There are a lot of different guitar effects pedals out there. From individual pedals to multi-effects to amp-based and even software, the number of options we have as guitar players is growing everyday. This huge variety can be intimidating for new guitar players. Luckily, we can break the vast sea of options down into a handful of essential pedals that every guitarist should have.
If you’re like me, you won’t have the cash to invest in an entire pedal board all at once. Most guitar players slowly accumulate different pedals as their sound changes and develops over time. Knowing the essential pedals can give you a roadmap to understanding which pedals to buy and which to skip.
For complete beginners I recommend digging into the pedals your favorite guitar player uses on his or her board. Each style of music will have a few pedals that are used consistently across the genre (I’ll give some examples below). The best way to shape the sound you want is to know what gear your favorite guitar player uses and slowly build your audio chain until you can recreate the sound you desire.
You may have realized by now there’s a lot to learn with regards to guitar effects. The same pedals can sound different depending on the amp, type of guitar pickups, other pedals in the chain, or where the pedal is placed in the chain. However, I believe the best way to start is with the basics.
Below is my attempt to give you the foundations you’ll need to pick and choose the best pedals for your style. If you’re just starting to build your effect chain I’d recommend starting from the top of this list and working your way down. Be sure to skip any pedal that does not fit your genre.
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Overdrive pedals were originally designed to be used with tube amps. They boosted the signal to the point where your tubes would distort due to the higher gain. This organic sounding distortion of a slightly overdriven tube amp has been replicated in modern overdrive pedals. Overdrive pedals are heavily used in blues, rock and even country.
The distorted sound from an overdrive pedal is due to the audio signal being pushed until it begins to clip. Basically, the regular sine wave is amplified beyond the threshold of the amp and begins to take the shape of a square-wave. To completely cover the technical details of distortion would require an article of its own.
For beginners, I’d recommend picking up something like the TC Electronic MojoMojo. It’s very budget friendly with a true bypass and two EQ knobs. Perfect for those looking to boost their midrange during solos.
Distortion pedals are like overdrive pedals on steroids and most commonly heard in metal, heavy rock, and punk music. They’re designed to emulate high-gain amps and produce a heavily clipped audio signal. It’s this heavy clipping of the audio signal that produces the gritty effect of distortion.
They’re best used on the clean channel of your amp. Using them on the distorted channel will produce an incredibly muddy or “fizzy” tone. As a side note, overdrive pedals are sometimes used in front of distortion pedals to boost the amount of gain received by the distortion pedal, but be careful when doing this as the wrong pedal settings can cause excruciating feedback.
The best place to start when choosing a distortion pedal is to find the pedals your favorite guitar player uses. For beginners, I’d recommend something like the Boss DS-1 distortion pedal. It’s currently one of the most popular distortion pedals on the market (for good reason) and one that most of you will be familiar with.
A Note About Fuzz Pedals
If you need even more distortion you’ll want to consider getting a fuzz pedal. Fuzz pedals crush the waveform into extreme distortion and produce a very distinct “fuzzy” sound quality. Hence the name.
Video: Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz Compared
It’s a good idea to have some reference for sound when choosing the style of distortion pedal you’ll need. The video below gives a quick demonstration of these different types of distortion pedals and the sound characteristics of each:
Next up on the list – the wah-pedal. Used in almost every genre, the wah-pedal is a must-have for every guitarist. They’re incredibly versatile and can be used to create many different types of tones and effects.
They work by allowing the guitarist to control the frequency spectrum of the audio signal. The pedal uses a bandpass filter that is moved up and down the frequency spectrum as you move the pedal with your foot. This delivers the signature crying wah-wah sound.
Use a wah to add accents or a “vocal” quality to solos, for creating that signature funky rhythm guitar sound, or as a quick way to alter your tone. It may take some practice to get the timing right, but once you have a handle on it you’ll appreciate the added versatility of the wah.
Here, John Petrucci gives us some examples of the power of a wah-pedal:
My recommendation for wah-pedals is pretty easy: the Dunlop Cry Baby. There are a few other contenders, but the Cry Baby is basically the industry standard by which all others are judged. Whenever you see a Wah pedal on a pedalboard, it’s usually a Cry Baby.
Think of delay pedals as creating a kind of echo. The audio signal that is received by the pedal is looped multiple times in adjustable intervals. Ultimately, this creates huge spatial effects in your sound which can be really pleasing to the ear.
You’ll find both analog and digital delay pedals. With digital delay pedals the sound first enters the pedal and is recorded. The pedal then plays back the sound in intervals that are set by you. You can choose the amount of time before playback as well as other effects such as filters and playback volume. Delays give an ethereal quality to the sound and can even be used as a rudimentary loop pedal.
Using small intervals of delay can even replace the need for a standalone reverb pedal (most amps these days have built in reverb anyway) and sound great on epic solos.
With digital delay pedals, be sure to get a pedal with a high sample rate. Look for something at least around the 16-24-bit sample rate; anything lower than 16-bit won’t have the resolution needed for a pleasing reproduction.
Delay pedals can get somewhat complicated (and expensive), so for beginners I’d recommend the Donner Yellow Fall delay pedal pictured here. It’s a straightforward, budget-friendly delay that’ll give you control of the mix, delay time, and number of repetitions without overcomplicating things.
Modulation is another group of guitar effects that would require an entire post to cover completely. Modulation is a high-level category that includes phasers, flangers, choruses, and tremolos. Each type of modulation affects the audio signal in a unique way that really needs to be heard to be understood. So, here’s a video that demonstrates each effect so that you can hear the differences between them:
Phasers split the guitar signal and shift one wave out of phase with the other. The phase is shifted from 0 to 360 degrees and is blended back in with the dry signal. This creates constructive and destructing inference that results in a very unique audio effect.
A flanger works in the same way as the phaser but the shifted frequency is spaced in intervals rather than sweeping over the entire 360 degrees.
A chorus pedal also splits your signal into two, but instead of shifting the second signal completely it is only pitched slightly. The second signal is also treated with some delay to replicate the sonic quality of large choirs and string sections.
Tremolo pedals, on the other hand, have nothing to do with frequency shifting. Rather, the waveform amplitude is rapidly decreased and increased at a user-defined rate. This creates fluctuations in volume that recreate the tremolo effect which first appeared in amps in the 1960’s. Typically, you can adjust the speed and the volume dip of the guitar signal. As a side note, don’t confuse the effect created by a tremolo pedal with the tremolo bar on a guitar like the Fender Stratocaster. The tremolo bar on a guitar works by shifting the pitch of the signal and has nothing to do with volume.
Not Sure? Try an All-in-One Modulation Pedal
You could end up spending a fortune on all the different modulation pedals that are commonly used with guitar, but I recommend getting an all-in-one modulation pedal instead, to take the pressure off the bank account while allowing you to experience and experiment with these different effects. Pick up something like the NUX Mod Core or the CNZ Audio Mod Station, which will give you plenty to modulation effects to experiment with while saving you money and saving space on your pedalboard.
I hope this has given you the background knowledge you need to make informed decisions when buying some of your first guitar effects pedals. Just remember, I’ve only skimmed the surface of the number of effects available to guitar players. There are limitless possibilities for you to experiment with over your progression as a player!
What Are Your Favorite Guitar Pedals?
I’d love to know what your must-have guitar pedals are, and why. What do you like about them? Let me know in the comments section below!