Great tone starts with a good guitar and amplifier, but there are times when you might want to add a little something extra to your sound.
That’s where guitar effects pedals come in. But if you’re a beginner guitarist, the world of guitar pedals can be somewhat intimidating. There are so many to choose from. What do they all do?
Confused about guitar pedals? Don’t worry. Just read this guitar pedal guide, and you’ll be able to select the pedals you’ll need to craft your own signature tone.
Wah pedals produce that wailing, “wah-wah” sound you’ve heard on so many classic recordings. They’re basically a sweepable audio filter that accentuate certain frequencies as you move the rocker pedal. If you leave your wah pedal in one position, you can also get a nasal sort of tone that really cuts through the mix. To hear the sound of a wah pedal in action, check out Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return), and for the half-cocked nasal tone, listen to Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing. Popular wah pedals include the Dunlop Cry Baby and the Morley Bad Horsey.
Auto-wah pedals are also available. Their filter sweeps are controlled by picking dynamics or LFOs.
Early guitar amplifiers would often distort when the volume knob was turned up too loud, and if there’s one thing guitarists can be relied upon to do, it’s cranking up the volume. Before too long though, the sound of an overdriven amplifier began to catch on.
If you’re a tube amp user, your amp is probably designed to let you dial in that warm, classic, overdriven tone. If not, there are several pedals available that will do the job, the most popular of which is undoubtedly the Ibanez Tube Screamer, heard throughout SRV’s Texas Flood, and countless other rock and blues tracks.
Distortion pedals are the weapon of choice for guitarists who want an in-your-face distortion. They’re more aggressive sounding than overdrive pedals, but more focused than fuzz pedals. They’re a favorite among metal players. Common specimens include the tried-and-true Boss DS-1 and theProCo Rat, used to excellent effect on Metallica’s “Kill ‘Em All.”
“Wooly” is the word that comes to mind when I think of fuzz pedals. They have that unmistakable, vintage gurgle heard on tracks such as Tame Impala’s “Elephant” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock.” Choice examples include the Dunlop Fuzz Face and the Electro Harmonix Big Muff.
I’m including these in the same category as they all do basically the same thing: add additional notes on top of your guitar signal, or replace the note you’re playing with a different one.
The octave pedal is the simplest; adding an octave above or below the note you’re playing. Boss’s OC-3 is a prime example of this type of pedal.
Some pitch-shifter pedals, most notably Digitech’s Whammy, allow you to sweep through different pitches using an expression pedal, as heard on Muse’s “New Born.”
Harmonizers such as the Eventide Pitchfactor can be set to a particular key and interval, and when you play a solo, they’ll emulate the lead harmony sound heard on tracks like “The Boys are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy and Heart’s “Magic Man.”
Chorus pedals give your guitar’s tone that shimmery, doubled sound. They’re designed to emulate the sound of two guitars playing at the same time, but they can also be used to create cool, spacey effects. The EH Small Clone Chorus pedal can be heard on Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” Robert Smith of the Cure is a big fan of chorus, too. Check out the guitar tone on “Fascination Street.” See also: almost every song The Police ever did.
It’s pronounced “flann-jer”, and yes, I am saying that because I thought it rhymed with “hanger” way back when I was first learning power chords and pentatonics.
A flanger can make your guitar sound like a rocketship during takeoff, so it’s best used judiciously. Still, in small doses, it can be a really neat effect. For examples, have a listen to this vocal on Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park, this rhythm guitar breakdown from Lenny Kravitz’ Are You Gonna Go My Way, and this coda from “Bold as Love” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Reverb pedals emulate the natural reverberations of a guitar amplifier being played in a large room, or at least that’s the basic idea. Many schemes have been invented to create the illusion of aural space over the years. These days, digital reverb pedals can do a pretty convincing impression of anything from a small room to a vast cavern, and all of the various reverb units invented over the years. Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but I still prefer the sound of a good, old-fashioned spring reverb, exemplified perfectly in Dick Dale’s seminal surf-rock track, “Misirlou.”
Delay pedals cause your guitar’s signal to repeat. They can be used to create more immediate slap-back sounds, like the ones heard on Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” or slow, repetitive echoes, like on Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.” Many guitarists prefer analog delays for their mellow tones and psychedelic freak-out potential, but some opt for the crispness and identical repeats of modern digital delays. The sound of early digital delay, with its pixelly compression, has a few devotees, as well. Line 6’s DL4 Delay modeler can mimic just about any type of delay, while Electo-Harmonix’ Deluxe Memory Man is a solid choice for a true analog pedal.
The easiest way to think of a compression pedal is this: there’s a little guy in your pedal who turns your signal down if it gets too loud, and turns it up if it gets too quiet. Compression can be used to create a more reliable dynamic range, which is useful for recording and live performance, but it can also be used as an effect in itself. Case in point: Chic’s “Le Freak.” Nile Rodgers’ playing is clean as a whistle, and the guitar’s volume is so even that it almost sounds mechanical. That’s the compressor. The MXR Dyna-Comp is an example of a compressor pedal often sighted in the wild.
Many old organs, including the famous Hammond B-3, were recorded through Leslie rotating speakers, which are basically what the name suggests. Check out Cream’s “Badge.” It’s a cool sound, but it’s not always practical to set up a rotating speaker for live performances. Thankfully, pedals such as Dunlop’s Rotovibe and the BBE Soul Vibe do the job quite well.
Many guitar amps have relatively simple equalization options, but if you want a bit more control over your tone, you can invest in an EQ pedal. Not much need for explanation here, you’ve probably used a stereo system with a graphic EQ at some point.
This is another self-explanatory pedal. Most volume pedals feature rocker pedals that look similar to a wah. In addition to giving you hands-free control over your volume, they allow you to do a cool volume-swell effect.
That’s It! Whew!
That post ended up being way longer than I thought it would, but I hope you find it helpful the next time you’re thinking about getting a new pedal.
Also, the pedals I’ve listed are some of the most common, but they’re far from being the only ones. There are many boutique guitar pedal manufacturers out there. In fact, there are several great ones in Portland, alone. For hand-crafted local pedal goodness, check out Spaceman Effects, Malekko, and Catalinbread.
Also, building your own effects pedal is a fun project. If you’re handy with a soldering iron, have a look at BYOC‘s guitar effects kit offerings.