Learning the electric guitar is an incredible journey as you discover the power of music, creativity, and self-expression. Few moments in life stand out to me like the moment where I first witnessed someone using a distortion pedal through their amp. I had always wondered how different bands got “that sound” or how different effects shaped their guitar tone.
This was the first revelation among many when I first started taking private guitar lessons at home. I felt like an entire world was unlocked to me, but it also felt daunting as I learned that there were hundreds of different brands of pedals, types of effects, and ways to use them.
Hopefully, this guide will aid you on your journey of playing guitar. We will talk about the different types of pedals, what sounds they produce, how bands have used them, and certain brands that I like and personally use. Let’s go over the ultimate guide to using electric guitar effect pedals!
A Quick Overview of Different Effects
Before diving into each individual effect, it’s important to understand the subcategories of pedals. Pedals fall into any of these categories: gain-staging, time-based, frequency changing, and modulation. Within these categories, there are subcategories including reverb, delay, chorus, flangers, phasers, distortion, overdrive, fuzz, and many more.
While there is no hard rule for setting up your pedals, the general consensus is that you should go in this order: guitar – gain staging – frequency – compression – time-based – amp. The order of your effects, known as signal flow, is important to consider as well. For now, let’s look at different types of pedals in these categories with an explanation of what they do.
Every Guitarist Needs a Tuner Pedal
It doesn’t matter if you’re Eric Clapton or if it’s your first-time playing guitar: tuner pedals are essential to every pedal board. It’s also pretty obvious what they do…they help you make sure your guitar is in tune! Tuners are quick at recognizing your string notes and telling you if they are flat or sharp. These can be placed out of your volume pedal, or they can go at the beginning of your effects-chain. Typically, it’s best to have them as one of the first effects because it needs to read your guitar before being put through a ton of effects that could mess with its ability to read your tuning.
There are many great brands that make great tuners. The BOSS TU-3 and the TC Electronic Polytune are the most famous and used. The differences come down to their displays. The Polytune is a bit brighter and allows to strum all your strings while it highlights the note that is off. The BOSS pedal can break down your tuning into a chromatic scale, semitones, and performs better for bass guitars.
Gain Pedals: What’s the Difference?
Perhaps the most famous of pedals are gain-based pedals. Rock bands and bedroom artists have used an array of drive pedals to get different and iconic tones out of their axe over the last couple of decades.
There are 3 primary (but not limited to) drive effects: Distortion, Overdrive, and Fuzz. Overdrive is the least harsh and emulates a tube amp being pushed hard to create natural ‘breakup’ in the speakers. This creates unique harmonics that can be tasteful in rock music. Distortion actually changes the tone of your guitar and adds a ton of saturation by clipping your guitar signal. Some famous bands who used this include Nirvana and Metallica. Fuzz is the final effect, and it works by turning your tone into a square wave. This effect is the harshest and sounds like a broken amp. Jimi Hendrix was famous for using his germanium fuzz pedal by putting it in the freezer before concerts. The transistors reacted to temperature and produced amazing tones!
So what are some good gain staging pedals? As some of the most commonly manufactured pedals, you’ll find hundreds of options for your gain needs. Some of the most famous gain pedals include the Ibanez TS-9, BOSS DS-1, and Electro Harmonix Big Muff.
Swimming in Time Effects
A personal favorite of mine is time-based effects. The most traditionally used are reverb and delay which can take your guitar rig to the next level! Reverb creates space and adds depth to your mix, while delay repeats your signal to create a similar sense of time, space, and depth. U2’s, the Edge, made dotted-eight delays famous revolutionizing many styles of rock. Reverb has many sounds including hall, spring, and modern reverbs. My current favorite reverb pedal is the Big Sky by Strymon. A classic delay pedal to check out is the Boss DD-7.
Compressing & Sustaining
Compression pedals are a little more advanced and may not be a high priority for your pedal board. Nonetheless, we can’t leave them out because of how important they are as you begin to expand your career or play more live shows. Without being too scientific, a compressor basically acts a volume fader for your guitar. It helps with sustaining and limiting your guitar output.
For example, if your tone has no sustain and begins to die out, a compressor can raise the volume of the guitar as the tail dies off. Likewise, a compressor can “clampdown” on notes or tone that exceeds what volume you tell it to by reducing it to the threshold you set. It’s been hard to find a compressor pedal that I liked, but I’ve settled on the Keeley Compressor Plus for all my needs.
Frequency pedals alter your tone by using EQ. Some are just called “EQ Pedals” because they offer you control over your lows, mids, and highs. One of the most famous frequency pedals in history is the “Wah Pedal”. This pedal operates by creating a filter and sweeping it across your tone, all by which you control with your foot. The most famous is the Dunlop GCB-95 Crybaby Standard.
Modulating Your Tone
Modulation is a fun effect that gives your tone “vibes”. These effects add variety, color, phase, amplitude, and other harmonics to your guitar. While a bit hard to explain with words, a chorus pedal or flanger is easily recognizable to the ear. The harmonics created by these pedals has a retro, vintage sound.
There are subcategories under modulation pedals including chorus, flanger, phasers, vibrato, tremolo, and many more! Chorus is the most commonly used and I personally use the MXR Analog Chorus Pedal.
While not an actual guitar pedal, we need to take a moment and talk about the power supply. Eventually, you’ll have anywhere from 3 to 20 pedals on a board at a given time. There’s one thing we haven’t mentioned…how do you power all these effects?
There are a couple of different ways. Pedals can share power by being “daisy-chained” from one 9-volt supply, but this isn’t ideal. You’ll introduce a lot of noise to your tone as pedals fight for power. Alternatively, you could power them all with batteries, which would give each pedal its own supply. This technique wouldn’t be practical in the event that a battery dies at a show. The next best thing is getting an isolated power supply. The most famous ones are the VooDoo Lab Power Plus 2 and the Strymon Zuma. These are bigger than the average guitar pedal, but they’re compact and can power up to 10 pedals at a time. Many guitarists mount these under their boards.
Experiment and Have Fun!
I hope this was a good crash course into the world of guitar pedals! Like most things in the audio world, you can always learn and expand your knowledge. Remember – music is a journey. Have fun and do your own research! Experiment at a guitar store or look up YouTube videos of different effects. You don’t need every pedal out there, so find out the tone you’re going for and buy those effects.
Isaiah Ram is a musician, singer, songwriter, digital marketer, and writer from Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife are in a successful band called Wind & Color, and the two have a little girl. You can reach out to Isaiah about anything music and marketing related on his Instagram page or at Isaiahwram@gmail.com.