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I started playing the guitar about a year ago starting on an acoustic and gradually transferred to an electric. I do not have control over when I get equipment or even what I get usually so when I get the chance to choose I want to make the best decision, obviously. I like things that sound like "When I Come Around" by Green day or "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World, etc. so I want something that will help me achieve that sound. If things get too metal-ish I start to dislike the sound, but if it sounds too clean I like it even less. I practice on acoustic and transfer to electric when I think I'm "good enough" to play the song in question and then work out how to dial it in. I often play with headphones attached to the respective port so I hear what the amp is putting out and not what the guitar is producing (I practice in a small room)

My current gear is:

  • Fender Mustang I modelling amp (I usually keep it exclusively set to the Fender '57 Deluxe model with no effects. I like to pretend it actually is a Fender '57 Deluxe. I hate that I have to open up the FUSE software to adjust mids. I wish there was a knob on the amp for that)
  • Cheap knock-off strat probably purchased from the likes of Wal-mart, etc. (says "spectrum" on the headstock)
  • A good cable leading from the guitar to the stompbox
  • A defective cable leading from the stompbox to the amp (will eventually replace, right now I just turn up the master volume intensely to compensate)

I also have a Boss HM-2 stompbox (hammydown. hasn't been touched in 20 years) I want to sell and replace with another box that will produce a better sound with this equipment. The problem is, I don't know anything about pedals. I know that a Tube Screamer or a Big Muff is classic but I don't actually know if they're what I want. (I'm also concerned that an overdrive/boost pedal like a Tube Screamer wouldn't fare well with a solid-state amp, modelling or not) Also I want something that will sound good with what I have right now because I am not in control of what I have atm. ;)

Note: Please don't recommend specific products. A generic discussion that would help me make an educated decision on my own would be appreciated.

Update (few weeks later): I got an Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer and replaced the faulty cable. It does exactly what I wanted, and I am now focusing on improving accuracy in my right hand (I strum the wrong notes and especially extra notes even if I have the left hand correct). As far as gear goes, I think I'm set for my current skill level.

Update (few months later): I find myself worrying about tone much less and being able to focus on playing more now. I also find myself using the TS-9 pedal less (though I do love it). Now I usually put the EQ on flat (12 o' clock) and crank the gain on the JCM800 model of my amp, turning the master volume down very (very) low and play through the bridge pickup. My advice would be to not worry about tone and equipment that much at first and just focus on learning how to play the instrument. :)

  • Welcome to the site. I'm a bit confused over exactly what capability you want to expand - your amp is a modelling amp, so doesn't it already have the ability to produce a range of levels of distortion? – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 10:19
  • It does... it's just clunky. I have to have a laptop hooked up to it and the USB cable is only like 6 inches long and I don't have a table to put it on so I'm constantly kneeling down to adjust the settings. It does have a muff model and I've used it a few times, it's just really annoying to have to interrupt everything. I don't know how accurate it is, though. Plus I like the "real" feel of actually having a pedal attached. :) – Uncreative Name Dec 17 '16 at 13:12
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    If you're looking for a recommendation on a specific pedal, that's off topic here. Aside from that, you'll have no idea whether you're really hearing a pedal correctly or not until you fix or replace that bad cable. Also, a good pedal is a good pedal no matter what kind of amp you have. Lastly, as soon as you're old enough, and if you're allowed, find a way to earn some money. Mow lawns, shovel snow, babysit, find a job that doesn't require a work permit, whatever. It will make you a better person and give you control over your guitar rig. – Todd Wilcox Dec 17 '16 at 13:42
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    As Todd Wilcox says, recommendations are off topic here - but would you be happy with an answer that gives general advice? If so, there's no problem with this question IMO. BTW each site on SE sets its own policy on recommendation questions - there are some sites where they are fine. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 14:39
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    @UncreativeName I suggest you put updates at the bottom so the time sequence is more clear. – luser droog Mar 4 '17 at 1:31
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You'll have no idea whether you're really hearing a pedal correctly or not until you fix or replace that bad cable. The same goes for amp settings. Cranking the master volume throws off the EQ balance of the amp, so you're not even able to set the amp in a way that was intended when the amp was voiced. That's a bit less relevant for modeling amps but still a factor.

Also, a good pedal is a good pedal no matter what kind of amp you have. As someone who seems to have a limited budget for equipment, I suggest you look to buy once and then not have to replace what you buy later so you don't waste money. That means you should be reluctant to buy the most affordable Boss, Ibanez, Digitech, or whatever pedal you can find. You want to find a pedal that you still love ten years from now. Right now, the pedals that are well-tuned, great-sounding, long lasting distortion and fuzz pedals are starting around $100 in the US. Many manufacturers that were considered "boutique" ten years ago are much more available now, Fulltone being an excellent example. In my experience, no digital effect besides reverb and delay has had any staying power in my rig. If you want distortion, overdrive, fuzz, etc, focus on dedicated analog effects.

When buying anything that relates to tone, you really have to go try it. If you're younger and don't drive or have access to a decent music store, this can be your biggest challenge. You might be able to get a sense of what you will like by watching a lot of YouTube videos, but you can't really hear or feel it unless you're playing it yourself. The best way to pick a pedal is to take your personal guitar to the store, find an amp close to what you use (or identical) and start demoing pedals.

With that in mind, and thinking about the sounds you're looking for, I think you really want an all-tube combo amp more than anything else. It sounds like there's more distortion on the Jimmy Eat World tracks than there really is, and most of the crunchiness you're hearing is from the guitar and amp. Green Day definitely has distortion going on but I haven't spent much time chasing their sounds so I'm not sure if there's more amp or pedal sound or what happening there. Beyond all that, having a quality amp (and cables) makes it possible for you to then find pedals that sound great. Plugging a great pedal into a not so great amp is still going to give you not so great tone. So my advice is to save every penny you can and set your sights on a new amp, like a 1x12 all tube combo in the $500 - $800 range like a Vox AC15 or Fender Blues Deluxe. I bought a Blues Deluxe as my first "real" amp more than 20 years ago and I still record with it, so a solid tube amp is an investment that will be a musical asset for the rest of your life. Plus, it will get you to a good starting point for building the rest of your rig and your sound.

Regarding your sound, I spent more than a decade chasing tones and never caught any. Then I relaxed and found my own sound, which is really what we all want to have. I'm not sure if the tone chasing part of my life was necessary for me to find my own sound, but I definitely recommend not getting too hung up on re-creating sounds that you hear on recordings. Instead, look for sounds that inspire you. Learn to listen to your heart while you're playing and you'll be able to easily find the best gear and the best settings that inspire you and make you a better player.

Lastly, as soon as you're old enough, and if you're allowed, find a way to earn some money. Mow lawns, shovel snow, babysit, find a job that doesn't require a work permit, whatever. It will make you a better person and give you control over your guitar rig.

  • Thanks for this great answer. I do think that the guitar and amp are a bottleneck, and I really don't want to be in a constant chase to replace everything I buy eventually so lasting quality is definitely a factor. As for the earning money thing, I'm old enough to work and almost old enough to work without parental consent but I don't out of respect for my elders who don't that at the moment. I might be able to figure something out with "unofficial" type jobs like what you mentioned – Uncreative Name Dec 17 '16 at 17:32
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    I've said it so many times - and it still rings true - why spend a load on something new, when for the same sort of money, buy something of much better quality that is 'pre-loved'. That way, also, if it's not right, it will sell for a similar amount that was paid for it! An old Stradivarius violin is always going to be a better bet than a brand new one... – Tim Dec 17 '16 at 17:35
  • @Tim Checking the used market is good advice, and at the same time there's a reason why the seller is selling it. I've only ever sold things that I really shouldn't have bought in the first place. But some people do get out of the game and some people don't realize what they're selling. One of my best guitars I got for a great price on eBay and all I had to do was correct the backbow in the neck. But I had tried out indentical models in stores and I knew what I wanted ahead of time. – Todd Wilcox Dec 17 '16 at 17:44
  • And if it hadn't worked, someone else would have bought it, from you. Sometimes, we have things that are not what we want. Another man's rubbish is someone else's treasure, I think the saying goes. My studio is full of stuff that would have cost a fortune new. My only regret is that I never had the fortune to start with! – Tim Dec 17 '16 at 18:05
  • Great answer. Especially about finding the sounds that inspire you, rather than trying to recreate records. In the amp price range you mention, I'd add that the Blues Jr deserves a mention. I find mine a lot easier to use at bedroom volumes than a friend's Deluxe, also lighter. Really a gem, at the price point. And like the Deluxe, he can go a long way with it. – Ed Plunkett Mar 4 '17 at 3:09
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So it seems like you want mid-gain sounds, and you want some tweakbility that the Mustang doesn't have on its front panel. That sounds fair enough to me!

As to whether you should shop for a traditional stompbox-style pedal right now, I'm not sure. Most simple stompbox-style pedals can only do a few things really well, and will only work well with some signal chains. If you can take advice from someone you trust who has the same amp and is trying to get the same sound as you, great, but more than likely it will be hard to really know which options will work for you until you try them.

If you're lucky enough to be in a country big enough to have a few more stompbox enthusiasts, the way to try things on a budget is absolutely to get involved in the online equipment communities - in the UK and USA, for example, there are loads of people who have fun buying and selling to each other and comparing notes. I've tried nearly 200 pedals and it's cost me practically nothing to do so.... and sad as it might sound, it's probably one of the more fun things I've done in my life! Of course you need to take precautions to avoid getting ripped off but generally it's a very positive experience.

You could even start by trying to trade your HM-2 for something, or selling it to get a bit of cash. If it's in good working order it's worth quite a lot (they've gone up in value quite a bit over the last few years).

As for what kind of thing you should try - that's harder to answer. There are many ways of getting a good sound from a pedal and amp. IMO the best sounds often come from stacking multiple stages of distortion - e.g. getting a little bit of distortion from a pedal, and a bit more the preamp in your amp. A tube screamer-type pedal will give you a bit of a mid boost, but whether it will let you tweak it in the way you want I'm not sure. A muff is something very different and completely changes the dynamics of your guitar playing.

If you mainly play through headphones anyway, why not forget the amp and its restrictions and get one of the new (and very cheap!) multi effects units instead? I think something like a zoom g1on costs a lot less new than your HM-2 is worth second hand. Maybe you could even get a decent middle-of-the-road effects unit like a pod X3 second-hand for a similar price to what the HM-2 would sell for.

Another thing you might want to practice is : trying not to obsess too much about the perfect sound, and trying to user gear in a simple way! Forget, for a while about the extra options you can get via USB, forget stompboxes, and fully explore the options that you can get from the pickup combinations on your strat and the different settings on the mustang amp.

It also looks like you can set up the mustang amp save some of your own presets. Is that right? Would those save the mid settings? If so, why not set up some favourite settings that way?

  • Thank you for your response - this question has recieved much more attention than I expected. Today I experimented with the amp itself, with the mid at 5 (and everything else the model default for '57 deluxe) and just turned the knobs. I was quite impressed with these settings with no box through the good cable: Gain 8, Volume 5, Treble 10, Bass 2, Master 3 (70 watts amp) through the bridge pickup with the volume and both tone knobs on the guitar at 10. The virtual amp seems to start clipping when the gain hits 8 if the volume is higher than around 4. – Uncreative Name Dec 17 '16 at 22:56
  • If I attach the pedal and set the gain to something like 2 and set all the knobs on the pedal to 50%, it still has a "bees in a jar" type sound that I don't particularly care for, so I'll either keep the pedal and just not use it or trade/sell it eventually. :) – Uncreative Name Dec 17 '16 at 23:05
  • @UncreativeName no harm in using it as a cool paperweight if it has sentimental value. I probably wouldn't use that pedal myself either (although to be fair I haven't tried it....) – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 23:12
  • @UncreativeName: I have an old line6 modeling amp, possibly first generation. I liked it for a while but I have some "quality issues" that I cannot seem to get past, and I have come to believe that somehwere in the bowels of the amp itself there is a a low-cut filter that makes anything I feed through it sound thin. Very similar to your "bees" analogy. I can't find specs, but the sample rate on the early model was not enough to cover the audible spectrum, so I have to presume this means they duck the lo-end. – Yorik Dec 27 '16 at 19:05
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The are several things. Replicating studio tone with cheap gear is not sensible goal at all. It is possible to get decent tone that will be suitable for playing.

If it is strat it may be all single coil. Even though there pedals that claim to change sound to humbucker it will be still not the same. Pop punk scene is dominated by humbuckers and p90 placed at bridge position into pushed or high gain amp. Using tube screamer family should give more mids suitable for very clean amps like simulation of Fender. Any big muff like pedal will do opposite thing so it will be good into Plexi simulation.

If want to match your amp with pedal the only way is to find demo that plays your favorite amp with pedal you want to buy and there is no other way. If you find demo of tube amp that will work with pedal it is probable it will will with simulation of this amp. There are also pedals that can be set overdrive or distortion. For specific recommendations try gearpage If you want to check pros gear try equipboard

Settings on amp and guitar are very important part of learning electric guitar.

If you can hear guitar acoustically while playing on headphones may be caused by strumming too hard but you won't eliminate it completely. Albo be warned that amp set very loud and very silent will need different eq settings

Pedal names used in this answer are not specific gear but short ways of describing sound of popular pedals.

  • Thank you for the info - after I get that bad cable fixed I'll probably go with some kind of overdrive/TS type deal instead of a fuzz. The idea of letting the preamp (or the simulation thereof in this case) do the actual clipping intrigues me. I will look up some demos as well. I definitely don't want to purchase something that I haven't researched :) – Uncreative Name Dec 17 '16 at 17:07
  • And yes I tend to strum much harder than necessary... it's really obnoxious when I pick up an acoustic =/ – Uncreative Name Dec 17 '16 at 17:09
  • @UncreativeName pushing sim may work fine but good sounding pedal with enough gain will provide better volume control – teodozjan Dec 18 '16 at 19:46
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Getting the 'exact' sound of a studio recording is probably not a realistic objective, especially as there will be all sorts of post production wizardry used to refine the sound.

More important is to get a sound that you like and is responsive to your playing style. It is a common trap when learning the guitar especially to get frustrated with trying to achieve a very specific sound of an entire recorded band when you would be better off focusing on what you need to get out of your instrument.

I would also strongly recommend that you start playing with a band as this a a fundamental shift in how you play as you need to start listening to other musicians and interacting with them rather than just trying to replicate a recording.

Many peopel are put off from this by feeling they aren't good enough yet but if you can find some band mates who you get one with then this really doesn't matter as it should be a joint effort to get a good band sound rather than a competition about who is the best musician.

There are many many iconic bands which at least started off as a collection of terrible musicians who had a shared vision.

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