While it’s certainly true that sometimes there’s nothing more glorious than an excellent electric guitar going straight into a cranked tube amp, more often than not, the flip side is actually more accurate: just a guitar and an amp can tend to be kind of boring. You may have what you think is the best tone in the world, but after a time, you may even get a little weary of having the same old-same old sounds…
To help add a bit of variety to your sound, one of the best things you can do is to add a few effects pedals to your rig. Yes, there’s a ton of different ones, and yes – it really can be confusing as to which ones would be ‘must-haves’ for your particular tastes. Making things potentially more complicated, there seems to be a ton of different types of the same basic effect out on the market – so how would you know which one is the right tool for the job?
All of that being said, today we’re going to take a look at the major types of guitar effects pedals, with the intent being to educate you on what they do and how they do it. Once we’re done, you should be armed with enough background info to help do your search for the right tone set up a little less intimidating!
What are effects pedals?
Yes – that may seem to be kind of a silly question for those guitarists that have some time under their belt. For the beginner/uninitiated, though, effects pedals can seem to be a bit overwhelming.
In the simplest definition, an effects pedal is an enclosure (typically constructed from metal or plastic) with a specific type of circuitry in it, unique to the type of effect you want to get. A footswitch mounted on the top where you use your foot to turn the effect on or off.
Your guitar is plugged using a standard instrument cable into one side, the signal gets processed as needed. Then another cable plugs into the other side where you can then go right into your amp (or another effects pedal).
It’s not uncommon for a player to string several types of effects together and mount them on what is called a ‘pedalboard.’ Pedalboards are meant to be portable units that can easily be transported. They can be as simple as a homemade piece of wood. On the opposite end of the scale, purchased pedalboards are plentiful in varying sizes, with some even having power capability built-in, so you only have to have one plug.
While most individual pedals can be powered with a 9V battery, having some sort of power solution may be the best. Really…who wants to mess with batteries going dead all of the time? And the last thing you want is for one to go out on you on a gig or recording session!
We’ve described above the most basic type of effects pedals, where each one has its own effect. Some units have several types of effects built into one larger enclosure. Called ‘multi-effects units,’ they may be a more affordable and convenient choice based on a player’s specific needs and how discerning they are in regards to affect sound quality. But we say this just for your information only – the ‘individual pedal vs. multi-effects pedal’ is an ongoing, raging debate! In the end, it may serve you well to examine both approaches and go with the one that makes the most sense for your particular use and application.
“And if I would have taken lessons I probably wouldn’t have done it, and what forced me to do all this weird stuff on the guitar was I couldn’t afford effects pedals, I didn’t have all this stuff when I was a kid so I just tried to squeeze all the weird noises I could out of the guitar, which brings me to building guitars.” Eddie Van Halen
The Major Types of Guitar Effects Pedals
So, how many effects pedals are out there? So many that it’s almost impossible to keep count! To help try and organize things a little better, we will take the overall approach of grouping them into a few major categories. As we go through each one, we will break them down into specific examples to demonstrate the differences. And trust us – there are more differences than you may realize!
This section may be a little long compared to the others, but distortion pedals are often misunderstood (on top of being the most used pedal type)…so we will give you a little background info first.
Distortion pedals were created to solve what can be a massive issue for a lot of players. Back in the late 1960s, the concept of ‘distorted guitar’ came on the scene. Guitarists started to recognize that the tube amps they were using could be pushed to a level (called ‘overdriven’; typically by a lot of volumes) where the output wasn’t the typical sweet and clean sound that had been prevalent at the time.
What came out of their speakers could be loud and brash…but it also came with specific characteristics that really were pleasing to hear. The term ‘distortion,‘ while factually accurate, is really a misnomer in that the sound could have rich harmonics, much more sustain, and a ‘bite’ that you just can’t get from a clean amp.
The big problem was the volume that it takes to get there in the first place. Depending on the amp used, it could get so loud that it was pretty much unmanageable. Distortion pedals came to the rescue by altering the signal before it went into the amp, giving a simulation of that tube distortion that most rock players have come to know and love. This means that same glorious sound without having sound levels that would get you kicked out of your apartment!
We mention rock players specifically, but distortion has made its way into several other music styles as well, such as country and jazz. And let’s face it – metal wouldn’t even exist without gobs and gobs of distortion!
In our eyes, distortion pedals are probably the one effects pedal category that seems to have the most confusion associated with it. If you spend any time looking at all that’s available, you’ll see three main types: overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Some people tend to lump these all together, but they really do have some distinctions.
Overdrive pedals tend to be the most ‘natural’ sounding effect in this category, as their primary intent is to mimic the sound of a good tube amp that is being brought to – and go past – its breakup point. The breakup point is where the sound starts to get that little hint of edginess… it’s not smooth and clean, but it starts to have some grit and determination. Many players use an overdrive pedal just to push the amp enough to get it to break up, but you can adjust it a bit farther to get into some full out classic rock territory.
Distortion pedals can be viewed as ‘overdrive pedals on steroids.’ They do roughly the same thing as an overdrive pedal, but they were intended to be much more aggressive right from the start. You are more likely to get a heavily distorted tone with a true distortion pedal as opposed to an overdrive pedal. For applications where lower amp volume is necessary, a distortion pedal may be your tool of choice if you are into heavier rock and/or metal.
Fuzz pedals were actually the first pedal of this type to be mass-produced, and they were intended to mimic something that may even be ‘wrong’ or ‘radical’ in the entire guitar rig, such as a ripped speaker or a faulty tube. A fuzz pedal’s sound can tend to be a bit more raw and random than either an overdrive or a distortion pedal, but that’s entirely the point of having one!
Have you ever heard a country song that just seems to have a level of twang and snappiness to it? It may be an extreme example, but that is the kind of effect you can get from having a compressor in your signal chain.
A compressor effectively takes the dynamics of your guitar’s signal and ‘compresses’ it. That means that it takes soft sounds and makes them louder while taking loud sounds and making them softer. Used in a subtle manner, it can help make your sound more even, balanced and robust. In a more aggressive setting, you can get that country snap we just mentioned.
Most of them have the same basic controls, where you have a set point (called a threshold) that is the trigger point for the effect to kick in. From there, several other parameters affect how the overall sound is affected (parameters can vary from model to model).
Compressors may be among the most ‘boring’ effects on the list, and that’s because many times, the effect isn’t as evident or apparent as using other kinds. But that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t have immense value. In fact, compressors at some level are ‘must-haves’ for just about all recording environments. Give one a shot – it can be one of those things where you haven’t realized how much they can help your sound because you just haven’t thought to have tried one before.
Delay pedals do exactly what the name implies – they take the input signal and repeat it, albeit with a slight delay from the original. That sounds simplistic, and it can be a bit more involved than that once you get into the details on how to configure one.
The basic settings are a delay time (which is the amount of time from when the delayed signal is played compared to when the original sound is produced, typically given in milliseconds), feedback (which relates to how many times the delayed signal is repeated; often the effect gets progressively softer as the sound decays), and overall mix (the level of the delayed signal as compared to the original).
Delays are used for varying purposes. Some players use them subtly, adding thickness and depth to their overall sound. One particular use is ‘slapback,’ where the delayed signal is very close to the original level, typically set up for only one repeat, and has a short delay time or around 100ms – this is the classic rockabilly sound found on many early rock and rockabilly recordings.
Others take the use of delays far beyond being subtle. U2’s The Edge pretty much based his early career on smart use of delays (often several of them at the same time). Rock players such as Brian May (‘Brighton Rock,’ sounding like multiple guitars in harmony) and Eddie Van Halen (‘Cathedral,’ sounding like a lush church organ solo) have used delays in more extreme manners to significant dramatic effect.
These types of effects take the original signal and ‘modulate’ its waveform in ways where the resulting signal (often called the ‘wet’ signal as opposed to the ‘dry’ original) is altered in a particular manner. This can be done on one (or several) characteristics of the base wave: the amplitude, the pitch, the intensity, etc. Typically this is achieved using an ‘oscillator’ that is integrated into the circuitry of the effect.
There are three main types of modulation effects: chorus, flanger, and phase shifter. This is also another category where the main effect types are often confused, so we’ll take a few minutes to detail the differences.
A chorus pedal takes the original signal, makes a copy of it, slightly alters the pitch (hence the reason why it’s considered a ‘modulation’ effect’), then plays it back with the original with a very slight delay that is typically around 20 to 50 milliseconds. The overall effect is warm and inviting, and it is meant to sound similar to two people playing the same line (but not doing it absolutely correctly with each other). It was used most back in the ’70s and the ’80s, with the latter being the period where it was most intense and borderline overused.
A flanger is very similar to a chorus, but the delay time is much shorter – along with the fact that the delay is varied continuously. The distinctive ‘whoosh-ing’ sound of a flanger is it’s signature characteristic, as can be heard in everything from the middle section of ‘Listen To The Music’ (Doobie Brothers) to the intro of ‘Barracuda’ (Heart) and the intro to ‘Unchained’ (Van Halen).
Quick tidbit for you: have you ever heard the beginning of ‘And The Cradle Will Rock…’ and wonder how Eddie Van Halen got that monster sound on the guitar? We have the answer…he didn’t! That was a Wurlitzer electric piano cranked through a Marshall stack with a – you guessed it – an MXR Flanger. Consider yourself informed!
A phase shifter is similar to both a chorus and flanger in that it takes the dry signal and makes a copy of it. From there, a small amount of delay is added, and when the wet signal is mixed back in, it is configured, so specific frequencies are out of phase with each other. As with a flanger, the delay is modulated, so the delay time changes continuously as well. As the effect cycles, the out of phase portions cancel out, creating that classic sweeping sound.
Phase shifters (also called ‘phasers’) are used on songs such as ‘Kashmir’ (Led Zeppelin…they even put the drums through a phaser to get that swishing tone), a ton of what’s on ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ by Pink Floyd (‘Breathe’ is a particularly great example), and several songs by more recent artists such as Tame Impala.
Other types of modulation effects – tremolo and vibrato
We bundled both of these together because the terms are so often misused; we want to make it simple: tremolo is the variation in the volume (sound level) of a signal, and vibrato is the variation of the pitch (how high or low it sounds) of a signal. So every single one of you out there (we’re talking to you too, Leo Fender and Floyd Rose) that call their vibrato bridge a tremolo bridge are just flat…out…wrong!
It can be looked at like this: vibrato is the same thing as the quick bending and releasing of a string, raising and lowering the pitch – a widespread technique on the guitar to add expressiveness and an almost vocal-like quality. Tremolo would be the same as turning your volume knob up and down in a fast manner, but it’s pretty much impossible to play and crank your volume knob up and down a bazillion times throughout a song. That’s why tremolo pedals are so handy!
Reverb pedals are meant to produce a relatively simple effect – the image of a sound being in a large space, therefore having the sound bounce back to you from all angles. While delays can give an expansive sound, the right reverb can do everything from adding a little color to creating a lush ambiance. That effect can even be more engaging when used in conjunction with a delay.
Reverbs can be a bit more complicated than that, however, which makes them prime candidates for being built into effects pedals in their own right.
Different reverb types include:
Room: Replicates sound as it reflects off surfaces in a relatively smaller room. Room reverb tends to be the most natural-sounding and is often used for recording purposes.
Hall: Mimics the characteristics of being in a large concert hall. The effect is much more ambient and expansive than that of room reverb.
Chamber: Similar to hall reverb, but they tend to add a touch of crispness and clarity to help negate the intensity and overall enveloping effect that a hall reverb can produce
Plate: A type of reverb that isn’t necessarily intended to match a completely natural environment. Plate reverbs often used to a significant effect on vocals, and let’s just say Eddie Van Halen’s early ‘brown sound’ wouldn’t be the same without liberal doses of it.
Spring: Some of the first reverb effects were generated by sending the guitar’s signal through a spring. They have a bright sound often thought of as ‘vintage’; as many older (and even current) amplifiers have these spring units built right in.
Equalization (or ‘EQ’)
EQ pedals perform a reasonably simple operation on your signal – adding or reducing volume levels for specific frequencies. Sometimes the tone stack on your amp (a ‘tone stack’ is a term for the typical bass, mid, treble, and presence knobs) can’t get your tone precisely the way you want it. In these cases, EQ pedals are a quick and handy way to craft your sound to more exacting standards than you can with just the amp itself.
Various types of EQ pedals exist, such as graphic and parametric. With a graphic EQ, you can see the positions for any given number of exacting frequencies (with some pedals going as high as 10 of them) where you can set a ‘curve’ to match your desired tone. For example, if you are a player that is a fan of scooped midrange, then your curve will look like a smile: the low end (typically on the left of the curve) and the treble end are higher than the middle.
Parametric EQ’s work a bit differently in that the controls may be a little more complicated, but the accuracy of the changes you make can be more precise. With a parametric setup, you typically have the option to select a primary frequency (called the ‘center point’) and then a range of frequencies from that primary called ‘Q’ (which stands for ‘quotient of change’). Adjusting the Q parameter changes the number of frequencies related back to the center point, with a large Q encompassing more and a smaller Q bringing fewer frequencies in consideration to be adjusted.
While the main use for EQ pedals is shaping overall sound, some players use them as boost pedals to get the effect of added volume for when it’s time to take that incredible guitar solo. This is done typically by boosting specific mid-to-upper-mid frequencies in a way that tends to cut through the mix.
Filter pedals are the go-to when you just want to make things a little weird – sometimes, a lot weird!
A filter works because it takes a specific frequency (or a range of frequencies) in your signal and sweeps them towards different ends of the overall dynamic range. For example, a mid-range selection can be swept towards the treble end or down towards the bass side of things.
This is essentially how a standard wah pedal works. Auto-wah pedals work similarly, but they are designed to make the sweeping effects concerning the dynamics of how you play instead of having you manually engage the rocking foot pedal.
Another type of filter pedal is the synth pedal. While synth pedals essentially work similarly, they can certainly be much more aggressive and extreme, even to the point where your guitar just won’t sound like a guitar anymore (and that’s typically the whole point of using one in the first place).
We should set your expectations here, though…a simple synth effects pedal may get you some otherworldly tones, and they may even get you close to mimicking some classic vintage keyboard synth sounds. However, they typically aren’t sophisticated enough to make your guitar sound like a completely different instrument (such as any type of horn, for example).
For those extreme cases, a full-blown guitar synth system (which usually requires a special kind of pickup to be added to your instrument, along with an excellent sized processing unit) would have to be used.
Special cases…or ones that just do not fit with the others!
There are a few effects pedals that don’t really fall into any of our categories, but they are certainly worth an honorable mention.
Well, it goes like this – if your guitar isn’t in tune, you aren’t going to sound very good. And contrary to what some may think, trying to tune up by ear isn’t always the easiest – or the most accurate – way to go about things. Besides, no one wants to hear the guitar player tuning up in between songs at a gig!
Having a good tuner pedal is a simple and effective way to keep yourself in tune throughout the course of a live date, recording session, or just putting in a little practicing time. Most have easy to read displays that will tell you whether or not you’re flat, sharp, or precisely in tune. And an excellent chromatic tuner (meaning that it will tune to all 12 notes in the traditional Western musical scale) can let you use alternate tunings to your heart’s desire.
Loopers are effects pedals where you can effectively make short recordings of yourself playing, then have that clip loop over and over while you play other parts on top of it. They are very popular amongst solo performers as, when used effectively, they can almost mimic the effect of having several musicians playing simultaneously.
Loopers vary in range as to how long the loop can be, with some (like those commonly built into some multi-effects pedals) can be as short as 30 – 60 seconds, while other models can go up as high as several minutes worth.
Analog vs. digital – does it matter?
As you spend any time looking at effects pedals, the question is often debated as to which sounds better: analog or digital circuitry? Sorry to break this to you…but we will have to go back to physics class for a little bit to talk about waveforms. However, you will be pleased to know that there is no test planned at the end of the lesson!
In order to compare the two, it’ll help to understand what the differences are. An analog signal is more of that you would see in ‘real life,’ as it has a continuous waveform. In contrast, a digital signal is the exact opposite in that it has sharp peaks or steps; this is due to digital basically being a set of samples of a waveform.
There are some effects where a specific type of waveform just works better than the other. For example, many players prefer the sound of an analog distortion (or overdrive) pedal compared to a digital one, mostly because the smoothness of an analog signal tends to more accurately capture the physical properties of a warm, smooth overdriven tube sound.
Digital technology isn’t a bad thing, per se. Digital delays have been around for decades, and most multi-effects units tend to be all digital (even the distortions).
So which is best? The truth can be found within your own ears – there is no one correct answer. It’s a matter of personal preference, and technology is getting better as time goes on, making some analog vs. digital effects sounding almost precisely the same.
What order should effects pedals be in?
Do an internet search of ‘what order should my effects pedals be in’ and you’re bound to come up with a myriad of answers. And here’s the thing – all of them can be right (or wrong, depending on your point of view).
Some may say to never put a compressor before a distortion pedal. But…you just might like the sound you get if you do that! The same goes for any other type of effect – the only rule here really should be that there are no rules. There’s no need to set something up ‘just because.’ We’d encourage you to experiment with all types of pedal placements within your signal chain, as you may come up with an unorthodox combination that is unique and exciting compared to what all of the other players are doing.
All of that being said, we do have one suggestion – put your tuner pedal first. It may be easier to track a clean signal to tune up other than one that has been mega-processed by ten other effects pedals. Besides that, don’t let any limits hold you back!
Effects pedals are an excellent way to add color and variety to your guitar’s sound palette. Whether you are a rocker that wants your solo lines to sing with sustain from a good analog overdrive, or if you are a clean player that loves the ambiance of a digital delay, chorus, and reverb pedal all at the same time, using pedals can open up an entire world of sounds which you can customize at your disposal. Not only can they sound cool, but effects pedals can also open up inspiration that you might not come across with just a straight guitar sound.
And…most importantly…that all can lead to one elusive thing that no other guitar player on earth can ever have except you – your own personal tone.
Discuss guitar effects with other guitar players in our community pedals forum.