What are the essential guitar pedals every guitarist needs? You might be a beginner guitarist or just new to the world of effects. In this post we’ll talk about some common effects, what they are and why you might want to use them. We’ll provide a bit of a synopsis of what’s available and signpost you to more information. Finally we’ll talk about multi-effects units.
What Are Effects?
Effects alter or modify the sound of your guitar usually by using electronics or digital circuitry. There are many different types of effect, some more common such as overdrive and some less so such as voice boxes.
It depends on your amp type as well as preference as to how you use effects. Some amps have an effects loop, which bypasses all of the EQ and other controls on your amp. Most beginners and home guitarists will plug into the clean channel of their amp. This allows for more sculpting of the tone and is preferable for distortion / overdrive type effect.
You can chain effects together using patch leads, which are tiny cables with a 1/4 inch jack on each end. For example, if you’re using a distortion and wah pedal, you’d input your guitar to the distortion pedal, output the distortion pedal into the wah pedal and finally output the wah pedal to your amp. Patch leads make this possible without having a ton of extra cable getting in the way.
Technically you can chain as many pedals as you want, but be warned, switching them all on at the same time may produce some ‘interesting’ sounds. However, using a few pedals at the same time can be very effective. A distortion and a phaser pedal can produce some very distinct effects. There are other costs involved with compact pedals. At some point you’ll need a pedal board or bag to keep the pedal organised. You’ll also need a dedicated power supply unit.
Distortion / Overdrive
Traditionally distortion or overdrive occurred in tube amps when the settings were turned up to make the tone begin to breakdown. Overdrive and distortion pedals emulate that concept and, thanks to electronics, can usually provide a wide range of tones. Technically overdrive and distortion are separate things, but for our purposes they can be considered in the same class.
Broadly speaking there are two types of pedal in this category, analogue and digital. Analogue pedals are synonymous with vintage tones. You’ll find that analogue pedals are quite good a crunch and fuzz type sounds. Higher end pedals will be able to adapt to create other types of distortion too, but analogue pedals tend to lean towards classic overdrive / distortion.
Digital pedals use digital circuitry to emulate different types of overdrive / distortion. They’re quite good for high gain styles, but equally you can dial them back to produce classic crunchy sounds. These pedals can have a range of controls, but as standard you tend to get two or three variations of:
- Level – how intense the effect
- Tone – effectively adjusts the EQ
- Drive – how much distortion
You can read more about some of the best distortion pedals by clicking here.
Delay is used quite frequently, whether subtly or overtly. Delay is effectively echo. Bring to mind most U2 songs and you’ll recognize frequent use of delay effects. As with overdrive / distortion you can get analogue and digital delay pedals.
Analogue pedals usually feature Bucket Brigade Device circuitry. The delay effect is created by moving the signal along a series of capacitors. Analogue delay is a favorite of those who like warm, vintage delay. The type that used to be created by tape machines.
Digital delay pedals use signal processing to produce the delay effect. They usually have a much broader range of controls and modes, some even including tap tempo that enables you to define the delay interval. Digital delay pedals will usually come with “modes”. Frequently digital delay pedals will also cater for reverb and will have controls to set the type of reverb. Standard reverb modes include:
- Spring – origianally produced as a result of a spring vibrating to produce a metallic type of reverb
- Room – Emulates the sound bouncing off the walls of a smaller room
- Hall – Emulates the sound filling a larger room, i.e. a hall
Delay pedals often have controls to set the delay time, which is usually measured in milliseconds. That enables you to create barely noticeable repeats, or very obvious repeats that can be used to harmonize. A really cool effect that’s mostly seen in digital delay pedals is reverse. You play a note and after a delay it plays back starting quieter and then getting louder (the reverse effect). With some manipulation you can make this sound like a violin. It’s very striking when done properly.
Delay is very common in a variety of styles of music, from electronic to rock. Personally I really like delay effects. Once you’ve found the delay interval that works for you, it’s very satisfying to harmonize the delayed note with other notes in that particular scale. You can read more about delay pedals here.
Alright, so a compressor is not a pedal that’ll make weird and wonderful noises. But it is one of my favorite effects. A compressor squeezes the signal to smooth out any spikes or dips caused by hard or soft playing. The result is a much more even tone.
Compressors also usually have a sustain control. Sustain does just what is says. It holds the note for longer. Think Parisienne Walkways, which relies on sustain heavily. The idea of the compressor is to make the output more consistent.
On the pictured Boss CS-3 there are your usual level and tone controls, but also attack and sustain controls. The attack defines how quickly the compression takes control of the output. The sustain affects how long the signal is held. So if you want a note to last thirty seconds, crank up the sustain.
I think the compressor sounds great when played clean, but you can add other effects to create a variety of tones. Although it might not be the showiest effect, in my opinion it’s one of the best. If you’ve been playing for a while and not used a compression pedal I’d advise you to get one, quickly. It’ll bring a smile to your heart.
The phaser is a modulation type effect. Modulation effects modify the output, sometimes by adding a modified version of the input, like chorus pedals, or by varying the output. A phaser creates a sweeping effect, like speakers rotating around you.
They’re commonly used in a variety of genres of music. I think it’s fair to say that they’re predominantly used when playing clean, but you can have some fun using it with distortion. The Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist, John Frusciante, uses the phaser very well and has produced some legendary lead work with his pedal.
The phase effect can be quite subtle, or when cranked up it can produce a psychedelic effect. It can sound similar to the flanger, but it’s a little more subtle. You’ll usually get depth and rate controls. The depth controls the depth of the sweep, almost how wide the speakers are rotating around you. The Rate controls how fast the speakers are rotating, to put it practically.
I really like using the phaser with distortion in bursts to create distinct phrases of play. Even played with power chords you can get a really awesome effect without much effort.
You’ll instantly recognize the wah-wah pedal, an effect much loved by Jimi Hendrix. My first wah pedal was the Jim Dunlop cry baby, which I picked up from an auction site second hand. Compared to what’s available these days, it was extremely basic. But basic was simple, and all I wanted was the dynamism of the wah effect.
Wah pedals are controlled by your foot, which takes a bit of practice at first. My Cry Baby had a switch at the front and the expression pedal and that was it. I’d press forward to activate it and then rock my foot back and forth to my hearts content whilst the tone rocked with my foot.
The more modern pedals have a variety of features and some even have modes. The Boss wah pedal even has overdrive built in. Modern Wah pedals have taken something from technology used in modelling amps to produce different types of wah.
Wah pedals are very common in funk music, but are also found in a multitude of genres. Most Metallica solos use wah to some degree. Combine wah with distortion to create dynamic lead parts or with delay to create atmospheric tones.
Another option for those looking to explore guitar effects is via multi-effects units. They’re a cost effective way to be able to sample a wide variety of effects. Whilst you could easily spend $300 on three reasonable compact pedals (considering you’d need a power supply too), you can buy a decent multi-effects unit for less.
Purists will say that digitally produced effects just can’t cut it when compared to specialist compact pedals, but I think that really depends on the multi-effects unit you go for. For example my first multi-effects unit was a Zoom 606, and it was terrible. The effects were horrible. However something like the Boss GT-1 is a much more modern and much better unit. The GT-1 doesn’t compromise on effects quality.
Another criticism of multi-effects units is that they can be fiddly. Some do have complicated menu systems, but others do away with that in favor of more switches and controls. It depends on your temperament but if you’re willing to spend a little bit of time getting to know your multi-effects unit, you’ll have no problems.
Another reason to go for a multi-effects unit is space. Most will fit easily into the front pocket of your guitar case and you’ll only need one source of power, making it much more convenient than a pedal board. Modern multi-effects units cram in a lot of features, even including looper functions. They usually have memory banks too, meaning you can save and access custom effects easily.
Finally you can usually connect the unit to your computer to take advantage of online resources, such as professional effects. You can then send these directly to your unit for use. I think the Boss GT-1 is one of the best and most cost effective multi-effects units available right now. You can read more about the Boss GT-1 here.
The world of guitar effects can be daunting, but believe me it’s fun. You can read about effects, but the best way to gain experience is just to get in and use them. Compact pedals are great and collecting them can become a bit of an obsession. However there are overheads, making sure you have a dedicated power supply and enough patch leads, not to mention storage and transport.
I’d advise any beginner to review what they think they’ll actually use. Most guitarists will use overdrive / distortion, but are you actually going to use wah? That’ll help you to decide which effects you should prioritize.
If you’re really not sure, but want to start using effects then a multi-effects unit is a good option. It’ll give you the chance to experience and experiment with multiple effects in a cost effective way. You can always move onto compact pedals in the future.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Alternatively you can get in touch using my contact page.