Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Effects Pedals

Updated on November 30, 2017
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Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 30 years of experience as a musician.

This guitar effects pedals guide can help you find your sound.
This guitar effects pedals guide can help you find your sound.

Guitar Effects Pedals

After you’ve been playing guitar for a while it may occur to you that many of those awesome sounds you hear in recordings by your favorite guitarists are coming from something more than their guitar and amp. Those guys are using guitar effects, in many cases pedals and stomp boxes that alter their sound and impact their tone.

It is clear that learning how to properly choose and utilize guitar effects pedals can make a big difference in your sound. However, as a beginner it may not be so clear what each effect does, or even what it is supposed to sound like.

In this article you will learn the basics of guitar effects pedals so you will be better prepared to choose the right analog stomp boxes and digital effects to complement your sound. I’m not going to spend too much time on the science of how effects boxes do what they do. But I will do my best to explain, in plain English, the basics of each effect.

I'll also present examples of different types of pedals, where possible, from some of the best guitar effects companies in the business. The point is to give you a taste of what's out there, and a good idea of what each kind of pedal can do for your sound.

Instead of effects pedals, some players choose to utilize an all-in-one multi-effects processor that gives them a massive array of effects in one handy, easy-to-set-up package. For those who wish to assemble their effects rig the old fashioned way, read on!

Distortion and Overdrive

The first pedal a newbie often reaches for is some form of distortion. This is a pretty self-explanatory effect, and most people know a distorted guitar when they hear it. But when it comes to choosing the best distortion pedal things get a little convoluted. For one thing, what’s the difference between distortion and overdrive?

Overdrive pedals are intended to mimic the sweet sound of an overdriven tube amp. They are generally more subtle, warmer and a bit richer in sound. Overdrive pedals typically don’t produce the kind of heavy distortion needed in hard rock and heavy metal, but they are fantastic for blues, country, rock and anything else where you need warm, textured distortion. A good example of a quality overdrive pedal is the Ibanez Tube Screamer.

Distortion pedals take things a step further. They often feature multiple gain stages, and most are intended to get that thick, meaty distortion guitarists love for heavier forms of rock. Some pedals take this to the extreme.

I could generalize and say distortion pedals are harsher than overdrive pedals, but truthfully there are some good ones out there than can complement your tone in a very positive way. An example of a popular distortion pedal is the Boss DS-1 Distortion.

Many newbie guitarists seek out distortion effects because they don’t like the distortion sound that comes with their amp. Analog distortion and overdrive pedals can help, but it is important to realize they are not magic bullets. Even the best distortion pedal is still at the mercy of the amp you are playing through, and the same pedal will react far differently whether played through a 100-watt tube head or a 40-watt solid-state combo.

What this means is, when choosing a distortion or overdrive pedal, it is wise to spend some time doing research so you know you are getting exactly what you want.

Hear the Boss DS-1 Distortion

Chorus, Flanger and Phaser

Chorus, phaser and flanger pedals are in a group we can collectively call modulation effects. These effects split the guitar’s signal and recombine it in ways that produce the signature sound of the specific effect. While these three effects are similar in concept, they each have a very different sound.

Chorus pedals help create a deep, glassy sound by mixing the original signal with a copy at a slightly different pitch. Chorus is a great effect to use with a clean or mildly overdriven guitar sound, but some metal guitarist such as Zakk Wylde use it to help thicken up their rhythm and lead tones.

Flanger pedals also split the guitar’s signal, but this time mix it with a slightly delayed copy of itself. This gets that “jet plane” whoosh at extreme settings, but tastefully dialed back the flanger can produce a pleasant effect similar to chorus.

Phasers work in a way similar to flangers, but this time the copy of the signal is filtered to bring it slightly out of phase. This creates a sweeping, futuristic sound at cranked-up settings, but dialed down will get a chewy, textured tone that’s even suitable for rhythm playing. Eddie Van Halen is one guitarist well-known for his application of the phaser. Today he employs his own signature effects pedal, but his classic MXR Phase 90 is legendary among guitar tone nerds.

The Legendary MXR Phase 90

Tremolo and Vibrato

When it comes to whammy bars the words tremolo and vibrato are used interchangeably. We’ll give that a pass because it’s standard in the guitar world, but it is important to understand that they are not at all the same effect.

The key difference is this: Tremolo describes a change or wavering in volume, where vibrato describes a change in pitch. Therefore, the whammy bar on your guitar is more accurately described as a vibrato bar, not a tremolo.

Tremolo and vibrato are in many ways the granddaddies of guitar effects. They can be heard prominently in early rock, surf rock, rockabilly, country and blues. These effects even came standard on many amps back in the day, most notably classic Fenders.

Check out the Fulltone Supa-trem2

Delay, Echo and Reverb

You won’t find as many amps with built-in tremolo these days. However, you will still find a lot of amps with built-in reverb. The reverb in solid-state amps is usually spring reverb. If you have ever bumped your amp while it was plugged in and cranked up you are well aware of the racket a spring reverb unit can cause.

While it is fun to kick your amp and make car-crash noises with your reverb unit, a much better use is to add depth and echo to your guitar signal. The effect is similar to playing your guitar in an empty room where the sound bounces off the walls. When you move on to digital reverb pedals you have the option of some truly lush, expansive sounds ranging classic spring reverb, to studio-style plate reverb, to hall and arena-type effects.

Reverb and delay are both forms of echo effects. Where with reverb the echo comes in fairly short cycles, with delay the effect is much more prominent. Delay can be set for short intervals to get an effect similar to reverb, but setting for longer delay cycles creates some seriously trippy sounds.

Delay pedals are pretty cool, but in my opinion have limited uses. One great example is the solo Cathedral by Eddie Van Halen. Or, think of David Gilmour's solos from Pink Floyd songs such as Comfortably Numb.

Hear the EHX Holy Grail Neo Reverb

Wahs and Envelope Filters

The Dunlop Cry Baby is a classic example of a great wah pedal. This pedal adds a ton of texture and nuance to guitar solos, and can also be used to create some very funky ‘70s-ish effects. A wah is essentially a controllable frequency filter. By manipulating the pedal you can change your tone from treble to bass and anywhere in between. This control is part of what makes the wah effect so popular.

An envelope filter is similar to a wah, except the changing of the frequency is controlled via the input from your instrument rather than by a pedal. This means you can control the sound by how hard you pick, for example.

The Dunlop Cry Baby is a must-have guitar effect pedal, but the Original version is a pretty hefty hunk of gear. The new Mini Cry Baby makes toting a great wah to gigs and rehearsals easier than ever.

The Cool New Dunlop Cry Baby Mini Wah

Pitch Shifters, Octavers and Harmonizers

Pitch shifters, octavers and harmonizers all perform a similar duty. That is, to change the pitch of your note. However, the end result of each effect is quite different. That said, you will often find several or all three of these effects incorporated into the same pedal.

The DigiTech Whammy is a great example of a powerful pitch shifter. Controlled by an expression pedal in a manner similar to a wah, it gives you the ability to immediately alter the pitch of the notes you are playing. Pantera and Damageplan guitarist Darrell Abbott used and abused such a pedal to get some amazing sounds in his hardcore style of play.

Octavers do exactly what their name suggests: Alter the note you play by one octave up or down. This can be done by completely replacing your original note, or blending the original together with the octave note.

Harmonizers blend the note from your original guitar signal with a note shifted to a preset interval. For example, you may set it to a Major 3rd interval and it will create a similar sound as if you played a root-plus-Maj-3rd diad. Harmonizers are pretty diverse effects, but using one correctly obviously means understanding a little about music theory and how scales and intervals work.

The DigiTech Whammy

Compression

Compression is somewhat of a utilitarian effect, though I suppose some players see it as a key part of their sound. Essentially, compression is used to even out your sound. In recording situations this means helping instruments blend together by smoothing out the peaks and valleys inherent in the overall frequency spectrum. Louder sounds, like the crack of snare drum or a shout from a vocalist, become smoother, softer and woven into the overall mix.

So why would you want to make your guitar sound smoother and softer? You might not, but there are some smart ways to use compression for guitar and especially bass.

For example, bass guitar frequencies are on the relatively low end of the tonal spectrum. However, plucking a bass string can create a sudden, short burst of high and mid-frequency sounds. You need your bass amp to be loud enough to make those low-frequency sounds strong and audible in the mix, but you don’t want to flatten your band mates or blow out your speakers by sudden pops of high-frequency sounds.

The solution is to use compression, which many bass amps feature as an onboard effect. While the issue isn’t nearly as pronounced with guitar frequencies, you can use the effect to the same end.

Choosing Your Effects

There are a gazillion different effects pedals out there, and new ones are released every year. Legendary guitar players get their sound in part by the concoction of effects units they employ. They found their way by trial and error, and you will have to do the same.

Your first step should be to think about what you’d really like to add to your sound. If you like the clean tones you get from your amp but can do without the buzzy onboard distortion, consider adding an overdrive or distortion pedal to your rig. If you’d prefer to experiment with chorus, a phaser or a pitch shifter, start there. There are no wrong answers when it comes to effects, and the units you choose and how you decide to use them are part of the creativity of playing guitar.

Don’t feel like you have to spend a fortune either. While there are some very pricey boutique pedals on the market that get outstanding reviews, there are also affordable pedals that will do the job just fine. Consider brands like Boss, DOD and MXR for some great pedals at affordable prices. If you end up with a pedal you don’t like as much as you thought you would, you can always trade it in and get something different.

Good luck on your quest to explore the world of guitar effects pedals. As a beginner you have a lot to learn, but hopefully this article got you started off right.

Which effects do you need?

After reading this article, which pedal do you think will be most important for your sound?

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