While most of us start off just plugged straight into our guitar amp, perhaps using some built in reverb or even turn up the gain to provide some overdrive, eventually we enter the realm of the guitar pedal. Designed to manipulate your guitar signal, effect pedals range from those that provide subtle tonal changes to huge sounds.
You don’t need to be advanced to make the use of an effects pedal, even beginners will benefit from using the right pedal for the style they are interested in. Practising with an effect will help you hone your own style.
When looking for a pedal you need to consider what sort of use it will get. If you are playing live a lot and taking it on the road you’ll need to make sure you get something that can take a hammering. Conversely, if you are just a bedroom player or using it for recording you’ll get away with something a little cheaper that isn’t necessarily built like a tank. Although pedals are designed to take a heavy foot stomping on them they do vary in quality and some are even made of plastic which, while do an adequate job, will never compete with a steel box.
So, let’s look at the different types of guitar pedal available and what they do.
These all delay the signal to some degree adding much more depth to your sound.
From a slap back echo (very short delay) to lengthy loops, a delay pedal will reproduce the original signal with, well you’ve guessed it, a delay. That delayed sound can either be at the same volume or quieter and be set to repeat.
The original “echo machines” used a loop of tape that could run at variable speed.
Along came the 1970s and the invention of the solid state analog delay such as the Boss DM-1, solving the problems of the somewhat fragile tape machines that often didn’t stand up to heavy road use. What’s more there was no tape to have to change.
Once we were into the 1980s the first digital delays were seen. Some guitarist prefer the warmer, and perhaps less clinical, sound of analog delay.
Brilliant for: Rock, Metal, Pop, Reggae and Rockabilly
Short for reverberation this effect simulates the natural reflections around us. Think of the sound that is generated when you give a short, sharp loud noise in a large room such as a cathedral. After the original noise has stopped the reflected sound continues with that sound tapering off and slowly decaying.
We hear natural reverb all around us, so much so that we hardly notice it. But we do notice if it is missing. A very dry sound doesn’t sound very pleasant at all.
Reverb is probably one of the oldest effects and arguably essential for most players. Many amps come with a reverb effect included but it will probably have quite limited control. This is where a dedicated pedal comes in, giving much more control.
Brilliant for: Most styles of music use some amount of reverb but it is most prevalent in surf, country and blues.
This class of effect drive your guitar’s signal harder ranging for a subtle boost to way-out heavy distortion.
Probably one of the most commonly used (and recognised) guitar effect. These pedals will take take your guitar signal, drive it hard enough to clip the signal and making it sound more aggressive and heavy. You’ll also end up with more sustain from your guitar. Sounds will vary from a mild crunch and classic rock to wailing heavy metal.
A different beast to a distortion pedal and more subtle. Overdrive drives the signal harder which, in turn pushes the amplifier harder. Best used with a tube / valve amp where they can produce a fantastic, natural distortion. A good overdrive will mimic an amplifier that is being driven hard but without the ear splitting volumes.
Brilliant for: Rock, Blues and Country
A somewhat dirty sound taking distortion to the next level. While they function like a distortion pedal they push the signal that much harder producing a heavily clipped sine wave that is much more like a square wave.
Brilliant for: Surf, Grunge or that Hendrix sound.
It its crudest sense a compressor will even out all the dynamics of your playing. The loudest notes are squashed together with the quieter notes – effectively making them sound the same volume. So heavy strumming will come out at a similar volume to single note picking. They have the added effect of adding more sustain.
Modulation alter the sound by altering the pitch and/or frequency often producing swirling or shimmering sounds
Although the following effects do have some time manipulation, it’s the changes to modulation that stand out the most.
A chorus pedal will thicken up your sound by making a copy of the signal and layering it with original but with a slight delay. It will produce sounds from a subtle warble to a shimmering 12-string guitar.
Just like a chorus, a phaser also splits the signal in two. This time the phase of one of the signals is shifted through the different frequencies. Notches are created when the two signals become totally out of phase with each other. As the effect cycles through the frequences a doppler effect is created giving the swooshing sound that you can hear.
Brilliant for: Funk and Reggae
Quite similar to chorus and phaser a flanger will split the input signal in two. Like a chorus a delay is added to one of the of the signals but this time the delay time is shorter and continually altered producing a jet-like sweeping sound.
Brilliant for: Producing a psychedelic effect
These alter specific frequencies either by boosting or cutting them to change your guitar tone.
By raising or lowering the foot pedal different frequencies are filtered – some are enhanced while others are cut. It really does make the guitar sound like similar to the human voice saying, “wah wah”. WIth a bit of practise you can also create the distinctive “wacka-wacka” sound that characterises funk guitar.
Brilliant for: Funk, Disco and of course Jimi Hendrix and early Clapton
An equalizer (EQ) allows you to make much more precise adjustments than your amp tone controls will allow. Pedals tend to offer anything from 3-band to 10-band control.
Brilliant for: Anyone that wants more precise tonal control
A few pedals that aren’t really “effects” as such but nonetheless prove extremely useful.
Not strictly speaking an effect but something to control the noise (such as hiss) that can be a problem particularly if you have a lot of pedals in your signal chain.
This is by no means a complete list of all the manufacturers of effect pedals. What it is an overview of some of the most recognised and key brands.
Founded in the late 1980s Behringer produce a lot of audio equipment. They produce a large range of pedals that are economical to buy, mostly at pocket money prices.
No roundup would be complete without a mention of Boss as they are arguably one of the most recognized effect pedal brands. They actually started by producing a pre-amp for acoustic guitars in 1974.
Their pedal lineup actually started in 1976 with the launch of the CE-1 Chorus Ensemble. 1977 saw the launch of their familiar compact pedals and it included the, now legendary, OD-1 - the first ever overdrive pedal.
They started in the late 1960s producingthe LPB-1 booster pedal then the Big Muff fuzzbox. They really got a name for themselves in the 1970s producing gems like the Electric Mistress flanger and Small Clone chorus pedal.
Founded in the early 1970s by Keith Barr who’s first pedal was the Phase 90. They actually fell out of favour in the 1980s and went out of business only to be revived by Jim Dunlop who resurrected the brand.
Perhaps most famous for their fabulous “Tube Screamer” overdrive pedal.
Founded by two Danish brothers back in the 1970s. TC Electronic started life with the production of a, now legendary, stereo chorus/flanger guitar pedal. As well as guitar pedals they produce some great quality studio equipment.
Note: Just because we haven’t listed a particular manufacturer in this list doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. This is just a sprinkling of the top names. Also, there are quite a few boutique companies that are producing fantastic pedals.
The Must Have Pedals
Well this really depends on what music you like to play.
If you play fairly mainstream stuff then you’ll probably want a chorus, delay and perhaps a distortion pedal. It really does vary.
For Rockabilly you’ll definitely want a delay for that "slapback" effect and perhaps a reverb pedal and that’s about it.
For Country you’ll want a compressor, chorus and perhaps a delay pedal.
You can't play surf without a heavy dose of reverb.
Heavy Metal is going to require a some serious distortion. Whether your amplifier can provide enough is up to your ears. You might find a pedal essential if you want to play at bedroom levels.
You can see that the different genres have very different requirements.
Here’s all of our effect pedal articles laid out in date order