We’ve done the hard yards in this series. We’ve talked about physics (ugh!), given all manner of disclaimers and ‘no-fun’ clauses where you always have to try everything before you buy, and recommended a wide range of products to get you started on the right foot.
But my friends, hopefully it has all been worth it, because we’ve arrived at the really fun stuff.
Guitar pedals are technically just accessories — but the way they change the sound of your guitar, enhance the capabilities of your creativity and revolutionize your live experience makes them so much more meaningful. It would be a bizarre sight to see pretty much any relatively experienced gigging guitarists perform without, not just one or two pedals, but a BOARD full of them.
The functionality of guitar pedals is so diverse that it’s impossible to even know where to begin with them.
They can play basic, utilitarian roles in your kit, focussing on things like volume adjustment or operating as a kill-switch for an amp. They can replicate a vast range of effects, from distortion to reverb to delay.
From there, things can get a bit ridiculous, with pedals such as ‘Gooby Electronics’ Bag of Dicks‘, or the fuzz offering from Way Huge they decided to call the ‘Swollen Pickle‘ available for purchase.
What is a Guitar Pedal?
Guitar pedals come in all shapes and sizes, but typically they are a small box with a number of knobs and a ‘switch’ to turn it off and on. They will have an ‘input‘ and ‘output‘ jack, where you plug them into your guitar and then back into an amp, mixer or audio interface.
Most contemporary pedals process and alter the signal of audio through a digital or solid-state circuitry system held inside the box, though certain older offerings such as spring reverbs use predominantly mechanical parts and no electronics.
While pedals are usually associated with stompboxes (as I described earlier) for guitars, this is not their only form. They can be used with keyboards, in-built in amplifiers and modeled digitally as VSTs.
If you haven’t figured it out yet — I think pedals are really fun. They provide you with an endless stream of possibilities that you can wield like a sword. Behold unlimited power.
Pedals allow you to mold your sound and create a distinct tone, mesh-genres and bend the archetypes for what is acceptable as a guitarist (see Muse making dubstep).
It may even be the case that they become a bit of a distraction — when you should be practicing your scales, you’re browsing eBay for the umpteenth time looking for an obscure pedal nobody else has heard of and that you certainly don’t need.
It’s not the pedal that makes the song, or the tone — it’s how you use them that does.
As long as you can demonstrate some restraint though, pedals are a fantastic way for guitarists to eek that little bit more out of their sound and customize it to their own tastes.
Where you take it from there, is entirely up to you.
Things to Consider
Before we rush into looking at the wide range of pedals effects that you can lay your hands on, there are a few things that need to be considered.
Pedals Buying Guide
Now that we’re through all the boring introductory stuff, let’s dive right into the different types of pedals you can buy and some of the most popular within that category.
For example, many guitar purists find Boss pedals to be a bit sterile and lacking in versatility. However, others swear by their relatively cheap, well-produced products as being just as good as their more expensive counterparts. It always comes down to personal taste!
It’s also worth noting that I won’t dive deep into ‘multi-effects pedals‘, but these are exactly what they sound like. Sometimes they are digital and allow you to model all sorts of different effects from a range of presets, or they could just be a reverb that also has an option for delay.
In essence, these are just pedals that contain multiple different effects to alter your guitar’s sound.
Not exactly the most exciting way to kick off our pedals buying guide, but this is an important one nonetheless. Tuning pedals aren’t a requirement — some people can tune by ear, some don’t really care about being tune, and others will have portable tuners they can use.
If you’re not one of the above however, and you plan on playing live shows, a tuning pedal is probably a good idea. They allow you to, well, stay in tune and deliver a faithful performance.
Tuning using a pedal is super convenient, and your audience won’t have to listen to you repeatedly playing out of tune strings as you tighten them up.
Particularly if you’re playing vigorous, energetic music, it’s likely your guitar will go out of tune a couple of times while gigging. You can take the guesswork and stress away from it all by simply adding a chromatic tuner to your pedalboard, which will have an easy-to-understand display that will get you perfectly in tune.
Many pedals will even come with in-built tuning presets (that you can customize), which is perfect for musicians that have to regularly change keys throughout setlists.
It is even helpful for recording, or just jamming with your mates, as it can be a little time-consuming to tune back and forth between keys using your ear (or a keyboard).
Many people think that overdrive, distortion and fuzz are all the same thing — they’re not. They all represent some form of clipping, however achieve this sound in very different ways. They each have an independent color that they bring to your guitar’s tone.
Essentially, overdrive simulates the experience of rocking a tube amp’s gain to 11 — without the ear-splitting volumes, irritating feedback and general unwieldiness of pushing an amp too far. It results in a far cleaner and easier-to-tame effect that has been used by guitarists for decades.
Overdrive pedals will often have a variable tone from pedal to pedal, even within the same effect category. They are typically associated with a warm, crunchy sound, but different models and different brands can result in a completely distinct playing experience.
As a rule, overdrives don’t mangle your tone too much, but many pedals come with extra effects such as gain in/out, volume and EQ, which you can use to shape your sound further.
Obviously, overdrive pedals are typically intended for rock, metal, blues and other guitar-centric genres, but let that stereotype not limit your creativity. Overdrive pedals can be used for all sorts of sounds and effects (think resonance in ambient music, or basic chord progressions in some hip-hop), no matter the style of music you intend to perform/create.
Distortion is kind of known as the ‘middle-ground’ when it comes to the three main pedals that clip your sound. In theory, distortion actually refers to every signal that clips to some degree (so that actually includes fuzz, and overdrive) but is colloquially used as an effect that pushes your signal harder than overdrive, but isn’t as all-encompassing as a fuzz.
Distortion pedals generally affect your tone more than an overdrive pedal would and have a much heavier connotation to their sound. Distortions are the go-to pedal for pretty much every metal and hard rock guitarist out there, and the sound they provide is instantly recognizable. Crunchy, powerful and aggressive.
*Note that The RAT is associated with all three levels of clipping — distortion, overdrive AND fuzz.
As you can see from the graph below, distortion uses ‘hard clipping‘, which cuts off the peak of the signal and creates a wave that is almost square (as opposed to the rounder, ‘soft-clipping’ used by overdrives).
This effect can be replicated in all sorts of ways, including recording extremely loudly into a mic, using a VST and of course, with a pedal.
If you haven’t figured out the order I’m taking the ‘clipping’ pedals in by now, Fuzz essentially represents the last frontier. It is the hardest clipping pedal out there and has a much wilder, less-articulate sound than distortion and overdrive effects.
While there are some technical aspects (that I’ve mentioned) that differentiate fuzz, overdrive and distortion pedals, the easiest way to tell the difference between them is to simply use your ears.
Fuzz doesn’t really need a sonic introduction — when you hear the word fuzz, I’m sure nearly all of you immediately know what to think of. It’s a wall-of-sound, warm, buzzing tone that can be simultaneously harsh and sweet.
*The Colby Fuzz Sound pedal is known as the Park Fuzz Sound in the US.
What’s interesting about fuzz pedals is that, while they are ‘dirtiest‘ of the three distortions, they aren’t necessarily associated with a heavier style of music. Fuzz pedals have been used by all sorts of artists, from dream pop and shoegaze outfits (which can be heavy but are usually pretty laconic), Britpop/power pop acts, all the way to the Jimi Hendrix’s of the world.
Pretty much the entirety of Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins was recorded with a fuzz pedal, to give you a popular reference. And of course, as I said, Jimi Hendrix.
Due to the propensity for fuzz pedals to be used in a broad range of genres, they often contain other effects in-built to the system, including tremolo, reverb and other psychedelic offerings.
Delay pedals are synonymous with pretty much every style of music. They are hugely versatile, come in all different shapes and sizes, and can do everything from simply looping-back an audio signal, to altering your tone entirely.
Pretty much every guitarist will eventually want some form of delay on their pedalboard. There are so many different effects available that it can be hard to know where to start.
Thinking about the style of music you wish to emulate is a good idea to narrow down your options — do you want to create a wild, swelling world of ambience for a post-rock/shoegaze track, or are you just interested in a clean delay to add some texture to your metal riffs?
Delays can also be used to create a spacey sound without the muddiness of using a reverb. Many guitarists prefer to use slapback delays, especially when soloing, as it gives an extra ‘oomph’ to their tracks without affecting the clarity of the piece.
Some delays also use ‘reverse delay‘ to create a unique sound, again associated with dreamier and wistful styles of music.
Delay pedals technically encompass pedals like loopers, flangers, pitch shifters and chorus, but for the purpose of this article we will keep them separate.
Probably the most common effect used in modern music, reverb is a highly sought-after pedal for most guitarists, no matter the genre they play in. Reverbs tend to just make things sound better.
It takes away the uncomfortable, dry sound that certain instruments and environments create, and replaces it with a more organic and musical tone.
Reverbs emulate ‘space’, and the echoes that one would hear with an audio signal bouncing off the walls of a room. The larger the room, the longer the time it takes for the audio to ‘reverberate’ (get it now?) and the heavier the reverb.
Reverbs can be used for pretty much everything — creating lush environments, adding a bit of space to a mix, thickening the tone of a guitar solo and everything in between. They will often have swell effects, or come with the options to create a reverse reverb.
It’s worth noting that for those playing in ‘clean’ genres that require clarity, too much reverb can be distracting. It will muddy up your song, so using it in moderation is advised for practical purposes.
However, if you’re using reverb creatively? The world is your oyster.
Chorus is a pretty popular effect used among guitarists and can be heard in the vast majority of musical styles. Pop, metal, rock psychedelic, shoegaze — the list goes on. As its use has become so mainstream, the variety of options available has followed suit.
Guitarists have the choice of hundreds (if not thousands) of different chorus effects, each affecting the resultant sound in their own unique and desirable ways.
Chorus effects can be as simple as being a very, very short delay which gives off the classic sound associated with the effect. They have evolved beyond this however, and can be used to thicken up a mix, replicate a rotary speaker or even used to create a deep, grungy, distorted sound (of course alongside a distortion pedal). Many come alongside additional effects, such as EQ and vibrato.
Flangers are similar in sound to choruses and phasers, but have their own unique effect and style. They are typically a bit more overwhelming than choruses and are associated with other-wordly swirling and the renowned ‘jet’ flanger sound.
Flangers are commonly found within psychedelic music (Tame Impala use them… a lot…) and, you guessed it, shoegaze, the king of using every and all available pedal effects. The flanger effect operates similarly to a chorus but has a different delay time which is what creates its distinct tone.
Flangers are actually quite popular on most instruments, not just guitar, and grabbing a pedal for use with a keyboard, vocals or another instrument might be worth considering too.
Other Modulation Effects
Modulation effects is an all-encompassing term that includes phasers, flangers, choruses, pitch shifters, vibratos and filter-based pedals. Most of the pedals mentioned in the previous two sections are also modulation pedals, and often come with the versatility to provide all manner of modulation effects within the one package.
For the purposes of this segment, we will just be looking at pitch shifters, tremolos and phasers. Each of these modulations provide a different sound that can add a new layer of creativity to your guitar playing.
It’s worth noting that modulation effects don’t start and end here — if you subscribe to the theory that modulation is an all-encompassing term for a pedal that alters (or modulates) the sound of your guitar in a unique manner, the world of modulation gets even bigger.
Technically modulation is only referring to time and pitch-based effects and the combination of these, but that would dismiss tremolo, which is a volume-based effect.
Other modulator effects include: filter pedals (a constantly moving equalizer that is associated with builds and drops in electronic music), Wah pedals (you know what this is…), ADT (automatic double tracking, like John Lennon used on pretty much all of his vocals), vibrato pedals and even synth pedals (where your guitar replicates the sounds of a synth).
It would be an oversight of mine if I were to write an article on pedals without mentioning volume pedals, which are some of the most important money can buy.
While volume pedals are associated with ‘non-sexy’ functions such as cutting out feedback with noise gates and being able to turn down/up the sound of your guitar without having to touch your amp using a volume pedal, they are actually much more diverse than this.
Volume pedals, for example, are frequently used to delay the attack of a guitar chord and create a ‘swelling‘ sound, commonly heard in ambient, shoegaze, post-rock and dream pop music.
Tremolo is technically a volume-based effect (though we covered that earlier), and expression pedals can be teamed up with other effects to change the value of a parameter (for example, delay time, or distortion drive).
For this section, we will look at volume pedals, swell pedals and noise gates.
As we near the end of the article, there are a couple more types of pedals that I want to take a look at.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the most explosive way to finish off an article filled with exciting, game-changing pedals. That said, the pedals I’m about to talk about can be just as important to shaping your tone and invigorating your live (and studio) performances as any number of crazy delay and psychedelic effects.
I’m, of course, talking about equalizers and compression. These two effects are perhaps most commonly associated with mixing music — they are vital to making a song sound cohesive, and well, good.
Without EQ and compression, most tracks would be close to unlistenable, filled with grating frequencies and bizarre shifts in volume.
To quickly summarise — EQs essentially alter the volume of specific frequencies. They are found on nearly every guitar amp money can buy in the form of Treble, Bass and Middle knobs.
Lower frequencies correlate to bass, whereas higher frequencies are amplified or cut for their clear, treble (but also harsh), qualities. EQ pedals are a fantastic way to further shape the specific sound of your guitar with a substantial amount of more control than the generic 3-band EQ you’ll find on an amp.
Different EQ pedals will have different tonalities (some have in-built color effects such as tube emulation) and a varying number of adjustable frequency bands, so it’s important to understand what exactly you’re looking for with this effect before rushing out to buy one.
Compressors instead focus on dynamics (volume.) Typically, they adjust the volume of a track to keep it in line with itself — so basically, if you accidentally played one note loudly, the sound would be ‘squashed’ to match the volume of the rest of your playing. The reverse is true too.
This is a great way to ensure your guitar track is clean and there are no jarring jumps in volume, whether performing live or in the studio.
Compression can also be used creatively when pumped hard, generating a unique sound that makes it seem as though the guitar is pushing extremely hard to jump out of an enclosed box, but can’t quite make it out. This tone is quite commonly heard in 80s drum-tracks.
Certain compressors will also change the sound of your guitar (not just the volume), giving it a more vintage, authentic tone.
The Other Bits and Pieces
And finally, we’re here. At the end of the article. Hopefully this has been a fun ride for you — though just remember not to venture too far down the rabbit hole of pedal effects. Before long, there’ll be a burning hole of $10,000 in your pocket and piles upon piles of boxes in your garage.
If you can manage to contain your excitement and show restraint, pedals are one of the most important accessories for a guitar player. They completely revolutionize the potential sounds you can make, whether it be live, in the studio, or on Mars (of course space is a vacuum, so you wouldn’t be able to hear the effects… but you’d look pretty cool doing it!).
What’s crazy is, even though we’ve touched on a huge range of different pedals and their associated effects, this article is barely scratching the surface. Pedals can get way weirder than what I’ve written about here, providing all sorts of crazy niche and unique effects.
While I have looked at most of the main effects general guitar players will want to add to their arsenal, once you have begun to mold together your intricate collection of pedals, it might be worth searching far and wide for some of these more exceptional offerings to see if they suit your playstyle.
For example, who couldn’t see the use for making their guitar sound like a cat meowing? Yes, I’m looking at you, Korg Miku.
Stay safe out there everyone.