting the POD up so it’s in “set it, forget it” mode.
The noise gate is next. I have always kept the gate first in the chain for the onboard effects. However, I’ve found that using distortion in the FX block will still produce noise. So the gate goes after the FX block (which works like a charm.) The Sparkle drive doesn’t really require a noise gate much if at all, but the Rat sure does. Fortunately, the gate doesn’t need to be very high, it does what it needs to do with standard/average settings.
Now, before the FX block (my overdriven buddies) I will add in the popular “red” compressor. I don’t always use a compressor, but it’s there in the chain for when I want it.
Between the FX block and the amp, I’ll add the script phase. Some people love this pedal for jazz fusion, funk, etc. I find that with the right settings in the right location of your effects chain you can get a really nice substitute for an auto wah. The intended auto wah style effects in the POD just don’t do it for me, and I’ve never fancied using a wah pedal. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of a great wah pedal, I’m just not that type of player. So the phase will do what I need it to do, and quite well!
The chain before the amp is complete. Now after the amp…
I will always add the tube compressor next. A lot of people are unsure what this compressor does, as it doesn’t seem to be anything like the red or blue models. What it’s doing is preventing unnecessary peaks from your notes. In other words, highs aren’t biting too much, and lows aren’t “woofing” too much. Often, especially with a Rat pedal, when you palm mute you’ll get heavier leaps in your lows than when you’re just playing without palm muting. The compressor prevents these spikes keeping your tone awesome and even no matter which techniques you’re using. In other words, it’s like a little manager standing over your EQ telling it to stay put and do its job.
Speaking of EQ, some people love using parametric EQs, 5-7 band EQs, etc. to shape their tone. I do, too, on occasion and even have a lot for the mid-focus EQ on the POD. However, I don’t use it in my typical setup here. I just use the EQ on the Marshall and tweak the pedals in the chain as needed.
After the tube compressor, I will head to delay-ville and add in my delay pedal. I generally use a straight up digital delay. The POD has nearly a dozen delay pedals, and they are all pretty fantastic when used properly. However, I just want the delay to assist on leads most of the time, so the digital delay does me just fine and dandy. More on my settings later.
Next is my reverb. This one is tricky. So many to choose from, so many to love. A good reverb takes away that flat tone. But which to use? The problem with reverb is that every room is different. So I have to allow room on my tone for someone to add reverb at the PA system during soundcheck. Having said that, what I’m about to say may sound completely wrong – I add a block in my chain for the “Cave” reverb. What?? Niko, are you crazy? A cave is “death by reverb!” Well, yes, yes it is. But I pull the decay down to zero and what it does is provide more of a post-reverb that’s nice when I stop playing but doesn’t step all over my tone when I am playing. It’s an interesting effect, actually, and it allows whatever is set at the PA to also work with it well without doing anything weird.
Last in my chain is my volume pedal. I use this for a basic boost from rhythm to lead (and some settings which I will mention later.) My preference is about 75%-100% in the settings. This can be a pretty bold leap in volume for solos, but given my tone settings (which tend to be on the warmer side) this is necessary to bleed through just right. It’s important not to be TOO loud on solos, however. So it’s taken a little trial and error to see what works best. The 75/100 split is perfect for me.
Now the pedals in the chain are setup. What’s next? Settings. I’ll approach these from left to right:
• I keep my red compressor at default settings.
• The FX block is set to default settings, as well. It has to be to allow for full tone from the pedals running through the loop.
• The script phase is set with a speed sync on the quarter notes. I like to tap that in and play right on the beat with those pulses.
• I keep the amp at default, too. Line 6’s crew really knew what they were doing when they setup the typical popular Marshall sound. The knobs are fine where they are.
• The tube compressor is set to default settings, too.
• Delay – I like about 1 1/2 returns on the echoes. I keep my mix down to around 15%-20%. So it’s just there to fill things in, but not really noticeable unless you’re listening for it or I stop playing altogether. Like the phase, I’ll set the delay to sync with quarter notes, too.
• I keep the cave reverb at default settings, BUT, as I said earlier I turn the decay all the way down to zero. The decay is nice when it’s set to its default settings, but as explained earlier the zero setting has its benefits.
Ahhhh, the volume pedal. I forgot to mention, I’m a bit of a southpaw when it comes to my pedals. I prefer left over right, and these darn devices are always made for righties. So I use an external expression pedal plugged into the POD’s extra port and run it on the left side. What’s more, the pedal has a lot more hiding inside it than just volume boosts.
When I boost to a solo, I like to see a little more of everything happen. Sometimes a gain increase, often a delay increase, and even boost that reverb decay back up. I setup the pedal to not only boost my lead volume but control and boost these other parameters, too. But wait, there’s more…
You didn’t forget about my GR-55 Synthesizer, did you? That entire guitar chain that I listed above is set up hard panned left. Hard panned right is a separate chain for the synth sounds. I leave the GR-55 in the back, not up front. I’ll run a MIDI cable into it to control it from the POD, and likewise run a cable from the GR-55’s output back into the AUX of the POD. Through the POD’s system settings, you can tell it which input to use for each of the left and right chains. This is a great feature, it allows the user to have two different inputs at once, which is what I do.
Everything on the GR-55 is set to accordingly, channel to channel. So as an example of what I generally do (every song is different, of course) let’s use Bob Seger’s, Old Time Rock & Roll. I’ve got my guitar sound set. But what’s missing? The song needs that ol’ time rock and roll piano. I setup the GR-55 with the correct piano settings. For me, I love using a little bit of a base doubled setup – meaning the 2 bass strings play octaves while the remaining 4 strings have a nice straight single octave to work with. This gives the effects of someone playing octaves with their left hand on the piano while their right hand just plays a basic chord, couple of notes, fill, etc. I tend to voice my chords in the rhythm with string 4,3,2 for the chord and a single bass, not on either the 6th or 5th strings. The piano setting does the rest!
On the POD, I’ve set a stomp button to change the channel on the GR-55. If it’s a separate patch just for that song, you can nicely set the POD to change its own channel and the GR-55’s channel with one or two little clicks.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Okay, so you’re playing guitar and piano simultaneously. Do they run into each other and sound like a mess? What about leads? Do you have to turn the piano off again with a button before going into a solo? Here’s what’s going on. With the right audio balance, the guitar and the piano do not stomp on each other. The guitar is dirty so the guitar is growling a bit beneath the clean sound of the piano notes. Yes, I can play the same notes for both instruments because we have a second guitarist. It creates a great overall sound with whatever he’s playing which in this song’s case is the boogie groove on the low strings and the little leads that appear throughout the latter part of the song. As for solos… ooh that lovely expression pedal. In the chain that’s panned hard right for the GR-55, I have a comp boost. I set it up lightly so it’s not shaping any sound, just providing a volume outlet. The expression pedal will go up for solos and DROP the boost’s volume to zero muting the piano entirely. So the GR-55 is silent during solos but returns when the expression pedal drops back to rhythm position. What a time saver, huh? And remember, I have those other effects parameters adjusting as well. So there’s a world of magic happening on just that one little press of the expression pedal. I love that!
As you’d expect, every song is different. So there are some songs that require a lot of changes in the guitar chain I described above. More or less, the chain stays the same. I just add/change things to adapt the signature sound – a heavier delay (Welcome to the Jungle), a funkier phase, or perhaps that talk box sound we all know and love. Whatever it is, I dial it in around the same amp, distortions, noise gate, and compressors.
My guitars are quick and easy. I bring 3 to every show. My main guitar is an early 90s Peavey Wolfgang Special. It has a gorgeous quilted maple top with an amber dye job. I love it. It’s easy to play, and I wired it up with the extra pickup for the GR-55. So this guitar is responsible for most of my sound.
As a backup guitar, I have my original Peavey Wolfgang hanging on the stand. This guitar is my oldest, about 20 years old, and has been modded some both in appearance and function. The band is fundamentally a rock band called Rockzilla. So I skinned the body with a great decal with an industrial metal design that’s been “clawed through” (in red) by a seemingly large lizard of some kind. It’s a great design. I put some gothic crosses over the inlays, also really nice extra-thin decals that don’t look cheap nor affect playability. The tone knob has been removed from duty internally (no tone functionality) and the cap replaced with a 12-gauge shotgun shell cap. Inside the guitar is an overdrive boost that’s built right into it. Pulling the shotgun knob out will activate this boost. The main volume pot has a double shaft and 2 levels of knob caps. The bottom level adjusts the overdrive amount, the top is the volume level. I lost a pickup a while back, so there’s a non-stock (but still beastly) pickup installed in its place.
Now, the GR-55 is a great unit. 900+ instrument sounds, you can’t beat that! However, I have to say it doesn’t really do steel string acoustic guitar sounds that I like. They may sound good to the audience, but something about them sounds really thin and weak to me. I’ve had similar ups and downs with pedals like the Boss AC-3. The best sound I get for our acoustic-driven songs come from my Line 6 Variax. I use the old 700 electric model, it’s really nice. Has a PRS style body, red dye job, and feels really comfortable. I string this bad-boy up with 11 gauge strings for extra tone. This guitar delivers the absolute best acoustic 6 and 12 string guitar songs for our needs. I run it into a patch on the POD that Line 6 already provided for their guitars’ acoustic settings. Yes, I went default stock patch on this one.
So 3 guitars, a beastly effects processor, a synthesizer… I’m set! Well, almost. We use in-ear monitoring, too, so I have 2 things setup in the back by my GR-55. The GR-55 sits on a pedal board tray from a case I transport it in. That tray sits at a 45º angle on an amp stand. Yes, an amp stand. The extensions on the stand serve as great places to hang my excess cable slack. On the same board next to the not-so-wide GR-55 is my Shure in-ear system. Pinned on the stand is an iPad stand, too. My iPad is up there controlling my in-ear mix. Digital PA’s are amazing now. You can control your own personal settings right from a tablet. Dreamy when you don’t have a full-time sound guy, which we don’t. We set it and forget it.
Then there are my accessories. I’m a guitarist… I have toys. I keep my capo on the headstock of my Variax in case I need it. There’s a pick holder strip on my mic stand. Ah yes, and then my picks. I know plenty of guys that feel “a pick is a pick.” I can’t do it. I’m too, pardon the pun, picky. I have been a full-time fan (more so an “enthusiast”) of the Dava rubber grip guitar picks. I keep one steel-tipped control pick (as they call them) for some of the heavier rock. I love the tone it produces. My full-time picks are the rubber-tipped Dava picks, half gel tips, and half nylon tips. Why? I use the gel for most songs, the tips are really hard and smooth. I use the nylon ones for acoustic because they give/bend more. The pliability allows me to strum like a beast and not hurt the strings. Why Dava? Well, they do feel nice in my hands. I like a thick pick in my hands more than a thin one, but I like picks to give a bit, too. Dava picks are the only picks I’ve ever used that are heavier gauges but bend when needed. That’s important to me. I’ve heard silly things like, “Oh, that rubber came off of the pick the first day I used it!” or my favourite, “You can’t do pick slides down the strings with that rubber side.” I have to quote Steve Jobs here and say, “You’re using it wrong.” I’ve never had the grips wear off that quickly, and as for sliding… use the plastic edge, not the rubber edge. Lastly, I have a few custom picks that feature the band’s name, website, and my personal website on them. Those are just business cards, I give them out to people at shows. I also keep some in my pocket. When you’re out and about roaming the room on a wireless system, sometimes you just need to keep a few “business cards” on you. So I do.
Well, that’s all for now. As you can see I’m a bit of a nut with my setup. I often hear, “That’s just too much.” Well, too much is never enough for some people, that’s for sure. I have to say, while it may be a lot of time, setup, and gear, it’s a great deal of minimalistic button-pushing during a live show, which I love most. I just want to play, not babysit my pedalboard.
I’d love to hear some questions and comments, so feel welcome to let me know what you all think! Cheers.
Visit Niko at https://www.nikorocks.com/