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Electric Guitar Effect Pedals: An Introduction

By Edited Apr 11, 2016 1 0
Pedalboard full of pedals
Credit: Wikipedia photo by Michael Morel, CC BY 2.0.

Pedalboards come in various sizes, and can be bought or homemade. This one is able to accomodate the nine pedals shown.

What is an effect pedal?

Guitar effects alter the sound in some way.[1] Some have a huge effect on the overall sound, and others are more subtle. Some can be adjusted toward either of these extremes and lots of points in between.

Many factors go into an electric guitar sound. Even the picks you use, the way you strum, the strings you use, the wood the guitar is made from, the electronics, the cables, the amplifier, even the room you’re in, and many other variables can endlessly be tinkered with to produce a huge variety of sounds.

Effects are ordinarily turned on or off as you play, or some guitarists may use certain one or more effects the entire time they’re playing. Some effects are built into an amp (such as overdrive, reverb, or tremolo), and others may be built into a guitar (such as a volume boost).

Some effects are processed by units separate from guitar or amp, and are placed strategically in a signal chain to get desired sounds. There are rackmount units which are usually expensive and mostly used by pros. The units discussed here, effect pedals, are often also called stompboxes, or just pedals, or effects.[1]

Effect pedals are most often designed to sit on the ground and to be turned on and off with your foot. Some pedals have one effect, and others have two or more. Some are small and others are huge. Some are made with analog circuitry and others are digital.

Plenty of guitarists use no pedals or effect units at all, some use only one or two, and some have gigantic pedalboards with ten or twenty pedals or even more. It’s all a matter of personal choice, and what suits your needs and the sounds you want to generate.

Using or listening to effect pedals is the best way to know what they do. I recommend trying pedals out at musical instruments stores, or watching demonstration videos online. Some manufacturers have sound samples or videos on their websites.

Overall, learning what pedals do, how to use them, and how they sound requires study, experimentation, and experience with a variety of equipment. Learn from professional guitarists such as in interviews, or by listening to them play – although you can figure out a lot of it on your own. 

List of the 20 most common effects used by guitarists

1. Distortion – The signal, starting at your pickups and ending at your amplifier’s speakers, can be “clipped” which means that the signal’s peaks are chopped to some degree. The result is added overtones and harmonics. Distortion effects heavily clip the waveform, called “hard clipping,” and the sound becomes compressed and less dynamic.[1]

2. Overdrive – A lot of pedals called “overdrive” are really distortion pedals. True overdrive is generated from an amp that is being pushed hard until the vacuum tubes are overpowered and the sound begins to clip. The overdrive effect is less drastic than the distortion mentioned above, and is often called “soft clipping,” and it is generally smoother and more dynamic. Overdrive pedals typically imitate overdriven tubes, although are really a type of distortion pedal.[1]

3. Fuzz – This is another type of distortion pedal that clips the signal even more than the typical distortion pedal, hacking off enough of the peaks of the waveform that the result is often called a “squarewave.” The sound is heavily distorted and even fuzzy.[1]

4. Boost – This type of pedal adds a selectable amount of volume to the signal, usually with the intent of pushing an amplifier’s tubes to create overdrive within the amplifier. They can also be used for strengthening a signal going through a long cable or through multiple cables (the signal weakens the longer it has to travel through cables), or for a boost when soloing.[1]

5. Compressor – This effect compresses or squashes the dynamics of volume. Quieter signals are made louder and louder signals are made quieter so it is all more uniform.[1]

6. Volume – These pedals typically look like wah pedals, and can be rocked forward or backward altering the volume level. Some can completely cut off the signal and others can stop at a pre-determined level of quietness.[1]

7. Noise gate – For noisy signal chains with a lot of hiss or feedback, these pedals can reduce or sometimes eliminate the extraneous noise. They typically have a sensor and kick in when the signal gets to a low enough point, replacing noise with relative silence.[1]

8. EQ – Six or more sliders control the volume of specific frequency ranges. These pedals can boots or cut bass, midrange, and treble frequencies at various points and give more control over the equalization (EQ) than the amplifier’s knobs. Some guitarists boost many frequencies and stomp on one of these pedals for a solo boost.[1]

9. Wah – A foot treadle that is controlled by rocking it with your foot back and forth alters the signal’s frequencies to produce a funky or vowel-like sound.[1]

10. Auto wah – A pedal that produces wah effects automatically, triggered by each note as it is played. This alternative way to get wah sounds does not utilize the foot treadle.[1]

11. Pitch shift – Alters the pitch of the signal, often to a pre-determined setting. Some add harmonies at various points (a third, a fifth, an octave) according to what the pedal was set for. Some may cause the entire sound to shift, as though the guitar is in a different tuning. Some may jump to a certain frequency (like going up an octave) and back.[1]

12. Delay – Adds an echo effect to the signal.[1]

13. Reverb – Adds a reverberation effect similar to if you were playing in a tunnel or some other chamber producing many echoes at once.[1]

14. Looper – Records and can play back phrases. Many allow you to play back something you recorded, and then you can play over it (like recording a rhythm part, and then playing it back and soloing over it).[1]

15. Vibrato – An effect that creates a modulation of pitch, almost like an opera singer holding a note. The effect is usually subtle and creates a warbly sound. More extreme settings can make a person feel seasick.[1]

16. Chorus – Mimics a choir by mixing the main signal with added signals that differ slightly due to subtle delay effects and/or vibrato effects. More extreme settings on some pedals can be similar to extreme vibrato settings described above.[1]

17. Vibe – Also called “uni-vibe,” this pedal produces a sound much like a phaser (described below) and often has a foot treadle, like a wah pedal or a volume pedal, to adjust the speed of the modulation. The original units were intended to imitate a rotating speaker.[1]

18. Flanger – Jet plane, spaceship, vibrato, and chorus-like sounds are created when a signal is split into two copies, and one is delayed slightly. The delay time changes at a rate that can be adjusted with the pedal’s knobs.[1]

19. Phaser – Like a flanger, the signal is split into two. The two parts are then recombined and a notch is created in which a certain frequency band is cancelled out. This notch sweeps back and forth through range a frequencies, creating a swirling, swooshing sound.[1]

20. Tremolo – Volume is modulated, from slight to machine gun on/off stutter. Often the speed, intensity, and other aspects of the effect are adjustable with the pedal’s knobs.[1]

MXR pedals
Credit: Wikimedia Commons photo by Matt's Pedals, CC BY-SA 2.0.

MXR pedals are amongst the very best, in my opinion.

Bypasses - types and differences

A lot of guitarists refuse to use anything except “true bypass” switching, which is designed to leave your tone 100% untouched and unaltered as it passes through the pedal. Other pedals have other types of bypass, some of which noticeably change the tone, and others of which are impossible to tell. It depends upon the pedal and whatever else is going on through the course of the signal chain.

Some other bypasses that manufacturers will list for their pedals, none of which are true bypass include: Buffered bypass, pure bypass, hard bypass, hardwire bypass, true hardwire bypass, electronic bypass, true electronic bypass, etc.

A lot of the time you can compensate for any change coming from a pedal’s bypass (if you feel a need to do so) with alterations in strings, picks, cables, amp settings, etc. There are a huge number of variables in a guitar sound, and one pedal shouldn’t ruin everything. I’ve found that I prefer shorter cables, and that even if a pedal is true bypass, adding another cable causes significant sound degradation.

Some argue true bypass is actually undesirable. For one thing, quite a few pedals with it make a loud “pop” when engaged. And like I said, long cables can be a problem, and some pedals will make up for this by actually boosting the signal some. This and other aspects of the argument against true bypass are explained well by Pete Cornish, a builder of effect pedals in the UK.

It’s likely there are pros and cons for any pedal, and it’s up to you, ultimately, to decide what you like and want to use. 

Digital versus analog processing

As far as I’m concerned, analog pedals are the real deal and digital pedals try to imitate analog pedals. However, that doesn’t mean digital pedals are not good. Some are awesome and can do things analog pedals can’t. I’m not going to explain the differences in circuitry, because what you hear is the most important.

Digital pedals are often quieter, and analog pedals can be quite noisy – although there are always exceptions to this. Analog pedals often get great sounds, but digital pedals often have more flexible features and controls, and can do things analog pedals can’t.

As an example, an analog delay pedal rarely gets an echo greater than 600 to 900 milliseconds. Some digital delays get a few seconds, or ten seconds, or some get even longer if you want. Analog delays often just have the one awesome sound. Digital delays can sometimes do reverse delays, delays with added sounds, more than one delay at once, and other cool effects.

Like with everything, you have to find what gets the sounds you want. Some digital pedals are supposed to sound like analog ones, such as digital delays that have an analog delay setting. Maybe you’d like it, or maybe you’d want the real thing because digital will never sound 100% the same.

Don’t assume pedals are analog or digital without knowing. Find out for sure, if it truly matters to you. Some companies, like Boss, make pedals either way and you don’t always know by looking at the pedal.

Things to consider in finding what suits your needs

I’ve spoken so far about differences in sound, such as with types of bypass or analog vs digital. Other factors to consider are:

- How well it handles the pickups on your guitar. Some pedals can’t handle hot pickups, like if you have high output humbuckers.

- The size of the pedal.

- The way the pedal is powered, and the voltage.

- The location of the power input and the cable input and outputs.

- The knobs and switches and what they do, how flexible they are, what options they allow.

- How sturdy the pedal is, and the company’s reputation for durability.

- The price of the pedal.

- How much you’re likely to use the pedal, and if you really think it is worth owning.

- Whether the pedal is brand new or used. If it’s used, you have to consider that it could have problems an online seller is reluctant to divulge.

- Whether the pedal is noisy or not. Maybe it requires a noise suppression pedal along with it.

- What the pedal looks like (color, images on it, name of the pedal, etc).

- Whether or not the pedal has an LED (light to indicate if it’s on or off), where the LED is located, how bright it is, what color it is.

- How the pedal will interact with other pedals you have, or with your specific amp or other aspects of your setup.

Boss pedals
Credit: Wikimedia Commons photo by Greg Gebhardt, CC BY 2.0.

Boss pedals are known for incredible build quality and super dependable switching. In my experience many sound amazing, and some don't sound all that great. But there are plenty that I love.

Avoid deception in unwarranted hype

(or unwarranted criticism)

Some pedals that cost $300 are worse than others that cost $80. Price doesn’t necessarily indicate quality or what will appeal to you or what will work with your other equipment.

Many websites and catalogs have claims that are not necessarily to be trusted. Also, reviews or articles about the equipment you’re interested in won’t necessarily reflect what you would think of it. Use these for information but don’t trust subjective statements, and only trust your own opinions. Advertisements are designed to sell a product and may say things that you’ll end up disagreeing with. Be careful and try stuff out if you can before buying.

Some people rave about a pedal, and you might think it’s dreadful. Others will heavily criticize a pedal and you might think it’s great. Let yourself be the ultimate judge and decision maker, and only rely on others for facts if they have any to give.

Weed out real information from opinions and bad experiences that aren’t typical. Remember their gear is likely different from yours, and problems they encounter may not exist for you. They may use the pedal differently from how you would. They may play totally different music than what you play. They may criticize things for no good reason, like criticizing a digital pedal just because it’s digital – although maybe it’s actually an awesome pedal.

There are a lot of opinions out there and you shouldn’t form yours until you’ve tried a piece of gear thoroughly. Other opinions may or may not be in line with what you would conclude, if you were to try something with your own setup and an open mind.

Tips relating to buying and searching for pedals

I don’t suggest buying used pedals online unless you are okay with paying for return shipping if it’s not what you expected. I’ve bought many pedals used online, and quite a few had horrible problems that were not mentioned, such as in a description on eBay.

Many retail stores sell used pedals. Check local guitar stores for what they have. If they have used pedals go try them out before buying. Any reputable store will let you try equipment before buying it.

New pedals can often be found for lower than what people typically sell them for, if you’re patient and look around. Check eBay, Amazon, and other websites for the best deals. For online stores such as Musician’s Friend, wait for deals that they periodically have before making a purchase.

Find out about returns wherever you buy, so you can get your money back if you decide against having a pedal. Be aware of the last day you can return a pedal and keep the box, manual, receipt, and everything until you’re sure you’re going to keep it.

Something I’ve done many times is buy two of something (such as two chorus pedals) and compare them, and send the one I like least back. You may or may not want to do this, but it helps you clearly see which one is better, side by side.

Boss multi-effects unit
Credit: Public domain.

Boss multi-effects get a lot of great sounds. I have a friend who owns one and uses it all the time.

Multi-effects units

Some pedals are standard-size pedals with two or even several effects. Other units have a large array of effects and are often designed to get every effect, or nearly every effect, a guitarist could want.[1]

Multi-effect units with tons of effects could save you money over buying a large number of pedals, plus you’ll use fewer cables and potentially have a simpler setup.[1]

Multi-effect units also may not get specific sounds you want. If you’re picky, then you may be unsatisfied with some of the effects.

Also, some multi-effect units are notorious for being confusing and difficult to program. For the best one I've ever used, see below.



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  1. "Effects unit." Wikipedia. 23/02/2015 <Web >

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