Juan Alderete might have a problem. It started innocently enough, but what began as a budding curiosity has grown into a full-blown obsession.
At the beginning of his career, in the ’80s, Alderete used a single compressor for cleaner tone and more precision; now, he has a studio for his pedal collection, which contains over 400 pedals—and it’s still growing. Even broaching the subject of effects with the 53-year-old Los Angeles native might bring out the museum curator in him: Be ready for eloquently recited dissertations on, say, the merits of a multi-function distortion pedal.
Alderete’s infatuation with bass gear has led him to become one of the world’s great authorities on pedals and effects, granting him sommelier status that has fueled his popular website pedalsandeffects.com, his nationwide tours for effects demos, his global seminars at bass camps, and his crusades through small-town pawnshops to find hidden bass gems. If this seems like an exaggeration, consider that an hour before this interview, Alderete had purchased yet another bass, in San Francisco: “It’s a gorgeous Ibanez Roadstar Precision from the ’80s,” he gushed. “I called my wife and told her I had to get it.”
Fortunately, Juan’s gear has always been put to good use. Best known for his stellar work with bands like Racer X, Distortion Felix, Big Sir, Vato Negro, and the Mars Volta, Alderete has recently been laying down grooves for hip-hop heavyweights Del-tron 3030 and Dr. Octagon. Halo Orbit, his recent collaboration with drum phenom Mark Guiliana and Japanese guitar virtuoso suGar, is a power trio that’s heavy on the tones. Hero Orbit’s self-titled debut, years in the making, is well worth the wait: Alderete harnesses a barrage of sounds that are wildly distorted on “Subump” and “Angels Flight,” rubbery and elastic on “Love or Lost,” and sandpaper-gritty on the title track. Regardless of the project, the band members, or the genre, though, he is always pushing the boundaries of effects on the bass guitar. Juan Alderete might indeed have a problem, but fortunately for us, it’s a good problem to have.
What was the evolution of your pedal obsession?
In Racer X, we focused on shredding, and I got the really precise tone I needed by using a Boss CS-2 Compression pedal and my Jazz Bass. But in the ’80s, everyone was using a chorus pedal, so I got a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus Flanger. Then I bought a Boss OC-2 Octave because my bass teacher, Steve Evans, used one while he soloed. In the ’90s, I started getting into Electro-Harmonix Micro Synths. I wasn’t the first to do it—Michael Anthony of Van Halen would use the up bass feature on a Micro Synth when he soloed. Then I got a fuzz pedal, and before I knew it, I was getting into all sorts of distortion, which got me into researching pedals and buying and selling them left and right.
How many effects were you using with the Mars Volta?
My pedalboard kept getting bigger and bigger until I had four massive pedalboards on tour. My setup got so huge that it weighed more than anybody else’s stuff on stage. Then I built a studio in 2011 for my effects collection, which is 400 to 500 pedals.
Which ones end up on your board these days?
My old joke is that I put Mexican flag stickers on pedals that make the cut. As for the most indispensible ones, I’d say the Boss CS-2, OC-2, and VB-2 pedals; my vintage Micro Synth; the Earthquaker Devices Hummingbird, Afterneath, Hoof Reaper, and Rainbow Machine; Red Panda’s Context Reverb, Godlyke’s Great Divide, the Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl, the new Dunlop Crybaby Mini Bass Wah … man, I could go on and on.
Which players inspired your penchant for effects?
I remember seeing Tim Bogert at Musicians Institute in the ’80s, and his Boss pedalboard had a bunch of effects on it. He was going crazy with them, and I didn’t get it. I wasn’t ready for it yet, but I look back on that as a big moment for me. A lot of guitar players, like Eddie Van Halen and the Edge, influenced me heavily, too. In my opinion, the Edge is the greatest pedal user of all time. He’s always gotten such insane sounds, and he changed the whole landscape of using pedals.
Which current pedal users rock your world?
Lately, I’ve been digging the pioneering stuff Tim Lefebvre did on David Bowie’s Blackstar album. There are a ton of players in the fusion world who are killing it with effects, though it can be hard for me to digest that music. I love Timmy’s pedal use with Rage Against The Machine. His bass work on “Bulls on Parade” with the distortion is huge, and I like what he does with a wah.
Are there any pedals that you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to get?
I’d really love to get the rackmount version of the Micro Synth, but they only made ten of those, and they’re really hard to find. I just got my hands on this ’60s Vox Ampliphonic Stereo Multi-Voice synth that I had been seeking forever. Kid Koala, who’d been telling me about his for a while, found one in a music shop in Seattle, and I bought it over the phone.
How do you get to know a new pedal?
I play multiple basses through it to see how it reacts. I might feed in some guitars, keyboards, and drum machines to see how it responds; that usually helps me figure out how to use it with bass. I test all its settings, explore its range, figure out how I could use it, and then see how it pairs with my other pedals so I can know whether I’ll want to run it exclusively with a fuzz, a compressor, or anything else. Really, it’s all about exploring it from top to bottom.
If a bass player could only own three types of effects, what should they be?
An octave or a sub, a synth pedal, and a fuzz pedal. The octave and synth are important because we live in the low end, and those really boost that. And the fuzz is just necessary. If I could pick a fourth type, I’d throw a modulation [chorus or flanger] in there, too.
What’s a powerful fuzz or distortion pedal for players who aren’t into the Big Muff?
I always suggest the Earthquaker Devices Hoof Reaper. It’s two fuzzes in one, and then some. You get the Hoof and the Tone Reaper distortion options, and you also get the octave up; you can use both fuzzes at the same time, or the distortions and the octave, all at once. I also like the Dwarfcraft Eau Claire Thunder, which was my main distortion in Mars Volta. The Amptweaker TightFuzz is really heavy without being overly noisy. There are so many options for distortion and fuzz pedals, but those are great places to start.
You also have quite the bass collection. How did you get your fretless Warwick Jonas Hellborg Bass?
When I met Jonas about five years ago, he handed me his bass and said, “Play this.” I didn’t want to play in front of a dude as ripping as him, but sure enough, I started shredding and playing phrases I had never played before. That bass lit me up. It was like when I met my wife—it changed my whole life and the way I think. I knew I had to get one of those, so I began bugging [Warwick founder] Hans-Peter Wilfer to build me one, and he finally did. The only differences are that instead of one pickup and one knob, mine has two pickups and four knobs, for volume, volume, tone, and pickup selector. I also had mine built to be 31"-scale, and the standard Hellborg is a 32", which is a big difference for a fretless bass. The only bummer was that I didn’t get it in time for the Halo Orbit album.
How did Halo Orbit come together?
I met suGar in the ’90s when her band Buffalo Daughter and my band Distortion Felix were opening for Girls Against Boys. Her playing immediately blew me away; she’s a complete anomaly on the guitar. We became close friends, and over the years, we talked about doing a project together. When I was in New York with Mars Volta in 2010, one of my drummer buddies told me I had to meet Mark Guiliana, so I put him on the guest list and we hung out. He was such a good dude. Without even hearing him play, I told him we should collaborate, and he was all for it. In 2012, they flew to L.A., jammed, and cut six ideas in the studio. We did it all in six hours, Mark flew home, and suGar and I wrote the rest of the material. Eventually, they both flew back out to L.A. again to cut the remaining tracks.
How did you track your bass parts?
Because I use so many effects, I just put a mic on my amp. Your sound is your bass through your pedals, through your amp, through your speakers—what comes out is your tone and what you’re trying to go for. Putting it all through a DI makes it sound completely different. I also like to use my Ampeg flip-top [B-15 amp] in the studio because I love the sound it gets.
How did you approach this project differently than Big Sir, Mars Volta, or any of your other bands?
I love this project because it was a different role for me. Vato Negro is my own thing, so I can do no wrong. In Mars Volta, Omar [Rodrîguez-Lopez] is guiding the ship, so I just have to lay in the cut and wait for what’s coming next. In Big Sir, I’m writing compositions to vocals, which is one of the most challenging things I do. But in Halo Orbit, I’m writing to impress two musicians with whom I’m in love, musically. I’m the worst musician in the band because I don’t read sheet music and my theory knowledge isn’t on par with theirs, so I had to step it up. It can be stressful, but it makes me strive to be way beyond what I am.
You get a huge, distorted sound on the opening track “Subump.” How did you get that tone?
It’s all the Hoof Reaper. It has the octave up option on top of its fuzz function, which is just massive. New pedals usually inspire me to write a bunch of compositions around that sound. I wrote that main guitar riff and the bass part that comes in, suGar overdubbed the wah guitar parts, and Mark came in and nailed that song in one take.
What would you tell a bass player interested in building a pedal collection?
Depending on what kind of music you’re playing, get a good-sounding distortion, fuzz, or overdrive. Next, get a compressor. A good chorus always helps; I like analog choruses, myself. Delays are weird for bass, because you’re the timekeeper, so unless you use it right, you might have issues; be cautious with those. And any wah is good, because, well, Cliff Burton.
Once you get into effects, you’re not just running a bass anymore—it’s an entirely different animal. Nowadays, it’s important for young bass players to diversify their sounds if they want a career. Pedals are an important part of landing gigs. Not everyone can be in Foo Fighters.
What’s the best way to set up a signal chain?
Compressors, modulation pedals, envelope filters, and choruses first, and then distortions and fuzz pedals go in the middle. Then delays go in right before samplers [such as loopers]. It changes with each band and with the sound that I’m going for, but that’s a rough sketch of how I’d do it.
How can a bass player incorporate effects into their live rig without compromising supportive low-frequency response?
You can run two rigs, one that’s clean and one that runs all the effects, so you get both at the same time. I did that with Halo Orbit, but I used effects on both channels. There are ways that pedals can work for your sound and maintain the thickness you want.
What do you see in the future of bass effects?
I think sampling is a big thing. I’d love to be able to sample myself, truncate it, and lock it in time. It would be pretty amazing if a pedal could guess your bpm [tempo] and lock it in on the fly. The Kemper Profiler Rack + Remote is pretty crazy, but it could be ideal—the more bundling we can do, the better. And it’s portable, which is really important. Line 6 and other companies are doing a lot for things like that.
Why are pedals so important to your musical identity?
Because I think it’s important to try new things, get new sounds, and not be afraid to experiment. I can play straight, standard bass, but I’m trying to push our instrument somewhere—because if not, it dies. I’m trying to transform the instrument and push it into the future so we’re not left behind. I tried to do something new with the speed of bass in the ’80s, and then in the ’90s, I explored fretless to see if there was anything new we could do there. And now I’m into effects, short-scale basses, and subs. I’m always looking ahead to see where bass can go next.
Halo Orbit, Halo Orbit [Alpha Pup]
Basses Goya Panther I, Fretless 1970 Fender Precision Bass, Fender Custom Shop “Raider” Precision Bass, War-wick Jonas Hellborg Signature Bass, Kala Fretless U-Bass, fretless 1976 Gibson Ripper, fretless Landscape Archtop ABP-1 Hollowbody
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR head, Ampeg Heritage B-15N combo, Ampeg SVT 4x10
Pedals (Used on Halo Orbit) Guyatone Bass Wah Rocker, Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl, DOD Meatbox Subsynth, TWA Great Divide and FB-04 Chorus, Dunlop Cry Baby Bass Mini Wah, MXR M83 Bass Chorus Deluxe, Red Panda Context Reverberator, Endangered Audio Research AD4096 delay, Walrus Audio Descent Reverb/Octave Machine, DigiTech Multi-Play PDS 20/20 delay, Fairfield Circuitry Randy’s Revenge Ring Modulator, several Boss pedals (including the CS-2 Compressor/Sustainer, OC-2 Octave, DS-2 Turbo Distortion, and VB-2 Vibrato), as well as Hummingbird, Grand Orbiter, Rainbow Machine, Terminal Fuzz, Afterneath, and Hoof Reaper pedals by Earthquaker Devices
Cases Mono Vertigo Bass Cases
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky round-wounds and flatwounds, and La Bella tapewounds, all .045–.105
Picks Dunlop Tortex
Photographs by Piero F. Giunti and Mark Guiliana