Josh Scott Column: The Day that Santa Died (Or Four Guitar Pedal Myths, Busted)
I’ll be the first to admit that this is the textbook definition of a clickbait article, but I had to get your attention for a good reason: it’s December. Time is quickly running out for us to find the New Year’s resolution that will launch us into a bigger and better 2022.
READ MORE: Fuzz Was The Future: Satisfaction Guaranteed
Here’s my proposal: let’s start with the resolution to not be a lemming, to put in the extra effort to know why you believe what you believe about guitar. Specifically, we’re going to debunk some guitar pedal myths, but before we get into that, I’d better make that article title make sense a little bit, right?
How my uncle Fred killed Santa
Mythology is a funny thing. This phrase covers a wide spectrum of beliefs, and Christmas may be the best example of that. Growing up in Alabama and in the middle of the Bible Belt, Christmastime always meant an emphasis on two seemingly contradictory narratives: the Nativity and the legend of Santa Claus. I’ll let you guys rewatch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” if you need a refresher on the former, but I want to take just a few minutes here to explain how the myth of Santa Claus found its way into the pop culture greatest hits of the last 200 years.
We know that Saint Nicholas (the guy who supposedly inspired the Santa Claus fable) was born around 280 AD in modern day Turkey, and that he was a generous dude and a bit of a badass (legend has it that he resurrected three kids who were drowned in pickle juice by an evil butcher – though the story makes slightly more sense in context). His story migrated to the United States in the late eighteenth century with Dutch immigrants, and over the next century Americans did what we do best: we co-opted another culture’s tradition and made it our own. Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle, the “jolly old elf” who wore a red suit with fur trim and who delivered toys to good girls and boys on 25 December.
So, with this context, you can understand that Christmas was a strange time of year in the United States, especially with my family. I’m going to paraphrase my good friend Leo Tolstoy here: “Happy families are all alike, but every freakin’ weird family is freakin’ weird in its own way.” And it’s true. Christmas had a way of bringing out my family’s insanity even more than usual. My parents had this sort of cultural guilt that they were robbing me of the true Christmas experience if they didn’t hype up Santa Claus as an actual person, while at the same time wanting me to understand that we were really celebrating Jesus’s birthday. As a result, my family talked about Santa Claus the same way we talked about the BigFoot. He might be real. Who were we to say that he wasn’t?
All of this came to a crashing halt on Christmas morning, circa 1990. I should note here that I’ve changed the names of my uncle and cousin in this story for their own protection (I don’t want the gear forums to hunt them down), but everything else is 100 per cent on the level. That morning, I awoke to a thundering laugh from the living room. Cue my unbridled joy. Was it santa? Was I finally going to meet the big guy face-to-face?
No. It was my crazy Uncle “Fred.” Uncle Fred had come to my house early Christmas morning with his son, my cousin “Barney.” Why were they barging into my living room on Christmas morning like a deleted scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Uncle Fred had bought Barney a goat for Christmas. Yes, a goat (this is an actual event, I swear). And because I grew up on a ranch, Fred and Barney had showed up on Christmas morning wanting hay to feed it. You can’t make this stuff up.
As I ran into the living room to scope out my presents and (maybe!) meet Santa Claus, Uncle Fred greeted me thusly: “About time you woke up. Your dad finally got your new bike built. There it is! Merry Christmas!” At that moment, Santa died.
You see, Santa had been a sort of emotional crutch, a myth that I had held on to because I enjoyed how comfortable it made me feel, the magic, the mystery, the idea of a man in a red suit eating cookies and driving a sleigh across the southern sky. In the same way, many guitarists are still leaning on some myths that they’ve long since outgrown. So, in the spirit of Christmas, let me be your crazy Uncle Fred who pulls the rug out from under your inaccurate pedal beliefs and ultimately sets you free.
“There’s no way you can clone that pedal.”
Simply put: there’s not a pedal on earth that you can’t replicate, because people are smart. We live in the 2020s now. We have gone to the moon (or at least faked it really well). We’ve created pre-sliced bread and handheld supercomputers. We have McDonald’s delivery through Uber Eats. This is the level of genius minds that exist on this earth, but yet we say we can’t copy a circuit that is based around one-hundred-year-old technology? Nah.
A pedal can be replicated, an amp can be replicated, because there’s nothing magical about these pieces of gear or their components. The Klon Centaur’s components are now decades old and the functions of its topology are found in outdated electronics textbooks worldwide. Even though we have memories attached to our gear, at the end of the day it’s small signal electronics, not a Tesla death ray. You can replace it and you can replicate it.
Here’s the short version: don’t get hung up on a certain piece of (crazy expensive) gear being the ultimate tonal nirvana. Give the clone a shot. At least it will give you a decent idea if you really want to pay for the original, because a good clone of something should sound exactly like the thing it’s cloning. If you don’t like a Klon clone, you aren’t going to like a Klon.
Image: JHS Pedals via Reverb.com
“A pedal with a special op amp or chip in it sounds better.”
The most legendary argument for the special sound of an op amp is with the vintage ProCo RAT. In the original units, a LM308 op amp was used and many people use its existence as a sort of physical explanation for the really great RAT sound they remember. This op amp was discontinued in the 2000s, phased out of the RAT’s production around 2005 and replaced with the OP07. Despite popular opinion and rumor, this OP07 is a perfect replacement for the LM308. Its response, slew rate and frequency attenuation are identical. Sadly, the arguments you see for this rumor are never scientific or controlled, they are based on memory or a simple ear test that compares two RATS.
Basically, there is no ‘magic’ op amp. Specific op amps are created to function in specific ways, but at the end of the day they’re tools. Just like pedals as a whole, they can be replicated.
In my experience, your feelings about the pedal (or the chip) usually circle back to your history with it. If you got a TS808 in 1982, you used to gig with it, and you had some good gigs, your brain is naturally going to make the connection: ‘The TS808 is the reason my gigs were so smoking back then’. Then ten years later, you’re playing a TS9 instead, and because of outside factors (your band quality being lower, not having the same amp, getting saddled with bad gigs, etc), your brain does the same trick in reverse: ‘The TS9 is the reason my gigs have sucked this year’. The same thing happens with athletes who wear the same pair of lucky shorts to every championship game, just in case. We talk ourselves into believing some of these myths, when they’re absolutely not true.
A vintage NOS op amp doesn’t make a circuit sound great. Rather, a great circuit makes an op amp sound great. We should stop discrediting brilliant designers and their designs like the Tube Screamer and RAT by claiming that they need some magical chip to be awesome. That’s dumb.
“Surface-mount parts aren’t as good as through-hole parts.”
When I say “through-hole parts,” I’m talking about capacitors, resistors, diodes, etc. When you open up a pedal and look at the circuit board, you see that through-hole parts actually have legs. You put in these parts and they go through the pad holes in the board. You fit them and solder them. These are the bigger, more traditional parts that we all know and say we love.
Surface-mount parts are the same exact parts, just smaller. Think about the tiny parts you see in a computer or smart phone after you drop it down a flight of stairs. When you look at the circuit board, they lay in their positions on top of the circuit board where they were placed by a machine and soldered in a large conveyor oven.
The myth is that those surface-mount parts are inferior, and I’ll be honest, I believed that… until I went and did an experiment. I was curious because I wanted to make my JHS products better, so I finally took a shot and I said, “I’m going to make a Morning Glory with surface-mount parts. I want to hear it, I want to compare it, and if it’s successful I’m going to go surface-mount.” Well, I built a prototype and it blew me away. It was way less noisy, sounded sonically identical, and was frankly just a better-made product.
This myth really gets on my nerves. Sometimes I hear people say, “Man, I hate surface-mount. I only play through-hole,” and yet they have a Strymon TimeLine on their board? Educate yourself, kid. That is surface-mount. Even your smartphone or tablet that you are possibly reading this on is surface-mount. Surface-mount and through-hole parts are simply two different ways of crafting gear. The simple fact is that surface mount technology is scientifically better than through hole because its smaller, dissipates heat within circuits better, allows a PCB to be laid out with more separation so that noise is reduced and it is extremely stable to abuse. There is no ‘magic’ in through-hole that can’t be found in the surface mount equivalent. Ahem. Let’s move on.
“Germanium transistors sound better than silicon.”
Germanium is a primitive type of transistor material found in very early devices used in the early age of electronics. They were a massive evolution that came after the vacuum tube and changed the world of electronics. Later on these germanium devices became extinct with the invention of silicon transistors, as silicon was more stable than germanium and easier to work with. These transistors are basically small amplifiers with three legs that you can use to amplify the signal. They are a building block to millions of circuits we use everyday.
People really get hung up on the fact that they think germanium transistors are better, and there’s good reason for thinking that. If you’ve ever played a real Tone Bender or a real Fuzz Face from back in the day, it’s a great sounding pedal, and both of those pedals were designed around germanium parts. We’ve heard them on the Zeppelin records; we’ve heard Jimi Hendrix play them. We’re very familiar with it, but it doesn’t make it better.
Let me point out the weird double standard on this: the Big Muff is silicon, which is the alternative. It’s a more modern type of transistor, not as rare, but no one says the Big Muff sounds like crap because it’s silicon. See where I’m going with this? If you know germanium is better and silicon sucks, you have to say the Big Muff sucks. Good luck getting that Ted Talk off the ground.
So here’s the deal: germanium is not better if germanium transistors are put in a crappy circuit. A circuit needs to be designed around the type of transistor or the types of parts you’re using, and in that it’ll sound good. I can take a silicon transistor and make a fuzz that you’ll love. As a matter of fact, most of my fuzzes are silicon, and you guys seem to love them, as they sell like crazy. Sales numbers and smiling guitarists don’t lie.
Wrapping it up
Mythology is an inextricable part of life, and guitar pedals are no exception. There’s always going to be some degree of nostalgia and emotion involved. No guitarist has a completely clinical view of pedals, and if they do, I pity them. A huge part of what makes guitar pedals so much fun is that everyone experiences them in a unique way. If you lined up three electric guitarists with exactly the same pedalboard, they would pull completely different sounds out of those pedals. Your playing style is colored by dozens of factors, including your musical background, your guitar heroes (or heroines) and the decade/country where you grew up.
What I’m trying to say here is that we should play the gear we love, understand that magical circuitry isn’t involved and admit the beautiful reality that our memories and emotions can guide us into creativity in ways that the gear itself cannot. Embrace what you like about a specific piece of gear, even if it’s as simple as how you feel when you play it or how it looks on your pedalboard.
I’m going to fall back on my favorite motto here: if it sounds good, then it is good – and of story. Merry Christmas!
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