Popularised by Van Halen and becoming the signature sound of the 1970s rock guitar, these pedals are phase-shifting, awesome sounding pedals. As well as being irreversibly linked to Van Halen’s sound, the phaser is closely associated with classic rock and psychedelic rock in general as ‘the phaser effect’ lends itself particularly well to a dreamy, relaxed feel.
That’s why you’ll often find them used for the atmospheric layers they add, being common in ambient styles of music, but are equally applicable in more beat-driven music for giving chords a more interesting sound.
Phasers are therefore great for the guitarists looking to beef up their guitar sound (ala Van Halen style) or use it in a more experimentally to create layers of sound.
In this article we’re going to focus on phaser pedals and explain what exactly they do, we’ll expand on which types music they work the best in, and finally in our product round-up section we’re going to recommend our favourite products
If you’re in a rush and need a quick overview of the pedals we recommend, here’s a sneak peek.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Phaser Pedals on the Market
Empress Effects phaser
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Behringer Vintage phaser VP1
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TC Electronic Helix phaser
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Walrus Audio Vanguard Dual phaser
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MXR EVH Phase 90
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Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.
Still here?! Good, let’s get cracking then. First, here is what we cover in this article. Click on any of these links to jump to a specific section, or for the maximum effect read from the top to the bottom.
- What is a Phaser Pedal?
- How Do Phase Shifters Work?
- Benefits of Using a Phaser Pedal
- Who Uses Phaser Pedals?
- Buying Guide – Things to Consider Before You Purchase One of These
- Features You’ll Find on Most Phasers
- Extra Features Worth Considering
- Where to Put Phaser Pedals in Your Effects Chain?
- Typical Phaser Settings
- Round up & Mini Reviews – The Best Phaser Pedals
- Final Verdict
What is a Phaser Pedal?
The Phaser is a modulation pedal and closely related to flanger, chorus and univibe in that it gives otherwise stable sounds a vocal quality, adding a dimension of shifting depth and texture that allows for progressive modulation of your tone.
Phasers have a long history stretching back to the the early 70s. Before they became a ubiquitous and standard effect type, phasers first started as an attempt to recreate the sound of rotating speakers cabs but they quickly grew beyond this into a unique effect of their own.
They blended in easily with the psychedelic rock music popular at the time thanks to their spiritual and hallucinatory impact, and as they grew more advanced and the level of control offered by pedal manufacturer’s to users expanded, the phaser pedal became something entirely new.
How Do Phase Shifters Work?
Phaser pedals, or “phase shifters” splits the signal of your guitar in two, one of which is processed by one or more all-pass filters. Both signals keep the same frequency, but are phase-shifted out of sync, cancelling each other out when the phases are completely opposed.
The phase-shifting process can (in theory) be infinite, but is typically divided into 4, 6, 8 or more stages. Each stage will increase the amount by which the signal is phase-shifted out of sync, resulting in an increasing number of intervals where the two signals cancel each other out almost totally.
As the phases become closer to opposing each other, the frequency will become alternately weaker at the high and bass ends – creating the ‘swooshing’ effect that you will often hear as a descriptor of the phase pedal effect.
Benefits of Using a Phaser Pedal
The Phaser is the soloist’s secret weapon, helping to beef up and thicken a solo, almost making it chunkier. The modulation effect, as it does with flange and univibe pedals, adds glorious swirls to any solo making the ‘phasered solo’ sound way more interesting.
Phasers can make chord progressions much more interesting in comparison to a steady tone. The phase shifting adds an emphasis to chords and gives them a sustained ringing swell. Varying the settings can separate identical progressions, so that different sections of music can be broken up without having to do much additional work.
Layers of sounds processed through a phaser can be used to create ambient music with little else in terms of effects and inputs – although this will have a very niche appeal, they can be fantastic for scoring visual media and even for sound effects.
Experimentation with different combinations of phaser and instrumentation can lead to some very outlandish creations which will fit in nicely with more psychedelic genres; e.g Psytrance.
Who Uses Phaser Pedals?
Phasers can be found in everything from classic rock, sci-fi film scores and EDM (electronic dance music), with each genre providing numerous examples of both their more subtle, decorative uses in addition to more bold and synthetic approaches.
As mentioned in the intro, phaser pedals are most associated with classic rock musicians like Van Halen, and even today he is the musician most strongly associated with this effect. His phaser pedal of choice was the MXR Phase 90 (we review his signature model, the MXR EVH Phase 90 below) and he kept the settings (of which there is only one) to the low end to make his guitar stand out when forced to make do with low-end P.A. systems in his early career.
Here’s the phaser sound in action:
The same pedal has been used by other notable musicians including Dave Grohl and Stephen Carpenter – showcasing the versatility of even the simplest phaser pedals.
Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead is also known to use phaser pedals, although in contrast to Van Halen this is where we start to see the more typical ‘sci-fi’ style of use. Matt Bellamy and David Gilmour have also made judicious use of the phaser pedal.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Einzinger of Incubus and Welch of Korn often incorporated the phaser pedal into their music.
Buying Guide – Things to Consider Before You Purchase One of These
Types of Phaser Pedals
The earliest phasers were very simple analogue designs, and the number of stages tends to be limited to 12 or less. They also tend to be very limited in terms of controls, and you may only have a single ‘speed’ or ‘rate’ setting at the most basic levels, which can in one sense be limiting, but can also make it a more practical alternative to a digital phaser pedal with every setting imaginable at your disposal. Furthermore, analogue pedals don’t rely on sampling frequency, instead processing the signal in real-time as it passes through. Another consideration is that early analogue phaser pedals were designed not to be a distinct effect of themselves, but were built with the same principles of the UniVibe effects to mimic the sound of a rotating Leslie speaker cab.
Digital phaser pedals could be one of the few examples where digital technology is actually demonstrably superior. For starters there is the potential for unlimited phase-shifting stages as there does not need to be an individual all-pass filter for each stage, allowing for far higher increments with 32 stages not being uncommon. Secondly, you will tend to find many more EQ options on digital phaser pedals. You can often adjust the number of stages, rate and depth on the fly, and more advanced versions will contain additional unique settings and features (more on those later).
Analogue vs Digital Phasers. What’s the Difference?
The most important distinction between Analogue and Digital phasers is that analogue phasers must physically house each of the all-pass filters, so the number of stages tends to be limited to 12 or less. Digital phasers can have an unlimited number of stages, although in practice this tends to be capped out at 32. In practical terms, this allows for the phase-shifting to be more pronounced to listeners. Digital phasers are also more like to have additional EQ controls for additional tone-shaping and colour.
Features You’ll Find on Most Phasers
Rate / Speed
The speed setting will allow you to control how fast each phase-shift is completed, meaning that the peaks and troughs of the waveform will be closer together the higher the speed setting is. If you’re looking to add a little vibrancy to your clean channel, then this might be the only setting you need, but increasing the setting allows for much more chaotic outcomes, although this may be limited in useful application depending upon your genre.
Almost every digital phaser pedal will allow you to choose how many all-pass filter stages are applied to the processed signal, allowing for greater variation in the overall effect. This is great if you want to be able to create distinct moments, but you’re already at the point where increasing the Rate / Speed setting any further results in losing any clarity of individual notes. As earlier phasers only had a fixed number of Stages, it is possible for digital phasers to use different Stage settings to recreate the characteristic tones of classic phasers.
A step up from the most basic models (and will require going digital) typically include the ability to alter what range of frequencies the phaser effect is applied to, allowing for varied amounts of your signal to be modulated. These features will be more useful for musicians looking to move beyond the way Van Halen used the effect to add simply add emphasis to his playing, and to create a more dramatic and noticeably differentiated sound.
Resonance knobs will allow you to emphasise certain tones in the phase-shifting sweeps more than others. Vintage phasers tend to be very restricted in the filter depth, and having the ability to adjust this is one of the key points which make digital phasers more practical for contemporary useage than vintage or analogue phasers.
It’s a rare occasion which will call for a phaser to pedal to be constantly in use, so having a True Bypass pedal will help you to keep any additional colouration to a minimum.This is a fairly standard feature in contemporary phaser pedals, but it’s worth trying those pedals without in in your pedal chain first to see if it’s too noticeable.
Extra Features Worth Considering
Not every phaser pedal will include this feature, but it can be be worth looking out for if you want a phaser pedal that can be subtly faded in and out. A dry/wet ratio dial allows you to control what proportion of the output signal is the original unaltered (dry) input. At a 1:0 ratio there should be no noticeable change to the signal as it went in, 0:1 would be an output which is fully processed. Settings in between these will allow you to hear both alongside each other, although the ‘dry’ signal can be drowned out if the other settings are particularly high.
The ability to choose between different waveforms is hardly essential, but if you’re the type of musician who wants to have absolutely everything then you may be tempted by a pedal that has this feature. The number of waveforms built in will vary, with the most high-end level phaser pedals offering as many as 8 options to choose from. However, it is very much a secondary concern and you could be better off using a Digital Audio Workstation for this level of control.
Expression Pedal Input
Since phaser pedals can have so many different sounds, the ability to easily vary these on the fly can lead to fantastic opportunities. If you can find one with an expression pedal jack it is certainly worth considering if the phaser effect is a staple of your lineup.
The ability to control the tempo of your phaser pedal isn’t essential, but it can help if you need to sync the phase-shifting to a specific rhythm. As the name suggests, all you need to do is tap the pedal – usually via the on/off switch after a tempo toggle has been flipped on – at the tempo you wish the phase-shifting to sync up with. The best pedals will also have an LED indicator which tracks the current tempo setting for ease of use.
Where to Put Phaser Pedals in Your Effects Chain?
There is no one ‘right’ answer, as the phaser pedal can be used in many places for interesting outcomes, but generally speaking it is wiser to place your phaser early in your chain so that its influence can be clearly heard. It’s not uncommon for phaser pedals to be placed after a wah or tremolo pedal, and they may be paired up with an overdrive effect either in front or behind.
Typical Phaser Settings
If you want a phaser pedal that will be sufficient for classic rock, Van Halen-esque sounds, you can stick with a very simple version that only has a Speed / Rate setting and keep it around 3 / 4 at most. If you have a digital pedal with additional controls, you would similarly keep these low. If you have variable Stages, don’t go any higher than 4 to replicate the design of analogue phasers. If you have Depth and Feedback controls, you may wish to push these slightly higher to give the sound a more vintage feel.
Rather than sticking to any one setting configuration, you can create soundscapes through the constant manipulation of each setting. However, you will want to keep the feedback settings fairly high and stick to a single waveform (where applicable) in order to not create anything too jarring.
Phaser effects mesh perfectly with a syncopated funk groove. To get the most out of these, keep the resonance to the middle, speed to the slower side – depending upon temp, and stages will rarely go beyond 4 at the very most. If you’re leaning more towards slap bass driven funk, remember that the phaser effect can easily be very overpowering and that would not be in keeping emphasising the bass over guitar.
Dance / Electronic / Contemporary Pop
These genres tend to be conductive to increasing the Stages, so feel free to go to 12 or more here. For more up-beat music, you can keep the rate slightly slower for creating chord fills in the same way that a pad might be passed through a simple low-high filter. The key to remember here is that since you will likely be using a large combination of effects with these styles of music is that the phaser wants to be kept minimal or isolated in order not to play too much havoc with any other effects that may be in use.
Round up & Mini Reviews – The Best Phaser Pedals
Empress Effects Phaser
Featuring an all-analog signal path controlled by a microprocessor, the Empress Effects Phaser retains an analog flavor but is actually powered by digital circuitry giving you the best of both worlds. This phaser pedal gives you an unprecedented level of control over the finished sound, and has far more settings than is typical for a phaser pedal. The main knobs control dry/wet ratio, rate, width and gain, which by themselves are sufficient for the needs of most. Another knob is used to switch between 8 waveforms. However, several more three-way switches allow you to control the speed-range, number of stages (2, 4 or 3) and the degree of resonance in the output signal.
Further controls allow for the rate to be set using either taps, the rate knob, or there is an auto-mode, which changes several of the other settings into new ones to allow for the auto-mode to be configured to your liking.
- great signal-to-noise ratio
- lots of control over the finished sound
- die cast aluminium enclosure
- On the pricey side
- Overkill for guitarists who like to keep things simple
Reliability and durability are the top two concerns for professional guitarists with regular live performances. The Boss PH-3 accomplishes this in a number of different ways. Unlike most phaser pedals, it has a much larger on/off switch requiring less dexterity, and a reasonable size for incorporating onto your pedalboard setup.
There’s also an input jack for an expression pedal, making this one of the few phaser pedals which does. If you don’t have, or simply prefer not to use an expression pedal, you can also adjust the tempo of the effect with tap control.
You’re given a choice of 4, 8, 10 and 12 stage phase shifting, and unique ‘rise’, ‘fall’ and ‘step’ modes which create a very different phasing effect which can be compared to the Shepard Tone – a complex acoustic illusion which leaves the listener with the impression that a tone is infinitely increasing or decreasing in pitch.
The Boss PH-3 also includes the usual complement of Depth and Resonance controls, but lacks some of the more in-depth controls such as waveform selection. The lack of stereo input/output jacks is notable, but in terms of practicality it is otherwise difficult to find fault with this pedal.
- Includes expression pedal
- 4, 8, 10 and 12 stage phase shifting
- Compact design
- Lacks some of the more in-depth controls such as waveform selection
- Far out green not to everyones taste
Behringer Vintage Phaser VP1
Although one of the cheapest phaser pedals, the Behringer VP1 has all of the essential elements you would expect from those with a much higher price tag. In addition to the rate setting, you can choose between two tones using a simple switch, allowing for both vintage rotary speaker cab replication and for the more experimental use. An LED shows you whether the effect is on/off, although it doesn’t flash to indicate any further information such as tempo. True-bypass enables you to leave this as part of your standard effects chain without problems.
- Choice of two tones
- True bypass
- Lacks features, but for the price you can’t complain
TC Electronic Helix Phaser
This pedal is particularly useful for rock guitarists because it’s excellent for replicating the sound of vintage phasers, à la Van Halen, but also has a wide range of controls ideal for more contemporary rock music. The three-way toggle between Vintage, TonePrint, and Smooth allow the Helix phaser to create very distinct effects without call to adjust the other settings – of which you get a decent range. Alongside the rate setting, this pedal also includes depth, feedback and wet/dry mix controls. The inclusion of stereo in/out jacks is a nice bonus, and the ability to create your own customised settings via the TonePrint technology available with all TC Electronic pedals is always worth considering.
- Good for rock guitarists who want the Van Halen sound
- Stereo in/out jacks
- Decent range of phaser tones
- Not the range of controls you find on higher end phasers
Walrus Audio Vanguard Dual Phaser
The Vanguard phaser is a highly sophisticated pedal, very much a sound engineers gadget. Standard controls include Rate and depth, plus the choice of 4, 6 or 10 stages, each of which is combined with an additional effect. Unique features include stereo output, and the ability to combine two phasers with different settings at once. Interestingly, the dry/wet mix is controlled by two separate knobs, which gives a much greater degree of precision than those which are combined into a single dial. Thankfully, Walrus Audio have included a ‘pre-set’ button which can reduce the complexity a little once you’ve had a chance to find the settings you like.
- Stereo output, and the ability to combine two phasers with different settings at once
- High degree of precision (sound engineers gadget)
- Cavalry design is pretty striking
- On the large side
- Perhaps slightly overkill
MXR EVH Phase 90
Probably the most commonly used phaser pedal in existence, you’ll see everyone from tribute bands to A-listers using the MXR Phase 90. This is the Van Halen special. It’s a very basic set up, having only a single ‘sound’ dial and an on-off stomp switch. The simplicity makes it very reliable and finding the right settings for a particular track won’t take very long due to the limited controls. The effect can be mild enough that leaving it on a low setting will provide a gentle enhancement to your clean tone, but there is enough range to create over the top synthetic sounds. This pedal is particularly good for those looking for a familiar sound which can be traced back to the 70s through dozens of hugely influential and successful artists, but is simple and ubiquitous enough that it won’t cause it be ‘recognised’ as that of another guitarist if you’re using it for original tracks.
- For those going for the Van Halen sound
- Very basic set up, with a single ‘rate’ button
- Super reliable
- Very limited control (literally one button)
- On the pricey side
So which should you choose? Well, if you’re looking for a classic 70s rock sound (ala Van Halen) then go his signature MXR EVH Phase 90 pedal. For a similar rock sound, but with more control, I’d go for the TC Electronic Helix Phaser which gives you the same rock sound but is better for experimentation.
Talking of experimentation, if that’s what you’re after then the front runners are the Empress Effects Phaser which gives you lots of scope to experiment. Equally the Walrus Audio Vanguard Dual Phaser gives you plenty of scope.
On a budget? Then the Behringer Vintage Phaser VP1 is the to go for – at the price it’s a steal.