So Many Guitar Pedals... So Little Time
When it comes to guitar pedals, let's be honest - It doesn't really matter what you actual skill level on the guitar is. Playing with effects pedals is one of the most fun things you can do in the guitar world.
Your only limitations are budget, and your own creativity.
Even with some basic chops, with a small pedal collection you can morph, cut, expand, and modify your guitar sound to something very unique. In fact, many famous guitarists have crafted a "signature" tone based on an effect (U2's The Edge comes to mind, for his use of delay).
So if you're brand new to the world of electric guitar and these fantastic little stompboxes, we've created a guide that'll teach you a little bit about each effect type, and give you a solid recommendation for a well-known pedal to consider in each category.
How We Came up With Our Pedal Recommendations
Here at Equipboard we've tested a lot of pedals. In fact, for every category of pedal, we write a guide and give our recommendations.
It's this expertise that gives us the knowledge to give guidance on what pedals are worth your time and hard earned money. We're not saying each pedal we recommend here is unequivocally the best - but we are saying it's a pretty great option for the price.
If you want to dig past the surface and see how many great options you have for each effect pedal type, we encourage you to look through our other guides!
Tuning isn't exactly an effect, but having a solid tuner on your pedalboard is essential.
There are different types of tuners (clip-on, app, rack mounted), but we'll stick to talking about pedal tuners here.
Quite simply, a tuner helps you tune your guitar strings to the right pitch so that you sound good. It's best to feed a clean guitar signal into your tuner, so place it first in your pedal chain.
Another benefit is most pedal tuners will mute the signal when turned on, which lets you tune in between songs so the audience doesn't have to hear it.
Gain-Staging Effect Pedals
The effects that make rock 'n' roll. To oversimplify, gain-staging effects take your guitar signal from clean to dirty and everywhere in between. Generally speaking in order of intensity it goes: boost > overdrive > distortion > fuzz
Boost isn't the most exciting effect on its own, but used in the right circumstances it can make a big impact.
It's quite a simple effect; you use it to get a boost in volume when you need it. Some boost pedals are called "transparent" because aside from altering the volume they leave your tone intact, and some boost pedals inject their own character/EQ to your signal.
Most boost pedals just have a single knob which lets you dial in how much volume boost or gain you want.
You can use a boost to:
- Drive your amplifier a bit harder.
- Feed a hotter signal into another drive pedal.
An example use would be to kick on your boost pedal during a guitar solo to cut through the band's mix.
Overdrive pedals simulate pushing a tube amp to the point of saturation where it starts "clipping." A typical overdrive sound is that crunchy, bluesy sort of distortion.
Whereas a boost pedal tries to keep your tone the same - only louder - overdrive starts altering it and entering that "break up" phase.
That said, cranking up an overdrive pedal can result in quite a saturated distorted tone, hence the line between overdrive and distortion often being blurred... though even the gnarliest overdrives won't allow you to get a proper metal tone.
Distortion picks up where overdrive leaves off. It's a more extreme version of the effect. A distortion pedal dialed all the way back can sound similar to an overdrive, but dialed all the way up is where it shines.
For any kind of hard rock or metal, a distortion pedal is essential.
There are many flavors of distortion pedals, ranging from classic rock tones, to modern metal, and some that simulate the specific sound of a cranked amplifier from a certain era.
In fact, it's not uncommon for larger pedal collections to include more than one distortion pedal to achieve completely different results.
Fuzz is the most extreme type of drive. It clips your signal very hard, which generates a heavily processed, thick, and harmonically rich tone.
It's often thought of as the most untamed type of distortion and is unlike any other drive effect. It's so thick that it can be difficult to articulate chords with it on.
Fuzz is also very genre-agnostic. Whether you play blues, rock, punk, indi, stoner rock, or pop, a fuzz pedal fits well in your collection - with some genres it's essential!
This one is easier to understand if you've ever played with a compressor in the studio, or used one in plugin form. For the uninitiated, a compressor serves to even out your playing dynamics.
What that means is if you play too softly, it can make the signal louder for you, and if you play too loud it can squash it down to a level which you determine.
Because a compressor pedal can make a quiet note louder, one of its main uses is so increase the sustain of whatever you're playing. In a way= it helps you sound like a more skilled player.
Compressor pedals are especially popular in country music, where chicken pickin' is popular.
Some compressor pedals (like the MXR Dyna Comp) are dead simple and really try to simplify things for you, while some (like the TC Electronic HyperGravity) will give the control freaks access to every single parameter.
Volume pedals are extremely simple - they are rocker-style pedals that let you increase and decrease the volume of whatever is plugged into them.
A common question is where to put a volume pedal in an effects chain? The beginning of the signal chain is a popular placement. This way it simulates the guitar's volume knob, so you can control the volume level going into the other effects.
You can also put it at the very end of the chain if you want a quick way to "clean things up," but keep in mind you'll also be turning down reverb tails and delay repeats.
Frequency & Filtering Effect Pedals
Whether you have unruly frequencies you want to tame, accentuate, or manipulate into a unique and/or iconic effect, frequency and filtering pedals are a great addition to any pedalboard.
Simply put, and EQ - or equalizer - pedal gives you knobs and sliders to cut or boost various frequencies.
The number of frequencies you can manipulate are also known as bands.
Some EQ pedals are simple, like the EarthQuaker Devices Tone Job which has 3 knobs for Bass, Mid, and Treble adjustment.
Others, like the Empress ParaEq, are much more feature-laden.
Guitarists tend to leave EQ pedals on all the time, so it's important to get an EQ pedal doesn't introduce any unwanted hiss or hum to your signal chain.
Source Audio Programmable EQ
Read our full guide to the Best EQ Pedals
By rocking back and forth on a wah pedal's footswitch, you get the legendary - and very specific - "wah wah" sound.
Jimi Hendrix was a famous user of the wah pedal, and you can hear the effect from the very start of "Voodoo Child".
You can rock the pedal gently back and forth to add some spice to a rhythm passage, or wah to the extreme during a soaring solo.
For such a simple pedal there are LOTS of wah variations out there. Some are controlled by a potentiometer, and others an optical sensor.
An octave pedal allows you to play a note that is pitched up or down one or more octaves from the original note.
You can also decide if you want just the pitched note to play, or if you want to blend the original note back in so they play together.
Octave pedals are fun, since you can simulate a bass guitar with your electric guitar. Throw a fuzz pedal into the mix and you can play some massive riffs!
Modulation Effect Pedals
Modulation effects alter something about the sound over time. They can be extreme, but at that setting they have a tendency to be overpowering and could even be a little over the top. When used more more subtly, they can add a beautiful and unique texture to whatever you're playing.
A tremolo pedal alternates the volume of your guitar signal between loud and soft over and over again.
Tremolo pedals lets you change the speed (or rate) of the volume oscillations, as well as the depth.
An example of the effect is in the opening riff of the song "How Soon Is Now" by The Smiths.
A vibrato pedal is the sibling of a tremolo pedal. Instead of modulating the volume however, the pitch is modulated up and down repeatedly.
This makes the guitar sound kind of wobbly or psychedelic.
The same speed/rate and depth controls apply, just as in tremolo pedals.
Chorus is an effect many people are familiar with. A chorus pedal basically takes a copy of the original signal, delays the copy a bit and modulates it.
The result is a rich, shimmery sound. The opening line of "Come As You Are" by Nirvana showcases Kurt Cobain's chorus pedals.
A flanger pedal gives you a very distinctive, metallic sounding wooshing effect, almost like the sound of a jet engine.
Like chorus, it's achieved by doubling your signal and playing both back together, except that the doubles signal is slightly delayed and a little out of phase.
A phaser pedal splits your guitar signal. It takes the clean signal, phase shifts the second signal, and mixes them back together causing them to cancel each other out. The result is an effect that sweeps the sound from low to high and back again.
The opening rhythm guitar riff on the song "Lightning Crashes" by Live showcases a phaser pedal in action.
Electro-Harmonix Small Stone (Nano Chassis) Analog Phase Shifter
Read our full guide to the Best Phaser Pedals
Time-Based Effect Pedals
Aside from maybe distortion, time-based effect pedals like delay and reverb are the most widely known and used. There's a pretty good chance even the smallest pedal collections will have one of each.
A delay pedal takes your guitar signal and repeats it.
How long the repeats go on for, the time between repeats, and any modulation that happens to the repeats are all parameters you can tweak.
Delay can completely change the feel of whatever you're playing, regardless if you have a very short slapback delay, or infinitely soaring cavernous repeats.
Guitarists use reverb pedals to create a sense of space and atmosphere in their playing.
Nearly every recording ever made uses some amount or reverb.
Reverb pedals emulate what happens when sound waves reflect off of surfaces. The more reflections happen and the larger the space you're in, the more dramatic the effect.
There are several different types of reverb: hall, chamber, room, plate, and spring to name a few.
Most reverb pedals either specialize in a single reverb type, or let you choose from several.