Are you thinking of buying your first guitar pedal(s) and don’t know where to start? Or are you just curious and wondering what they are? This guide will help you learn more about some of the types of guitar pedals we think every guitarist should have. We’ll also include some extra tips to help you find your unique sound.
If you are somebody who enjoys tweaking and manipulating sound instead of letting software on a computer do it for you, then it is probably time for you to begin your journey into the world of pedals. Unlike rack-mounted effect processors, pedals can be purchased one at a time without draining you financially. These are incredibly exciting to explore, and you can always upgrade them.
What is a Guitar Pedal?
Guitar pedals are essentially wondrous (usually) metal boxes that help you manipulate the sound of your guitar. If you want to add tonal or textural effects to your guitar, you need a pedal.
Also known as stompboxes or fx pedals, you connect these sometimes magical devices between your guitar and amplifier. Each pedal contains circuitry, which you activate by pushing (stomping) the spring-wired button with your foot to turn them on or off.
Whether you want to refine the sound of your guitar or transform it to sound like a completely different instrument, there is a pedal for everyone.
Getting in Tune
You will often see guitar players with clip-on tuners on their headstocks. But if you are starting out, one of the first things you should invest in is a good tuner pedal. Even though it may feel expensive at first, it is essential to remember that this pedal will be a constant on your pedalboard, and the more trustworthy it is, the less stress it will cause when building your chain or moving it around. No matter what genre of music you play, you want your instrument to be in tune before you can get to the fun bits.
Remember to always set up your tuner as the first pedal on your chain to get the most accurate tuning.
What’s the Delay?
Whether you want a little bit of a simple, dotted delay or are looking for a more shoegaze-inspired sound, a delay pedal is an excellent tool to elevate your sound. There are primarily two types of delay pedals, analog and digital.
Analog pedals mostly use a BBD or a bucket-brigade device that sends an analog signal to its clock device through a series of capacitors. Tonally, this gives us a warm sound with a lot of depth to it. However, the clock cycle on them can receive only a limited amount of information. So it limits the possibilities of overtly large or minuscule delay times.
Digital delays, on the other hand, use a digital signal processing (DSP) chip. DSP-powered delay pedals enable users to customize their delay to whatever parameter they want them to be. It also makes it easier to control when playing live to a specific tempo when you want your delay to be perfectly in sync with the other elements. But just like listening to music in mp3 format or on vinyl, digital delays lack the kind of character and warmth of an analog delay.
There are pros and cons to both delay types. The good news, however, is that you can always use multiple delay pedals simultaneously. You can have one of each or maybe even more. Having multiple delay pedals in the signal chain is a widespread practice.
Many folks often get confused between reverb and a delay. As we have discussed previously, a delay is an echo of a sound in its simplest form. On the other hand, reverb is the diffusion of sound and its interaction with physical space after being played. For example, when we are in old buildings with thick walls and high ceilings, we often hear our voices linger and spread into the environment while talking. This effect is known as reverb.
The great thing about technology is that many different kinds of reverb pedals are now available to us. The functionality varies. Some of the most commonly used reverb types are hall, chamber, room, plate, and spring. Pedals like the MXR M300 Reverb have three knobs- decay, mix, and tone. The latter will let you adjust between a plate reverb or a spring reverb. On the other hand, if you are looking at a more customizable sound, the Strymon BigSky offers twelve different reverbs types.
A guitar plugged into an amp alone might not sound as full and rich as you would like. Depending on what guitar you have, for example, a Stratocaster or a Telecaster will sometimes need a little bit of a boost to make it sound heavy and thick. Having an overdrive pedal will help you do just that.
Like in the mockumentary Spinal Tap, all guitar players want to turn their amp up to an eleven, but that is impossible. At least not just yet. An overdrive pedal gives the guitar sound a lot more presence without necessarily having to crank the volume level on the amp. Additionally, they also help add a particular crunch to the sound without making it distorted aggressively.
Typically simple-looking, with around three or four knobs, overdrive pedals can pack a big punch. Depending on the brand, there will usually be level, gain, and tone knobs. If your playing leans towards rock and you are looking for a classic Jimi Hendrix sound without massive amps, then an overdrive can be your new best friend. Additionally, they can also make solid-state amps sound bigger and give them more depth.
A Warm Fuzzy and Distorted Feeling
People often get confused between an overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals.
Distortion is a high gain effect that adds grit and crunch to the sound. The effect remains the same even when you are playing at a low volume. If you enjoy metal, then a good distortion pedal is a must-have for you. Additionally, a distortion pedal will help even the smallest and cheapest amps sound better.
On a technical level, a fuzz pedal alters sound into a square waveform. The chopped-off square wave results in a severely compressed distortion sound. If you like to play grunge music, then a fuzz pedal is a must-have. While one of the most well-known ones is the Electro Harmonix Big Muff, there are many iterations of it available in the market today. Pretty much all brands offer some type of fuzz pedal.
“Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus.”
Have you ever wondered why guitar sounded so distinct in the eighties? One reason for this is because a lot of bands and musicians were using a chorus pedal. From The Police to Kurt Cobain on the Come As You Are riff, a chorus has colored guitar tone for decades.
A chorus pedal does what its name suggests. They double the sound, so it feels like two instruments are playing simultaneously but not in perfect unison. The doubling makes the guitar sound thicker and fuller.
Often the guitar sounds thin when playing with other instruments when playing live in a band. A chorus pedal prevents that. This pedal will help fill up the sound.
Everything is a Loop
With the pandemic making it challenging to jam with others, a looper pedal works excellent if you play to your own backing track. It can also be a great tool to have if you enjoy playing textures and different layers.
They can be tricky to figure out at first, but if you can play on time or want to practice over a layer, a looper pedal can help you do just that.
Depending on which kind you get, some looper pedals have limited memory for storage. Whereas with any other pedal, some have many advanced features. Some loop pedals even have the option to plug a microphone in to create vocal and percussive loops.
Turn Your Guitar Into a Different Instrument
Sometimes, you may feel like you need a little bit of added adventure to your playing despite all the pedals mentioned above. Maybe you do not want your guitar to sound like one at all. You want a unique and signature sound. The good news is that there are a plethora of pedals that will help you do just that.
The most obvious choice for something different is a guitar synth pedal. Depending on what you are looking for, there are vocoders, flangers, wah-wahs, envelope filters, compressors, and boosters that can also radically change the sound of your guitar.
Once you feel like you have decided which pedals you would like to incorporate in your music or which ones compliment your style, you can have a wonderful time setting them up in your signal chain. Although there is no right or wrong way, placing certain pedals in different ways yields strange and exciting results. You will find that moving them around will result in a difference in the overall sound. Now, this is a profoundly personal preference, and it is best to take some time out to explore what works best for you.
If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer number and managing them is starting to become difficult, you should look into getting yourself a pedalboard and a power supply unit that can hold all of them together. These will help you organize your pedals more efficiently and make it easy for you to plug all of them in together without drowning in a sea of adapters and cables.
Play What You Want
Remember that while it can be scary initially, playing with pedals is a lifelong process. They are easily adaptable to your ever-changing and ever-growing sound. Take baby steps. Please spend some time understanding how they work, how they can help you emote through your music. You are the best judge of what works best for you.
You don’t need to acquire only brand new, expensive ones. A lot of music shops often sell second-hand pedals. So if you have a few on your wishlist, keep an eye out for what your local shop might have in stock. Another great thing about pedals is that guitarists will often exchange them when they feel like they have outgrown a particular one. You may be able to find local community groups or online gear threads, where you will be surprised to see many musicians simply giving away what may be a good fit for your rig.
As musicians, it is crucial to think of ways to minimize waste and make sustainable choices. Guitar pedals, although not eco-friendly, are a step in the right direction. They last a long time, can be exchanged, resold, or traded. Also, they don’t tie you down as a rack-mounted processor would. It greatly helps that you can take the pedals apart and even make minor fixes, mods, and tweaks to them. Plus, it helps that you can constantly build and change your setup. Although not recommended for absolute beginners, there is a lot of information on the internet on modifications made to pedals. You can always add a little bit of something if you feel like you are starting to get bored. The possibilities are endless.
We think these are the 6 types of guitar pedals every guitarist should have:
- Fuzz or Distortion
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you should take a look at these:
- Guitar Synth
- Envelope filter
Do not be scared to dip your toes into the world of pedals. You will have a fantastic adventure!