We all have heard that tone starts in the hands of the guitarist. Different players can play thru the exact same amp and guitar rig and produce sounds on opposite ends of the spectrum. I like to refer to this base sonic level as the DNA of a player. Thanks to mad scientists tinkering in their evil laboratories of sound, we now have the ability to alter a guitarist’s tonal genetic code with effects pedals.
Of all of the variables available to a musician, from amps to instruments, the effects pedal is king. They can offer a player the ability to change the tone and color of their sound in a way that can create unique sonic textures never before heard, or reproduce the traditional reliable tones of yesteryear. Many players, like U2’s The Edge, use effects to carve out their own personal identity amongst the herd.
The roots of effects pedal usage can be traced back to early into the history of the electric guitar, but two people immediately come to mind who really pushed its usage out there: Roger Mayer and Jimi Hendrix. We’ve come a long way since those early days and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the insane amount of options out there. From good old standbys to newer boutique options, it can be a chore to know what effects pedals could be right for you.
Understanding the basic types of effects pedals and their functions can help you narrow down what will end up on your pedal board. That’s precious real estate after all... unless you are gonna create one of those gigantic spaceship cockpit style pedal boards. Have fun carrying that around.
Let's have a look at each pedal type in the standard signal path. Experimenting with the signal chain can create many unique sounds, but we’ll go with the generally accepted pedal order for this walkthrough. Remember, the guitar is first in the chain, and then comes your pedals, which output to the amplifier.
Here's the various types of electric guitar effects pedals in the order we present them which also represent the order they should appear in your signal chain:
There's quite the number to cover, so let's waste no time. We'll start from the top.
First up in the chain from guitar to amp is the Filter. Filter effects go by many names and take on many forms, but they all serve one function: they are frequency changers. They can serve as stationary or dynamic equalizers that can bypass, reduce, or accentuate different frequencies in your signal.
EQ pedals do exactly what you would think. They allow you to set the tone of your sound through equalization. Just like on your radio, they can adjust the bass, mid, and treble frequencies of your tone. Depending on the type of EQ stompbox you have, you may have different ways of tailoring your tone. There are two main types: graphic and parametric.
Graphic equalizers use sliders that affect certain frequency bands. They effect fixed frequencies and are intuitive visually. A great example would be called “scooped mids,” or the smile EQ.
A center notch on the slider is known as center-frequency. You can think of this as being the “zero” or non-affected sound. From there, you can increase or decrease certain bands of frequency to greatly alter aspects of your tone within certain frequency ranges.
The parametric style of equalizer uses rotary knobs to change each frequency band, moving it up or down the spectrum to your liking. They control the volume of each band, but also can change the width of frequency change, known as quotient of change or Q.
Graphic EQ pedals are easy to operate and have a visual aspect, while parametric EQ pedals can have a more precise application, and are often used in studios. They come with a heftier price tag to boot.
The wah-wah pedal is one of the most identifiable of all guitar effects, yet is one of the most simple as well. An easy way to think of it is that you have a tone knob under your foot. It is literally just that. A rocker foot pedal allows you to accentuate high frequencies when your toes are down. When you put your heel down, you accentuate the bass frequencies.
Some players would keep the foot rocker in a stationary position to accentuate a single frequency over others. Others would rock the pedal rhythmically or use the foot to sweep into and highlight certain notes of a phrase. The wah-wah is one of the most interactive effects and a blast to have in your arsenal. They're just downright fun.
The envelope filter is also known as an auto-wah. It functions sonically like a wah-wah pedal but uses the strength of the signal to control the sweep of the frequency. Typically, control knobs allows the player to set the amount of wah to interact with picking, so that the guitarist can dynamically control the effect without using a rocker to engage the filtering.
Example: Guthrie Govan’s slapping intro on the live version of “Wonderful Slippery Thing” he did for EBS Space in South Korea is a perfect example of the envelope filter in full effect, no pun intended.
Possibly the most famous of all guitar effects, the talk box has its indelible place in history. The guitar signal is pushed thru a speaker into a tube that the player holds in their mouth. This tube is usually run up a mic stand, so that the player can use the embouchure of the mouth cavity to control vowel sounds that are then picked up by the microphone and pushed back through the PA system.
Unlike the EQ and wah type pedals, the player’s mouth is the frequency filter. It doesn’t really get more intuitive than that. For being such a simple set up, the talk box creates one of the most dynamic and distinctive effects that has become a household name through artists such as Peter Frampton and Roger Troutman.
Example: Check out Peter Frampton’s solos on “Show Me the Way” and then listen to his guitar literally say “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
After your filter effects, you’ll definitely wanna stick a compressor in your signal path. Compressors basically do what the name implies. Your signal will be squashed. You can think of it as a floor and a ceiling.
Some make your lowest volume notes rise up to an audible level with an expander, which will increase the amount of sustain your notes have. It almost sounds like a sound flower blooming. Others act like traditional compressors with a threshold and compression ratio. The louder sounds are reduced in volume, which helps in producing a more level volume overall from your guitar and amp. The sound guy will consider you his best friend after you send him this more consistent signal.
The effect a compressor has on tone has been exploited differently depending on genre. Consider the Country chicken picker who gets that bright spanky Telecaster tone, but never enters “ice pick” territory. You know the sound. That’s the compressor.
Players who use a lot more gain will often set a compressor to offer almost infinite sustain or even controllable feedback at lower volumes. A player can get all the benefits of a dimed out Marshall stack without having to be as loud as a jet breaking the sound barrier.
Example: One of my favorite examples of a compressed guitar signal is the intro to “Law and Order.” Hearing that squashed sound of the D string slapping into the frets without being louder than all the other notes sounds like a judge’s gavel bringing down punishing justice!
Next up in your signal path comes the trusty gain pedal, or two or three even. These effects will pass your signal through a transistor or diode to produce the clipping sound of a tube amplifier cranked up loud. They can go from subtle drive of a loud Fender to the high gain insanity of a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier. Most players call these effects distortion pedals, but there are different varieties of distortion that produce distinctly unique tones, all driven by the amount of gain you push.
Its the type of clipping you would expect to hear from a tube amp that been naturally gained up by cranking the volume levels really high. Some players refer to this sound as Crunch. These Overdrive pedals, such as the famous Ibanez Tube Screamer, can also be doubled up to give two gain stages: Slight Crunch and Creamy Velvet Lead. They sound as good as they might taste, if they were flavors of cereal or ice cream. Many players found their tone by using two overdrive pedals back to back.
Example: When you envision overdrive pedals, think of Keith Richards' slightly driven tone on “Start Me Up” or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s sound while playing “Pride and Joy.”
This classic tone is most often associated with Jimi Hendrix, who used the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face to push his Marshall heads into the stratosphere along side his trusty Stratocasters.
Its been said that Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath fame once dropped his amp down a flight of stairs and busted the cone on his speaker. Needing to use the amp, Iommi hopes for the best and plugs in and gets surprised by the ensuing fuzz created by the broken speaker cone flapping around. History was made during this fortuitous accident.
Fortunately, we don’t have to purposefully bust our speakers these days. There are many varieties of fuzz pedals on today’s market, many with bonus effects included, such as the famous octave up sound. They can go from that classic fuzz of the golden days to the bit crushed searing madness of boutique modern pedals.
Example: One of my personal favorite examples of the Fuzz pedal is the guitar tone on Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
The distortion pedal is probably the most well known of the gain bunch. Not only have guitarists used this effect to produce high gain distortion at any volume level, the pedal can also be used on top of an already gained up amp as a lead boost.
Think of Heavy Metal, and you know the sound of a distortion pedal. While they can be used to subtly color your tone, most people associate the distortion with the buzz saw hard clipping of heavier modern guitar tones.
Think of the maxed out Marshall Stack or the Mesa Boogie Rectifier amp sounds employed by players such as John Petrucci of Dream Theater. Put that crushing tone into a small metal box and you have the distortion pedal.
Example: A great example of distortion would be Kurt Cobain’s intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He stomps on his trusty Boss DS-1 pedal to go from clean jangly strumming to grungy power in the first 8 measures.
Pitch altering effects will add or alter notes in the signal path depending on which pedal type is being used. Many players have built signature sounds and riffs around the pitch altering effects. These types of effects are uniquely identifiable once you know what you’re listening for.
The octaver is a style of pitch effect that takes whatever note you are playing and doubles or halves the frequency to add an octave back into the signal. These type of effects can simulate the sound of a bass player playing simultaneously with the guitarist, giving beefy low end to bands without a bassist. These are called octave down pedals.
On the flipside, octave up pedals add a higher octave to whatever note is being played. Some octave up effects are called 'octave fuzz', because the introduction of the high octave is dependent on the level of fuzz the pedal is producing.
Example: This sound was made famous when Jimi Hendrix used Roger Mayer’s Octavia pedal in famous solos like “Purple Haze.”
The pitch shifter is one of the most versatile effects in the pitch category. Often used with a rocker pedal like a wah-wah or volume pedal, the pitch can be swept up or down by a specified amount in a smooth glissando-like bend. It’s typical to hear a player use a range of one or two octaves for the sweep, so the shifted pitch lands back on its original note, but in a higher or lower octave.
The pitch shifter effect can also be used to detune or “capo” a guitar without the need to actually retune the instrument. These detuning type pedals have become prominent in the age of dropped tunings and seven string guitars. The Digitech Whammy Pedal is the most widely known pitch shifter for guitarists and has been used by players like Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame.
Example: Check out Jonny Greenwood’s spaced out whammy pedal work on Subterranean Homesick Alien from Radiohead’s Ok Computer album.
Sometimes a pitch shifter will retain the original signal while adding in the new shifted pitch. The new shifted note can be set at a given intervallic distance from the original and will automatically harmonize any given series of notes or melody. In short, it will harmonize the guitar by duplicating the melody at a 3rd, 5th, or whatever interval you define.
Example: A perfect example of the harmonizer in action is Prince’s famous “When Doves Cry” intro lick.
We all know what a tuner is. They don't apply any effects to your tone. They simply give you a visual guide so you can retune on the fly as quickly as possible. Which is great because so few of us have anything near 'perfect pitch.' At this point in time, if you're going to score a tuner pedal there's one that takes the cake.
TC Electronic has literally changed the game with their new polyphonic tuner technology that lets you tune all of your strings at once, no matter what tuning you're using. This is the only logical choice when it comes to pedals, although if you're interested in other formats such as headstock tuners and rackmount options, check out our reviews of the best guitar tuners on the market.
Many of the modulation type effects pedals are made to approximate some aspect of the original rotating speaker. That’s correct, you heard right. The Leslie Cabinet was made as a companion to the Hammond B3 Organ and literally had a rotary speaker that could produce all of the common modulation effects depending on the speed setting. Many companies now offer digital pedal versions that mimic the Leslie sound very well, so lugging around a huge speaker cabinet isn’t necessary, unless you are a purist or have a crew of roadies available.
Doubling the signal and modulating some aspect of the new signal before adding it back to the original is how these effects are created.
The Univibe effect was produced to also mimic the sound of the Leslie rotary speaker, but in a slightly different way from the new digital pedals previously mentioned. They often combine slight amounts of all modulation type effects at the same time to approximate the rotary sound, but became a unique sound of its own. Some pedals allow some individual tweaking of each modulator, but most typically allow the user to adjust the speed of the Univibe effect.
The chorus effect sounds like a lush underwater soundscape that is created by doubling your guitar signal and slightly shifting the second one out of time and pitch with the original. This effect can be very subtle, which sounds as if you’re playing out of two different amps separated in space, or highly modulated to sound as if two different players are playing the same part at the same time.
If you’ve ever heard a cassette tape slow down or stretch while listening, then you are familiar with the basic flanging effect. The sound can be described as a warbling in phase and pitch.
Similar to how the chorus effect works, the signal is doubled and the second signal is slowed down and sped back up, so it lags behind and catches up with the original signal.
Example: Check out “And the Cradle Will Rock” and you’ll hear Eddie Van Halen making good use of this effect.
The phase shifting effect occurs through a doubling of the signal, much like the flanger and chorus, but this time the new signal is cycling from being in and out of phase with the original. This effect is incredibly distinctive and sounds like a jet plane taking off and flying overhead at its most extreme settings.
Example: Check out the Heart classic “Barracuda” guitar intro to hear a subtler use of the effect.
In the vibrato setting, the doubled signal is modulated by pitch, giving the illusion that the player is constantly working the whammy bar or applying hand vibrato to every note. The speed and depth of the pitch modulation is a variable on the pedal you can control with the twist of a knob or two.
To sum up Modulation effects, we can look at the how the doubled signal is tweaked:
And that brings the last two types of guitar effects, the volume and time-based effects.
This category of effects pedals does what the name implies. It tweaks the volume of your guitar signal in some fashion. These typically come in this spot in the pedal chain (after everything but the time-based effects) so that any change to your volume is already receiving the effects of all the pedals before it. You’ll be altering your entire signal minus delays and reverbs.
Much like how a wah-wah pedal is a foot rocker attached to a tone pot, the volume pedal is the same deal, but with a volume pot instead. As you sweep from heel to toe, you’ll go from “0 to 10”. Aside from adjusting the overall volume, a guitarist can produce other worldly sounds by swelling into notes, or rocking the pedal rhythmically. When these sounds hit your delay and reverb, the sky is the limit.
Sometimes called an auto-volume, these pedals work the same as the wah-wah pedal. The effect functions based on your picking dynamics, but instead of a change in tone, you get a change in volume. The effect will have no volume when you pick, but will then swell up to audible levels. It masks your pick attack and simulates the sound of a bowed instrument.
Example: Check out Yngwie Malmsteen using the effect along side delay. Do note that Yngwie is rotating his volume knob with his right hand pinky, which accomplishes the same as an envelope pedal, only manually.
This style of volume effect rhythmically reduces and swells the volume of the signal in a regular cyclic fashion. Often heard in Country and Western type guitar tracks, tremolo was commonly built into older amplifiers and is one of the earliest recorded effects. The speed and depth of the effect is controlled on the pedal by way of one or two potentiometers. When set to the tempo of a song, the player can produce an extra layer of rhythm on top of what is being played.
We have reached the end of the typical pedal board with some of the most fun effects of all. Time-based effects can have the biggest impact on your overall guitar sound by playing extra notes for you or even making you sound as if you were playing in a giant cavern.
First up is the classic delay pedal, also known as echo. Like modulation effects, the delay pedal duplicates your signal, but allows you to delay the time it takes for the pedal to add this new version back to the original and choose how many repeats you’ll get.
The delay can be set at a short time and with just one repeat to create the classic slap back delay often heard in the Country guitarist's bag of tricks. When set at a certain rhythmic subdivision of a song’s tempo, the player can produce extra notes in time, like Yngwie Malmsteen did in the preceeding video about volume swells.
The undisputed king of this delay trick would be U2’s The Edge, who's influence forever changed the sound of Contemporary Christian music… for real.
Example: How about David Gilmour instead? Check out “Run Like Hell” from The Wall to hear how these discrete delayed repeats can be used to create extra rhythms from simpler parts.
Delays can also be set to many repeats that take a long time to be reiterated. This creates a very spaced out sound that envokes large environments. Be careful with how loud and how many repeats you get going, because older analog delays will begin to experience a feedback loop and can blow out your speaker easily. Some players learn to control this and have an entire new effect in their arsenal. Delays are a super powerful tool that just never seems to run out of new sounds. You can tweak knobs for days and never get bored!
“Reverberation, in psychoacoustics and acoustics, is the persistence of sound after a sound is produced.” That’s the definition and is a great way to describe the sound we hear from reverb pedals. They use digital means to replicate the sounds of different environments.
Sometimes reverbs are labeled as “Room, Hall, Cathedral, etc.” These titles describe the reverb you’d hear in those locations. Depending on the size of your environment, you can get a totally different sound.
You may also see “Spring, Plate, Tape, etc.” reverb names. These are simulating the sound of amplifier reverb tanks that pass your signal down a spring, or even studio applications where the signal was played into a plate of metal then recaptured with a pickup to produce reverb.
In nature, reverb is an extremely fast series of echoes that reduce in volume over time. Depending on the size of the environment, the number of repeats and the timing at which they occur will change. Digital reverb pedals are very good at replicating the differing types. Basically, you can take small tiled bathroom and the Grand Canyon (and everything in between) with you to your gigs.
Looper effects are a great tool that allows the player to use extremely long delay times to record a passage and begin to repeat the passage as an infinite loop. While loopers are one of the best practice tools we have at our disposal, many players are now taking them to the stage.
A solo artist has the ability to record an accompanying part and then rip a solo over the top. You can also harmonize your own parts by playing over each repeat. The options are truly endless, especially if you own more than one looper.
Example: Bernhoft and his "Street Lights" performance for Bonnaroo365 is a prime example of how much one performer can do with loopers.
Any of these different types of guitar pedals are always a great addition to any guitarist’s performance and can provide hours and hours of entertainment, provide new inspiration, recreate classic guitar tones, or carve your own identity in the modern era.
This recommended pedal chain order is exactly that, a recommendation. Definitely experiment with changing up the order and sticking random pedals in random spots in your signal path. You never know what you might come up with! I once plugged up my Vox Wah backwards on accident and discovered how to emulate a seagull… So I got that going for me!
You'll discover personal tricks that may help you make your mark in the industry. Have fun experimenting!