Most musicians have come across these little floor ridden devices several times in several places. You might be a casual be a performer that glances here and there at several of these little metal boxes in your local music shop, asking yourself how in the world can there be so many different variations, options, or even colors! Colors aside, no one can be blamed for feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options given to us when it comes to pedals and foot switches. With such a plethora of effects to choose from, which one is right for you, or more importantly, how do these things work and what’s the difference?
The Basics of Pedals and Preamps
Pedals, simply put, are effects in a box. Think of them as filters that go in between the signal given off by the guitar and the signal received by the amp, but instead of taking away anything though, pedals add to or manipulate the original settings (although some by definition do filter), and more often, go beyond what’s achievable on most amps. Although the effects created by pedals can be recreated in most studios, they have the ability to have the effect be suddenly turned off, making switching between two distinct sounds instantaneous with no need to fiddle around with the amp or studio settings, which would both require the musician to stop playing in order for adjustments. Most people can recognize this sudden shift in sound during the performance of guitar solos, where the higher pitched strings are suddenly hit with a huge dose of treble, allowing the notes to be heard above the rest, and then just as quickly switch back to a balanced sound once the solo is done. This instantaneous switch in sound might be the single most important reason for their use by most, if not all, professional rock musicians.
Pedal Effects Broken Down By Category
The list of commercially available foot pedals can be staggering, and there are just as many endorsed by several different recording artists across all genres. Feeling like jamming to good ol’ classic rock? Jeff Beck has you covered. Maybe you want to thrash like Zakk Wylde? He even has his name on one! Although there are several hundred effect choices available, most of the effects are simply variations on what’s been around since the advent of the recording studio, which makes selecting the perfect pedal a lot easier once its narrowed down to six or so main types.
Probably the most popular and widely used of all effects. Metal, punk, classic rock … you name a rock genre, they’ve probably used it. If you’ve ever wondered how come dad’s old Strat could never quite sound like little Timmy’s favorite cross-dressing metal band, distortion is probably your answer. Distortion was first achieved by overloading a guitar amp with so much input, such as maxing out certain settings such as gain; it couldn’t properly decipher it cleanly, resulting in a warm but gritty sound. Most amps now come with distortion settings, although a distortion pedal lets you switch between the brazen sound and a clean one on the fly. The most commonly used type of distortion pedal is the Overdrive.
Simply put, the dynamics of an instrument is its volume. Most commonly used as a way to get a boost of sound during solos. Although pretty straight forward, most dynamics pedals are equipped with a few other settings to play around with, such as compressors that balance out the sound, making loud sounds quieter and quiet sounds louder.
These pedals work by altering the frequency of the guitar signal, affecting certain areas as needed and even allow for extended manipulation of treble and bass beyond that of most amps. One of the more widely used if not the most famous filter pedal is the “Wah-wah” effect, used in styles such as funk, psychedelic rock and disco to name a few. Ever wondered what gave the intro to Shaft more funk than James Brown’s scarf? Check out the Wah-wah.
Another widely used effect, this category includes some of the more known Chorus and Flanger pedals. Modulation works by combining a series of altered signals stemming from the root note in order to create unusual and otherworldly tones. On a Chorus pedal, hitting a single note can sound as if multiple were struck, and boosted even more when hitting all six. The Flanger effect recreates a sort of double tracking effect used in studios, used in several of rocks most famous riffs, such as the into to Heart’s “Barracuda.” Other notable effects in this category include the Phaser, Tremelo and Vibrato pedals
Time Based Pedals
These essentially work by delaying the signal of the guitar, creating echo like effect. Delay/Echo pedals achieve their effect by duplicating the incoming signal and giving a slight delay. Reverb pedals meanwhile create multiple echo effects from a single note along that gradually fade off. This is also known as “decay.”
If you can recreate it on an amp or in a studio, there’s probably a pedal for it, and then some. From more experimental and complicated setups such as Amplifier Modeling which recreates digital sound to the more recently popular Pitch Correction, or “auto-tune” effect, there are several other specifically unique tone and signal manipulation pedals available.
What Effects Pedal is Right for You?
Although there are several things to consider when deciding on what kind of pedal, or combination of pedals, is right for you, there are certainly a bevy of options to choose from. Some might be looking for a clean effect that they can switch on the fly. Others might just want something unavailable on most amps; it all depends on how you want to rock.