Pedalboard with multiple guitar effects

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Guitar effects can take your playing to the next level. While they’re certainly not a replacement for your amp, they are an instrumental part of many guitarists’ signature tone.

Let’s explore guitar effects in detail. We’ll take a quick look at their history and evolution. Next, we’ll talk about the different formats of effects you might come across, from pedals to rackmounts. Finally, we’ll learn about the different types of effects you probably know the sound of, but can’t quite name. From tremolo to delay, we’ll listen to it all!

Brief History of Guitar Effects

1940s and 50s

DeArmond Tremolo Effect Pamphlet
Pamphlet for the DeArmond Tremolo devices

Since the invention of the electric guitar in the late 1920s, guitarists have been on a neverending mission to get more tones out of their instrument. Les Paul, an electric guitar pioneer, sought out ways to create novel, futuristic sounds. By manipulating recording tapes, Les Paul and many other audio engineers of the time experimented with echoes, delays, and more. Using just a couple of tape recorders, he managed to create a flanger effect in his garage!

The early 1940s saw the creation of a few bulky, unwieldy devices meant to modify the sound of a guitar. One of the most famous was the DeArmond Model 601 Tremolo Control, a device that used an electrically conductive fluid to create a ‘wiggly’ tremolo effect. Though it was fairly primitive and large, the DeArmond Tremolo paved the way for the future of guitar effects.

Effects as we know them first showed up in the late 1940s. The DeArmond Tremolo Control resurfaced in 1948, but in a much more convenient foot-pedal form factor. If you’re curious about this godfather of effects, Vintage Guitar has a great article exploring the Trem-Trol. Though the foot-pedal was a revolution in guitar effects design, it didn’t really ‘go mainstream’ until about a decade later. Most guitarists simply preferred the convenience of the built-in effects on their amplifier.

1960s and 1970s

Jimi Hendrix and his effects pedals
Jimi Hendrix and his effects pedals, from left to right: Vox Cry Baby Wah, Dunlop Octavio, Dunlop Fuzz Face, and Univox Uni-vibe
Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal
The Dunlop Cry Baby is one of the most popular wah pedals on the market. It’s a copy of the original Vox pedal of the same name

In the early 1960s, pedals really started to catch on. Transistor technology allowed the creation of compact, easily-portable guitar effects. The increasing popularity of distortion and fuzz saw the creation of pedals like the Maestro Fuzz Tone. You can hear it on the Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Bands like The Ventures even created their own homemade distortion pedals! The DeArmond 610 Volume and Tone pedal found its way into the hands of Jimmy Page and onto Brenda Lee’s hit Is It True?.

One of the 60’s most prolific pedal users was Jimi Hendrix. He used almost every effect he could get his hands on. In one of his most famous songs, Purple Haze, you’ll hear the distinct wah-wah of the Vox Cry Baby and the shimmery chorus/vibrato sounds of the Univox Uni-Vibe.

The 60s and 70s saw the invention of even more effects like flangers and phase-shifters. These effects created the iconic, out-of-this-world soundscapes employed by psychedelic rock bands like Pink Floyd and space rockers like David Bowie.

1980s and 1990s

In the 80s, digital effects saw an increase in popularity. Rackmount units became more and more prevalent in recording studios. Digital effects and patches allowed guitarists to instantly toggle effects configurations without having to fiddle with tons of knobs. Rather than record with a bunch of stompboxes, most guitarists recorded a clean guitar signal. In post-production, the signal would be run through digital rackmount effects units, giving the producer more freedom to manipulate the sound.

Kurt Cobain adjusting his pedals
Kurt Cobain dialing in his pedals. From left to right: Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion, Tech 21 SansAmp Classic

The 1990s, the grunge movement spurred a return to a more old-school, lo-fi approach to effects. The emphasis was more on raw, grungey tones, rather than the cleaned up, spotless recordings of the glam metal that was so prevalent in the decade prior. Fuzz became the distortion of choice. The rough and gruff Big Muff Pi defined the sound of the early 90s. You can hear it on Nirvana’s Lithium and Mudhoney’s Check Out Time.

Modern Day

Line 6 Pod HD500X Multi-Effects Pedal

Today, effects are everywhere. Thanks to advances in technology, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to effects. Dozens of types and brands combine to give you thousands of pedals to pick from. Modern multi-effects pedals like the Line 6 Pod HD500X can do everything. With over 100 effects, amp models, and even speaker cabinet emulation, it can basically replace your amplifier!

Many beginner and intermediate amps, like the Boss Katana KTN-50, come with numerous high-quality effects built right into the amp. From built-in effects to multi-effects pedals to high-quality rackmount units, there’s no limit to the tones you can achieve. There are even computer programs that allow you to create a virtual effects pedal!

Guitar Effects Formats

You can find effects in many different formats. Which format you choose is up to you, but built-in and stompboxes are the most common. Each format has its advantages and disadvantages.

Built-In

Controls of the Fender Super Champ X2
Control Panel on the Fender Super Champ X2, with an F/X Adjust and Select Knob

Built-in effects are found on an amplifier. Depending on the amp, the effects in question may be digital or analog. In the early days of electric guitar, the amp was where guitarists got all of their effects. Having a couple of effects built-in to the amp was enough for the vast majority of musicians. Mid-century amps were constrained in the number of built-in effects due to the size of the circuits. Tube circuits took up a lot of space and added weight to an already hefty amplifier.

Nowadays, thanks to digital technology, space and weight isn’t a concern. On many amps, you’ll find at least a reverb effect. There are even amps with upwards of dozens of built-in effects. The excellent Boss Katana KTN-50, for example, contains 58 different built-in effects!

Stompbox

Examples of various guitar pedal effects

The most popular guitar effects format is the stompbox (aka ‘pedal’). Stompboxes are so named because they’re usually located on the floor. To activate the pedal, you have to ‘stomp’ on the switch that turns it on. Stompboxes are self-contained, portable effects units that can easily be chained together. Many guitarists find that it’s easier to attach their pedals to a pedalboard rather than carrying them around individually. This preserves the order of their ‘effects chain’ and keeps everything organized.

Rackmount

Hughes and Kettner TubeMeister 36 Tube Amp Head
Rackmount effects are quite popular in recording studios. Whereas stompboxes are portable and specialized, rackmounted units are usually large and multi-purpose. Rackmounted units are generally multi-effects units that contain more complex circuitry and wiring than an equivalent stompbox. This means they have more available options to control the effects and manipulate your tone. Rackmounts are meant to be mounted to an industry-standard 19″ rackmount case.

Some guitarists prefer rackmounted effects to stompboxes because they’re usually higher quality. With more controls available to tinker with, you can dial in a more specific tone. Rack units are nice because you’re not stuck staring at the floor the whole time. They’re usually at a comfortable height where you don’t need to bend down to reach them.

Multi-Effects/ModelersZoom G3XN Multi-Effects Pedal

Multi-effects units combine a bunch of effects into a single device, usually with an expression pedal for added versatility. Compared to carrying around a pedalboard that may weight 10 pounds or more, there’s no doubt that some guitarists prefer the portability of the Zoom G3XN, for example. These multi-effects boards are all digital. They use the same Digital Signal Processing technology that amplifier modelers do.

Headrush Multi-Effects Pedalboard
The HeadRush Pedalboard is one of the most advanced multi-effects units on the market

These multi-effects units may have added features such as amp modeling, tuners, and more. Some can even completely replace your amp – just take your multi-effects pedal to the gig, plug it into the PA system, and you’re good to go! The downside is that you’re stuck with the effects that came programmed into the unit. More modern multi-effects pedals allow you to connect your favorite effects pedals if you desire, giving you some leeway to customize your sound.

Multi-effects units are great, but they come with a steep learning curve. With so many options at your disposal, it will take you a while before you’re truly comfortable with them. Some of these multi-effects boards can be quite complicated and large, like the HeadRush Pedalboard.

Effects Modelers/Virtual Effects

Virtual effects digitally emulate their real-life counterparts. Think of virtual effects as the same digital effects that are built-in to an amplifier or multi-effects pedal, but without any hardware required. They’re completely virtual. You just download them on your computer, add them into your Digital Audio Workstation as plug-ins, and they’ll process your signal much the same way an effect pedal would. You can find completely virtual effects like this Tube Screamer clone made by TSE Audio. Best of all, it’s free! There are other paid plugins as well, like the excellent reverb effects made by Vallhala DSP.

Types of Guitar Effects

Guitar effects fall into a few broad categories based on how they manipulate your guitar’s signal. Let’s take a look at each category of effects, as well the iconic pedals and songs that embody their tone.

Distortion

An unclipped guitar signal
A ‘clean’ signal

Distortion is hands-down the most used effect in guitar music. It’s also one of the most nuanced and complex. Distortion comes in three distinct flavors, in order of intensity: overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Yes, ‘distortion’ is both a general term and a specific term, but don’t let that confuse you! You’ll know which one your fellow guitarists mean through context.

A guitar signal that has been clipped
A clipped signal

Distortion adds some grit and excitement to your tone. All distortion effects clip your guitar’s signal to a degree. The more intense the clipping, the more distorted your tone is.

You might be thinking: “Can’t I just use the gain knob on the amp to get distortion? Do I need distortion effects?”. Realize that there’s only so much gain you can get out of your amp. Not all amps are capable of hard rock, metal, or fuzz tones. If you want more gain than an amp is capable of on its own, you should buy a distortion pedal. You can also choose to forget about the gain on your amp and get all your distortion from pedals!

Overdrive

Ibanez Tube Screamer Overdrive Pedal
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is the gold standard for overdrive pedals

Overdrive is the heart of blues and classic rock. It’s neither ‘dry’ like a clean tone nor crazy aggressive like fuzz. Overdrive effects take your guitar’s signal and clip the tips of the waves, also known as soft clipping. This brings them to life, adding emotion and flavor to your music.

To hear overdrive used to perfection, listen to The Sky Is Crying by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Muddy Waters’ Hoochie Coochie Man.

Overdrive effects are generally used one of three ways: to augment the gain of your amp, to replace the gain on your amp, or to simply color your sound. It all depends on how you set the effect! The most iconic and popular overdrive effect you’ll hear is the Ibanez Tube Screamer. With only three knobs (volume, gain, and tone), you can easily configure it to take your licks to the next level. The Tube Screamer is also famous for giving your mids a boost.

Overdrive is not only for blues and classic rock, however. It’s used in all genres of music when you need to squeeze some extra gain out of your amplifier.

Fuzz

Fuzz is the most intense type of distortion you’ll encounter. It’s the sonic equivalent of an old wool sweater. It’s scratchy, rough, and grating. Before guitar effects pedals were widespread, guitarists went to crazy extremes to get some grit in their tone. They would slash their speakers with a razor blade or misalign one of the tubes on their amp. That’ll get you some crazy sounds, but you’ll be spending a lot of money to replace your equipment. Rather than destroy your equipment, you can use a fuzz pedal. Fuzz pedals take your guitar’s signal and clip the ever-loving goodness out of it. Your signal goes from a nice and curvy sine wave to this:

Square waves created by a fuzz effects pedal
Squared-off ‘fuzz’ waves

Fuzz is great when you want a bunch of grit and dirt in your sound. It was the go-to distortion in experimental 70s rock and 90s grunge. Fuzz can span the range from less extreme, like The Kinks’ You Really Got Me on one end to The White Stripes’ rude and brash Dead Leaves on the other. It’s very common in metal and high-gain music when you really need an immense sound that fills up stadiums. For metalheads who need a fuzzy crunch box, you can’t do much better than an EHX Metal Muff.

Big Muff Pi with Tone-wicker Fuzz Pedal
The Big Muff Pi with Tone Wicker gives you classic Big Muff fuzz with even more tonal versatility

You can’t talk about fuzz pedals without mentioning the most iconic fuzzbox in modern music: The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. With more versions released than you can count, it’s been a pedalboard staple since the 1970s. Used by music icons like David Gilmour, Kurt Cobain, and Carlos Santana, there’s no doubt that the Big Muff has stood the test of time.

Distortion

With overdrive at one extreme and fuzz at the other, you’ll find distortion lives somewhere in the middle. When a guitarist talks about distortion in a hard rock or heavy metal context, this is usually what they’re referring to. It’s not as extreme as fuzz, but not as mild-mannered as overdrive.

Compare the sounds you heard before to the two-minute mark of Metallica’s Fade to Black. Notice how it’s not as gritty and rough as fuzz, but still much ‘hotter’ and more aggressive than the overdrive used by Stevie Ray Vaughan and other blues acts.

Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal
The iconic Boss DS-1 distortion pedal

The Boss DS-1 is probably the most common distortion pedal in modern music. While some guitarists may bad-mouth it, saying that it sounds ‘generic’, it’s certainly a versatile, jack-of-all-trades pedal. If you prefer something a little more unhinged, the MXR Super Badass has a ton of gain on tap. If you want to find the best distortion pedals, we’ve created a list of recommendations for any budget.

Three-in-one

Caroline Guitar Company Hawaiian Pizza Fuzz Pedal
The Caroline Hawaiian Pizza is a unique boutique pedal that can do it all

Many distortion pedals can actually serve as an overdrive and fuzz pedal as well. Depending on how you set the gain and volume, you can get a lot of mileage out of a single pedal. For example, the famous ProCo Rat can do it all. It’s not the perfect overdrive or the most versatile fuzz, but it can happily do any type of distortion you ask it to. The fantastically quirky Caroline Hawaiian Pizza can also span the range from overdrive to fuzz to everything in between.

As you can see, distortion is a pretty broad topic. If you’re still unclear about the differences between overdrive, fuzz, and distortion, we’ve created an article that will help you out.

Modulation

Think of modulation effects as the ‘wavy’ effects. Generally, modulation effects take the input signal and oscillate either the original signal or a ‘copy’ of that signal. The modified signal will then be mixed back into the original signal, either immediately or on a delay.

Vibrato

Vibrato is the simplest modulation effect. If you’re familiar with the vibrato technique of ‘vibrating’ a string, this is exactly what the vibrato effect does. It applies small pitch changes to your signal. Listen to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles. When the organ comes in at the 26-second mark and during the chorus, take notice of the oscillations in its pitch.

Vibrato can be slow and deep, quick and shallow, or anything in between. The speed at which the pitch changes occurs is the rate. The degree to which the pitch changes is the depth. Rate (sometimes ‘speed’) and depth are controls you’ll find on the majority of modulation effects.

Mxr Uni-Vibe Chorus/Vibrato Effect PedalOne of the most iconic vibrato effects is the MXR Uni-Vibe. It’s been around since the 1960s in various incarnations. It’s not just a vibrato pedal, however – it’s also a chorus pedal too! We’ll talk about chorus a little later in the article. On the Uni-Vibe, you simply press the switch at the top of the pedal to change modes. The Uni-Vibe isn’t the most extreme vibrato pedal on the market, but you’ll be happy with the amount of control provided by the three knobs for level, speed, and depth.

Tremolo

What vibrato is to pitch, tremolo is to volume. The tremolo effect creates slight shifts in the volume of your guitar. Again, tremolo effects don’t change the pitch – only the volume. Don’t get confused! You may have heard a fellow guitarist refer to the whammy bar of a guitar as a tremolo bar. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. The whammy bar’s job is to change pitch, which, as we just learned, is what we call vibrato. Keep this little quirk in the back of your mind and don’t let the misnamed ‘tremolo bar‘ affect your understanding of tremolo effect. Say it with us: “tremolo effect = volume”.

Boss TR-2 Tremolo Effect Pedal
The fantastic Boss TR-2 tremolo pedal

Listen to Crush With Eyeliner by R.E.M. and pay attention to the ‘wavy’ guitar tone. That’s the sound of the tremolo effect! The Boss TR-2 is one of the best tremolo pedals on the market. It comes with Rate and Depth knobs to control the oscillation of the tremolo, and a Wave knob to control its fuzziness. If you’re looking to try out tremolo on a budget, check out the Joyo JF-09. It’s missing the Wave control that the Boss has, so it’s not as versatile. But for only 30 bucks, you’ll get a lot of tremolo for not much money.

Chorus

Electro-Harmonix Small CloneListen to a group of singers and try to make out each individual voice. There are low basses, high sopranos, and even more voice classes in between. Each type of singer has their own unique voice and qualities that blend together to create the sound of the choir. The chorus effect simulates this natural phenomenon. By splitting the original signal in two, adding some vibrato, and then mixing them together on a delay, you get the chorus effect.

One of the most iconic usages of chorus is the intro to Nirvana’s Come As You Are. Listen to the watery, almost ‘glistening’ shimmer provided by the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone. The Small Clone is a relatively simple pedal. There’s a knob that controls the rate (the speed of the vibrato) and a switch that controls the depth (degree of pitch change). If you need more versatility to dial the effect’s depth, the Boss CE-2W is the ticket. With a depth and rate knob, you get maximum control over the level of the effect. The CE-2W is actually 3 pedals in one! You can pick from two chorus voicings or a simple vibrato setting.

Flanger and Phaser

Flangers and phasers are very sci-fi, ‘swooshy’ effects. Both effects split the input signal. The secondary signal is filtered and then mixed back into the original signal with a delay. The difference stems from how the second signal gets filtered. In a flanger, all frequencies of the second signal are delayed equally. When the signals are mixed together, the phase shift that occurs is uniform. This is known as a ‘comb filter’ because of how the resulting signal appears.

In a phaser, the frequencies of the second signal are filtered non-uniformly. When the signals are mixed back together, the resulting signal wave is spiky, accentuating certain frequencies and diminishing others.

Flangers and phaser aren’t extremely common effects, but they’ve seen their fair share of use. Many musicians can have trouble telling the two effects apart due to their similarity. Of the two, flanger is the more extreme effect.

TC Electronics Vortex Flanger Pedal
The insanely configurable TC Electronic Vortex flanger pedal

Flangers have popped up in all types of music and can add some spice to your riffs. You can hear a subtle flange in the ending riff of Made of Stone by The Stone Roses. Contrast that with the all-out madness of Zepplin’s Nobody’s Fault of Mine. For an extremely versatile flanger, you’ll enjoy the TC Electronic Vortex. With options for classic and tape flange modes, as well as customizable TonePrint settings and 4 knobs, you can flange until the cows come home. For the more budget conscious, Mooer’s ElecLady costs half the price, but has good customizability and doesn’t take up much space.

MXR Phase 90 Phaser Pedal
The MXR Phase 90 is one of the most widely used phasers, found in all types of music from Zepplin to Van Halen

One of the most iconic uses of phaser is in the famous Eddie van Halen Eruption solo. At the 58-second mark, the spaceship-like phaser magic really starts to shine through. The MXR Phase 90 Phaser is a popular phaser, and also super easy to operate. With just one knob controlling the phase speed, it’s about as simple as you can get. There are budget options for a phaser as well, like the Behringer Vintage Phaser. Though it looks like a video game cartridge from the 90s, it sounds excellent and will only set you back $25.

Time-Based

Reverb

We’re all familiar with reverb. If you’ve spoken in a hallway or ever been inside an empty house or apartment, you noticed how your voice seems to echo. These reflections of sound are called ‘reverberations’ – reverb for short. Reverb effects simulate the spaciousness of certain venues, like hallways, stadiums, or cathedrals. These effects are much more convenient than having to haul all of your gear out to record in one of those spaces!

Spring reverb tank
The inside of a spring reverb ‘tank’, with transducers that pick up the vibrations of the spring and create reverb

In the ‘old days’, reverb was a practical effect. To get reverb, you would choose a location to record based on the type of reverb you wanted. Recording in a room or a stadium would capture the natural reverberations of the space. Of course, this wasn’t always practical, so mechanical reverbs were developed. The first of these was plate reverb, which was just a metal plate hanging in a room, with microphones or transducers on either end. The vibration of the plate was captured, which created the reverb effect. Metal springs were also used in a similar manner. Nowadays, we have digital reverb effects that can easily emulate plate reverb, spring reverb, church reverbs, and more! Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight contains 100% of your daily recommended dose of reverb. Listen to the echoes and airiness of the whole song in general. The vocals, synths, and drums all have some level of reverb applied to them.

Eventide Space Reverb Pedal
The $500 Eventide Space is capable of mind-blowing, out-of-this-world reverberations

Reverb is a very personal effect for many guitarists. While most guitarists would be happy with any old tremolo pedal, reverbs tend to be a bit more divisive. The TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 is a very safe choice with great options for spring, hall, room, and more. For the more adventurous and well-off musician, the Eventide Space is a professional-quality reverb machine, with 11 knobs that allow you to control every minute detail. On the more budget-friendly side is the micro-sized Donner Verb Square, with 7 modes and 3 control knobs. Finding the right reverb is all about trying out different pedals and settings until you find one you like.

Delay

Delay is an ‘echo’ effect that multiplies your sound. Depending on the intensity of the delay, you can have a single ‘slapback’ echo or a full-on jitter that sounds like really fast picking/strumming.

You’ll hear delay most often in space rock music. U2’s guitarist The Edge has made a career out of using delay. Angels and Airwaves’ The Adventure is also a great example. Pay attention to the 20-second mark. Listen to how the guitar seems to be staggered – almost jittery. That’s the unmistakable sound of delay.

Electro-Harmonix Canyon Delay Pedal
The EHX Canyon is a highly-reviewed, versatile delay/looper pedal

One of the most versatile delay pedals on the market is the Electro-Harmonix Canyon. With 11 modes of operation, a level, intensity, and feedback knob, you can get some crazy sounds. One of these modes is a looper – a great convenience feature. We’ll talk about loopers next!

Loopers

Loopers are a great effect to have if you’re playing alone. They allow you to ‘record’ a guitar part and play it back on a loop. If you’re performing a solo gig, you can loop the rhythm guitar and play a solo over it. Some looper pedals even allow you to layer multiple tracks over each other to make it sound like you’re a one-man band. For a masterful looping performance, check out John Clarke’s Pursuit of the Cygnus Thief. It sounds so full because he’s looping back what he just played in multiple layers!

If you want a dedicated looper pedal, the Boss RC-1 Loop Station is probably the best choice on the market. It’s very straightforward with many nice-to-have features, including a footswitch input for even more control over your loops.

Dynamics

Dynamics pedals control the highs and lows of your signal.

Noise Gate

Every guitarist loves to make a lot of noise. Unwanted noise, however, is always a source of frustration. When you turn up the gain, every little hiss, crack, and pop is accentuated. Background humming, accidental string touches – even pick noise – is amplified. Not to worry! The noise gate is here to save the day.

A noise gate allows you to set a threshold, usually in decibels. Anything below this threshold is removed from your signal. Noise gates really clean up your playing. Just remember that they’re not a substitute for proper technique. You will still need to practice two-handed muting technique if you’re playing with a lot of gain. Noise gates will, however, eliminate all the nasty scratching and hissing that might make your bandmates want to fire you and shun you from their lives. No one likes sloppy tone!

ISP Decimator II Noise Gate Pedal
The ISP Decimator II is a smart noise gate. Just set it and forget it.

A bad noise gate will rob your sustain and make you curse the day you picked up the guitar. The current gold standard for noise gates is the ISP Decimator II. All you need to set is the threshold and you’re good to go. The Decimator is smart enough to avoid cutting out sounds that you don’t want cut (as long as you set the threshold correctly). It’s not the cheapest gate on the market, but it’s one of the most advanced and best-reviewed. It preserves your tone’s dynamics and you avoid filling up the swear jar. Win-win. If you want to go the slightly cheaper route, the Boss NS-2 is a decent compromise. It’s not as intelligent as the Decimator, so you’ll need to mess with its settings a bit to find the right configuration for what you’re playing. The very bottom-of-the-barrel noise gates tend to be more of a source of headache than a helpful tool.

Compressor

Xotic SP Compressor Pedal
The Xotic SP Compressor is a solid compressor in a small format. It can operate at both 9v and 18v for even more versatility.

A compressor does exactly what it says: it compresses your sound. Basically, it evens out your picking. Imagine you’re playing a solo and the notes are a little inconsistent in volume. A softly picked note, whether on purpose or by accident, sounds quieter than a note picked with more force. A compressor makes all of these notes even, regardless of how hard you picked. It takes the quietest notes and makes them louder. The louder notes are quietened down. The gap between quietest and loudest notes shrinks when you turn your compressor on. Hence, the sound is compressed.

A lot of guitarists use a compressor to increase the sustain of their notes, making them ring out for longer. This isn’t the primary purpose of the compressor effect, but it’s useful to know. A compressor can feel unnatural, depending on how strong you’ve set it. After all, you wouldn’t expect a softly picked note to ring out for ages. It definitely takes some getting used to. There are multiple types of compressors with their own advantages and disadvantages. We won’t go into these, but you can read more about them in this excellent guide by Fender.

The Xotic SP Compressor is one of the best compressors on the market. It’s small, but don’t let that fool you – it’s deceptively heavy. It has a switch for how much compression you want (high, medium, or low), as well as knobs to control the volume and amount of compressed signal you want to blend in with the ‘dry’ signal. If you open SP up, you can even adjust how the pedal affects specific frequencies! For the budget conscious, Joyo makes a very good compressor that will only set you back $30. It’s not a looker, but it will get the job done.

Boost

TC Electronics Spark Boost Pedal
The TC Electronic Spark gives you up to 20db of extra volume for screaming solos

Also known as ‘clean boost’, boost pedals serve one purpose: to make you louder without adding more distortion to your sound. This effect is great for when you need an extra volume boost when you’re playing a solo. You’ll be thankful for it if you’re a lead guitarist and it’s your time to shine on stage. You don’t have to spend much money to get a great boost pedal. The TC Electronic Spark will give you all the volume you could ever need for less than $50.

Volume Pedals

Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal
The indestructible Boss FV-500H is fantastic volume pedal you can even use as an expression pedal

Volume pedals are simple pedals that control the volume of your guitar – much the same way the volume knobs do. However, some guitarists prefer volume pedals because of the hands-free control. They’re especially popular with rock, ambient, and post-rock guitarists who depend on the loud-quiet-loud-quiet type of song structure. Some volume pedals, like the rock-solid Boss FV-500H, can even be used as an expression pedal for controlling certain guitar effects with your foot instead of their knobs. A cool thing about the Boss pedal is its adjustable feel. You can loosen or tighten a screw on the bottom of the pedal to adjust how easy it is to move it up or down for more precise control.

Filter

EQ

EQ effects pedals behave much like the EQ on your amplifier. They reduce or exaggerate certain frequencies based upon how you set the controls. If you want a darker tone, set the Treble knob lower. Are you ‘all about that bass’? Then turn the Bass knob up. Need more Mids? You know what to do. 3-band controls are easy to use but don’t give you granular control over your tone.

A 6-band EQ is plenty, giving you more specific control than your amp allows. You can even find 10 or 12-band EQs if you search for a bit, but these take up lots of pedalboard real estate. If you find it confusing to use both the EQ on your amp and an EQ pedal, then it may make more sense to use just one or the other. Since a pedal can give you more control over the EQ on your amp, simply set each of your amp’s EQ controls to 12 o’clock. That way you have an easy-to-remember baseline tone to work off of and manipulate with the EQ pedal.

MXR M109S 6-Band EQ Pedal
The MXR M109S is a 6-band EQ that gives you more control over common guitar frequencies than the EQ on your amp

The MXR M109S is a straightforward EQ pedal with 6 bands. It even has an LED toggle for each band, making it easy to see in the dark. With up to 18 decibels of shaping power per band, you can sculpt your tone however you want it. It’s made of solid aluminum and built-to-last. Budget EQ pedals like the Joyo JF-11 work well enough but are liable to add some hiss to your tone due to their cheaper parts.

Wah-wah

Many guitar effects we’ve talked about so far are inspired by natural phenomenon. The chorus effect mimics the natural harmonies of a choir. Reverbs simulate the natural reflections of sound in a room or stadium. The wah-wah (or just ‘wah’) effect gives the guitar a more human voice.

Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal
The stapler-esque Dunlop Cry Baby is the king of wah pedals

Though the invention of the wah was an accident, its impact on music is everlasting. While today some guitarists find the wah effect a bit cheesy, it’s a great pedal to have for funk and rock genres. If you want to cover 60s rock or 90s Metallica, it’s a must-have. Listen to the intro of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and hear how the guitar almost sounds like it’s speaking. While using a wah-pedal, you have to really try not to mimic the sound of the pedal with your mouth. Another iconic use of wah is in the introduction of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

For decades, the go-to wah pedal for any musician has been the Dunlop Cry Baby. It’s inexpensive and it’s been around since before you were born. Buy one and unleash your inner Kirk Hammett.

Tuner

While not strictly an effect, tuners are a necessity. When you start to develop your ear, you’ll instantly know if you’re out of tune, but until then, you’re gonna need some sort of device that does that job for you. Whether you choose a rackmounted tuner, a pedal, or a clip-on tuner, it needs to be accurate and able to perform in a situation where there’s a lot of background noise.

Boss TU3 Chromatic Tuner PedalAs far as tuner pedals go, the gold standard is the Boss TU3. It’s got a bright indicator letting you know exactly how out-of-tune you are. It even has a ‘high-brightness’ mode for when visibility is difficult. With support for drop tunings and extended range guitars (as well as bass guitars), the TU3 does it all.

Buffered vs True Bypass

You should already know that guitar pickups generate a fairly weak signal. That’s why we must connect to an amplifier first. If we connected straight to a speaker, we wouldn’t hear anything! Because the pickups’ signal isn’t very powerful, even your instrument cable can cause the signal to degrade. The longer the cable you use, the more time it takes for your guitar’s signal to reach the amp, and the weaker the signal will get. This might not be apparent while practicing at home, but if you run a 30-foot cable to your amp, you’ll definitely notice a difference. The high frequencies get diminished due to a physical phenomenon called ‘capacitance’.

Imagine you have a large pedalboard with a dozen pedals. If every pedal is turned off, then your pedalboard is basically acting as if it were one long cable. Because your signal has such a long journey to make before arriving at its destination, it makes sense it loses some juice

Buffered Bypass

To combat signal degradation, some guitar effects pedals are designed as ‘buffered bypass’ pedals. When the pedal is on, then it processes the signal as normal. When the pedal is off, the buffered bypass circuit design sees your guitar signal and ‘boosts’ it up a bit by running it through a special buffer circuit. If you have a huge pedal board with a dozen effects, these types of pedals are invaluable in preserving your signal’s volume. However, due to their design, buffered bypass pedals inherently affect the tone of your signal, even though they’re supposed to be turned off. Depending on what tone you’re going for and the pedals you’re using, this could be something you wish to avoid or something you explicitly want. All Boss pedals use a buffered bypass design.

True Bypass

TC Electronic Flashback Mini Delay
The TC Electronic Flashback Mini Delay is an example of a true bypass effects pedal

Compared to buffered bypass circuits, true bypass circuits are dead simple. When they’re off, they don’t affect your tone in any way. They simply route the input of the pedal to the output and that’s that – no buffers or funny circuit magic. If you’re trying to maintain a completely consistent sounding tone, true bypass pedals are what you want. However, because they don’t ‘boost’ your signal when they’re off, you’re still susceptible to signal degradation. If your pedalboard is small to medium-sized, or if you don’t mind or notice the slight drop in volume, then this is just fine. You’ll just need to turn your amp up a little more to compensate for the decreased signal volume.

Check out the TC Electronic Flashback delay pedal. Notice how it says ‘true bypass’ above the switch. Unless otherwise labeled as ‘true bypass’, assume all pedals are buffered bypass. Some pedals even allow you to switch between different bypass modes for extra flexibility. Most TC Electronic pedals, like the Flashback above and PolyTune 3 tuner pedal, allow you to switch operating modes using a toggle on the inside of the pedal.

Which Should I Choose?

JHS Little Black Buffer
The Little Black Buffer by JHS can help boost your signal. It’s especially useful if you’re using long cables or only true bypass pedals

There’s no real answer to this question. If you like the sound of a pedal, don’t let the type of bypass it uses affect your decision. While some players shun buffered bypass and only play true bypass, they’re missing out on some great effects pedals. However, if you decide to go only with true bypass, you can always add a standalone buffer, like the JHS Little Black Buffer, to your signal chain and preserve your tone.

When it comes to reverbs and delays, a buffered bypass pedal can be a good choice. In a true bypass delay or reverb, turning off the pedal will cause it to go silent immediately. If you want the reverb or delay to slowly decay, or ‘trail’, instead of shutting off immediately, then you want a buffered bypass pedal. If you can’t decide, then the TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 Reverb and their Flashback delay we linked above allow you to switch between both buffered and true bypass!

Conclusion

We’ve learned about the history and invention of guitar effects, from their inception to modern day. Next, we saw all the different effects formats, such as stompboxes and rackmounts. Finally, we went through each category of guitar effects and described them in detail. Each effect was accompanied by a sound clip or video that demonstrates what it does to the sound of the guitar. Now, you’re an effects expert!

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