Guitar Pedals Explained
Pedal power 101
There are any number of different variations which can give a guitarist his or her tone. The combinations and possibilities are mind-blowing. You can take your pick from the type of guitar used, the hardware and technology used in the guitar, the amplifier you’re plugged into, the room in which you’re playing, the level of technique within your fingers. The list goes on. Typically any one of these factors could make the exact same rig sound completely different in the hands of another player. Yet technical mastery and high-end or vintage equipment are usually a by-product of having played the instrument for A Very Long Time. What about when you’re at the start of your playing career, and you’re looking for a quick shot in the tonal arm? Or you’re more accomplished and are looking to experiment with different sounds and textures. It’s here that guitar effect pedals start becoming more and more attractive. But what are they?
For the uninitiated, effect pedals usually take the form of small-ish metal boxes which sit on the floor in front of you, and can be switched on and off using your feet. Hence, pedals. The technology contained within these pedals is designed to alter your tone in any number of ways, from cleaning it up and making it louder through to adding layers of shimmer, fuzz, whammy or ‘verb. Don’t worry, we’ll refer back to these terms later but yes, they are indeed genuine terms in the wacky world of effects pedals.
Here, in our guitar pedals explained guide, we’ll look at the different types of pedals and the potential applications they may have, and we’ll debunk some of the terminology so, by the end, you should know your flanges from your muffs. Stop sniggering at the back.
Types of effect
You can pretty much split up the different types of effects into larger overall effect groupings. Most common are drive, reverb, delay and modulation effects, however there are all kinds of esoteric adventures to be had outside these master groupings but let’s take one step at a time… For now, let’s take a look at the main groups in more detail.
Overdrive, and its noisier cousin distortion, are effects used to ‘push’ your guitar’s signal before it reachers your amplifier. Most amplifiers have some degree of drive capability built into them so you’re most likely familiar with what they sound like. Overdrive is what pushes a clean sound to break up slightly, giving it a warmer, thicker sound perfect for blues and rock playing. It also serves to add more sustain to your playing, meaning notes ring out for longer, as well as giving a noticeable boost to your volume. Distortion is effectively a more extreme version of overdrive, in that it takes the signal you’re feeding it and makes it all degrees of nasty. You’ll typically hear distortion used in heavier guitar styles like metal and punk, where a liberal dollop of dirt is required to give the sound its thicker characteristic.
It’s probably fair to say drive pedals of all shapes and sizes outnumber the other types of effects, because they form the backbone of your overall tone. It’s also probably fair to say that it’s one of the most subjective tonal changes you can implement. One man’s muff is another man’s screamer, so to speak. There are certain classics within the genre which may act as a gateway to stronger forms of grit though. Ibanez’ famous green Tubescreamer pedal is used by countless players on account of its versatility, whereby it can form the basis of a good quality blues tone, or it can complement a distortion pedal by ‘boosting’ or tightening up the signal. Another favourite is the Electro Harmonix Big Muff, which has been used for decades by players looking to add a distinct fuzziness to their tone.
Reverb sits at the other end of the tonal kaleidoscope, serving usually to add warmth and depth to a clean tone. Practically speaking, reverb simulates the sound of your guitar being played in a larger physical space. Imagine shouting at the top of your voice in a cloakroom, and then imagine doing the same thing in a church and you’re somewhere near there. Ok, that’s an extreme example, but approximating the sound as it reverberates around is quite a seductive thing when applied to a guitar, and there are plenty of good examples of it being used to add a bit of life to an otherwise sterile clean tone.
As with drive tones, many guitar amplifiers will come with reverb built-in so you may have an idea of the type of effect it is already. In pedal form though, there are companies taking things to new heights by embracing reverb as a gloriously creative tool in its own right, not just something you add on as an afterthought. Strymon, the American pedal brand, are the masters of this as you’ll see in their Blue Sky (reviewed here) and Big Sky (reviewed here) pedals. Both offer a host of unique, interesting and quite incredible sounding reverbs which will alter your tone in all kinds of wonderful ways.
Delay is a commonly-used effect where the pedal repeats your sound at pre-determined intervals after you’ve played it. It’s used almost exclusively with a clean guitar sound, although can be employed as a kind of quasi-reverb sound to flesh out a guitar solo using a driven sound. Predominantly though, delay is loved because it’s a brilliantly creative tool where ideas can start coming out of nowhere just through experimentation. By setting the repeated sound to play back at longer intervals via your delay pedal, e.g. around a second or longer, you can play a note and then embellish it with other patterns before the original note has even played back. This type of effect lends itself well to solo playing, as evidenced by its more advanced sibling; loopers.
Purists might question why we’ve lumped loopers in with delays but the simple fact is that both pedals repeat an element of what you’ve already played, and both are great for helping you come up with new ideas that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Basically, loopers take similar technology and allow you to record entire passages of play, then ‘loop’ them back (i.e. repeat them) why you play something new over the top. Lay down a basic chord progression, then solo of the top of it. You don’t even need to bother with pesky drummers or singers! We’re joking, obviously. As a tool for practice, they’re unparalleled, but in creative terms they’ve opened the doors to entire new genres of music. Ed Sheeran, KT Tunstall and plenty of other solo singer-songwriters have employed loopers in their acts to great effect.
As a starter, it’s well worth checking out the Boss DD-7 Delay pedal, which is a great example of a modern delay with tonnes of different settings and an in-built looper.
Modulation is where we step away from the more subtle (relatively) effects which serve to colour an existing tone, and into areas where you can truly begin to add flavour and texture to your tone. There are a few main types of modulation; chorus, phase, tremolo, wah and flange. Chorus subtly mimics your tone with a microscopically detuned duplicate, which when played together adds a nice warm layer to the sound. As an example, play the ‘e’ note on your second string (fifth fret) and the open ‘e’ first string at the same time. Naturally, there is a cent or two difference in the tuning but you can see that two virtually (but not exactly) instances of the same note being played makes everything sound a bit bigger and a bit wider. That, in an admittedly basic form, is the chorus effect.
Tremolo is the gentle art of making your signal subtly cut in and out of volume, and is used in old surf records among other things. Phase and flange are quite similar in essence; phase emulates the sweeping of the frequency band, alternating between cutting the bass and treble frequencies, while flange does a similar thing but with a slightly more extreme sound. Wah is perhaps more well known; the Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal has been used for decades by players of all genres, adding a highly distinctive wah-wah sound which can elevate a solo into something infinitely more interesting, or add a bit of that classic wakka-wakka sound you hear on classic funk records.
With so many different types of effect all falling under the modulation banner, it’s hard to recommend one single pedal which covers all bases. Each effect, on its own, can vary immensely from pedal to pedal, and it’d be impossible to list examples for each. If what you’ve read sounds interesting, you may consider investing in a multi-effects unit which, as well as the effects listed previously, will contain decent versions of each type of modulation so you can see which one suits you best. Boss are the masters of multi-fx, and their ME-25 comes with great versions of all the modulations we list here, and a whole lot more.
Hopefully this list has explained some of the key differences between the myriad pedal and effect types available to you. Not every effect suits every application or genre, but with a bit of experimentation you should find what’s right for you.