How to Make the Most of Your EQ Pedal

In a world full of boutique pedals that can achieve just about any imaginable sound, EQ units can be something of an afterthought. Commonly used to punch up a guitar or bass tone, EQ pedals have a reputation as a workaround for pickups or amps that just aren’t doing the job. They are seen as utility players and not the sort of thing that excites the more adventurous musicians of the world.

But EQ pedals can be a valuable addition to an FX pedalboard far beyond simple tone adjustments. Depending on what the player wants, EQ can significantly sculpt or alter an electronic signal.

Today, we're going to explore a couple widely known EQ functions, and also explores some lesser-known tricks. This list is neither exhaustive nor super technical but will hopefully positively influence how you think about the role of EQ in live performance and the recording process.

What is EQ?

Equalization is something many musicians are already familiar with, most likely by way of their amplifier EQ offerings. Equalization is all about adjusting the balance of frequencies in an electronic signal coming from a guitar, synthesizer, and some other signal generator.

The unit could be bare bones, like the Earthquaker Devices Tone Job, or a 10-band graphic equalizer such as the MXR M108 10-Band EQ. Either way, one controls the lows, mids, and highs of a signal.

Classic EQ Effects

Two of the most well-known EQ effects are the Telephone or AM Radio Tone and Scooped Mids. The Telephone Tone works exactly as it sounds: it turns a guitar or vocal signal into something a telephone or AM radio sound, much like Julian Casablancas’ vocals on early Strokes records.

Scooped Mids, on the other hand, involves dropping the mids (to varying degrees) while boosting the lows and highs, which metal guitarists in bands like Slayer and Metallica tend to do.

Self-Oscillating Noise

This is an extreme example of equalization gone far beyond its practical function. This trick comes by way of electronic musician Kyle Grossen (aka Insergent), who learned of it from the drone music community. This trick is made possible via feedback. To get the EQ pedal to feedback, a splitter is required to duplicate the output.

Run one output to a speaker and the other back into the input, which creates a tone feedback loop, depending on where the band sliders are positioned. The feedback is somewhat unpredictable, particularly when one is boosting multiple bands. One band will be louder than the rest, taking over the fundamental tone of the feedback and “breaking through," as Grossen tells Reverb.

“You can find these little points right before the band takes over, and it causes a fight for dominance between the two notes and some interesting undulating things start happening," he says. “It's really cool when you have super lows and super highs fighting — sub bass versus insane crackling hiss."

Filter Sweeping

Something like a filter sweep is possible using an EQ pedal, albeit a milder one than is achievable with a true analogue or digital filter. A unit with rotary knobs might be preferable to sliders, though the latter will also do.

DJs often use EQ bands as filters, and this works because they have their hands free to manipulate the knobs. A guitar or synth player strumming or playing keys might find this challenging because their hands would be playing instead of knob twiddling. But it would work well if they were programming rhythmic and/or melodic loops on the fly, which would free up their hands to do some EQ sweeps.

Likewise, using EQ sweeps in the recording process is a bit easier, especially with something like a guitar or synth track recorded onto a cassette tape being output into Ableton Live or another DAW for digital recording. Sweeping the EQ also helps pinpoint problem areas in a mix, and minimize or eliminate them.

Altering Distortion and Fuzz

Using EQ to alter distortion or fuzz pedals is fairly common: everyone from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour to Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis have combined the two (with, of course, other effects). Pedals like the Electro-Harmonix Graphic Fuzz and the MXR Super Badass Distortion even go so far as to offer EQ that allow players to really sculpt the way the distortion and fuzz sound.

Playing around with EQ and distortion/fuzz can result in everything from sludgy grunge-like fuzz tones (think: Mudhoney) to My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shield’s wall of sound, as well as the Scooped Mids of heavy metal mentioned above.

Using EQ and distortion pedals with synthesizers would produce all sorts of interesting sonic juxtapositions, whether one is playing warped ambient sounds like Boards of Canada or crushing industrial tones like NIN.

Running synths through some older distortion and fuzz pedals can create noise or volume dropoff problems, but many modern effects are designed to play with a variety of inputs. Knowing how effects units will respond to synths will be a case-by-case basis, so just keep that in mind.

Tremolo and Vibrato

This EQ effect is limited to one pedal: Source Audio’s Programmable EQ. The pedal lets users store four EQ presets, and the Auto-Scroll function allows users to scroll through these four presets at an adjustable speed, creating an effect that is something like tremolo and vibrato. Or, in synthesis terms, an undulating sound that an LFO can achieve.

So, if you’re looking for an EQ pedal that can double as a tremolo, vibrato, or LFO, then Source Audio’s Programmable EQ might just be the deciding factor.

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