Have you ever wondered what those little shiny boxes are that guitar players (not limited to just shoegazers) can spend most of the night stomping on and off? Those boxes are guitar pedals. Your next question might be “how does a guitar pedal work?”
What Is a Guitar Pedal?
Guitars can make some cool sounds. Very often, when you hear a guitar make a sound that, while objectively excellent, doesn’t quite sound like a guitar, it’s due to the use of a guitar pedal.
Guitar pedals are used in almost all styles of music to create an even more varied array of sounds. We’ll start with the basics and walk you through the how, why, what, and even the when of guitar pedals.
A guitar pedal is a type of electronic effects unit. In short, it takes the signal produced by your electric guitar and changes it before it’s output by the amplifier. When you strum or pluck a guitar string, the vibration is turned into an electrical signal that the pickups in your guitar transfer to your amp. The amp then amplifies the sound indicated by that signal and spits it back out. But louder. And sometimes with some effects. With a little more bass or treble. Maybe with some gain added.
A pedal is a device that goes in between your guitar and amp. The electric signal must pass through this device before it’s turned into sound. Enabling a pedal alters the signal as it passes through and changes the sound. Now that we’ve got the boring technical stuff out of the way let’s get down to the fun stuff.
How Do I Use a Guitar Pedal?
I think the best answer here is, “however you want, as long as it sounds cool.” Were you looking for something more than that? Okay, okay, we’ll take it a little deeper. There are a considerable number of guitar pedals of varying types, all of which alter the sound of your guitar in different ways. Often, a guitarist will have a pedalboard, with several effects pedals connected. When the pedal is inactive, the signal from the guitar passes through unaltered. When the guitarist presses a pedal down, it becomes active and applies its intended effect to the sound heading towards the amp.
With its wide range of varying effects pedals all close at hand, this pedalboard allows the guitarist to rapidly switch between, or even combine, different sounds produced by other pedals on the fly. Some guitarists are incredibly creative and adept at this practice, often creating radically different sounds from anything a guitar would typically produce.
Types of Guitar Pedals
We’ve now got a basic understanding, at least in theory, of how a pedal works and what it does. Let’s apply this knowledge and turn it into something useful. What pedals should you use? How and when should you use them? I’ve got an excellent answer for you: it depends.
Was that as helpful as you hoped? Don’t worry. We’ll keep trying. Before we learn how and when to use a pedal, we first need to delve a little bit into some of the most common pedal effects and what they sound like.
Distortion pedals are one of the most common pedals used in rock music, especially metal and other styles that are considered heavier.
Rather than creating an almost alien sound, as some pedals do, distortion pedals take the existing sound of your guitar and pushes it hard. This pedal creates a grainy, distorted sound, and it also adds quite a bit of sustain.
A quick and easy example of what distortion sounds like is the opening riff of Nirvana’s take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
Contrary to popular belief, there is a difference between distortion and overdrive pedals.
While distortion mashes up your sound in various ways, overdrive instead mimics the effect of an amp pushed to its furthest limits. It is a similar sound, with one significant difference. While distortion changes the sound of your guitar to whatever degree the pedal intended, overdrive affects your guitar’s sound varies depending on how you play.
With an overdrive pedal, lightly plucking the strings might only add a bit of gain to your sound, where mashing down the strings as hard as you can will result in a massive change. This dynamic allows for more control of your sound than a distortion pedal offers. Steve Vai often used an overdrive pedal to help achieve his distinct sound.
Reverb pedals add a layer of resonance to your guitar’s sound. A reverb pedal attempts to copy the natural reverberation of a sound off of a hard surface.
Depending on its chosen settings, this pedal can make it sound as if you’re playing in a massive cavern or a tiny room.
Ever sing in the shower in a tiled bathroom, and notice that your voice has a slight hint of an echo that makes it sound full, strong, and harmonic?
A reverb pedal works similarly, adding a sustained sound to your guitar that could be described alternately as haunting or powerful. Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” is a prime example of a song that makes heavy use of reverb.
While one of the most popular and commonly used pedals across a wide variety of musical styles, the chorus pedal doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often as you might expect. This is likely because the effect it has on the guitar sound, while quite profound, doesn’t stand out in the same way that louder or flashier pedals often do.
This pedal doubles the audio signal it receives but separates the two halves of the doubled signal by an extremely short amount of time, typically in the range of several milliseconds. This creates a layered sound, which gives the illusion of multiple instruments playing at the same time.
For more detailed information about chorus pedals see our other post What Is a Chorus Pedal and How Does It Work?
We’ll use Kurt Cobain as an example one more time: his use of a chorus pedal on “Come As You Are” took a very basic riff and brought it to life.
Delay pedals can be confusing because they can add various effects to the guitar’s sound, depending on how it’s set up.
The too-simple explanation is that a delay pedal takes a note that you play, records it, and then plays it back at a different time. When explained like that, it seems pretty straightforward, and the name makes perfect sense. But the actual use of a delay pedal can be a bit more complicated, simply because you can do so many things with one. You can play the sound back immediately, creating a robust reverb-like sound or over a more extended period of time to create a wailing, ambient effect.
While it sounds complex, a delay pedal can be a ton of fun to simply plugin and play around with.
Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour was particularly adept with a delay pedal, using it to produce everything from soulful solos to magical effects. Need an example? Here he is making clever use of the delay pedal during a live performance of Comfortably Numb.
The wah-wah pedal is the classic sound that most people think of when they hear “guitar pedal.” The wah-wah pedal alters the frequency and tone of a guitar to create a unique effect that sounds suspiciously like a human voice. When using this pedal, a guitarist will often rock back and forth, with the foot alternately pressing down and letting up on the pedal to help accentuate the effect upon the sound. This effect was used extensively by several famous rock guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. Most important, perhaps, was its use by Jimi Hendrix. Please take a listen to his work on Voodoo Child, where the sound of the wah-wah pedal can’t be missed.
The flanger pedal can be described, in terms of its function, as a combination of a chorus pedal and a delay pedal.
In practice, however, the sound it creates is uniquely it’s own. This pedal takes your guitar’s input signal and plays it back twice, like the chorus pedal, and it plays with a delay. In addition, the two signals are played slightly out of phase. It kind of sounds like a big mess, doesn’t it? Well, it can be. In the hands of a skilled guitarist, though, it can be a handy tool.
There are many other pedals such as the looper, compressor, noise gate, and more. Beyond just the types of pedals, there are endless individual pedal variations within each type.
The preference for certain pedals often comes down to individual taste and style. Most musicians will continue experimenting with other pedals throughout their careers, always searching for new combinations and new ways to use them.
The good news? You’ll never get bored! There’s always another type of pedal or a new brand of a standard pedal. There’s always a new way to use an existing pedal.
Experiment! Part of the beauty of the creative process is that what you do with it belongs uniquely to you. Knowledge is vital, but so is experience. So get out there and try a few pedals!