Ultimate Guide To Guitar Pedals

by

Ged Richardson


Guitar pedals come in many different shapes and flavors. From those that distort, tune and boost the signal, to Flanger, Wah and Fuzz pedals that offer a truly unique sound, these pedals are the ultimate tools in a musician’s toolbox, allowing you to shape and augment tones and thus add a meaty depth and soul to your music.

In the following article we will take a closer look at 19 such pedals, and describe the various effects each of these augmentative boxes provide, either when used alone or in conjunction with other pedals.

But first, for those who want a quick primer on guitar pedals, read on. 

What Is A Guitar Pedal?

 A guitar pedal is basically a box with a foot operated lever on top of it.

 You hook them up between your guitar and amp with cables. You can connect pedals together with smaller cables too (called 'daisy chaining').

guitar noise gate pedal

Guitar pedals are controlled by either adjusting the controls by hand or by foot, or a combination of both. 

One pedal might have a number of distinct effects that it can apply, or it might be dedicated solely to producing one effect.

Why Use Guitar Pedals?

Simple really. Your guitar plugged into your amp is only going to give you a limited amount of sounds.

Sure, you may be wanting to go for a clean sound and you might be quite happy with the sound you're getting straight into the amp. 

But more often than not, the sound you get from only a guitar and amp combo is going to be lacking something.

You're going to want to embellish the sound with pedals.

And there are dozens of different effects you can apply to your guitar, either one at a time or combined together. 

Benefits Of Guitar Pedals

  • Keeping your hands free

Pedals leave your hands free to keep playing.They're quite big, so you don't need to be particularly careful when turning them on or off. Just stomp downwards and you're good to go.

  • Good for writing music and playing gigs

Being able to freely mess around with your sound without having to spend ages messing about with computers and complicated software can really help to open up your creativity.

  • Handy for the road

For a travelling musician, their small size and lightweight nature makes guitar pedals an easy addition to any set up, as it won't require yet another pair of hands to help you carry. If you pick your pedals carefully, you can fit them into a normal case or bag without any hassle.

Characteristics Of Good Guitar Pedals

So what makes a good guitar pedal? Let's take a look:

Hard Wearing

They aren't known as 'stompboxes' for no reason. Your pedals might be able to turn it up past 11, but if they fall apart before the end of a couple of years, there's no point in wasting your money.

In practice, you might be able to be gentle with your pedals, but they're going to get a bit more than that during a gig.

They'll get bashed around going from place to place, and if you're anything like me then you're going to be tempted to hammer the hell out of them every chance you get. 

Make sure you don't go for cheap and nasty pedals, they'll only fall apart on you.

Good Grip

This is easy to overlook, but with the amount of water, booze and things you'd rather not touch that end up getting spilled on stage, you'll be much happier if your guitar pedal doesn't suddenly slide off into the crowd when you try to use it.

All good pedals come with a high quality base that will stop this from happening.

Even the best sound effects won't do you much good if they can't be turned on and off properly. It's really embarrassing when you end up doing an impression of granny getting out of the bath. There is literally no way you will ever look cool again to the crowd that saw you faceplant!

Input / Output Location

Unfortunately, not all guitar pedals were designed with this in mind.

When you plug your pedals in, you might discover later that you can't actually fit them all together. It's not uncommon to buy a number of pedals then end up having to (very carefully!) modify them because they wouldn't fit together

There's nothing more frustrating than buying the 'perfect' pedal, only to find out that it's basically useless when you try to combine it with your others, simply because there's a bit too much plastic on one side.

Ease Of Use

If you've never been on stage before, let me tell you now that it's not the easiest place to see things from.

Smoke, glaring lights or absolute darkness can wreck your night when you discover you have no idea what's going on with your pedals because you can't see them properly.

Any displays should be easy to see. Likewise, the last thing you want to deal with is having a stiff hinge blow your big moment because you couldn't turn off the distortion on an intricate piece.

Power Supply

Most pedals have a 9v battery, and others can also be plugged in.

If you only have one pedal, this won't matter, but if you have multiple pedals it's a good idea to make sure they don't have differences between AC and DC supply.

Some pedals will need a screwdriver to remove the battery, which is not something you'll want to be worrying about come gig time.

Make sure you always have enough juice to last you through your entire set, but if you do have to swap out batteries between songs, you look pretty silly if you have to ask around for a screwdriver.


What types of guitar pedal are there?

Ok, there are tons. Here are the main ones:


Reverb Pedal

Tube reverb

A sound that is achieved with springs or plates in the pedal, the reverb creates a distinct sound all its own.  To create the reverb sound, musicians simply tap the multistage delay pedal at a very short delay, and a reverb effect is produced.  

The distinctive reverb sound pedal is much like the spring reverb in a guitar amp, in that both the approximate or reverberant sound sounds like a guitar played in an empty, reflective room.

In essence, a reverb effect is similar to an echo—an echo that can be subtle or very omnipresent, as if the music is being played in a deep cave or canyon.  It adds considerable depth to the music, especially when complemented by other pedal effects like the delay.


Delay Pedal

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).


Overdrive Pedal

Overdrive

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 pleasing heaviness for guitarists specializing primary in old, classic rock and roll, blues and other genres that rely on the deep, heavy tones.


Distortion Pedal

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.


Noise Gate Pedal

Noise Gate

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 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


Tuner Pedal

Tuner

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.


Fuzz Pedal

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.


Wah Pedal

Wah

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.


Chorus Pedal

Chorus

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.


Flanger Pedal

Flanger

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.


Acoustic Pedal

Acoustic

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.


Looper Pedal

Looper

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.


Phaser Pedal

Phaser

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.

Further reading:
Top Phasers of All Time


Tremelo Pedal

Tremelo

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.


Compressor Pedal

Compressor

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

Octave

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.”


Boost Pedal

Boost

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.


Volume Pedal

Volume

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.


Wrapping Up

We've seen that guitar pedals introduce a whole universe of new sounds but it's important not to over do it.

A decent guitar and amp combo with a couple of choice pedals will sound great. 

It's not about amassing a collection of every type of pedal out there (though nobody's going to hold it against you if you do...well, maybe your bank account will :-).  

We really hope this Ultimate 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.


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