Guitar Pedals Expert Guide

A good knowledge of guitar pedals is essential for any guitarist. Much like how an understanding of basic mechanics makes you a better vehicle owner, an appreciation of how guitar sound is made makes you a better guitarist.

In this article we’re going to look at the most popular effects pedals.

We’ll explain what each pedal does, and include further reading if you want to research a particular pedal some more.

We’ve grouped the pedals according to these four categories, which broadly follow the order you should chain them up (for a diagram on how to hook them up, jump to the end of this article). The four categories of pedal are:

  • Dynamic, Filters and Pitch Effect Pedals
  • Gain Based Effects Pedals
  • Modulation Effects Pedals
  • Time Based Effects Pedals

Dynamic, Filters and Pitch Effect Pedals

Compressor Pedal

The Compressor guitar pedal compresses the signal generated by the guitar by ‘normalizing’ the dynamic range of the audio input signal. In other words, it allows a string that is plucked lightly or heavy to sound basically the same, thus smoothing out the overall sound.

An effect that is used nearly universally in recording, the main advantage of the compression pedals lies in the fact that every single note played by the guitarist will be played at nearly the same amplitude, and thus nearly equal in volume. This allows tones that might otherwise have been lost in the mix (due to complex overtones) to be made audible —resulting in a clearer and more articulate sound.

With the aid of the compressor pedal, the most minuscule signal can be normalized to the same amplitude of a fierce pick attack, and a trailing note will reverberate at the exact same volume until the string stops introducing a signal on the pickup.

Further reading:
Compressor Pedals for Guitar
Best Bass Compressor Pedals

Wah Pedal

Developed in the 1960s and perfected by such musicians as Jimi Hendrix, the Wah pedal is another augmentative device that sounds just like its name suggests.The Wah pedal, also known as the ‘Wah-Wah’ pedal, has two basic positions—the open position, in which the guitarist has his/her heel to the ground; and the closed position, in which the toe is depressed to the ground.

Think of the open position as the “W” sound, and the closed position as the “H” sound. When depressed and released slowly, the Wah pedal sweeps through a filter as the guitarist rocks back and forth between open and closed, creating a slow, sweeping sound. And when the Wah pedal is rocked back and forth rapidly, the signature “Wah-Wah” sound is produced—a sound that is very prevalent in the rock and roll music of today and yesterday, adding a distinctive guitar sound that is used predominantly in rock and especially funk music.

Further reading:
The Wah-Wah Pedal Has Been Giving Guitarists Tears for Years

Octave Pedal

The octave pedal is a special effects unit that essentially mixes the input signal with an artificial synthesized signal—a signal whose musical tone is exactly an octave lower or higher than the original tone. An effect popular with many guitarists, the synthesized octave signal produced by this pedal is derived from the original input signal of the guitar by halving or doubling the frequency, also known as an “octave-down” or “octave-up.” The effect is made possible due to the simple 2-1 relationship between the frequencies of musical notes, which are separated by an octave.

One of the first musicians to apply the octave effect was the great Jimi Hendrix, who bounced back and forth between the octave and fuzz pedals to create an effect known as “Octavia.”

Further reading:
5 Best Octave Pedals for Guitar

Envelope Filter Pedal

Featured heavily in the 1970’s by Jerry Garcia (among others) to get that ‘guitar mutron’ sound. Equally great for getting a solid funk guitar tone too. Envelope filter pedals are a little bit like the wah-wah pedal we’ve already discussed in that they directly change the tone of your instrument by altering the frequency of the signal.

Further reading:
Best Envelope Filter Pedals – Buyer’s Guide

Gain Based Effects Pedals

There are essentially three distinct guitar pedals that distort the sound of a guitar: distortion, overdrive and fuzz. 

Distortion Pedal

One of the most commonly used pedals by guitarists, the distortion effect can best be described as emitting an aggressive heavy sound, one that adds to the overall sound by sustaining the tone and adding a very noticeable “crunch” to the music.

Further reading:
Best Distortion Pedals

Overdrive Pedal

Similar to the distortion guitar pedal effect—although much more subtle and less aggressive—the overdrive pedal provides some unique-sounding distortion effects and provides an extra punch to the music. It accomplishes this while preserving the sound of the tone of the guitar and amplifier.

Known for giving the music a “beefed-up” sound, the overdrive pedal gently pushes the music to a new level, and when combined with the distortion pedal adds a heaviness for guitarists specializing primarily in in old, classic rock and roll, blues and other genres that rely on the deep, heavy tones.

Further reading:
Guide to Overdrive Pedals
Best Overdrive Pedals On The Market – Buyer’s Guide
Best Pedals for Blues

Fuzz Pedal

The last of the ‘distortion’ pedals is the fuzz pedal. One of the original transistorized guitar effects, surfacing in the early 1960s, the fuzz pedal provides a sound much like its name suggests.

These boxes create a rounded, warm and sparkly distortion throughout the guitar signal, providing a meatier and more sustained sound. Dynamic fuzz pedals are ideal for preserving the critical elements of touch and tone—an enriched sound that allows the tone to be heard loud and clear, yet slightly distorted to ensure the guitar is prominent in the overall sound.

Further reading:
Best Fuzz Pedal – For Dirtying Up Your Tone

Modulation Effects Pedals

Flanger Pedal

The flanger guitar pedal creates an effect called flanging’ that is created by mixing two identical signals together, one signal delayed by a small and gradually changing period, usually smaller than 20 milliseconds.

The result of this effect is the production of a swept “comb filter” effect—peaks and notches that are produced in the resulting frequency spectrum and related to each other in a linear harmonic series.

The flanger pedal allows the player to produce a variation of these time delays, which causes them to sweep up and down the frequency spectrum. 

Further reading:
5 Best Flanger Pedals Review
The Second Most Hated Effect: The Best Flangers Ever Made

Phaser Pedal

Also known as a phase shifter, a phaser is a guitar modulation effect used to impose a resonant, almost ethereal swirl to the guitar. Used by guitarists in many different genres, phaser pedals offer a clean electric guitar an “iridescent” quality. 

Further reading:
Top Phasers of All Time
Best Phasers On The Market – Buyer’s Guide

Univibe Pedal

Univibe pedals are among the most unique sounding effects guitar pedals ever created; a combination of phaser, chorus, vibrato and flanger all rolled into one that creates a sound that isn’t readily identifiable as being any of these.

Further reading:
Best Univibe Pedals – Buyer’s Guide

Time Based Effects Pedals

CHORUS PEDAL

The Chorus pedal is a time based modulation pedal that guitarists use to create a thicker, richer sound while adding subtle movement to the tone.

The effect approximately mirrors the minute changes in pitch and timing that tend to occur when multiple performers sing or play the same part. Many guitarists describe the Chorus guitar pedal effect as one that gives their electric instrument a ‘dreamy’ quality – as if the guitar is actually two or more instruments in one. The effect is also widely used on acoustic guitars, electric pianos and clavinets.

The majority of chorus effects include knobs to adjust the LFO speed (rate or period) and depth (amplitude and/or intensity), with the LFO speeds typically in the range of natural human vibrato—or up to about 10 Hertz.

Further reading:
Thicken Your Tone: 8 Must-Have Chorus Pedals
Best Chorus Pedals On The Market – Buyer’s Guide

Delay Pedal

The magic of the digital delay (as opposed to the old analog delay pedal) came about in the early 1980s and was rapidly added to the pedal board of many of the world’s greatest guitarists. With its enormous power to create long delays, clean sounds and the fun of 1-16 seconds delays, this tool became one of the most widely used effects in the industry.

The digital delay, like a guitar sampler, makes a small digital recording of a guitarist’s riff; and then enables said guitarist to play it back when or how he/she sees fit. With this effect, the higher the sample rate, the better the sound quality—a quality punctuated with musical depth and an unlimited number of repeats as decided by the musician and sound engineer (in recordings).

Further reading:
The Delay Pedals Of David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
Best Delay Pedals On The Market – Buyer’s Guide

Reverb

We’re all familiar with the sound of an echo. Well, that’s reverb. Reverb is made from soundwaves bouncing off surfaces, generating ‘sound reflections’ that then hit our ears and make that echo sound. The larger the room, the greater the echo.
 
When you play an acoustic guitar, you get natural reverb from the room you play in (hence why people often say ‘this room has good acoustics’. They usually mean the reverb is nice). With an electric guitar, there is no natural reverb so you have to rely on your amp or a reverb pedal to add it. Reverb is mostly used to add a bit of depth to a guitar’s sound – a clean guitar sound with no reverb can actually be quite unpleasant.
 
Dialling up the reverb can become a signature part of a guitarist’s sound, used to create a sense of time, space and mood. An obvious example of this of the power of reverb (along with delay, which we’ll get to later) is Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour – have a listen to ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ and you’ll the idea.
 
Further reading:
Best Reverb Pedal
 

Looper Pedal

The Looper pedal is very simple and straightforward in concept: guitarists record what they are playing, and then, when they engage the Looper pedal, the riff that they just recorded is played back to them, providing a backing for them to record another line over.Some of the more technologically advanced Looper guitar pedals allow musicians to record several lines of music, and some even offer the advantage of allowing the guitarist to import tracks that back the music.

Further reading:
What’s The Best Looper Pedal For Guitar?

Other Pedals

Noise Gate Pedal

The noise gate guitar pedal is a very useful tool in live music and recordings. These effects are utilized to electronically lower the volume of the electric guitar when it is not being played, so the noise produced by other effects will not be audible. Certain guitar effects, such as the compressor and overdrive effects, have a high gain and can thus be especially noisy. As a result, all noise gates in a pedal chain must be placed after the effects producing the noise.The main benefit of the noise gate pedal is that it automatically detects the signal level so it can slowly lower the volume while the playing of the guitar fades away. This prevents notes that are fading away naturally—usually towards the end of the song—from being cut off abruptly.

According to experts, with certain effects that are especially noisy, it can be difficult for the unit to separate the signal from the noise. Because of this, it is generally more beneficial for the noise gate to have its own unique input, which the user would set from the start of the effects chain. This great noise gate feature is much more common on “rack multi-effects” units.

Further reading:
5 Best Noise Gate Pedals

EQ (Equalizer) Pedal

EQ, or Equalizer Guitar Pedals, produce unique and pleasing effects that are designed to offer more tone control than would normally be possible with the basic amplifier bass, middle and treble controls. There are essentially 2 different types of EQ effects: graphic and parametric.Graphic equalizers utilize slide controls to adjust the level at fixed frequencies, called bands. These provide a graphic or visual representation of the overall frequency response. The bands are typically “logarithmically related,” meaning that each frequency is consistently a fixed multiple of the next lowest frequency. This pattern corresponds to the manner in which our ears perceive frequencies, including notes in the scales we use to produce sound.Parametric equalizers essentially provide bass and treble controls that work as normal tone controls to allow broad shaping. These equalizer effects have one or more middle controls (depending on the model), each offering:

    • Frequency—where the boost or cut to a signal is applied
    • Resonance (or Q)—the higher the number the narrower the band of frequencies affected
    • Level—the “amount” of boost or cut applied

Further reading:
9 of the Best Guitar EQ Pedals

Tuner Pedal

The tuner is a device that detects and displays the pitch of a guitar’s musical notes. The “pitch” is the high point and low point of a musical note, typically measured in Hertz. Guitar tuner pedals are much more accurate than attempting to tune the guitar by ear alone, and they offer many advantages over handheld and clip-on tuners used by some musicians.

The most obvious benefit of the tuner guitar pedal is that it allows guitarists the ability to instantly tune-up on stage, without having to plug in to a different channel. Although features vary from one guitar pedal tuner to the next, the quick and easy manner in which these devices can normalize pitch has made them very popular among musicians across the musical spectrum.

Acoustic Simulator Pedal

Looking to produce the soft and even tones of an acoustic guitar using your electric guitar? If so, you should really invest in an Acoustic guitar pedal. The Acoustic guitar pedal, also known as an acoustic simulator pedal, can essentially transform an electric guitar into an acoustic version, allowing musicians to achieve an acoustic sound without actually investing in an acoustic guitar.

When performing live, the Acoustic guitar pedal is often utilized when there is only one guitarist on stage—a guitarist that must be able to quickly change the sound back to that of an electric guitar after the acoustic song has been performed.

The Acoustic simulator pedal is simply an alternative (a musical and space-saving alternative) to carrying two separate guitars—an electric and acoustic guitar—when traveling on the road.

Further reading:
5 Best Acoustic Simulator Pedals
What Are The Best Acoustic Guitar Preamps?
Effects Pedals for Acoustic Guitar

Tremelo Pedal

The Tremolo effect is one of the oldest effects in use today. The tremolo guitar pedal has a circuit that essentially changes the volume of the guitar signal at a certain frequency. The nominal highest level of volume is going to be whatever the user is feeding into the pedal, while the lowest level of volume is going to be controlled by the depth control.

Once the Tremolo effect is turned on, the pedal’s circuitry creates a wave carrier signal that rapidly changes the amplitude of the guitar’s raw signal. In other words, the volume will start from a default value, get lowered to a certain point, and brought back again. This type of oscillation forms a wave. Most basic pedals will use a standard sine wave, while some more advanced ones will let you choose between several different waveforms.

Further reading:
9 of the Best Tremolo Pedals

Boost Pedal

The boost pedal is designed to add more gain to the guitar’s signal, before the signal hits the input stage on the musician’s amp. Known as one of the most basic and widely used pedals in a guitarist’s arsenal, the main benefit is that it augments the tone without adding distortion to the signal and without making any equalizer adjustments. When using the boost pedal, the musical output is extremely clean. In the majority of instances the boost effect is also very transparent. What that means is aside from not distorting the signal; a boost pedal will also preserve the timbre of the guitar in its original form.

Further reading:
Why Use a Clean Boost Guitar Pedal?
Best Boost Pedals On The Market – Buyer’s Guide

Volume Pedal

The Volume guitar pedal, which as the name suggests is used to adjust the volume up or down, is typically placed at the end of a “signal chain . The reason for this? When you put the volume pedal at the end of the signal chain, you’re alternating the processed signal as a whole. The main purpose of the volume pedal therefore is to alternate the whole signal chain (or other pedal effects) and allow the musician to create swells and similar effects. Using a volume pedal gives the guitarist a wealth of flexibility, allowing you to more accurately or easily control the volume of a given tone or piece.

Further reading:
5 Best Guitar Volume Pedals

Plexi Pedal

If you want the sound of a classic Marshall amp, without having to shell out for an actual amp, a plexi pedal may just be the ticket. Plexi pedals, named after the plexiglass fronts on Marshall 100 watt heads, give you that vintage tone at a fraction of the price.
 

Further reading:
Best Plexi Pedals

Other Related Equipment

So what else might you need for your pedal set up? Well, for sure you should consider getting a pedalboard which will help big time when you have multiple pedals. 

How to Hook Up Guitar Pedals

Finally, you may be wondering how to join all these pedals. Here’s how you do that…

guitar pedal infographic

Featured image: Roadside Guitars / CC By-SA