Phasers are brilliant guitar effects pedals for adding something a bit different to your sound. They’ve been a mainstay of rock guitarists (e.g. Eddie Van Halen), progressive rock pioneers (e.g. Pink Floyd) as well as widely used in ambient/experimental music, and even EDM.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the best phaser pedals and explain what they do. We’ll talk through all the typical features you’ll find on them, and finally, in our product round-up section we’ll recommend our top picks.
If you’re in a rush and need a quick overview of the products we recommend, here you go:
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Phaser Pedals on the Market
- Empress Effects
- Boss PH-3
- Behringer Vintage VP1
- TC Electronic Helix
- Walrus Audio Vanguard
- MXR EVH Phase 90
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Here is what we cover in this article.
- What is the Phaser Effect?
- How Do They Work?
- Who Uses Them?
- Phaser Controls
- Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Phaser Pedals
- So, Which Should I Choose?
What is the Phaser Effect?
The phaser is a modulation effect closely related to flanger, chorus, and univibe effects. It adds a dimension of shifting depth and texture (a ‘swirling’ sound) that allows for progressive modulation of your tone.
Before becoming a ubiquitous and standard effect type, they 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 manufacturers to users expanded), they became something entirely new.
How Do They Work?
In simple terms, they split 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, canceling each other out when the phases are entirely 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 entirely.
As the phases become closer to opposing each other, the frequency will become alternately weaker at the high and bass ends – creating the signature ‘swooshing’ effect which this effect is known for.
This effect 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 flanger and univibe, adds glorious swirls to any solo making the ‘phased solo’ sound way more interesting.
They’re awesome for making your chord progressions more interesting (compared to a steady tone). The phase shifting adds 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 processed sounds 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 Them?
You’ll find these gizmos used in everything from classic rock, sci-fi film scores to EDM (electronic dance music). In the guitar world, they are most associated with classic rock musicians like Van Halen. His favorite 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 one in action:
The same pedal has been used by other musicians such as Dave Grohl and Stephen Carpenter. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead is also known to use them, 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 effect.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Einzinger of Incubus and Welch of Korn often incorporated the effect into their music.
Rate / Speed
Most of the products we review here have speed settings which 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.
Width, Depth or Sweep
Pedals with width, depth or sweep (varying in name depending on the manufacturer) typically include the ability to alter what range of frequencies the effect is applied to, allowing for varying 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 emphasis to his playing and to create a more dramatic sound.
Resonance knobs will allow you to emphasize certain tones in the phase-shifting sweeps more than others. Vintage phasers tend to be very restricted in filter depth. Having the ability to adjust this is one of the key points which make digital ones more practical for contemporary usage than analog phasers.
It’s rare that a phaser pedal is always in use, so having a true bypass will help you to keep any additional coloration to a minimum. This is a fairly standard feature in contemporary phaser stompboxes, but it’s worth first trying your signal chain without the phaser to see if having it there (even with true bypass on) colors the tone. If the bypass is decent, you shouldn’t.
Not every pedal will include this feature, but a dry/wet ratio control can be useful if you want to subtly fade the effect in and out. This setting lets you control what proportion of the output signal is the original unaltered (dry) input.
The ability to choose between different waveforms is hardly essential, but if you’re the type of musician who wants to have complete control, then you may be tempted by one with this feature. The number of built-in waveforms will vary, with the higher-end pedals offering as many as eight options. However, it is very much a secondary concern, and you might be better off using a digital audio workstation for this level of control.
Expression Pedal Input
Being able to vary the strength of phasing ‘on the fly’ can lead to great results. A number of products we review have the option to plug in an expression pedal which is recommended you use. It’s certainly worth considering if the phaser is a crucial ingredient of your sound.
The ability to control the tempo 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 at the tempo you wish the phase-shifting to sync up with. The more premium ones also have an LED indicator which tracks the current tempo setting for ease of use.
Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Phaser Pedals
Featuring an all-analog signal path controlled by a microprocessor, the Empress Effects retains an analog flavor but is powered by digital circuitry giving you the best of both worlds. It 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, the 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 taps, the rate knob, or the 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 aluminum 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 many different ways. Unlike most of the items we review here, 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 products on our list which has one. If you don’t have, or just prefer not to use one, 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 control
- 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 everyone’s taste
Behringer Vintage VP1
Although its one of the cheapest stompboxes on our list, 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 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
This is particularly useful for rock guitarists because it’s excellent at 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 to create very distinct effects without the need to adjust the other settings – of which you get a decent range. Alongside the rate setting, it 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 customized settings via the TonePrint technology available with all TC Electronic models is always worth considering.
- Good for rock guitarists who want the Van Halen sound
- Stereo in/out jacks
- Decent range of tones
- Not the range of controls you find on higher-end products
Walrus Audio Vanguard
The Vanguard from Walrus Audio is highly sophisticated, and very much a sound engineers gadget thanks to the level of control it gives you.
Standard controls include rate and depth, plus the choice of 4, 6 or 10 stages, each of which is combined with an additional effect. Other features include stereo output, expression pedal integration, a range of presets all controllable via a footswitch, and true bypass also controllable by a second footswitch.
It also uniquely operates a ‘series phaser system’ which combines two phasers, allowing you to make superb texture. Interestingly, the dry/wet mix is also controlled by two separate knobs, which gives a much higher degree of precision than those which are combined into a single dial.
With its level of control, it’s not a ‘set it and forget it’ sort of thing – best results will come when you spend time playing with it. It’s perfect for gigging too thanks to its twin footswitch, and you have to love the horse inspired design!
- 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 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 simple 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 product is particularly suitable for those looking for a familiar sound which can be traced back to the 70s through dozens of hugely influential and successful guitarists (Dave Gilmour, Bryan May, etc.). It’s relatively simple controls is a big plus for those who prefer to kick back and play, not be knob twiddling.
- For those going for the Van Halen sound
- Very basic set up, with a single ‘rate’ button
- Super reliable
- Minimal control (literally one button)
- On the pricey side
So, Which Should I Choose?
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. For a similar rock sound, but with more control, I’d go for the TC Electronic Helix 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 which gives you lots of scope to experiment. Equally the Walrus Audio Vanguard gives you plenty of options.
On a budget? Then the Behringer Vintage VP1 is the to go for – at that price it’s a steal.