Essential Guide to Guitar Pedals: What They Do and How to Hook Them Up

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.
picture of guitar pedal collection
In this article we’re going to look at the most popular pedals in the guitar players arsenal and explain what explain what each pedal is and does. We also cover how to chain pedals for optimal sound. Here’s the pedals, feel free to jump to pedal of interest or read from top to bottom. Let’s get started…

Guitar Effects Pedals

Reverb Pedal

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.

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).
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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. However, it accomplishes this in such a way that it preserves the sound of the tone of the guitar and the sound of the amplifier, providing a much more natural and appealing sound for listeners.
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.
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Distortion Pedal

Although there are essentially three distinct guitar pedals that can effectively distort the sound of the instrument (Distortion, Overdrive and Fuzz pedals), in this article we have decided to describe each of these effects separately.
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.
The sound can be so aggressive, in fact, that musicians would be wise not to overuse the pedal, or they may risk the possibility of it drowning out the actual and original tone of the guitar.
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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.
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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
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Tuner Pedal

The guitar pedal known as 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.
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Fuzz Pedal

The last of the “distortion” pedals is the Fuzz pedal, known as the granddaddy of distortion devices. 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, wooly and sparkly distortion throughout the guitar signal, providing a meatier and more sustained sound.The more 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.
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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 widely used to enrich the music.
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Chorus Pedal

The Chorus pedal or effect, also known as “Ensemble,” is a modulation effect that guitarists can 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.
On strings and synth pads, the Chorus effect manufactures a richer more complex sound, based upon a short delay. With the Chorus effect, the incoming audio sound is split and run through the delay, then mixed with the original audio and sent to the pedal’s output to create the desired sound.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.
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Flanger Pedal

The Flanger guitar pedal creates an effect called “Flanging.” Flanging is an interesting audio effect 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 user to produce a variation of these time delays, which causes them to sweep up and down the frequency spectrum. In the flanging effect, a portion of the output signal is typically fed back to the input—in a re-circulating delay line—producing a resonance effect which goes a long way towards enhancing the intensity of the peaks and troughs of the tones. The phase of the fed-back signal is often inverted with this effect, producing another variation on the unique “flanger” sound.
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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.
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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:

Phaser Pedal

Also known as a phase shifter, a Phaser is a guitar pedal/modulation effect used to impose a resonant, almost ethereal swirl to the guitar sound. Commonly used by guitarists in many different genres, Phaser pedals offer a clean electric guitar an “iridescent” quality. Phasers are also widely used on acoustic guitars, electric pianos, clavinets, strings, and synth pads.
The phaser effect is based upon a chain of all-pass filters. Each of these filters passes all frequencies equally, but shifts their phase relationships. When the shifted audio is then mixed with the original audio, some frequencies phase cancel while others add together to create notches and peaks in the frequency response. The number of notches and peaks of the phaser effect depend upon the number of all-pass filters chained together. Phaser plug-ins generally include controls to adjust the LFO speed and depth, which produces the almost ghostly sound of the phaser effect.
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Tremelo Pedal

The Tremolo effect, created by the Tremolo pedal, is one of the oldest effects in use today. The first Tremolo effect appeared in early amplifiers, but more recently that effect has been replicated by the guitar pedal version.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 knob on said pedal.
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.
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Compressor Pedal

As its name suggests, the Compressor guitar pedal “compresses” the signal generated by the guitar by normalizing and regulating the dynamic range of the audio input signal based on a given threshold value. 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 Compressor pedal 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 enables the tones to be normalized—tones that might otherwise be lost in the mix due to complex overtones—and it results in a clearer and more articulate sound.Finally, 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.

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 used by many accomplished 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.
Interestingly, one of the first musicians to apply the octave effect was the world-renowned guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who bounced back and forth between the octave and fuzz pedals to create an effect known as “Octavia.”
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Boost Pedal

As its name suggests, the “boost” guitar pedal is designed to add more gain to the guitar’s signal, before that 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 of the Boost pedal 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.
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Volume Pedal

The Volume guitar pedal, which is used to adjust the volume of an electric guitar, up or down, is typically placed at the end of a “signal chain,”or before any delays. The reason for this? When a guitarist places the volume pedal at the end of the signal chain, he or she is alternating the processed signal as a whole. The main purpose of the Volume pedal, then, 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 him or her to more accurately or easily control the volume of a given tone or piece.
Further reading:

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.
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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 things.
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How to Hook Up All These Guitar Pedals

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

guitar pedal infographic

Wrapping Up

We really hope this essential guide was useful and please do share it with your friends if you found it useful. And any stuff we’ve missed out, please hit us up in comments.
Featured image: Roadside Guitars / CC By-SA

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.

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