Thursday, May 23, 2013

Three Rhythm Stompboxes Reviewed

Acoustic Guitar reviews three units from Shadow, Ellis, and EnRoute that provide foot-stompin’ rhythmic self-accompaniment for solo guitarists. With video.

By Pete Madsen

If you've heard a heavy stompin' foot accompanying a resonator or brashly strummed acoustic guitar on recordings by such blues legends as Lightnin' Hopkins and Son House, you may wonder how you can duplicate that robust effect yourself in a live performance environment. The percussive thrust of a player's time-keeping foot harks back to the days of porch-stomping blues players, but modern guitarists can get the same vibrancy with a "stomp" box that includes integrated electronics and can be plugged in to an amp or PA.
I took a look at three such units made by Ellis Guitars, EnRoute Music, and Shadow Electronics that are designed for guitarists interested in giving their instrumentation a rhythmic boost. Blues and roots players will be attracted to the ability to add some percussive oomph by hitting the box on all or alternating downbeats with the foot. But other guitarists have devised uses for these boxes as well, as evidenced by several videos that can be seen on YouTube. A Kaki King clip, for example, shows her working out some interesting polyrhythms with a stompbox and looper.
To check out these stompboxes, all of which are outfitted with a 1/4-inch output jack, I played my guitars and the stomp boxes through a Fishman Loudbox 100.

Ellis Guitars Original Stompbox

$156, The Australian company Ellis Guitars uses a variety of natural Australian and other woods to handcraft its four lines of stompboxes: Original, Custom Shop Original, Mini, and Custom Shop Mini. The Original we received has an oak top and is approximately 41/2 inches square—the Mini is 3/4 the size of the Original. Check out the company's website to view some of the exotic woods they use, from leopard myrtle to tiger jarrah.
The Ellis design is flat rather than wedge shaped so that you can hit the 43/4-inch-square box anywhere: tap on the side, top, bottom and it will produce a cool sound that is more of a "thud" than a "pop." The company's website includes several YouTube links that show different players, including a hand percussionist, using the stompboxes. I enjoyed the echoey quality of the Ellis, although its microphonic character gave it a bit of a hollow sound—more like a drum than a porch. The Ellis is the simplest of the boxes we tried, with no removable parts and a single, unalterable setting. It does not require a battery and fits easily into most guitar cases.

EnRoute Music PorchBoard Bass UCL-S

$299.95, The EnRoute PorchBoard has been on the market for more than ten years, and as its name suggests, it has more of the girth and size of a . . . porch board. It is 23 inches long, 11 inches wide, and 3 inches high (the detachable heel rail can be replaced by a smaller, more portable 7-inch rail) and is made of durable composites rather than wood.
The PorchBoard uses a patented passive sensor system specifically tuned to pick up bass frequencies (33–100 Hz) without producing hum or feedback. The UCL-S model we tested includes a three-way frequency response switch that allows you to adjust the frequency response depending on how you are amplifying it. The low setting is perfect for a quality bass amp or subwoofer, while the middle and high settings are suitable for amplifiers and PAs that don't have a huge bass response. It also includes a low-impedance XLR output as well as a 1/4-inch output. The sound of the PorchBoard is similar to the Ellis Original and produces a nice thudding accompaniment. When stomped on the ends, the PorchBoard has a papery kick-drum sound; toward the middle—nearer the sensor—it sounds more like a solid piece of wood being struck.
The nice thing about the longer surface of the PorchBoard is that it allows you to place both feet on the board—this would be especially rewarding if you have some double-kick-drum riffs or simply like to keep time with both feet. Because of the length and sensitivity of the sensor, you can also get different sounds in different places.
For example, it's louder when stomped toward the middle of the board. I liked the sound of my foot tapping over the rail adjustments (located on either end of the board), which was a little softer in volume and emulated a bass drum quite nicely. But make sure that the rails that hold the heel rest in place are tightened down, otherwise they may rattle.

Shadow SH Stompin'Bass

$239, Shadow Electronics, makers of pickups and electronics for acoustic guitar and other instruments, has taken its innovative NanoMag magnetic pickup technology and inserted it into an elegant stompbox. The Stompin'Bass is 51/2 inches square with an incline on which to rest your foot. A removable 51/2-inch-square rubber heel pad (attached with velcro) doubles the length of the unit, making it 11 inches long, just about the right size for most adult feet. The unit's active electronics require a nine-volt battery.
The output from the NanoMag pickup is very clean (no hiss or microphonic noise), giving your foot-stompin' a natural, tight, and focused sound that complements the sound of an acoustic guitar. It's much like hitting a solid-wood object with a drum stick and produces a hard "clocking" sound with a slight echoey quality. I preferred to leave the heel pad in place, which helped the ball of my foot smack down evenly on the wedge. I tend to keep my heel in contact with the floor while tapping my foot, but sometimes you want to raise your entire foot to tap if you are really getting into it. With the heel pad in place, less effort is required to lift your foot and thump the wedge.

The Wrap

Each of these stompboxes has its own appeal: the Ellis's simplicity, the PorchBoard's flexibility, and the Shadow's woody sound. Players who want to dive into the stomp world should give all of these a try to find the right fit for their personal brand of stomping.

This article also appears in Acoustic Guitar, May 2009