Finger on the Trigger: Using Octave Effects
Some effects are very much ‘plug and play.’ A chorus pedal doesn’t really care what you’re doing with it: it will do pretty much the same thing whether you’re playing a delicate arpeggio passage or a chugging Drop C riff. But there are others that are very dependent upon the input signal, and their response can vary from guitar to guitar, and even from pickup to pickup. For me the most fun family of effects in this respect involves octaves, specifically octave-down pedals and octave fuzzes.
Octave-down pedals shouldn’t be confused with harmonizers. While a harmonizer takes what you play and adds a digitally pitch-shifted replication of your original note, an analog octave pedal of this type doesn’t actually play back your actual guitar sound an octave lower. Instead, your guitar triggers a sound which very much like an analog synth, almost a ‘bloop’ kind of onomatopoeic resonance. You can hear this quite clearly if your octave-down pedal allows you to turn down the dry signal, and you can also use it as a very distinct effect in its own right.
If you’ve never played through this type of octave pedal before and you finally get the chance, you’ll probably be thrown by the difficulty of triggering the effect. If you use the bridge pickup, the sub octave tone can cut in and out, or not even be triggered at all. You can use this to your advantage by finding the perfect level of picking strength to trigger the low note for dramatic effect, but generally you’ll want the octave effect to be generated for the duration of the time you’ve got the pedal turned on. The answer is simple: flip to the neck pickup! The power and frequencies of the neck pickup are much more octave-friendly than what the bridge is dishing out, and it’s much easier to get that low, low rumble, or to mimic the effect of a bass player rocking along in unison to the guitar. An analog octave-down pedal will never sound like a harmonizer or pitch shifter, but that’s kind of the point, and is surely why pitch shifters were ultimately developed.
Octave fuzz effects like the Roger Mayer Octavia and the Fulltone Ultimate Octave typically generate an overtone an octave above the note you’re playing, and their mechanism is pretty similar to octave-down effects, in the sense that you’ll need to switch to the neck pickup to get the most noticeable effect. Even then, because it’s so dependent on the signal it’s presented with, it’s not uncommon for an octave fuzz to sound more like a regular, un-octavey fuzz on the low notes or when used with a bridge pickup. Those gorgeous harmonics seem to come to life somewhere around the 12th fret and with the neck pickup engaged. And you can bring about some pretty otherworldly effects by playing hammer-ons through an octave fuzz. It’s as if the overtones are taking a fraction of a second to catch up to the fretted notes, and it’s a beautiful sound. Octave fuzz pedals seem to be more comfortable with single coils or P-90s rather than humbuckers, since they seem to really require the attack of the note to get going, and you might even need to roll the pickup’s tone knob down to hit that sweet spot. It’s worth it though: there’s something satisfyingly addictive about taking the guitar out of its standard range into areas that it doesn’t usually occupy.
So what does it sound like? Here’s a little demo I whipped up to show various aspects of what octave pedals can do. After a short drum intro you’ll hear a Gibson Les Paul Traditional with SH-55 Seth Lover humbuckers, set to the neck pickup with no effects. After a short drum intro you’ll hear four bars of just the neck pickup with no effects (other than amp distortion, and I’ve set the amp relatively bright so it doesn’t sound too woolly). From 0:16 you’ll hear the Boss OC-2 set to one octave below, along with the Les Paul dry sound. At 0:25 a lead guitar part begins, using the same setting as the previous bit. At 0:46 you’ll hear the OC-2 with the dry sound turned completely off and a little bit of delay.
At 1:06 I switch off the OC-2 and turn on the (long discontinued) Jim Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz, again with the neck Seth Lover humbucker engaged, but this time with the tone control rolled all the way off to help the pedal track better. This sound will be familiar to fans of Jimi Hendrix and Joe Satriani.
Then finally at 1:28 I flip over to the bridge pickup with the tone control wide open, so you can hear a rude, chewy sound that you can’t seem to quite get with a regular fuzz, but which doesn’t have the octave overtones that are present when using the neck pickup.
What about you? Have you ever used an octave pedal? What are your favorite recorded octave pedal examples?