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The First Five Guitar Effects Pedals You Need for an Electric Guitar

Bob Craypoe (also known as R. L. Crepeau) is a musician, writer, webmaster, 3D artist, and creator of the Punksters comic strip series.


Maybe you have a multi-effects unit and want to start using stompboxes for gigs for the sake of simplicity or maybe you are starting out on guitar and just want to start building up a pedalboard. In either case, you need to prioritize what pedals you should get first.

I break it down to five pedals with some of them being a choice between two options. I have two very large pedalboards loaded with a variety of pedals, so I know from experience which ones are most important and which ones are used most. I feel that I know enough to make some qualified recommendations.

These recommendations though are ones based on the fact that you are playing an electric guitar. I would not make the same recommendations for acoustic guitar.

1. Distortion, Fuzz, or Overdrive

I would make different suggestions based on the type of music you play. For someone playing Jazz or Blues, I would probably recommend an Ibanez Tube Screamer. It’s not a lot of distortion and it provides a very warm tube-like sound.

You can also use it as a boost pedal before an amplifier and use the distortion of the dirty channel of the guitar amplifier. You can use it as either a clean boost or a dirty boost. The Tube Screamer works great in either case. Randy Rhoads use to use an MXR Distortion + as a boost for his Marshall amplifiers. He would use mostly the distortion from the dirty channel of his Marshall with just a little drive from his Distortion + pedal.

If you do heavy metal, you could still use just a Tube Screamer but solely as a boost and use an amplifier’s distortion for most of your distortion needs. A lot of guitar players from the Classic Rock era used boost pedals prior to using an amplifier’s distortion. They either use it just to boost the guitar for a lead solo or sometimes just leave it on all of the time. You can get a variety of distortion sounds by blending a distortion pedal with the amplifier’s built-in distortion; using a little of each or one more than the other. It’s definitely something worth experimenting with.

Now, if you play heavy metal or hard rock and want to get all of your distortion from a pedal, a Tube Screamer or Distortion + just won’t cut it. You need something a little heavier. A Pro Co Rat is a very versatile distortion unit. By playing around with the Distortion and Filter knobs, you can get a variety of distortion tones.

If you want an all-out metal sound, then I would recommend some of the ones by MXR and Boss. They have a nice selection of distortion units that are useful for a number of different genres with some of them being more suitable for Heavy Metal.

Electro-Harmonix even has a version of the Muff Fuzz for Heavy Metal that they call the Metal Muff. They have a few different models of the Metal Muff with a variety of features.

There are some cheap alternatives as far as distortion pedals go. There are brands like Behringer, Donner, and Mooer that offer cheaper pedals. So if you want a variety of distortion sounds, you could get a cheap Tube Screamer clone and a cheap fuzz pedal.

Those manufacturers I just mentioned offer some pedals that are below $25. So you could get a few different types of distortion pedals for the price of one from the more expensive manufacturers. Then later on you could replace the cheaper units for the more expensive ones from the bigger brand names.

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2. Noise Gate or Noise Suppressor

If you are going to use distortion, fuzz, or any type of overdriven sound, you will definitely need a noise gate or noise suppression pedal. The names vary depending upon the manufacturer. The most common terms are noise gate or noise suppressor. In any case, they basically cut out the noise when you are not playing. This comes in real handy when you are playing songs that may have a pause here and there. Who wants to hear a bunch of noise, hiss, and hum coming from your guitar whenever you pause or have a moment in the song where you stop playing your guitar?

If you are using the distortion from an amp, you will have to use a noise gate in the effects loop. Some noise gates even have an effects loop of their own. I actually own one that does but I don’t use the effects loop, I just plug straight into the input and that’s it. You can get them fairly cheap from the same manufacturers I mentioned above. It depends on your budget and what you are willing to spend. But make no mistake, if you use distortion, you need a noise gate.

3. Chorus Pedal

As far as modulation effects go, I would recommend a chorus pedal over any other type of modulation effect. It adds so much depth and/or ambiance to your sound. You can use it with or without distortion and it works with pretty much any genre of music. It sounds great with jazz guitar as well as with heavy metal, so it’s good for just about anything. It’s also an important component in New Age and anything involving ambient guitar.

I generally place my modulation, delay, and reverb effects after my noise gate. You can use it before your amp but if you use the distortion in your amp, I would recommend you use it in your effects loop in your amplifier, just as I would with any other effects pedal.

4. Phase Shifter or Flanger

Phase shifters and flangers are modulation effects that sound a bit similar. The flanger is a much harsher sound that you probably would not use as much as you would a phaser. Some brands of flangers do have a lot of control over the sound to where you can get a very light flange sound that comes close to a phase shifter but some brands do not. So, in the cases where they don’t, you are stuck with a very strong flange sound that sounds a lot like a jet taking off.

If I were to choose between the two, I would probably choose a phase shifter over a flanger because I would use it more than a flanger, due to the fact that is not as heavy or dominant a sound. Phasers and flangers work great for lead solos or rhythm guitar parts. Eddie Van Halen used an MXR Phase 90 quite a bit in his early years for his lead solos, including the song “Eruption.”

5. Reverb or Delay

Reverbs and delays really provide a lot of depth to your sound. Since a lot of guitar amplifiers come with reverb built-in, you could just get away with having to buy a delay pedal. But it is a hard choice if your amp doesn’t have reverb. They both provide depth to your sound but they do differ in sound and it’s a pretty tough decision as to which one I prefer over the other; especially since I like to use both at the same time, in my current rig. But if you have an amp with reverb then the choice becomes obvious. You get the delay pedal.

As far as reverb goes, I like to use hall reverb sounds. But some reverb pedals offer a few different types of reverb like hall, spring, and plate. Some have a toggle switch that you use to choose between those three types. Cheaper units have just one knob that controls the amount of reverb. More expensive units have controls over the delay time, room size, and so forth. Sometimes it’s just easier to get a unit with one knob just for the sake of simplicity, especially for live situations.

Delay is probably a bit more complicated than reverb because the wrong delay time could conflict with the tempo of a song. For the sake of simplicity, I often just use a quick slap-back delay. That causes a lot less conflict with songs of varying tempos. With longer delay times, it can be difficult to match the delay time to the tempo of the song but it does sound great when the song’s tempo and delay time are perfectly synchronized. It’s a beautiful thing.

Just as with the modulation and distortion pedals, you can find cheap delay and reverb pedals as well. So maybe you won’t have to choose between the two if you buy a couple of cheap ones under $50 or so. For some reason, reverb pedals cost more than delay pedals. You can get delay pedals for under $25 but the cheapest reverb pedals I have seen are around $50 or so. So the price may come into play when you are making your decision as to which one of the two effects you will purchase.

Final Thoughts

I am not saying that you will be able to achieve every possible sound with just five pedals. But you have to start somewhere and five pedals are a pretty good start. You can always build upon it later. I have a couple of pedalboards with over a dozen pedals each. I have more than a few types of distortion pedals alone. I have a boost pedal as well as auto-wah, reverb, delay, and modulation pedals.

I even have a few guitar synth pedals. I often use more than one at a time. I can get a variety of sounds, tones, and effects. I can mix and match to a countless number of variations. I am always experimenting to either come up with new sounds or to improve the sounds I currently use. It’s a lot of fun sometimes just to play around and see what I can come up with. So after you get those five pedals, play around some. Experiment and have some fun.

© 2019 Bob Craypoe

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