Guitar pedals are like an extension of your personality. They allow you to speak a language by manipulating sound that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. A single pedal can define a style or genre of music, and can even encapsulate an entire era of musical history.
Things to look out for:
- Pedal Platforms and Brands
- Distortion | Overdrive | Fuzz
- Reverb and Delay
- Modulation: Chorus | Flanger | Phaser | Envelope Filters | Pitch shifters
- Foot pedals: Wah | Volume | Expression
- Tool FX: Looper | EQ | Noise Gate | Tuner
Pedal Platforms and Brands
There are a few different pedal platforms available in today’s market. stompboxes, micro pedals, multi-FX Units, and foot pedals are the main suspects you’ll encounter. Stompboxes are the most common form factor for guitar pedals. They tend to feature one type of effect with many variations and tone shaping options for that specific effect. For example, a reverb pedal with a selection of different reverb types (hall, room, spring, plate) and parameter controls such as decay time, room size, tone, modulation, etc. Micro pedals came onto the market around 10 years ago and have since exploded.
They offer the same sound but in a tiny footprint. Ideal for touring and gigging to save space on stage, but they do have a lot less control in comparison to traditional stompbox units. Multi FX pedals are of a much bigger size, but they feature a vast array of stompbox effects in one unit. These units are digital and not analog like traditional pedals, meaning they have insanely powerful DSP processing to handle complicated routing chains.
Digital FX pedals used to be considered ‘cold ‘and ‘artificial’ sounding. That’s no longer the case with companies such as Strymon and Line 6 making some of the best sounding pedals the world has ever seen. Foot pedals are essentially a stompbox but in a slightly larger and longer format. They’re designed to be controlled by rocking your foot, as opposed to stomping. These effects are almost always volume pedals, wah pedals, and expression pedals.
Some of the main brands in today’s market (2020) are Strymon, Boss, Electro-Harmonix, TC Electronic, MXR, Dunlop, Line 6, JHS, Keeley, and Mooer to name just a few.
Distortion | Overdrive | Fuzz
Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz are the most popular effects units that almost all guitar players own of some kind. They all fall into a similar category but do have sonic differences that will lend in favor of certain styles. Distortion is a hard-clipping device that literally distorts the outgoing signal. Most commonly associated with heavy rock bands as they give your guitar a heavy tone by darkening the output.
The Boss DS-1 is quite often most people’s very first guitar pedal, as it has simple functionality with a great distortion tone and is very affordable. Overdrive differs in the way that it mimics the effect of tubes in a valve head breaking up when cranking a big amp. It has a slightly more natural sound and is effectively pushing the signal, rather than manipulating it. Commonly used by blues, rock and roll, and popular music genres. Fuzz is like distortion but on steroids. It clips the signal extremely hard and compresses the output. This is known as square wave clipping. This was favored by legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix and many grunge and alt-rock groups, such as the White Stripes and Royal Blood.
- Boss DS-1 – Distortion
- Ibanez Tube Screamer – Overdrive
- Electro Harmonix Big Muff – Fuzz
Reverb and Delay
Reverb and Delay are time-based effects. Reverb takes the incoming signal from the guitar and places it in a virtual environment. These can be traditional spaces such as rooms, halls, and cathedrals, as well as some crazier, presets such as shimmer (pitch shifting reverb), swell, and magneto (delay and reverb combined). Delay differs from reverb as it duplicates your signal and repeats its value by numerical calculations; 8th, 16th, ¼ notes are all common delay values. You can also use controls like feedback, depth and blend on delay to create modulation effects such as chorus. Tape, Digital, and dotted 8th notes are some of the common forms of delay. Tape delay originated from tape machines and is still popular today. Dotted 8th note delay is best described if you think of the band U2, the Edge’s signature sound is all based around his dotted 8th note delay processing.
- Strymon Big Sky – Reverb
- Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man - Delay
Modulation is actually just a form of delay. By adding a time-delayed version of the sound to the effect itself, and then varying the delay parameters you can create a huge amount of modulation effects. Chorus is one of the most common forms of modulation made most famous during the ’80s for its use on wide ballad guitar tones. Flanger, Phaser, Tremolo and Vibrato are some of the many other effects that fall under the category of modulation.
- Boss CE-1 Ensemble – Chorus
- Boss Phaser
- Boss Flanger
While these pedals are quite a niche and specific, they actually play the biggest part in the evolution of the guitar and music culture. The Wah Pedal was a collaboration between Jimi Hendrix and Jim Dunlop during the 1960s. Hendrix wanted a pedal that replicated the sound of his voice, and Jim did just that. You can hear it straight away for the intro of Voodoo Child. The Wah Is essentially an envelope open and closing by rocking your foot back and forth. An envelope is a filter that modulates the frequency of a sound source. The Cry Baby is now one of the most sold guitar pedals of all time and is actually incredibly affordable.
The Dunlop GCB95 now retails for around £60-70 GBP. Volume pedals are a great way to control your entire FX signal. If you have a reverb with a long tail going into a delay and other time-based effects, a volume pedal can be a brilliant way to automate the dynamics of your performance. By rocking on the pedal back and forth you can create a swell motion and suddenly your guitar is transformed in a cinematic sound source somewhat resembling a Synthesizer and Orchestra! Expression foot pedals can be used externally to control pedals such as delays. Many delay pedals such as the EHX Memory Man have an expression input. The expression pedal controls the delay’s repeat values and can give you crazy modulation effects depending on how quick or slow you operate the unit.
- Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby – Wah
- Ernie Ball Volume Pedal – Volume
- Boss EV5 – Expression
Tool FX: Looper | EQ | Noise Gate | Tuner
Last on our list of guitar pedal memorabilia are special ‘tool’ units. Some of these pedals have helped artists create fully-fledged careers. In fact, the Looper pedal allowed one artist to become one of the biggest selling songwriters of all time, Ed Sheeran. The looper is more or less a recording studio in a box. You can record a chord progression, then stomp on the box and it will playback what you just played. You can then begin overdubbing parts and creating a multi-layered performance. Think of it as the modern-day version of a one-man-band. Noise Gates are most commonly used after high output stompbox units such as distortion.
They help ‘gate’ the unwanted noise by trapping it and reducing the noise floor, therefore you only hear the actual notes when the player attacks the strings. EQ pedals aren’t too common on most pedal boards as most amplifiers have built-in three-band EQ’s. However, they can give you a global EQ control of your pedal chain. This is useful when you have multiple pedals in a chain, as the original tone from the amplifier starts to fall apart and you lose the true tone. Another pedal that is designed specifically for this use is a Buffer pedal. Finally on the list is one of the first pedals you should buy, the Tuner. The tuner is the most basic but priceless pedal on this list. Who wants to listen to a performance from someone who has a million pedals, but their guitar tuning is all over the shop? Invest in a tuner and you’ll always find a use for it.
- Boss RC1 – Looper
- MXR EQ
- Boss NS1 – Noise Gate
- Boss TU3 – Tuner