There are a ton of different guitar pedals out there. All of which can create different noises or manipulate your sound in one way or another. Some make incredibly obvious differences, others are more subtle, but can add a polish to your overall sound.
Here I'm going to look at all of the different kinds of pedal available on the market. Hopefully this will help act as an effects pedal guide to beginners who are looking to buy their first pedal, and just don't know where to start. We'll look at the name of the effect, what it does, and an example of the pedal (mostly Boss and MXR pedals as they're probably the best known). Oh, and I won't be looking at any of the niche boutique pedals; that would take ages!
I'll leave out most of the technical details because it can get quite complicated and start requiring a basic knowledge of electronics. It also starts to get a bit jargony.
It's best to start with the most obvious pedal, one you've probably heard of already. Distortion! The term “distortion pedal” is actually used quite a bit as an umbrella term to refer to 3 different types of pedals.
Although it's not really wrong to do this (they all distort the signal of the guitar) I'm going to be a little bit more specific and split the group up into 3 types – distortion, overdrive and fuzz (these second two are discussed below).
Distortion is can be quit a heavy, obvious effect which provides a good amount of sustain & crunch to your sound. Because it heavily distorts the sound, it can sometimes hide the actual tone of the guitar.
However you can still hear the original tone of your guitar and amp in there somewhere. It just makes everything sound much more aggressive.
Example pedal: Boss DS1
An overdrive pedal still distorts your sound, and gives it an extra punch, but it's great at keeping more of the sound of your amplifier & guitar intact. So it sounds a little bit more natural.
It drives or “pushes” your amplifier more subtly than a distortion pedal so it doesn't sound too heavy or overpowering. Yet it still gives you that beefy, thicker sound.
It's often used in classic rock and blues but is a versatile pedal which is on the pedal board of millions of guitarists around the world.
Example pedal: Friedman BE-OD
Fuzz is the most extreme of the distortion effects and kind of sounds like it's pushing your amplifier to breaking point. It provides a bass heavy and noisy guitar tone and means that it's very hard to hear any of your original guitar tone.
However it's still a very diverse pedal depending on how you use it. It can be used to create very heavy attacking sounds, or add more of a discrete buzz which isn't too overpowering.
Remember that these definitions are usually subjective. But a general way to look at the three pedals would be this:
The different pedals are differentiated by the amount of the distortion / saturation they provide. Overdrive has the least, fuzz has the most, and distortion is somewhere in the middle.
It's best to experiment with these pedal to find out what you like the sound of the most.
Example pedal: The Big Muff
A wah pedal, you'd never guess, makes a “Wah” noise. Go ahead and say it (but make sure you're alone first or you'll look crazy). You'll notice that when you say wah your lips start close together as if you're whistling and then expand until your mouth is open. This is exactly what a wah pedal does to your guitar signal.
But instead of using your mouth to control the amount of wah, you use a foot pedal. The more more you press down, the more obvious the wah sound is.
This lets you manipulate and emphasise parts of your sound. It's especially good during solos.
Example pedal: The Cry Baby
Delay is another effect which does what it says on the tin. It delays your signal by a varying amount and then plays it back. This creates a doubling effect. The pedal will let you define how long the delay is.
Digital pedals can usually delay for longer, but some people think that these digital pedals don't sound as good as analogue alternatives. Delay pedals are great for creating experimental effects and sounds, but can be subtle too.
Example pedal: Source Audio Nemesis Delay
In addition to digital and analogue delays there are even more types. Here are some of the delay sub categories:
- Slapback - Usually a shorter delay of a few tenths with little trail to the note. So usually just one repeat. Often use to fatten up the note.
- Reverse - A weird delay, bit has its uses. It basically is like a standard delay, but plays the note backwards. Not commonly used (however I remember hearing some in a Fall of Troy song - can't remember which one!)
- Lo Fi - Repeats are usually less crisp than standard delay. Very subjective if this is a sound you like or not.
- Tape - Tape delay aims to replicate the delay from the old technique of using tape machines.
- Chorus / Phase delay - a standard delay but with touches of a modulation effect added in.
The chorus effect sounds like hundreds of different guitarists playing what you are, but very slightly out of time. The effect also creates a mild wobble type noise.
Overall the sound sound rich, full and thick because of the chorus effect.
It can be used effectively both as a subtle effect or a more obvious experimental effect.
Example pedal: The Boss Super Chorus
Flanger is very similar to chorus, however it can provide a little bit more of an obvious effect.
It's got more of a wooshing sound which goes up in pitch and then down again. People often say it sounds like a plane flying past.
Unlike the chorus effect it doesn't sound like there are hundreds of guitarists copying your sound, but still can thicken your tone up.
Example pedal: The DigiTech Turbo Flanger
Again the phaser pedal is similar to the flanger and chorus effects. It creates a sweeping sound by creating peaks and troughs in your guitar tone. You can alter the height of these peaks and troughs by manipulating the controls on the pedal.
The phaser also adds a similar, but not as obvious, effect to the guitar tone as the chorus. So it sounds like there are a few guitarists playing the same as you.
Example pedal: MXR Phase 90
Tremolo sounds like your volume is being turned up and down very quickly after you play a note. However the sounds gets blended together nicely so it doesn't sound too obvious or out of place. Essentially it proves a nice wobble sound.
The controls on the pedal control how big this volume change is, and how quickly it occurs. It's not too far away from the phaser, flanger and chorus pedals, but still sounds unique when compared to them.
Example pedal: The Supa-Trem
The looper pedal is more of a utility pedal. It doesn't add an actual effect, but it lets you record a segment of guitar which will then be played back through your amp. The idea is that live guitarists would use this when there are two guitar parts, but only one guitarist. So the process would look like this:
Hit the pedal and play the rhythm riff.
Hit the pedal again, the riff plays over and over without input from you.
You then can play the lead part over the rhythm.
Hit the pedal again to stop the loop and go into the next part of the song.
A looper pedal is mostly for live guitarists, but it can be cool for anyone to experiment with.
Example pedal: EHX 360 Looper
Many amplifiers come with reverb already installed, the problem is, it's not always that good. Essentially reverb is an echo, and a reverb pedal can provide you with a few different atmospheric reverb sounds.
A good reverb pedal can range from adding just a slight echo, to making it sound like you're in a massive cave. It adds a large amount of atmospheric depth to your sound and can complement other effects.
It sounds especially good with a clean, undistorted tone.
There are often different pedals which specialise in a certain type of reverb, or do all three. Often the main reverb types are described as:
Example pedal: Biyang RV-10
Compressors aren't exactly the most exciting pedal, but what they are good at is evening out your sound and making you sound more professional.
It normalises the volume of your guitar, so if you pick a string lightly, and then heavily, it should sound the same.
They're often used for live playing or in recording. Additionally most compressors also have the ability to sustain notes (which means make them last longer).
Example pedal: Wampler Ego Compressor
Sometimes it's not always possible to use the volume control on your guitar; you need two hands to play the guitar after all. For that reason we have volume pedals. They let you alter the volume of the guitar simply by using a foot pressure pedal.
You may want to do this for several reasons – fade outs / ins, volume swells, or just adjusting your volume mid song.
They're not a complex pedal; many don't even need powering.
Example pedal: Roland FV500
14. Octave & Pitch
First we need to know what an octave is. An octave is the distance between one musical note played at a higher or lower pitch. To hear this on your guitar play the open E string. Now play the 12th fret on the E string. You can hear that it's the same note. That's an octave simply because there are 12 semitones in an octave.
An octave pedal automatically plays the current note you're playing up or down one octave. So it's like playing fret 0 and fret 12 at the same time. This makes a really thick & full sound when used with single notes. These pedals can be made to make some very unusual sounds.
Pitch shifter pedals are a close relative to the octave pedal, but slightly less specialised. They can do an octave or two up and down, but also the variations in between an octave.
Both pitch shifter and octave pedals work best with single notes, they don’t sound good with chords.
Example pedal: Boss Super Octave
15. Noise Gate
If you've got quite a few pedals, even if they're true bypass, you're going to get some unwanted noise. This will usually be in the form of a buzz or hum and will be especially noticeable when you're not playing anything; when everything should be quiet.
So how do you stop your amp sounding like it has a bees nest inside? A noise gate. It simply cuts off all sound going into your amp when the guitar is silent.
So it's not removing the noise, but hiding it. A "gate" is a good way to think of it - it goes at the end of a pedal chain and closes, preventing any noise getting through.
Example pedal: Electro Harmonix Silencer
EQ pedals allow you to fine tune the bass, treble and mids of your sound. While many amps allow you do this to a certain extent, a pedal gives you much more choice about the specific band of sound you want to add or take away.
This is because most equalizers have 7 bands which you can manipulate. EQ pedals are for experienced guitarists who are trying to fine tune their sound; they know what they want to change (maybe they want to boost a section of their mids), and with an EQ pedal they can do this.
Example pedal: Biyang EQ 7
Acoustic simulator pedals simply turn your electric guitar sound into that of an acoustic guitar. This can be really useful if you want to play a song played on an acoustic guitar, but don't actually own one.
For live performances it's often used when there's only one guitarist, but a really quick change from an acoustic sound to an electric sound is needed.
However since a good acoustic guitar simulator can be over £100, it may be best to buy an actual acoustic guitar if you just want it for playing acoustic songs.
Example Pedal: Boss AC3
Well this is an obvious one. A tuner pedal will plug into your guitar setup so you can quickly and accurately tune your guitar. It's a good pedal for all players to have. For casual bedroom players you get to accurately tune your guitar without the need for a flimsy guitar tuner.
For guitarists who gig, you can accurately and quietly tune your guitar in between songs. Most pedal based tuners can also tune a range of alternative tunings like down a step / half a step. It's not an exciting pedal, but it's pretty much essential if you're getting serious about guitar.
Example pedal: Spartan Music PT-02 Tuner
Boost pedals increase the output strength of the guitar signal before they hit your amps preamp. Consequently less gain is needed from your amp to get a distorted tone. So they keep your tone very clean but give it more of a push.
They can be used for a range of purposes. Some people use them as a volume boost during solos. Other keep the boost pedal on all the time to fatten up the sound without adding dirt.
Example pedal: Keeley Katana Mini
20. Multi Effects
Multi effects pedals have a range of effects all in one pedal. They're great for experimenting with the different effects at a budget. For example if you divide the Caline CP-38 cost by different 7 effects it has, you're paying under £6 for each one. So it's great for experimentation, although sometimes it can be a case of "jack of all trades, master of none".
There are different varieties of multi effects which specialise a bit more. For example pedals which mix together distortion, overdrive and boost, or specialise in a range of delay effects.
Example pedal: Caline Lucky 7
20. Buffer Pedal
This type of pedal you just plug in and forget about. There aren’t usually many options or things to change. It's put in your pedal chain to help maintain tone by converting the signal to a lower impedance. Most people won’t need them unless you have a very long pedal chain with excessive amounts of cables. Some pedals have buffered bypass which performs a similar task.
Example pedal: JHS Little Black Buffer
21. Filter Pedal
Filter pedals can make some very unique sounds. They're not always subtle. A lot of the time they're emulating another instrument, Electro Harmonix, as well as other brands, make pedals which allow you to sound like a synth, a sitar, a piano, or a range of bass instruments. But they don't need to sound like anything specific, although a lot do sound synth-y. These are very fun to use and can provide some very usable tones - especially in electro music.
Example pedal: Earthquaker Devices Organizer
While this isn't an exhaustive list, I think it covers the main pedals. There are also “utility” pedals such as DI pedals or splitter pedals, however these are more a recording and production tools in pedal form.