A Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Pedals

A Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Pedals

Effect pedals (often referred to as stompboxes or, simply, pedals) are small, self-contained devices that can greatly impact the sound of your guitar or other electric instrument when you plug into them. Pedals come in a wide of effects, brands, prices, and more, and the sheer number of options available can be overwhelming, but the right pedal or set of pedals can completely transform your guitar tone.

In this piece, we are going to look at the different types of pedals, explain what they do, and look at some of the better-known pedals on the market. There are many more types of pedals than the ones we’ll be looking at in this piece, and it is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list of all of the types of pedals out there. Rather, this piece is meant to function as a primer to guitarists just beginning to look at purchasing pedals.

Distortion, Overdrive, and Fuzz

Sometimes referred to as “dirt” pedals, distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals are a family of effects that make your guitar sound… well, dirty. They work by clipping your audio single, which essentially means making the output of your guitar so intense that the sound literally states to break apart. These kinds of pedals have worked their way into most forms of guitar music, but are more or less a requirement for guitarist interested in playing such styles as metal, punk, or hard rock. They’ve also seen extensive usage in blues, jazz fusion, and all forms of rock, among other styles. 

Before pedals existed, guitarists would create these sounds by playing their amplifiers louder than they were designed to be or, in the cases of both Muddy Water and The Kinks among others, by physically damaging the amplifiers to the point that they couldn’t help but make a dirty sound. Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals all create similar sounds, function similarly on a technical level, and can be considered part of the same family of pedals, but there are some distinct differences between the three varieties. 

Overdrive pedals most closely simulate the classic, organic sound of an amplifier being pushed too far, and can give your guitar a crisp and warm sound that is often referred to as a “crunch”. An Ibanez Tube Screamer (available here: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/TS9–ibanez-ts9-tube-screamer-overdrive-pedal) is a classic overdrive pedal, with a rich, organic, and subtle tone, and is mostly identified with its usage by modern blues icon Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Distortion pedals are essentially a more extreme version of overdrive pedals, pushing your dirty guitar tone to further, filthier depths. While an overdriven guitar tone is often described as sounding warm, distortion pedals tend to give your playing a much colder, harsher tone with a lot more gain on it. For those looking for a heavier, more metal-oriented sound, Pro Co Rat (available here: https://www.ratdistortion.com/product/108/rat-2-foot-pedal) is an iconic distortion with a filthy tone that has seen use by everyone from Metallica’s James Hetfield to R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.

Fuzz pedals are the odd ones out of the three. Largely popularized by the prominent usage of a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone pedal on the main riff of the iconic Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, fuzz pedals utilize a kind of waveform called a square wave to a buzzy, sputtery, and yes, fuzzy, kind of dirty guitar tone that is the most out-there sounding of the three. 

The Big Muff PI (available here: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/BigMuffPi–electro-harmonix-big-muff-pi-fuzz-pedal) is a much-beloved fuzz pedal whose fat, in-your-face tone as made it a favorite of such classic rock players as Carlos Santana, David Gillmore, and Frank Zappa, but the pedal later found a second life as a staple of alternative rock, due to its prominent usage in such bands as Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr., and Mudhoney, the latter of whom even named an album of theirs after the pedal. Another classic fuzz pedal is the Fuzz Face (now made by Dunlop, and available here: https://www.jimdunlop.com/fuzz-face-distortion/), whose shrill,  gurgling tone made it a favorite of the legendary Jimi Hendrix, as well as Pete Townsend and George Harrison, among others. 

Modulation 

A family of pedals that consist of chorus, flanger, phaser, vibrato, and tremolo pedals (among even more) modulation pedals are pedals that alter either/both the timbre or signal strength of your guitar tone. Modulation pedals can be used to create sounds that are ethereal, harsh, robotic, cosmic, somber, silly, and just about any other mood you can imagine. There is a wide variety of modulation effects out there, but chorus, flanger, and phaser pedals are the most commonly used.

Chorus pedals were created to capture the naturally and beautifully imperfect sounds of a choir of singers. They achieve this by reproducing the organic sound of your electric guitar and mixing in with your original sound, except that the reproduced sound is ever so slightly out of tune and step with the original. While on paper such a concept might sound ghastly, in practice chorus pedals create a wonderfully haunting sound with a wide range of applications. An Electro-Harmonix Small Clone (available here: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/SmallClone–electro-harmonix-small-clone-analog-chorus-pedal) is a great chorus pedal, and is perhaps best known as a favorite of Kurt Cobain, who famously used the pedal on the main riff of Nirvana’s hit “Come As You Are”. 

Flanger pedals work similarly to a chorus pedal, also creating a reproduction of your original signal and then mixing the two together. However while a chorus pedal creates a reproduction that is slightly, but stagnantly, out of tune, a flanger pedal slows down the speed of the reproduced sound, which causes it notes to change subtly but constantly. This creates a whooshing, futuristic sound that many have said sounds like a spaceship taking off for flight in an old science-fiction movie. Flanger pedals are much in-your-face than most other modulation pedals, which makes their usage slightly less common but just about impossible to ignore. Although many people have been critical of much of the gear out by the juggernaut pedal manufacturer Boss, the Boss BF-2 Flanger (available here: https://www.amazon.com/Boss-Flanger-Effects-pedal-Pedal/dp/B0021PG6XM) is generally acknowledged as a classic, and was a major part of Prince’s distinctive guitar tone. 

Phaser pedals work by heavily emphasizing certain frequencies of your guitar tone, while leaving others alone. This results in a boxy, robotic guitar tone. In fact, a phaser effect applied to an ordinary human voice was how the voice of the robot C-3PO was created in original Star Wars movies. Phaser pedals are a good way to give your guitar tone a different, other-worldly sound and make for a solid middle-ground between the subtler chorus effect and attention-grabbing flangers. A classic phaser pedal is the MXR Phase-90 (available here: https://www.jimdunlop.com/mxr-phase-90/), whose sleek phaser sound is perhaps most associated with the playing of Eddie Van Halen, and is notably featured on Van Halen’s song “Eruption”. 

Delay and Reverb

Delay and reverb pedals add a ghostly reflection of whatever you’ve just played, even after you’re done playing it. There is wide range of sounds one can get from these pedals, from the ambient and ethereal, to the rhythmic and mechanical. While delay and reverb pedals have seen wide usage in just about every style of guitar music, they have become among the tonal building blocks of the popular subgenres of shoegaze and dream pop, which utilize the wet, loose atmospheres created by these theses kind of pedals. 

Delay pedals work by duplicating the sound of your guitar, and timing the duplicate to be behind your original guitar sound. This creates an echo-like effect, which has caused delay pedals to sometimes be referred to as “echo pedals”. The amount of time that the duplicate is behind the original, as well as the tone of the duplicate, can be heavily altered on most delay pedals. This allows for a great variety of sounds able to be coaxed out of most delay pedals. A great delay pedal is the MXR Carbon Copy (avialable here: https://www.jimdunlop.com/mxr-carbon-copy-analog-delay/), which allows for intricately timed as well as ambiently washy delays, and has seen use by everyone from Dave Matthews to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons to Christian Andreau of the extreme metal band Gojira. 

Reverb pedals are designed to imitate the natural audio phenomena that is created by playing in a large empty space. They do this by creating a series of short, little echoes that bleed into each other. Reverb effects are similar to delays, but tend to sound subtler, cleaner and are often easier to manage. Many amplifiers (particularly Fender brand amps) come pre-equipped with reverb units, meaning that a reverb pedal may not be a necessary purchase for every player. A classic reverb pedal is the Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail (available here: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/HolyGrailN–electro-harmonix-holy-grail-nano-reverb-pedal). 

And More!

As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, there are many more types of pedals out there than were discussed here. These include wah pedals, which filter out certain frequencies to create an evocative, vocal-like sound, looper pedals, which record and play back your playing, thus allowing you to accompany yourself, and much more! All the pedals discussed in this piece are great places to begin exploring the world of guitar pedals, but the truth is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. You could spend a lifetime experimenting with pedals, and, in my opinion, that’d make for a life well spent. 

Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.

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