I first saw Kirk Fletcher a year ago at a gig in Oxford and was immediately struck by the way he created such a wide range of tones using just his guitar's volume and tone controls and the amp. I've seen a few other guitarists play in the same way and they all have several things in common - they use no pedals, always have a great tone that cuts through the mix and they can all make the guitar sing using just the amplifier.
Fast forward nearly a year and I've just finished building an amp for Kirk to use for his 2015 UK tour. To test his amp before I delivered it to him I used it on a few of my usual gigs but with his approach of using no pedals.
There have been a few times in the past when it's been just amp and guitar. These have either been 'rhythm only', jazz or jam session gigs. Usually I have around five or six pedals on my board - a delay, an octaver, a wah, a couple of drive pedals and sometimes a compressor. This time I had just a tuner. Initially I was concerned I wouldn't be able to make a big enough sound - the band was just bass, guitar, drums and vocals. However once I'd got into it I found I was making a bigger sound. The whole experience was totally liberating and I became much more adventurous in how I played the guitar - how I attacked the notes, where on the strings I used the pick, which pickup I used. I usually I have my guitars controls pretty much full up and use drive pedals or a boost on the amp to get large changes in volume or overdrive. This time I had the amp turned up higher and brighter than usual but with the guitar's volume controls backed off down to 3 or 4 and the tone set to to 5 or 6 for normal rhythm playing I found I had so much more dynamic range for my rhythm playing. I could keep the volume low when using the plectrum, and when I wanted to finger pick I could raise the volume a little and then play with a gentler touch. When solo time came I could nudge up the volume a little to cut through but still keeping enough left to make it really scream when I wanted it to.
I felt connected to the amplifier and guitar in a way I hadn't before, and I found myself listening to the band and responding in new ways. Instead of the on-off limitation of pedals I had this infinite palette of tones available using the guitar's controls and pickup switch, my fingers and my pick to make the amp work.
I've used the same set-up several times since and it's now with one exception pretty much my default approach. Both my confidence and my tone have improved dramatically. I still love using pedals - for certain sounds there is no substitute but they are, as the name implies, for 'effect' and not to get 'my tone'. That comes from my amp, my fingers and my guitar.
Playing in this way forces you to listen in a different way and you get to know your guitar and amplifier much more intimately and as one instrument. If you haven't already, I recommend you give it a try sometime.
I saw Kirk and his band play a few times on his tour and got to talk to him about how he developed his approach. Kirk has played with a whole host of great guitar players - Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Joe Bonamassa and it's not just the playing that gets discussed, as you'd expect the gear does too - years' of experience playing with all the best equipment that is available. For Kirk "It's all about the amp........I like to keep it pretty clean.........two 6L6s and reverb".
You can find out more about Kirk on his website