You’ve heard that sound before: that watery, bubbly, thick guitar sound slathered over almost every clean guitar part from the late 1970’s throughout the 1980’s. That is the sound of a chorus effect, and when I was young, it was everywhere. It was the second pedal I ever bought (right behind the Next Distortion X), and when I needed a clean guitar sound, the chorus was always on. Other guitarists loved it too, as evidenced from the sound of guitar sounds of the day. This article will explain what chorus actually is to you youngsters (and those who didn’t hop on the chorus train back then), and mention some artists that (over)used this effect on some of the most iconic guitar parts of that time period. The good thing is that chorus is coming back, and when it does, you will be ready!
What exactly is it?
A chorus effect makes it sound (kinda) like 2 instruments playing the same thing at the same time. I say ‘kinda’ because even though it was created to produce 2 voices out of one, it isn’t a simple delay. The idea comes from a choir, where 2 or more people sing the same part with the same inflection, pitch, and phrasing. Problem is, that no 2 or more people are exactly perfect. This is a good thing: the resulting sound is thicker and fuller than what one voice can produce. The subtle changes in tuning and phrasing smear the sound somewhat, sounding more complex and filling up a mix more than 1 voice alone. Add a few more voices and pan them around the stereo field, and you have a spacious sound.
With guitar, things aren’t so easy. If you have 2 guitarists, you can sort of accomplish this if your playing is very tight. If you overdub yourself in the studio, you might have an easier chance, as the phrasing and timing would be pretty close. The chorus effect was designed to accomplish this spacious sound for you. It does this by taking your signal, sending through a short delay, like 30-50 ms, and then slightly altering the timing of the delay at regular intervals. This is then mixed in with the unaltered signal.
Anyone who has used a delay pedal knows what it is like to listen to the note or chord echo while you twist the delay knob. The pitch drops as delay time is increased and speeds up when the delay time is decreased making your basic spaceship taking off sound. Now imagine you had a phantom hand twisting that knob a very small amount (smaller than a hand would actually allow) at regular intervals. The chorus pedal uses a signal (many times, a sine wave) to modulate (change) the delay time, resulting in a signal that goes sharp and then flat (and then sharp and flat again) over and over. We might hear this by itself as vibrato, but when mixed with the original signal and spread out over a stereo field, you will hear a very spacious, watery sound.
Here are my very scientific drawings. The straight line is the normal, in tune guitar signal*, and the wavy line is the same signal being bent in and out of tune by delay time manipulation. Together they make chorus.
*a guitar signal does not look like a straight line except in my pictures.
In the second picture, we have a cycloptic guitarist playing into a tape recorder that is really wobbly. When he plays along with what he recorded, we get a fish-filled sea of chorus.
It is ever so clear now. Can we hear?
Here is a picked example, first with a clean sound and then with the chorus turned on.
You can hear the watery texture as the sound spreads out.
Add some echo, and some interesting chord voicings, and you get expansive clean sounds:
Now, if you don’t mix in the clean sound, and turn the rate knob up (rate is the speed in which you go sharp and flat), you get vibrato. You can hear the pitch go quickly up and down here:
The preceding examples were recorded with the neck position Classic Stack Plus Strat.
So who used these cool sounds?
When I think of early chorus adopters, I tend to go right to Alex Lifeson of Rush, who used it on just about every Rush song until the 1990’s. It really fills out the sound in a 3 piece band, and sounds even bigger and better in stereo. Although most guitarists use chorus in mono (though a single guitar amp), the effect of more than one guitarist playing the exact same part is heightened when there is an amp at either end of the stage. One listen to Spirit of the Radio , Subdivisions, or Distant Early Warning will get you loads of chorused guitars both clean and distorted.
When Steve Howe left Yes in the early 80’s, South African guitarist Trevor Rabin took over. He injected Yes with a more modern guitar style, and seemingly every clean guitar part he recorded had chorus on it. Check out Changes, and Rhythm of Love for some chorused clean guitars. Trevor used lots of sounds, and had an extensive setup combining rack effects and pedals.
The early 1980’s also saw the reformation of progressive giants King Crimson, now with 2 guitarists. Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew used Roland JC-120s to play fast, clean lines mixed with complex close-clustered chords. These amps were stereo 2×12
s, and had a built in chorus circuit inside. They were heavy and loud, but threw sound all over the stage, and sounded great for clean sounds. Check out their songs Matte Kudasai, and Heartbeat to hear their quirky choruses in action.
Of course, there were many others, and these are just my prog-centric picks. Chorus is being used in more recordings today, and the dynamic control of the effect (manipulating the settings while you play) is becoming a more and more common among effect users.
Who are some of your favorite artists who use a chorus? What is your favorite song to feature chorus?