The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Effect Pedals
Setting out on a journey into the world of electric guitars is one of the most joyous life experiences one can have. After covering all the basics and learning techniques to improve your guitar skills, you’re all set to explore this world by finding out just what this instrument is capable of. One of the biggest advantages of electric guitars is the versatility of tones that you can get. This is thanks to the numerous technological achievements and the development of guitar effects.
Back in the old days, it took much more effort to achieve different effects. Some of the earliest examples of guitar effects products were pretty bulky and impractical. As time went on, it was possible to create these different tones with small and compact floor-based devices we now know as guitar effects pedals. Over the years, they’ve become a big point of interest and one of the most intricate hobbies for guitar players. After all, there are all sorts of fun stuff that you can do with these.
However, guitar pedals are more than costly fancy toys for music enthusiasts. While some might focus on making over-the-top wacky sounds, pedals have a very important purpose – expression. They should be regarded as an expressive tool that helps a musician in sending his message by creating their own customized tones for their music.
But if you are new to pedals, things might get a bit confusing on how these little gadgets actually work. There are all kinds of different effects pedals, both in the terms of function and design. In case you’re having trouble understanding how pedals and all the things surrounding them work, we’ve decided to do a detailed beginner’s guide to guitar effects. Whatever questions you may have at this point, whatever you’re feeling confused about, there’s a high chance you’ll find all the answers here.
It all started back in the late ’40s and early ’50s when guitar players realized they can get this distorted effect by increasing the volume to the maximum and pushing their tube amplifiers over the limit. Some have even resorted to damaging their amps and using other faulty equipment to get this “fuzzy” tone. This eventually led to the development of the first distortion devices which showed up in the 1960s.
However, the first-ever guitar effect product to be released was DeArmond Tremolo Control in the late 1940s. We’ll get into details about how tremolo operates later in the guide, but it can be described as a variable volume effect. Not long after, DeArmond released the first-ever volume pedal model.
But going back to distortion, it was still the most desirable effect among the guitar players of the era. Up to the point where some even began slashing speaker cones of their highly valued amps. The Kinks guitarist Dave Davies did this exact thing for the recording of “You Really Got Me.” The song pretty much started a revolution with its peculiar guitar tone.
There were a few other examples of faulty equipment or custom made distortion devices around these times. For instance, a guitarist named Grady Martin exploited a faulty studio mixer channel for the recording of Marty Robbins’ song “Don’t Worry.” But the first-ever commercially produced distortion pedal was Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, released in 1962. At first, it was marketed as a sort of a primitive multi-effect unit for bass guitars. Despite the company’s efforts to expand on the 6-string market, it still performed poorly.
But once Keith Richards used it on “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the sales of FZ-1 skyrocketed. Ultimately all the other guitar gear manufacturers began exploiting this desire for distortion pedals. The first-ever product to be marketed as an actual distortion pedal was Electro-Harmonix’s legendary Big Muff Pi, released in 1969.
But still, guitar players relied on simple treble boosters which they used to exploit the properties of their tube amps and drive them into natural distortion. Such was the case with Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster. One of its most famous users was Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath.
Being the time of great innovations in music, the 1960s saw the rise of magnetic tape-based echo and chorus effects. They were a bit too large and complicated to maintain but offered great saturating effects previously thought impossible. With the development of transistors, guitar effects became smaller. The so-called “Bucket Brigade Devices” were used to store the information and repeat the signal, making a solid “illusion” of an echo effect.
Another very important effect was invented accidentally in the 1960s by a man named Bradley J. Plunkett who worked for Warwick Electronics – the wah-wah pedal. Eventually, this product was sold under the Vox brand and the “Cry Baby” name. Dunlop eventually took over the Cry Baby and is still making wah pedals under this same name.
Arguably the most famous pedal manufacturer, Boss, began working in the mid-1970s. One of their first products was the legendary CE-1 chorus. Eventually, they made their famous DS-1 Distortion pedal which is produced almost unchanged even to this day. MXR is also one of the companies that began working in the 1970s, with their straightforward M104 Distortion Plus pedal still being a favorite even among professional players.
Ibanez came out with their very well respected Tube Screamer overdrive in the late 1970s. This pedal was designed to drive and further enhance the tones of tube amps. For instance, Marshall JCM800 amp and Tube Screamer did wonders together. Throughout the 1980s, we saw the rise of high gain distortion pedals, like ProCo Ratt and Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal.
The 1990s brought a real digital evolution in the guitar pedal world. These were easier to make and pretty cheaper compared to some old analog delays and modulation effects. But the real change came with effects pedals like DigiTech’s Whammy that opened up new possibilities with its crazy pitch shifting features. This one can be heard in Tom Morello’s solo in Rage Against the Machine’s hit “Killing in the Name.”
Multi-effects pedals and processors also saw their rise in the 1990s and 2000s, giving an abundance of effects in relatively compact-sized units. Although not that good at first, they were eventually improved to the point where they could replicate some of the best amplifiers, speaker cabinets, and countless other analog effects, all by implementing advanced digital processing.
These days, most of the pedals rely on digital processing. However, some vintage tone lovers still prefer analog stuff, claiming that nothing digital will ever be able to replace it. We’re yet to see how things develop in the future and whether these advanced digital products will take over.
Basic components and Design
Before getting into individual types of effects pedals, let us first explore some of the common features of all the pedals out there. This way, we’ll be 100% sure that we covered all the basic details, ultimately helping you understand how it all works.
Every pedal has its input and output. Your guitar cable goes into the input jack and the other one goes out, either into the amplifier or the next pedal. Every pedal has an on and off switch, either as a movable part of the pedal (as is the case with Boss) or as a separate small footswitch. Some of the more complex pedals might have two footswitches on them, but we’ll get into that later.
Other important parts every pedal has include potentiometers or knobs. Each of these knobs controls a certain parameter and allows you to tweak the effect to your needs. Some of the pedals might also include additional small switches that select between two or more modes of operation. Some pedals have internal switches, but these are pretty rare and you should not concern yourself with these features as a beginner.
Most of the pedals are in compact metal casings, although it’s not rare to see some cheaper plastic alternatives as well. But no matter the manufacturer and the type of effect, their sizes are mostly the same, making it easier to use multiple effects of different brands in one tidy chain.
Of course, all pedals require some sort of power to operate. A vast majority of them work with standard 9-volt batteries or 9-volt AC adapters. In some cases, you’ll find larger pedals that work with 12-volt AC adapters. Battery compartments are usually located under the movable footswitches, while some other types of pedals might have removable backs. Exceptions to this rule are volume pedals, expression pedals, and tap switches as they require no power at all.
Whether turned on or off, pedals are supposed to let the signal through to the output jack. However, they always have to be connected to a power source. Otherwise, they won’t let the signal through, even when turned off.
Now that we have the basics covered, let us find out more about all the different types of pedals and explain what they do. We’ve sorted them out into different categories according to their functions.
These aren’t effects, but can also come in the form of pedals. When you see a tuner pedal, these are regular tuners you put at the very beginning of your chain. By stepping on them, you completely mute your signal and get the chance to tune up with a practical large display, without playing open strings out loud and annoying the audience and your bandmates.
Filters and Wahs
As their name suggests, filters filter out desired frequencies in your tone. These can be pretty interesting when used to replicate some vintage synth sounds like Line 6 FM4 does. But although fun and exciting, they’re a bit complicated for beginners.
Wah pedal is a filter effect and a variable equalizer boost. When you rock the moving part of a wah pedal, the peak resonance frequency changes, and lets through only a portion of frequencies out of the pedal. This results in that well-known sweeping tone we call wah.
What a beginner might find confusing about a wah is the way it’s turned on. All you have to do is just press harder with your toes on the top of the rocking part to turn it on or off. Some modern wahs rely on optical action, meaning you don’t have to press anything. You just step on the pedal and it’s immediately engaged.
There are also automatic wah pedals that don’t rely on the rocking part of the pedal. Instead, they pick up the dynamics of your playing and sweep the frequencies according to it. Some of these, however, can also be connected to expression pedals, but we’ll get to that later.
The equalizer, or an “EQ,” is a device that adjusts different frequency ranges in a signal. There are a few different types of EQ, but the most common ones you’ll need to know about are graphic and parametric EQs. You’ve probably seen a graphic EQ on any of the music playing software. You have a set of sliders, each representing a frequency range. These sliders are sorted from low to high, going left to right. The simplest type of EQ can be found on your average guitar amps, labeled as “low,” “mid,” and “high.”
Graphic EQs are the easiest ones to figure out. Most of the EQ guitar pedals have anywhere between five to ten frequency ranges. Each of the sliders can be used to either cut or boost a specific frequency range. There’s usually an additional slider that sets the overall output level.
EQ pedals come in handy in case you have any kind of a song or a certain section within a song where you want to completely change your tone. For instance, there’s this lead section and you want to stand out in the mix without further pushing your volume or gain. You just set up the graphic EQ pedal to boost the mid-range and you cut through the mix more easily.
These are pretty simple and straightforward pedals. They boost your signal. This comes in handy when you just want to add more gain to your tone. It’s especially useful when you pair it with a tube amp to add just enough power to the signal to make your amp achieve that warm “organic” distortion.
Dynamic compressors and limiters
Compressors are one of the most important pedals, although they often get ignored. This is usually because many beginner guitarists don’t fully understand what they do.
Roughly speaking, dynamic compressors bring more volume to quiet pars and reduce the volume of louder parts. As a result, the signal gets compressed or “squashed,” ultimately making your guitar tone more even and “thicker.”
Whatever is your genre of preference, you’ll always find use for compressors. Especially for the rhythm parts. If your guitar has single-coil pickups, compressors might even help you add some bottom end to your tone. If you’re into heavier music, you’ll be able to keep things under control for the heavy riffing pars, no matter the type of pickups.
You also might have heard about the so-called “limiters.” These are also compressors, they just do “extreme” compression and completely flatten out your tone. They’re often used by bass players.
It might take some time to get used to compressor pedals. But once you do, you won’t be able to go a day without them.
Pitch shifters, Octavers, Harmonizers
And this is where all the fun begins. Pitch shifting or pitch altering pedals can completely change the pitch of your signal. The most famous pitch-shifting pedal is the aforementioned DigiTech Whammy.
You can use it to set it to a fixed-pitch or to constantly alter the pitch up and down over time. Except for Tom Morello’s solo in “Killing in the Name,” this pedal can be heard in Pink Floyd’s “Marooned.”
Harmonizers are a bit complex to use and require some knowledge of music theory. They add an interval above or below the note that you’re playing.
Some of them work with fixed intervals (ie. everything you play has a fixed major 3rd interval over it) and some can work “smart” and literally harmonize with you and add notes diatonically. For this “smart” operation, you’d need to set the exact scale and key that you’re playing in.
Octaver pedals add a note one or two octaves below what you’re playing. This way, you can make some of your tones “bigger.” However, they don’t work well if you’re playing chords. You should use them either for lead sections or single-note riffs.
And now we’ve finally come to the main part of this guide. Whatever genre that you’re into, you’ll always be using at least some kind of distortion. However, this part might be a bit confusing due to the nomenclature of these effects within the guitar player community.
What we usually refer to as “distortion” is just one of three types of distortion used by guitar players. There are overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Each of these produces a different type of tone, according to the type of “clipping” the pedal produces. But we’ll try not to bore you with all the technical details.
Overdrive is a smoother and “milder” type of distortion, often used by blues and blues-rock players. It can also be used to boost and shape the tone of tube amps. Some of the most famous overdrive pedals include Ibanez Tube Screamer, Boss OD-1X, Maxon OD808, Fulltone OCD, and others.
Distortion has harder clipping and has that harsh and “scorched” tone. It’s the tone you can hear in most of the metal and hard rock songs. Pedals like Boss DS-1, ProCo Rat, Wampler Sovereign, or Mesa Boogie Throttle Box come to mind.
Fuzz pedals replicate the sound of a faulty amplifier with their extreme clipping. They might not be for everyone’s taste, but they found their way in some rock subgenres, like stoner rock. Jimi Hendrix used a fuzz pedal back in the day, the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. A version of this pedal is still being produced by Dunlop.
All of the distortion pedals often have similar controls – volume, gain (amount of saturation), and tone. Some of the more complex examples have 3-band equalizers on them.
Modulation: Chorus, Flanger, Phaser
To put it simply, modulation effects bring all the fun stuff in your music. If you ever did any research online about guitar pedals, you’ve probably stumbled upon stuff like phasers, choruses, and flangers.
These effects fall into the “modulation” category and can be used both with distorted or clean tones. One thing all three of these have in common is that they make a copy of the original signal and process it in their own way.
The chorus effect delays the copied signal just a little bit and makes its pitch go up and down a bit. This way, you get the impression that there’s another guitar playing the same thing. Of course, you can play around with the parameters and set it to go more out of tune if you want. You can hear the chorus effect on the guitar in songs like “Walking on the Moon” by The Police or “Pull Me Under” by Dream Theater.
While many guitar players tend to mix up phaser and flanger, these are two distinct effects. Both of them add a delayed copy of the signal but do different things to it. Not to get too much into confusing technical details – flanger offers that “wooshing jet engine” kind of tone, while phaser has more of that “out of phase” tone.
Modulation effects have controls for the overall output level, rate of the effect, depth of the effect, and mix – the ratio between the original signal and altered one. Some of the modulation pedals even have stereo outputs.
The delay effect repeats the signal, once or more, ultimately making that illusion of a natural echo. Both musicians and the audience usually don’t enjoy hearing a completely “dry” tone, so a little delay or reverb is always welcome.
There are some common parameter controls that you’ll find on an average delay pedal. “Time” controls the distance between the two repeats, “feedback” controls the number of repeats, and “mix” or “blend” determines how loud these repeats will be in the overall output. Some delays have additional 2-band equalizers for shaping the repeated tones.
Reverbs serve the same function as delays as the make the tone more “wet.” The difference here is that reverbs give an impression of one prolonged repeat, something that you’d hear in a large hall or a cathedral. Guitar players are usually divided and stick to either delay or a reverb. In case you’re into old school 1960s type stuff, then reverb might be a better option.
With great technological advancements came the development of more or less compact multi-effect pedals and other floor units. Some of these might even be the size of a regular pedal, like the Zoom MS-50G. However, if you want full functionality and great tone quality, you should go with some of the bigger and more expensive multi-effects or the so-called “amp modeling” products. Some of these include Boss GT-1000 or the Kemper Profiler Stage.
However, there are some pretty decent and very compact multi-effect products like the Mooer GE200. This one can be a pretty great option for a beginner.
While pretty interesting on their own, synth pedals might not be the best option for beginners. These pedals help you replicate the tones of vintage or modern keyboards or synths. Their controls are usually more complex and many of them require you to have an additional MIDI pickup. However, some interesting pieces work with standard inputs, like the new Boss SY-1.
Volume pedals are probably the most boring piece of gear that you can get. However, they should be an essential part of your setup, especially if you’re playing in a bigger band. Generally speaking, they are like volume pots in the form of pedals. They look usually like wah-wahs and have an additional “minimum volume” knob. This control sets the minimum volume that you’ll have in the pedal’s “open” position.
Having a volume pot on their guitars, some may wonder why one needs a volume pedal at all. The thing is, you often can’t stop strumming or picking just to turn the volume up or down. In addition, they usually go near the end, or at the very end, of the signal chain to control the overall output volume. There are types of volume pedals that go at the beginning of your signal chain and they replicate the same effect your guitar’s volume pot has. But we’ll get to that later.
Volume pedals are not the same thing as clean boosters. They are designed to reduce the volume and help you have dynamic control as a band member.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, tremolo is one of the oldest effects. It changes the volume up and down as you’re playing. There are always controls on it determining how much your volume will be affected and at which rate it will change. They found their use in both old and modern rock music. You can hear it in the intro of Green Day’s “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.”
While a bit complicated for beginners, one should get familiar with the concept of a looper. In case you don’t want to bother finding perfect bandmates whose ideas and tastes will match yours, you can just do it all by yourself. Looper pedals allow you to play a certain part, and then repeat it on a loop. You can then layer a few tracks on top of each other and sing and play over it. There are some simplified loopers in the form of compact pedals, like the TC Electronic Ditto X2. But most of them are usually a bit more complex and have many different controls on them.
If you want to get into loopers, you need to bear in mind that they require a lot of patience and practice.
These preamp pedals are most often specialized distortion pedals with an integrated DI box. This means that you can plug them in directly into the mixer and get a tone and feel of a real miked-up amplifier. They’re pretty practical for studio recording, although it’s not rare to see them being used in live situations.
At the same time, these preamp pedals have another output for connecting them with the power section of your amp. These inputs are most often located at the back of an amp and are part of the so-called “effects loop.”
Some examples of these preamp distortion pedals include Hughes & Kettner Tubeman MK II, AMT Electronics SS-11A, and Diezel Zerrer.
Noise Gates and Noise Suppressors
If you’re playing with high gain distortion and a lot of effects, there’s a fairly high chance that you’ll have unwanted noise in your tone. Even when you stop playing, you can hear that awful hissing or humming.
There are two ways for you to reduce the noise. Although many think that these two are the same, noise gate and noise suppressor pedals do completely different things. The noise gate is the opposite of a compressor and is referred to as an “expander.” While compressors make those quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter, expanders do the opposite.
On a noise gate, there is a “threshold” control which determines at which level the noise will be suppressed. This way, all the hisses, and hums while you’re not playing are removed from the signal. However, if you set the threshold too high, some of the quiet parts of your playing will not get through.
Unlike expanders, noise suppressors affect the signal by filtering out the noise both when you’re playing and when you’re not. Sort of like a “smart” version of a noise gate.
Expression pedals and other controllers
Many pedals, like filters, auto wahs, modulations, synths, and multi-effects, have an additional input jack for an expression pedal. They look like volume pedals but do nothing on their own. But when paired with effects that have expression pedal connectivity, they can tweak certain parameters and give new dimensions to your tone. Many of the volume pedals can also be used as expression pedals.
There are some other external controllers, like the simple tap switch. These can, for instance, be paired with your delay pedal. Tap it twice in the desired tempo and you’ll get a delay time that you need.
But the more complex form of an external controller would be a step sequencer. Just like expression pedals, these do nothing on their own but can control certain parameters of other effects. However, they have a set of sliders that you can use to “program” a sequence that will then alter the needed parameter of another pedal. These only work with effects that have an expression pedal connectivity.
For a beginner, sequencers might be a bit too complicated. It would probably be best to focus on the basics first.
Pedalboards and Power Supplies
Now that you have a whole bunch of different pedals, there’s got to be a great way to keep things tidy. The solution comes in the form of so-called “pedalboards” which are just specialized boards made of different materials on which you place your pedals. They can either have carved out spaces for pedals, like the famous Boss BCB-60 or can be empty surfaces on which you attach your pedals with velcro tapes or zip ties.
These empty surface boards usually come with no power sources at all. Different pedal manufacturers sell power sources separately. They are like bigger versions of AC adapters which can power multiple pedals at a time. It is a more expensive path than getting a pedalboard with an integrated power source, but being fully customizable, these kinds of empty boards are a go-to choice for professionals.
Pedalboards come in many shapes and sizes, anything that can hold from 3 up to 15 or more pedals. In case you only have two or three pedals and don’t want to bother with pedalboards, you probably don’t need one. There are also daisy chain AC adapters that can power up to five devices at once. Most of the guitar pedals have a low amperage so a simple adapter is enough to power a few effects at once.
And with so many pedals, it’s obvious that there is going to be a whole bunch of cables connecting them. These are usually pretty short and are referred to as “patch cables.” You can also find small metal pedal connectors out there, but these are usually not recommended as they might damage your pedals in the long run. Regular patch cables allow enough flexibility to arrange pedals the way you want to.
There are soldered and solderless patch cables. Soldered ones might be a bit more expensive and might take more space due to larger jacks. However, these are more reliable and can even be repaired in case something goes wrong.
What’s the Best Pedal Order?
We’ve gone through all of the different types of effects pedals, sorted them out by categories, described some of their basic features, and shared a thing or two about other related accessories. But for a beginner, things might seem a bit confusing at this point. One of the most common problems beginner guitarists deal with is the order by which they’re supposed to arrange their pedals in a signal chain.
Before we go into anything, there is no strict rule on how you should arrange your pedals. What’s more, the issue has been discussed countless times over the years, ever since the development of guitar pedals. It’s also a point of argument even among the professions. There are, however, some basic rules that will help you achieve the clearest tone and easiest operation. You’re free to experiment and find the order that suits your needs. The following are our recommended pedal types order:
From guitar to an amp, it goes:
- Filters / wahs
- Dynamic compressors/limiters
- Clean boosters
- Pitch shifters / harmonizers / octavers
- Distortion / fuzz / overdrive
- Noise gate/noise suppressors
- Modulation effects
- Volume pedals
The placement of volume pedals, boosters, EQs, and noise suppressors is open for discussion. Volume pedals can be placed at the beginning of the signal chain, somewhere before distortion pedals. For this particular order, you’ll need a high impedance volume pedal. As for the end of the signal chain, volume pedals can be placed before or after delays and reverbs.
If placed after, they’ll control the overall output volume, including repeated notes of these effects. Otherwise, they reduce the volume before going into the delay or reverb and you’ll still hear the repeated signal after you turn the volume down. If you’re planning to have a volume pedal at the end of the chain, you should get a low impedance one.
Equalizers can go before or after the distortion pedal. Both options are correct and it’s something that you should play around with, see what works best with your distortion pedal. The same thing goes for booster pedals – some may argue that they’re better before or after distortions. You should test out both options.
Noise suppressors may be a bit more complicated. It’s important to have it after the noisiest pedals, like distortion and modulation. Some may have it right after distortion, some may prefer to put it after modulation effects. However, all of the noise suppressors have an option to use noisy pedals within its integrated loop. This way, you have a separate signal chain with your noisiest pedals within the noise suppressor’s loop before going into the next category of effects.
As you can see there are a lot of effect pedals. It can be overwhelming at first glance, but you should be well equipped to pick out the effect pedals that work for you. And while, pedals, will change your sound, it’s not meant to be a replacement for techniques you haven’t mastered. With that said, go out there play some music and Enjoy Life!