A player's choice of pedals reveals a lot about their personal style. While some prefer a pure tone with minimal enhancement, others indulge in aural soundscapes ranging from the trippy psychedelic to bone crushing distortion.
Effects are not only where we tailor our sound and sculpt our tone, they're where we expand our palate and explore sonic possibilities. Whether you're playing original music and in search of the world's most unique tone or cover tunes and need to recreate the exact sound of a popular artist, an effect pedal is usually the most direct route to your destination. Whether newbie or grizzled veteran, most of us at some point indulge in the vast array of effects boxes to add variety and flavor to our tone.
The world has seen literally thousands of stomp boxes since their first emergence from the primordial ooze of tape-based effects and razor bladed speaker cones and one of the great things about stomp boxes is that, for a relatively small investment, you can get a myriad of tones out of a single guitar and amp set-up.
Let's wade through the sea of gadgets while I try to offer some qualitative descriptions in murky water aided by some typical examples.
We'll kick this off with a little clarification about distorted tone. This is undoubtedly the most commonly used effect. Ever since Keith Richard plugged in a Maestro fuzz to launch the great riff that drives "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" overdrive, fuzz and distortion boxes have proliferated the landscape. These are the three main iterations of distorted tone and the distinction between the three can sometimes be confusing.
A New York guitar phenom from a young age, Michael still smiles looking back on playing his first bar gig at the ripe old age of fourteen. By eighteen, his acrobatic guitar style had caught the attention of a popular local band (whose members were all ten years older) and together they quickly conquered the legendary Long Island music scene, playing six nights a week to large audiences. Says Michael of this period, "To fill time, the band would often throw me two solos per song. I did the math recently and realized I was playing about sixty solos a night times six nights a week. That's three hundred and sixty solos per week! That's really where I learned to play, on stage every night in front of lots of people."
As comfortable playing or producing in the studio as he is on the stage, Michael's varied career has afforded him the opportunity to work with many of his heroes including Steve Vai, Justin Hayward, Gary Brooker, Rod Morgenstein, Steve Howe and Cheap Trick. Always happiest with a guitar in his hand, you can find Michael showing his versatility performing with LI Hall of Fame inductees Barnaby Bye, Macca Nation (a tribute to Paul McCartney & Wings) or his kitschy 70's band, the insanely popular, 45rpm (voted Long Island's best cover band for 2013 and 2014.)
These types of pedals generate tone that simulates the sound of a tube amp being pushed beyond its limits. The results are a warm, soft symmetrical clipping that approximates the sound of vacuum tubes being abused. Their tones can range from a mild breakup to a thick crunch. The kind of tone heard in blues, rock and funk, overdrives can be used with the amplifier set clean or with some gain dialed in.
Example: Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pedal
A quick look at the TS808 reveals controls typically found on most overdrive pedals.
Overdrive - Controls the amount the signal is overdriven.
Tone - Modifies the amount of treble allowed to pass through.
Level - Adjusts the output of the device.
Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Guitar Pedal
EarthQuaker Devices Palisades Overdrive Pedal
This is the next stage of saturation escalation. Similar to overdrive, distortion alters and flattens the waveform, adding overtones but using hard clipping to squash the peaks of the wave, creating the more aggressive sound found in rock and metal.
Distortion boxes are generally used with the amplifier set clean.
Example: Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal
This extremely popular pedal's controls are typical of distortion pedals.
Tone – Swings from darker to brighter.
Level – Controls the overall output of the pedal.
Distortion – Dials in the gain.
MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion Guitar Pedal
Take a distortion box and severely clip the waveform, add complex harmonics and you've got the buzzy sound of a fuzz box. Sometimes combined with oscillation and octave circuits, fuzz boxes aim to achieve that overloaded transistor/shredded speaker cone sound. Originally popular in the Sixties, they've remained favorites with players seeking an ultra-aggressive, razor-sharp sound.
Example: Wampler Velvet Fuzz
The Velvet Fuzz comprises controls commonly found on Fuzz boxes.
Volume – Controls output volume.
Fuzz – Adjusts how much fuzz is added to the signal.
Brightness – Modifies the amount of treble allowed to pass through.
Wampler Velvet Fuzz V2 Fuzz Pedal
Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi Fuzz Pedal
Boost (or "clean boost") pedals are simple devices used to boost your guitar's output. Many contain nothing more than a level control and an on/off footswitch, though some add additional controls. These types of boxes have multiple uses. They can be used to make a solo or riff stand out in the mix, very effective especially when performing without a sound man to raise your instrument's volume at the appropriate times.
A boost pedal can also be used to overdrive anything and everything following it in the signal path. This is useful for overdriving the input stage of a tube amp (adding grit and distortion) or for exaggerating the gain of a distortion device. Boosting gain through your pedal chain should be done with caution. Certain pedals won't react well to having their input overdriven, especial digital boxes. Digital distortion is among the most harsh, brittle and unpleasant sounds in all of audio so you'll want to take care not to push too much signal into digital effects. Unless, of course, a harsh brittle unpleasant distortion is your thing. In that case, go for it.
Example: Xotic EP Booster
A simple yet very effective signal boost.
The lone knob allows for a boost of up to +20db.
Xotic EP Booster Clean Boost Pedal
Xotic Effects BB Preamp Guitar Distortion Pedal
With the advent of short delay time chips in the 1970's, chorus pedals became widely available. One of the most useful and common pedals found in a guitarist's arsenal, a chorus pedal can simulate the sound of two guitars playing in unison. Two guitarists playing the same part will never sound exactly the same. There will invariably be slight differences in pitch and timing adding to the fullness. By making a duplicate of the input signal and delaying it slightly the image is broadened. The duplicate is then pitch-modulated between sharp and flat to further enhance the effect.
Example: Boss CH-1
Here we have the features most commonly found on chorus pedals.
Effect Level – Blends the effected signal with the dry signal.
EQ - Modifies the amount of treble allowed to pass through.
Rate – The speed at which the duplicate signal is modulated.
Depth – The amount the duplicate signal is modulated out of tune.
Boss CH1 Super Chorus Pedal
TC Electronic Corona TonePrint Chorus Guitar Effects Pedal
Like the chorus pedal, a flanger is a time-based effect using short delay times, even shorter than the chorus. With a sound more akin to the phaser, the flanger duplicates the original signal and rotates it in and out of phase. Due to the very short delay times certain frequencies become "notched" out creating alternating peaks and valleys. Van Halen's "Unchained" is a good example of a flanger driven through some tube distortion.
Example: MXR EVH117 Van Halen flanger Pedal
Achieving the aforementioned Van Halen sound, this pedal is a good illustration of a flanger's features.
Manual – Chooses the frequency effected.
Width – Controls the intensity of the time delay set by the Speed knob.
Speed – Adjusts the speed of the time delay.
Regen. – Controls the intensity of the overall effect.
MXR EVH117 Van Halen Flanger Pedal
Electro Harmonix Stereo Electric Mistress Flanger Chorus
One of the earliest electric guitar effects, the wah has been a staple in the pedal boards of guitar players since the mid-sixties. A wah pedal filters all but a narrow bandwidth of frequencies varied by rocking an adjustable foot pedal, sweeping the frequency lower by pivoting the pedal towards the heel or to a higher frequency towards the toe. A wah is one of those effects that is prevalent in several genres of music. As popular with funk, soul and R&B players as it is with the rock guys, a wah pedal is used with both clean and distorted tone.
Example: Dunlop GCB95 Original Crybaby Wah
By far the world's most popular wah pedal, the GCB95 Crybaby can be heard on countless hits and seen on stages of the famous and not-so-famous. They're everywhere.
As far as controls, there aren't really any. The pedal is engaged/disengaged by pressing down on the toe side. Some pedals have a separate on/off switch. The real difference in wah pedals is in the potentiometer used to sweep the frequencies and the glide of the pedal as it pivots.
Dunlop GCB95 Original Crybaby Wah Pedal
Dunlop SW95 Slash Crybaby Wah Pedal
Though it can be pointed out that other types of pedals listed also alter pitch, here we are referring to pedals that create harmony, octaves and a detuned signal. One or more duplicate signals are created and then pitch-shifted before being combined back with the original sound. Just how they are pitch-shifted is where the fun lies. By shifting the pitch in thirds and fifths a variety of interval patterns can be created. Having control of both the key and the musical scale ensure the creation of actual rich sounding two and three-part harmony. There's also the option of creating octaves - above, below or both. You can also duck out the original signal leaving your guitar sounding like a bass or play notes up in the stratosphere. Lastly, you can slightly detune the duplicate signals, one a little sharp and one a little flat, for a thickening effect.
Example: Boss PS-6
The PS-6 controls to give you the maximum amount of flexibility.
Balance – Vary the amount of dry signal vs. effected signal.
Shift - Chooses the harmony parts.
Key – Choose the key of the song.
Mode – Choose the scale, octave, detune or (unique to the PS-6) S-Bend creating outrageous pitch bend and warped tones using the foot switch.
Boss PS6 Harmonist Pitch Shift Harmonizer Effects Pedal
Eventide H9 Core Multi Effects Guitar Pedal
Though this pedal is often misunderstood by the novice player, who may have a hard time determining the subtle changes being effected, the compressor is one of the most useful pedals in a guitar players collection, especially for soloing. What a compressor does is limit the instrument's dynamic range, or in simpler terms, it makes the lower volume parts louder and the louder parts lower. Let's look at the first half of that. Let's say you're playing a solo and you bend a note and you'd like it to ring out and sustain for several beats, even several seconds. This is where the compressor is your friend. As your note is dying out the compressor "makes the lower volume parts louder" sustaining your note longer. Conversely, the making of "louder parts lower" actually fattens the tone and recreates the feel of the "sag" associated with tube amps.
Example: Boss CS-3
The CS-3's controls are typical of most compressors.
Level – Controls the overall output of the pedal.
Tone – Adjusts the overall brightness. Because compressing the signal can squash some high end, this is useful for getting it back.
Attack – Used for deciding how quickly the compressor kicks in. Allow some unaffected signal to pass through before it's compressed or squeeze it all.
Sustain – This is the amount of compression. A clockwise rotation dials in more.
Boss CS3 Compressor Sustainer Pedal
Wampler Ego Compressor Pedal
Phasing is created by splitting the signal, altering the phase of one side then oscillating it through the entire frequency spectrum. When blended back with the original signal a notch can be heard as the two signals cancel each other out at 180 degrees. This creates a constantly moving swooshing effect. Phasers sound great with both a clean and dirty tone.
Example: MXR M101 Phase 90
Like many phasers, the Phase 90 does its magic with just a single control.
Speed – This controls the speed of the oscillation.
MXR M290 Phase 95 Mini Phaser Pedal
A delay pedal creates a clone of the original signal and repeats it at a delayed interval of your choosing. You can also choose to have it repeat more than once. This is useful for creating an ambient effect. Picture yourself yelling "Hello" into a canyon. You could hear it repeat a few times, each time getting lower in volume, before dying out. It gives you the impression of distance. This is the ambience created by delays. A delay set with several repeats set far apart imitates a larger space than a setting with just one or two quick repeats. A delay is also beneficial in fattening your tone because notes you are playing are repeated on top of the next notes you play. Delays are very popular pedals and play a big part in making your instrument blend with it's neighbors.
Example: MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay
The M169 utilizes the same essential controls as most delays.
Regeneration – This sets the amount of repeats.
Mix – Blends the dry signal with the delayed signal.
Delay – Adjusts the time between the repeats.
MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay Pedal
Catalinbread Belle Epoch Deluxe Delay Pedal
One of the most useful pedals in your toolbox. EQ's (or equalizers) allow you to adjust your tone in a much more refined way than the standard amplifier controls of bass, midrange and treble. Several sliders are assigned to specific frequencies (referred to as "bands") allowing you to boost or cut them. This is great for tailoring your tone to your exact liking. Because frequencies can be boosted or cut, they will have an impact on whatever pedals follow them in the chain. For instance, boosted frequencies followed by distortion boxes will drive their input harder producing more gain.
Example: MXR M108 10 Band Graphic Equalizer
EQ's are typically 6 or 10 band. This 10 band unit offers adjustments starting very low on the frequency spectrum (31.25hz) and extending fairly high (16khz.)
MXR M108S Ten Band EQ Pedal
Reverb pedals add a dimension of time and space, seemingly placing your instrument in an environment with its sound reverberating off the walls, ceiling and floor. Where a delay pedal adds actual repeats, a reverb pedal's repeats are less discernable. Originally created with a few springs in the back of an amplifier, guitar reverbs usually had one control – more. Technology being what it is, today's reverb pedals recreate atmospheres as diverse as a bathroom and an infinite cavern. Halls, stages and churches all make for nice ambient spaces for guitar creating a tone that blends nicely with other instruments.
Example: TC Electronic Hall of Fame
Typical controls shared by the HOF and other reverb units include:
Decay – Adjusts the amount of time the reverb hangs around.
Tone – Brightens or darkens the sound of the reverb.
FX Level – Blends the dry signal with the effect.
Reverb Type – Room, Hall, Plate, Spring etc.
TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 Reverb Pedal
EarthQuaker Devices Transmisser Resonant Reverb
When it comes to having fun playing the guitar, it doesn't get much better than playing through a looper. Put quite simply, a looper records a phrase you are playing and creates an endless loop of it while allowing you to play on top of it or add to it, sometimes building it into a one-man band. This is great for practicing by yourself. Play in a chord progression and solo over it until your fingers fall off. They're also very popular among players on the solo acoustic circuit. Loop a section of the song and solo. It's like having an occasional (unpaid) rhythm guitar on the gig.
Example: TC Electronic Ditto Looper X2
As loopers go, this is a simple, yet powerful, looper with 5 minute of recording time.
Loop Level – You guessed it, it controls the volume of the loop.
Loop Footswitch – Controls the loop.
FX Footswitch – Creates half-speed or reverse effects.
TC Electronic Ditto Looper X2 Guitar Pedal
With all the sonic possibilities and aural enhancements effects bring to your tone, there's one addition that's not quite as welcome. Noise. If you're boosting the gain to get some blazing distortion an unwanted side effect is that you're also boosting any noise created along the way. Using a compressor for endless sustain? Well, you're also boosting noise. To combat this many guitar players employ a noise gate. An adjustable threshold control lets you set the minimum sound you'd like to be audible, anything below that is inaudible as the gate closes. To set it you'd play your instrument (not your amplifier) very softly and adjust the threshold so every note is audible. As you stop playing, the gate closes stopping any noise from passing through.
Example: Behringer NR300 Noise Reduction
A good example of noise gate controls.
Threshold – Decides at what volume the gate closes letting no sound pass through.
Decay – Controls how fast the gate shuts – fast and harsh or slow and gentle.
Behringer NR300 Noise Reduction Effects Pedal
ISP Technologies Decimator II Noise Reduction Pedal
As basic a pedal as there is, a volume pedal uses a pivoting rocker to adjust the volume. Minimal features sometimes include an output for a tuner. The things to look for when testing a volume pedal are the taper of the volume potentiometer and the smoothness and sturdiness of the assembly.
Example: Ernie Ball 6180 JR Volume Pedal
Ernie Ball 6180 JR Mono Volume Pedal
Dunlop Volume X Expression Pedal
Another of the earliest guitar effects, tremolo sometimes came stock on amplifiers. Now mostly found in pedal form, the tremolo is a simple yet very effective means of fashioning an eerie tone. Tremolo is produced by creating a variation in amplitude (raising and lowering the volume) at an adjustable, steady, repeating rate.
Example: Boss TR-2 Tremolo
Rate – Speed at which the volume is raised and lowered.
Wave – Abruptness of the volume change.
Depth – Adjusts the depth of the volume drop.
Boss TR2 Tremolo Guitar Effects Pedal