The Ultimate Guide to Guitar Effects Pedals
Drummers have their cowbells and double bass pedals, vocalists have their harmonisers and auto tune. We guitarists, however, are the luckiest: we get effects pedals. Ranging from subtle slap-back echoes to wild and crazy ring modulators; from simple boost pedals to drive your amp a little harder to insane distortion stomp boxes, we can have it all.
With so many options out there it can be confusing and overwhelming to decide which ones (if any) are best for you and your style of music. And with budgets often limited, it sometimes seems difficult to make your money go far – making it all the more important to make the right decision.
This in-depth guide will give you a basic overview of the different types of pedals and effects available, and will arm you with all the info you need to make the best choice.
What Are Effects Pedals?
Invented around the 1950’s with tape echo machines, guitar effects pedals are a fundamental part of the electric guitar sound. While ranging wildly from brand to brand and effect to effect, almost all of them have four basic elements:
1) Input. This is where you plug in your guitar lead. It is often placed on the right hand side of the pedal (looking down at it from above).
2) Output. This is often situated on the opposite (left) side to the input. It is where you plug in the lead that goes to your amplifier.
3) The pedal switch. Placed on the top of the pedal, pressing it with your foot turns the effect on and off. This is where the name “stomp boxes” comes from – you “stomp” the box to turn on the effect. Pedals are most commonly placed on the floor next to each other so they can be toggled with your feet while you play with your hands, but larger units are often placed in large racks on top of one another, as otherwise they would take up too much floor space.
4) Control knobs. These knobs, like the ones on your amplifier, change the sound of the pedal. If you’ve got an echo effect, for example, one of the knobs might control how many echoes are produced.
Many players use more than one effect – in this case, they place them next to each other on the floor, joining the output of one pedal to the input of the next using a small guitar lead called a “patch lead”. This allows them to use more than one effect at a time and toggle and combine them as they wish. Most players with multiple effects pedals attach them to a board, imaginatively called a… “pedal board”. This makes the pedals easier to transport and carry around. They set up and plug together all the pedals on the board, so when the user gets to a gig they can just plug in and play without having to set everything up again.
Guitar effects pedals can range from just £30 each for cheap, Chinese-made copies to over £200 for boutique hand-made pedals with unique sounds. For the average good-quality pedal (made by a company such as BOSS, for example), you’ll be looking at around £50-£100. This might seem like a lot for one effect, but if you’re careful that one pedal could last years.
"If you're careful, one pedal could last years"
Different Types of Effects
There are many different effects pedals you can buy, from the simple to the extreme. We’ve given you an overview of each common effect type below, so you can decide which ones are best for you.
This is an echo effect – every time you play a note it is repeated quieter and quieter, just like an echo. You can get a variety of different delay effects, from old-school “tape” echoes which are said to sound more natural, to analogue delay pedals and more modern digital ones. Digital pedals tend to sound clearer and a little harsher than their analogue cousins, making them more suited to modern styles such as modern metal.
At the end of the day, digital vs analogue vs tape comes down to personal preference, but be prepared to spend a lot more for a working tape unit (and have to deal with inconvenience due to the size, weight and unreliability of tape machines).
Most delay pedals have controls for the number of repeats (called “feedback”), the volume of the repeats and the time between each repeat. Some pedals have what’s called “tap tempo”, where you can tap your foot on the pedal and the delay unit will match the speed of the effect to your foot, allowing you to match the delay time to the tempo of a song. Delay pedals are often used to thicken up heavy lead guitar sounds, or to subtly add more to a simple rhythm guitar part.
Reverb effects are extremely common, and are used on almost every single recorded song in existence. The reason is that it makes everything sound more natural. The sound of reverb is the sound of the reverberations in a room or space – imagine you are talking in a large hall; your voice sounds different in that environment to in a small room.
On the extreme end of things, adding a lot of reverb to your tone can create large, expansive soundscapes where the notes are less distinct and everything forms one carpet of background sound. Reverb pedals often have a number of controls, from the most basic knobs controlling the volume of the effect (known as “mix”, or how much reverb is mixed into your guitar signal) and the length each note reverberates for (known as “decay”), to more versatile pedals that have controls for different kinds of reverb such as “small room”, “plate” and “arena”.
Many amplifiers also have reverb effects, so although they are incredibly useful, it may not be essential for you to buy one.
Compression is another very common effect that is used in almost every recording. It compresses the volume of the notes you play, making louder notes quieter and vice versa. This gives a nice, polished sound and although it can limit your dynamic range, it can be very useful.
For instance, if you are often switching between rhythm playing and lead compression can help to flatten out the volume differences between the single notes and the chords, allowing you to get a better mix and making your guitar easier to hear. It can also help to sustain notes for longer, as the note will not die away so soon.
Compression pedals most commonly have controls for level (the volume level of the effect), sustain (how much the volume of your playing is compressed by the effect) and attack (how quickly the effect kicks in). There can also be a tone control which helps to prevent the dulling of tone that is common with compressor pedals.
Distortion and overdrive naturally compress your sound, so unless you are a pure-clean player, it is debatable how useful they really are. A compressor will certainly help to improve your tone, but there are other pedals out there that will most often make a bigger difference.
These pedals can be used for a number of different things – they are very versatile. They have controls for different frequencies of sound to make those particular frequencies louder or quieter – just like the bass, mid and treble on your amplifier, but often with more specific bands of frequency.
Now you might be thinking that if you already have amp controls these aren’t worth getting – you’d be wrong. Put every control high up and you have a very effective volume boost for solos at the press of a footswitch. Change the settings around and you can access an entirely different tone immediately, simply because of a shift in EQ. For instance, you could go from a bass-heavy tone for one part of a song to a louder, more trebly tone for another part. The possibilities with EQ pedals are vast, especially if you like to change the character of your tone mid-song.
There are six main kinds of modulation effect: chorus, phaser, flanger, tremolo, vibrato and rotary speaker. Although they do sound different, the first three are all based on the same basic principles and sounds.
Chorus is the sound at the beginning of the Guns ‘n’ Roses song Paradise City. It is a gentle, shimmering effect that is good for arpeggiated chords and adding that little extra to a lead tone (such as in the solo for Smells like Teen Spirit by Nirvana). However, we recommend using it sparingly as it can sound dated and old fashioned if over used (unless, of course, old-school is what you’re going for). Common controls include level (the volume of the effect), tone (affects the EQ of the chorus effect), rate (how quickly the note shimmers) and depth (how large and prominent the shimmering is).
Think Eddie Van Halen in Eruption. Phaser effects create a swirling tone by splitting the signal and then moving each part in and out of phase with each other. Like chorus, it can sound dated, but it is great for adding a little bit of craziness to any riff or solo. Some pedals such as the famous MXR Phase 90 only have one control for the speed of the effect, while more modern designs also have controls for the depth and level of the phasing.
This is a more metallic sounding version of the phaser and chorus – used to the max, it can sound like an aeroplane taking off due to its swirling, constantly changing nature. Flanging is great for creating clean tones for quieter sections in metal songs (think Metallica). Controls are usually level, depth and rate.
This is a gradual and repetitive change in volume, going up and down. Done slowly and subtly it can be very gentle, but turn up the controls and you get a surf-guitar like shimmer. On extreme settings the signal turns from fully on to fully off sharply and repetitively, giving a robotic sound. Controls are usually rate and depth, with a third control to affect how sharply the volume changes occur – whether they are smooth and gradual or sharp and sudden. Tremolo pedals are often equipped with tap tempo too, allowing you to match the volume changes with the tempo of the song.
While tremolo is a change in volume, vibrato is a constant and repetitive change in pitch up and down. It can be used to make chord progressions shimmer and to add a wobbliness to single note lines. It is like adding vibrato with your finger, but it is constant and consistent. Controls are usually the same as tremolo pedals, with tap tempo also being common.
Years ago companies used to manufacture rotating speaker cabinets (the most famous being the Leslie Rotary Speaker) – as they rotated the sound would change and develop, creating interesting modulation effects. Nowadays such things are considered too large and inconvenient to transport and use, so we have stomp boxes to help us emulate the sound. The most famous of these is the Dunlop Uni-Vibe, and although it doesn’t sound as close as other pedals to the real thing, it has become a famous sound in its own right. Rotary speaker effects often have controls for the speed of the effect, and can sometimes (such as in the case of the Uni-Vibe) be connected to expression pedals to control the speed on the fly. If you’re into 60’s psychedelic rock like Jimi Hendrix, this one’s a must.
This is probably the most iconic guitar effect ever – from Slash to Jimi Hendrix to Mark Tremonti to SRV, the list of players who use wah pedals is almost never ending. Originally created to emulate the muted sound possible on a trumpet, it quickly became an iconic effect in its own right. The sound is pretty self-explanatory – rock your foot back and forth of the pedal to shift the EQ from bass heavy to treble heavy and you’ll get a nice “wah wah” as you play.
The foot pedal is usually the only control on a wah pedal (especially on famous models like the Vox V487 and Dunlop Crybaby), but some come with controls to change the Q, or how wide the sweep of the wah is and how prominent it sounds. They are great for adding extra attitude to your bends and giving funky riffs some extra punch. The intro to “Voodoo Child” is probably the most recognisable use of a wah pedal. These are great fun and we’d recommend them to anyone – if lead guitar or funky rhythm is your thing you can’t do without it!
Boosters, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz
These are all variations on the same basic effect – overdrive. Going from clean boosts in volume (boost pedals), to light, bluesy overdrive and into heavier overdrive (think AC/DC), then distortion (like overdrive but heavier; think of modern metal songs for this) and fuzz (Jimi Hendrix in Foxy Lady).
They are the most common effect group and are used by almost every guitar player from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Yngwie Malmsteen. Most amplifiers have channels for overdrive or distortion, but having these effects as pedals allows you greater variation in tone and allows you to “push” the cleaner channels of your amp harder, giving a different sound to the overdrive channel.
Clean boost pedals, although technically clean, do boost the level of your signal and can help to add extra overdrive to an amplifier on the edge of break up. These are great for blues and soft rock, especially when paired with a valve amplifier.
Overdrive pedals can be great for giving your guitar an extra kick in heavier songs, and some models are so distinct they have practically become icons in the guitar pedal world (such as the Ibanez Tube Screamer).
Distortion effects are great for heavy music like metal and hard-core, although if your amplifier is already designed for these styles then it is debatable whether you will need one as the amp will often have enough distortion already built in.
Fuzz is an indistinct, nasty overdrive that is synonymous with Jimi Hendrix. The Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face is the most famous fuzz pedal, known for the way is breaks up and adds something special to any guitar tone. Fuzz pedals are most commonly used on top of clean or lightly overdriven tones, as this is where the character of the pedal can really come through; used on top of already distorted tones they can be great for making a load of noise! Two main types of fuzz are available – silicon (which sounds softer and more rounded) and germanium, which sounds harsher and more treble-y.
Common controls on these four effects are level (controlling the volume of the pedal – turn it right up to drive your amplifier harder and produce more gain), gain (how much the pedal distorts the tone) and tone (controlling which frequencies low-high are emphasised).
Pitch Shifters and Harmonisers
These pedals are different, but are both based on the same idea. Pitch shifters shift the whole pitch of your guitar up or down by a set amount (often an octave), giving you a higher or lower tone than would normally be possible. Jack white uses a Whammy pitch shifter in the solo for Seven Nation Army, which has a foot pedal that rocks back and forth (similar to a wah pedal) allowing you to go up and down a full octave or more smoothly and quickly.
Harmoniser pedals are also very useful. You put in the key you are playing and which harmony you would like (3rds for instance – just like in a lot of Iron Maiden songs) and as you play, the harmoniser automatically creates the harmony you have selected. This is great if you are the only guitar player in a band, or if you like to experiment with new harmonies on the fly.
Ultimately these are “bonuses” rather than essential pedals, but if you like the sound of them, go for it! They’re great fun to play around with and are brilliant for sparking your creativity.
Hopefully this article has given you a great start in the world of guitar pedals. You now know what’s available and what could be good for your playing style.