There are few things in life as satisfying as rocking out on your favorite guitar but before any of us could wail out a Marley tune with great ease or pull off some of Clapton’s signature licks like child’s play, we had to start from the very beginning. Yes, that grueling point in musicianship where the C chord seems impossible to finger and sliding on strings is annoyingly painful. And even when you have all of the mechanics down and throwing out suspended sevenths like there’s no tomorrow, the electric guitar in particular poses an extra challenge for beginners; understanding effects pedals. Sure, probably everyone out there knows the typical sound of distortion and maybe – and that’s a big maybe – even understands the slight differences between fuzz and overdrive but usually that’s where the common person’s knowledge of effects pedals ends. But the fact of the matter remains that if you’re thinking about getting deep into the world of electric guitars you’re going to have to know a thing or two about pedals along with the basic characteristics that they give your tone; which brings us to today’s article – you guessed it – a quick guide to the essential effects of the electric guitar! Let’s start off with the most popular effect on the list…
[Don't forget that you can hit any of the blue links of each effect to browse our entire collection!]
This is easily by far the single most saturated effect in the pedal business today. If you were to take a look at 100 different distortion pedals out in the market today chances are high than you will still have left a few notable boxes out of the equation. That’s because like most anything else – no two distortion pedals are exactly the same, but they do work more or less the same way. A basic distortion pedal works by compressing the peaks of a guitar’s signal and adding overtones. But there are complications. Some pedals use tubes for warm, amp-like tones. Others use germanium circuits, which also tend to be warm and more responsive to the dynamics and attack of a performance. And then there’s silicon-based circuits, which have a brighter, edgier sound that often makes them a metal head’s best friend.
A little research in this department is required for the distortion pedal novice, or even the long-time user of classic devices like the Distortion+ or Fuzz-Face who may be interested in checking out the new generation of dirty stompers. But the rule of thumb is that if you’re looking for a traditional sound, like a Big Brother and the Holding Company fuzz tone or a Stevie Ray howl, stick with the traditional models or their modern emulators. And from there on it’s a brave new world of manufacturers and boxes that further color distortion with everything from low-level ring modulation to Theremin-like functions. Individual boxes in the same model line may vary, too, so it’s best to try a few once you’ve circled in on the particular kind you want, if that luxury is available.
Digital delay pedals and samplers began creeping into the guitar vocabulary with bands like U2 and The Cure. The original delay units were tape driven, like the Echo-Plex used by Jimi Hendrix (“House Burning Down”) and David Gilmore (Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”) in the ’60s and ’70s. But in the mid 80s, as digital effects came into use, the delay and early delay/sampler pedals became increasingly popular. While many effect connoisseurs frown on digital stomp boxes, the plusses of digital delay and sampling over tape are obvious. Primarily, there’s no tape to snarl, wear out or sputter. Today’s delay pedals can also get effects that were once produced by reverb tanks, like authentic-sounding rockabilly slap-back, and hearing The Edge play arpeggios through a delay pedal on “Where the Streets Have No Name” is an essential listening experience. Not to mention that digital sampling allows players to create and store as many as 99 loops in a single stomp box, doing the work of a virtual armada of tape recorders.
Alternative rock guitar players loved the chorus pedal. It appeared often on tunes by The Cure, but Larry Carlton also used chorus on many studio sessions with his Gibson ES-335, and even Kurt Cobain cranked a chorus pedal way up for Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” True to its name, the chorus seeks to duplicate the multi-voiced sounds of the likes of choirs and string sections. As a modulation device, it splits a guitar’s signal in two and adds delay and vibrato to one half of the split signal while leaving the other unaltered. Typically a chorus box’s dials can affect the depth of that vibrato and pitch change, and can increase or decrease the blend of the altered portion of the signal with the original tone.
Distortion pedals are also overdrive pedals, but there is a distinction between the two functions and this family of boxes is more specific to the latter. Pure overdrive pedals are all about giving you more of what you’ve already got, while a distortion or fuzz pedal is going to add its own dirty personality, color and tone. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s favorite pedal was the classic Tube Screamer, which, strictly speaking, is an overdrive rather than a distortion pedal. His breakout contribution to David Bowie’s hit “Let’s Dance” used this box brilliantly to produce a rich, warm, extremely well-rounded and expanded version of his basic guitar sound. Overdrive boxes warm up overtones at low volume and get more snarly and distorted only after their gain knob or the guitar’s volume has been rolled up considerably. Distortion pedals, on the other paw, will produce the same growl at any volume. Some players opt to have one of each on their pedal boards – the overdrive for tonal warmth and the distortion for fuzz, which creates all kinds of possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle grit.
Here’s another historic pedal, etched into rock history by Hendrix, Clapton, Beck and Page on a host of great recordings: “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” “White Room,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Dazed and Confused” and so on. A wah-wah creates its instantly recognizable, voice-like sound by sweeping through the frequency of a guitar’s signal. And, in most cases, the sweeping is done by foot and it is most effective if it’s done in time with the sequence of notes being played. See sawing the pedal up and down opens and closes a potentiometer similar to the one in radial dial household light switches. But, in this case, the change in voltage alters the signal running to the amp. Canny designers have radically altered the wah pedal since the ’60s, building in wider sweeps and additional functions like distortion and panning. Some take the middleman – or at least the knee – out of the equation altogether, with wah stomp boxes that can be preset to perform wah functions with the tap of an on/off switch.
And let’s not forget the flanger – a bit too strange for some but still a real interesting sound. The flanger uses a solid-state transistor to duplicate an old studio tape trick called flanging. It creates a sound similar to a jet aircraft taking off. In the old days this was accomplished by recording a track on two synchronized tape reels and slowing one down by pressing the edge of its reel – a process dubbed flanging. The pedal duplicated this by creating a second signal that is variably delayed by the circuit and added back to the true signal. The most famous example may be Heart’s 1977 hit “Barracuda.”
Sure, most people probably don’t think about either of these two when they think of effects but the well-informed player already knows that both compressors and noise gates can add a lot to their tone. Essentially, compression pedals work by doing one simple but important task – reduce the height of the instrument’s signal to a preset level. Some compression pedals even allow you to change this level over time or at will. This is known as “Attack” on most of these pedals where a greater attack level will give you a more aggressive sound. Also, compressors have the ability to allow a player to expand the length of a held note, creating a consistent sustain; the compressor tries to keep the output signal at a consistent level even as the input signal is decreasing, creating a sustain that will hold its original sound level longer. This type of effects pedal has become increasingly popular with country music players who tend to use clean sounds, making faster passages sound uneven unless artificially compressed. Bass players also tend to use compressors for the same reasons.
Noise gates meanwhile are very similar to compressors in that they are specifically used to alter an instruments signal level but whereas compressors are used to make sure a signal is above a certain threshold, noise gates attenuate signals which register below the threshold. Another difference between them is that noise gates are similar to humbuckers in that they were made specifically with noise cancellation in mind. As most players now tend to use several effects pedals, the signal passing through has been altered by a fair amount by the time it hits the actual amplifier. Some of these effects, notably the same compressors mentioned above, have the unintended side-effect of raising the background noise of a signal, making noise gate pedals all the more important when placed properly before compressors on an effects chain. While the noise gate doesn’t actually cancel out the noise like a humbucker would, it uses a fixed range to make sure your signal passes through while the noise doesn’t: the level of a signal is above the level of the noise so when set accordingly, the pedal acts as its name states – a noise gate – although leaving the range open too much will allow noise to come through. Gates typically feature 'attack', 'release', and 'hold' settings and may feature a 'look-ahead' function as well.
For those of you unfamiliar with booster pedals, they are used to pump up the effects and settings already present on amplifiers, most notably Volume and Gain. Not only that, they tend to create an overall tighter sound with a bit more treble thanks to their propensity to cut out the low end of the raw signal while boosting the high mid-ranged frequencies. First popularized during the mid ‘60s as a way to overdrive amplifiers – most notably British tube amplifiers such as the Marshall Bluesbreaker or the Vox AC30 – they became obsolete by the ‘80s thanks to the better gain control of amplifiers and the use of overdrive pedals (which create a similar, albeit distinguishable, effect when used). But now they’re back, thanks to their unique sound and tone clarity.
This is the oldest electric guitar effect. In fact, the first stand-alone effects unit besides reverb was a tremolo device produced in 1948, and shortly thereafter tremolo became standard issue in several families of amplifiers, including Gibson’s. Tremolo creates a rapid variation in the volume of a guitar’s output. Trem stomp boxes blend the signal from your guitar with a carrier wave that is inaudible, creating the sonic dropouts that produce the iconic stuttering sound heard on so many Bo Diddley recordings and the intro to “Gimme Shelter,” among other classic tracks. Some tremolo units also have a stereo panning function, which moves the signal between two amps. Others have knobs for altering waveforms. Typically, tremolo stomp boxes have a similar basic set-up to the units built into old amps: a dial for “intensity,” “depth” or “rate,” (all controlling the degree of suppression of actual guitar volume) and another for “speed.” And between them lies a world of classic sounds.
Hendrix tunes such as “Pail Gap” and virtually any hit by Robin Trower feature generous amounts of phase shifter, as does Van Halen’s “The Cradle Will Rock.” Phasing, along with chorus, leads the parade of modulation effects, which split and blend signals to create new sounds. Essentially a phase shifter cuts a guitar signal into two signals, and pumps up some tonal aspects of one while lessening characteristics of another. Exactly what sonic range is affected depends on the model of phase shifter. The result is an especially breathy or rippling sound, depending on where the effect’s “speed” control is set. Lower is more gentle; higher more radical.
This is one of the most underappreciated effects in modern guitar, but was a frequent flyer in the psychedelic ’60s and can be heard on the opening of the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” with a little special studio sauce ladled on top. The VB-2 vibrato pedal was also a secret weapon of the sonically adventurous alternative-rock-era group Catherine Wheel, audible on their radio hits “Black Metallic” and “I Want to Touch You.” Gibson began adding a vibrato circuit to its electric instrument amps in the late 1940s, making vibrato another of the most durable effects. Vibrato, as anybody who owns a guitar with a whammy bar or has a good touch on the fret board knows, means slight or rapid variations in pitch. Like the wah-wah, this is a particularly voice-like effect. Typically vibrato boxes allow you to control and modify the true note being played by altering its pitch with a “pitch” or “depth” knob, a “rise” knob that defines how fast the effect will appear after a note is struck and a “speed” knob to define the tempo of the effect. The deeper the depth and faster the speed, generally speaking, the crazier and more intense the ululating quality of the line being played becomes. Various modeling boxes have this effect built in, but none have equaled the best vibrato boxes of the ’80s, which are hotly sought by players and collectors today.
And finally, we have the tuner. Sure, this seems basic, but a good stage tuner is invaluable. And today, dependable stage tuners are available for $100 or less. Nothing you do will sound good if your guitar is out of tune, and whether you’re a working musician or jamming with friends in a garage, issues with tuning always will develop because the condition of your instrument, room or outdoor temperature, humidity and other factors all challenge tuning. The best floor devices will have bright LEDs – bright enough to be detectible in sunlight, ideally, and should have chromatic as well as standard tuning modes should you venture into open tunings or your own Sonic Youth-y creations.