Best Guitar Pedals For Synths
Why should guitarists have all the fun?
Guitarists, in case you weren’t aware, love their toys. And their particular instrument gives them ample opportunity to indulge their passion. Be it amplifiers, pedals or guitars themselves, there are plenty of ways a six-stringer can expand their tonal arsenal.
Pedals, in particular, have a dramatic effect on a player’s sound. They take a boring, plain, clean signal and transform it into any number of weird and wonderful tones. Drive pedals add gain, reverb pedals introduce space and modulation pedals insert a nice dose of craziness into the mix. But it got us thinking.
See, the physical connection points of a guitar pedal – 1/4″ jack – are the same as the physical connection points of most synths. Ergo, there’s no reason why the output of a synth can’t be fed into a guitar pedal. Our tiny minds went crazy with the possibilities. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the best guitar pedals for synths, and how they could change your sound completely.
Note: we’re referring here to actual, sound-producing synths, as opposed USB MIDI controllers. While there are ways to combine these – and the software they use – with external hardware like pedals, the process is different. We’ll look at that in a future post.
It’s probably worth having a run-through of some of the basic styles of pedals, and what they do. Certain pedals are pretty self-explanatory, while others are a bit more esoteric in their aims. It’s also worth pointing out that many synths do indeed come with effects built in. You probably have your own favourites already. The reason pedals are so much fun however, is that no two delays are the same, no two reverbs are the same and so on. By experimenting with different brands, at different price points, you will start to see the differences in tonality on offer.
In terms of drive, you’re looking at either overdrive, distortion or fuzz. These cover the majority of driven sounds. Overdrive adds a gentle warmth to a sound which mimics the harmonics of an overdriven valve amplifier. One of the most famous overdrive pedals out there is the Ibanez TS808, which is equally at home gently warming up a sound as it is giving it some real heft.
Distortion pedals, like the Jim Dunlop MXR Super Badass, add significant levels of filth to your tone, while fuzz pedals like the classic Boss FZ-5 take you off into the outer limits of hairy craziness. Certain synth tones work better than others here. Organs, for example, can rival any guitar for heaviness if you add a thick, chewy layer of fuzz over the top. In the same vein, adding reverb and/or delay to an atmospheric pad can give it real life and breadth in the mix.
Modulation effects are a lot of fun, and often have the most extreme tone-shaping capability. Tremolo, for example, is used to quickly gate the volume levels of a signal to give it that stuttery characteristic. If you’re a synth player you’re more than likely already familiar with Moog; their MiniFooger Tremolo is a great example of this effect. Phase and flange, on the other hand, add movement in the form of sweeps and swells.
At the more off-the-wall end of the pedal cabinet, you’ll find things like the Electro Harmonix Superego, which ‘freezes’ a tiny sample of the signal and repeats it in a perpetual loop. From there it does all manner of wonderful things, producing atmospheres quite unlike any other pedal out there.
Another Electro Harmonix pedal worth mention is the EHX Micro Pog. This is, in essence, a pitchshifter with skills. Guitarists often use it two recreate the tone of a twelve string guitar, but it’s not hard to see how synth players could use that unique doubled-up sound to create something cool.
Also worth considering is a looper pedal. Guitarists have been using these for a while now, as it allows them to build up soundscapes simply by recording and overdubbing using a simple footswitch. The industry-favourite Boss RC-30 is a great choice, as it allows you to have two separate inputs so you could have both synth and vocals running through it at the same time. Get used to using these and they can often become the best guitar pedals for synths.
Finally, if it’s true experimentation you’re after – along with a welcome dash of convenience – you might want to think about using a multi-effects pedal. These contain (often) hundreds of individual sounds, tones and presets, and can unlock the gates to all manner of sonic wizardry. It might be expensive, but the Boss GT-1000 is a flagship multi-effects pedal which will last you a lifetime of tonal exploration.