Pitch shifting pedals have been around for a long time. In the old days, they mostly just dropped the pitch of the guitar by an octave and could only handle one note at a time. Today, with digital technology, there are pedals that can handle full chords, drop or raise the pitch almost any interval, or even do multi-part harmonies with just one guitar (and the right pedal, of course).
In this article, we’ll go over the basics of pitch shifting pedals, and help you find the right pitch shifting pedal for whatever your needs may be!
What is a pitch shift pedal?
Like the name implies, these pedals are used to alter the pitch of a guitar or bass. There are several different types of pitch shifting pedals, with different capabilities and costs depending upon your needs:
- Octave pedal: The simplest, easiest to operate, and (generally) the least expensive. Your basic octave pedal just plays a note one octave lower than you are playing. Some octave pedals feature the ability to change the note to two octaves below (and some will play both one and two octaves below!). More advanced octave pedals generally also feature the option to play notes one (or two) octaves higher than the note you are playing. Octave pedals that feature more interval options than just octaves fall into the next class of pedal.
- Harmonizer pedal: These pedals feature the ability to play in several different intervals, either above or below your played note. These are great for filling out a rhythm or imitating a two-guitar line. These often have at least one, but sometimes two or more voices that can be set independently. More advanced versions have diatonic scale settings, which is a must for imitating multiple guitar parts! Keep in mind that although these are generally more expensive than octave pedals, harmonizers can function as octave pedals, but octave pedals don’t generally make great harmonizers.
- Expression-controlled pitch shifters: Featuring all the functionality of harmonizers, these either include a built-in expression pedal or have a jack to plug in your own expression pedal. The inclusion of the expression pedal increases the functionality (and the cost). For certain pitch shifting effects, though, the expression pedal is very important.
Pitch shifting pedals can be used for a wide variety of musical effects. From thickening up a single note riff (with an octave pedal and distortion), to emulating a 12-string guitar or bass (or even an organ), to multi-part harmonies from a single guitar.
What to look for in a pitch shift pedal?
With such a wide range of uses, there are lots of features available in pitch shift pedals – depending on what you need.
Basic Pitch Shifter Features
- Interval: This is a pretty common feature in a pitch shifting pedal, but some octave pedals don’t have it, since their pitch shift is fixed and not adjustable. General options are 1 or 2 octaves down, although more pedals are offering 4ths and 5ths, as well as 3rds, 6ths, and 7ths.
- Blend: Again, a self-explanatory (but important) knob. This controls how much of the shifted note is blended into your “natural” guitar sound. At max, you can use many of these pedals as a poor-man’s bass guitar, although be warned that not all of these track polyphony (playing multiple notes at once) very well. Generally, you need to have a very clean playing style to get the most out of some of the more sensitive pedals.
Advanced Pitch Shifter Features
- Diatonic settings: While lots of these pedals allow you to play major 3rds or 6ths, if you’re playing a longer riff with many notes, you may find that some of the harmonies sound off. This is because the pedal is just playing a “dumb” interval and doesn’t know what key you are in. For example, if you’re playing in the key of C and set the pedal for a major 3rd higher, the harmony for C will sound good. The harmony notes for D, E, A, and B will sound off. This is because notes a major 3rd higher than these are not in the key of C. Pedals with diatonic settings allow you to preselect a key and interval (3rd or 6th,, for example), and the pedal will automatically keep the shifted notes in correct key. If you’re trying to imitate two-guitar harmonies with a single guitar and pitch shifting pedal, this is feature is almost required.
- Multiple notes: While all pitch shifting pedals will play one note (obviously), some can do multiple notes. This can be as simple as an additional octave (down or up), or you can even set different intervals for each note – for example, have the pedal play a note a perfect 5th and an octave higher than your played note, and you can do one finger (and one string!) power chords.
- Octaves Available: Most pitch pedals can play a note either one or two octaves away (either up or down) from the original note, and while this is enough to imitate other instruments (like a bass guitar or violin), if you’re looking for truly outrageous sounds, some pedals do offer additional shift options.
- Pitch Bending: Some pedals (primarily the Digitech Whammy) offer the ability to note only shift the pitch, but do it in real time with an expression pedal. This feature can duplicate pitch bends not possible on the strings alone (bends over an octave, anyone?), or it can create a pedal steel guitar effect – smoothly transitioning between two different shifted notes.
- Additional effects (detune, swell, filter): Some pedals feature additional effects that can help add a bit (or a lot) of spice to the pitch sounds. Generally speaking, these included effects won’t be as good as standalone versions of the effect, but they can be nice bonuses if you already like the sound of the pedal.
True Bypass vs. Buffered Bypass
Many boutique pedals feature true bypass construction, but what does that mean? It’s worth taking a minute to explain the differences between a “standard” buffered bypass and true bypass.
True bypass means that the pedal’s on/off switch physically connects the input jack to the output jack. This should make the input signal and output signal essentially the same, but it does have one drawback. If you have long cable runs (or a lot of pedals) remember that each pedal and cable introduces a bit of resistance into the original signal. In this case, you may want a buffered bypass pedal to keep the signal clean and strong. Some true bypass pedals also have significant noise when turned on or off, due to the physical on/off switch. If you have a true-bypass reverb or delay, you also won’t get a natural decay of sound, since the effect will stop as soon as the circuit is disconnected.
Most standard pedals (like Boss) use a buffered bypass. While cheap pedals with poorly-designed buffers can degrade your tone, most buffered pedals have a negligible effect. Additionally, buffered pedals can help maintain signal level over long cable runs (or through true bypass pedals), and can have completely silent switching. For reverb and delay pedals, buffers also allow the reverb or delay “tails” to hold over after the pedal is switched off.
In the end, like most guitar effects, there is no one right answer. In fact, most guitarists use a mix of true bypass and buffered bypass pedals, depending on their specific needs.
Top 3 Pitch Shift Pedals – Reviewed
While there are lots of options for pitch shifting pedals, here are our top three picks to look for. If you want more, check out our more in-depth review!
Lots of features in a Boss-sized pedal!
If you are just dipping your toes into the water of pitch shift pedals, the Boss PS-6 provides lots of advanced features at a much lower price than most of the competition!
With just four knobs you get 5 modes (Pitch shifter, Detune, S-Bend, and both Major and Minor Harmonies), selectable diatonic keys, two or three voice harmonies, up to two octaves of pitch shifting (either up or down), an adjustable detune (similar to chorus) effect, pitch bending effect, stereo output, and an optional expression pedal input. All for less than the cost of some less-featured pedals. Additionally, since this is a Boss pedal, it’s the standard, pedalboard-friendly size and features rugged metal construction that can survive just about any live situation you can throw at it. It also tracks both single and multiple notes pretty well.
The main downside might be operating and setting up the pedal itself. Since it has so many features (and such limited space and controls) just about all the knobs perform double or triple duty, and the lack of labels on the “Shift” knob mean you have to remember what the different intervals are. Additionally, while it does feature lots of neat harmony and pitch bending effects, you can only select specific intervals to pitch shift. The sound is very good – this pedal, like other pitch shifters – is sensitive to intonation, so make sure your guitar is in tune and attack the notes cleanly to get the best effect.
Overall, though, this is another great pedal from Boss if you’re just getting into pitch shifting or have a limited budget – the stereo output and expression pedal input mean that this pedal with grow with your rig!
Features: Multiple modes (Pitch shifter, Harmonizer, Pitch Bender, and Detune modes), expression pedal input, stereo output, rugged metal construction, buffered bypass, runs on 9V or AC power.
Pros: Just about every feature you could need in a pitch shift pedal in a small form factor!
Cons: Controls can be complicated.
Simple controls, lots of options, and a great sound make this pedal great for all guitarists needing some pitch shifting!
The Pitch Fork by Electro-Harmonix has most of the same features found in the Boss PS-6, but with a slightly different (and, I think, easier-to-use) control layout.
Let’s start with the negatives – the Pitch Fork does not have the diatonic scale functionality that the Boss has. While you can shift several intervals other than the octaves (indicated by letters and numbers on the “Shift” knob), the Pitch Fork won’t follow a specified key. This may be a deal breaker for some, so you should be aware of it before you read on! Additionally, the Pitch Fork doesn’t have the stereo outputs that the PS-6 has.
However, aside from these two missing features, the Pitch Fork can do just about everything else. There’s a Blend knob, the previously-mentioned Shift knob, which offers intervals ranging from a minor 2nd (1 fret) all the way up to 3 octaves, as well as a Detune setting. Below the two knobs there’s a 3-position switch to select a pitch shift up, down or leave it in the middle position and get some nice 3-note harmonies. And there is also a Latch/Momentary switch, which controls whether the footswitch functions as an on/off button or if the pedal is only engaged when pressing down on the footswitch.
A Whammy-like effect can be achieved by plugging in an expression pedal, and you can even use an expression pedal to change the default glissando rate (how long it takes the pedal to move from the played to the pitch shifted note). This custom glissando rate (whether fast or slow) combined with the momentary setting can make for some unique sounds.
Features: Up to 3 octaves of pitch shift, simple controls, expression pedal input, buffered bypass, runs on 9V battery or (included) adapter
Pros: Lots of features in a small footprint, and very easy to use. Expression pedal input and momentary mode can create some unique sounds.
Cons: No diatonic scale setting
With only three knobs this pedal is both straightforward and incredibly powerful!
The POG (or Polyphonic Octave Generator) has been a one of the most successful and popular pitch shifting pedals of all time. Released in 2005, it was quite popular and a follow-up pedal (the POG2) with improved tracking and sound was released in 2009. Although incredibly powerful, the POG2 is not a cheap pedal, and so Electro-Harmonix released a smaller and trimmed down version of the POG2 in a smaller casing – the Micro POG.
In order to fit in the smaller case (and meet a lower price point) the Micro POG does make some concessions from the original. The controls are trimmed down to just a knob for the octave up and a knob for the octave down sound, as well as a knob for the dry signal – but this makes the Micro POG insanely easy to dial in without unnecessary fiddling. Simply set the three volume knobs to sound how you want, and you’re off!
Like the POG and POG2, the pitch tracking of the Nano POG is outstanding! Everything from single notes to full chords are tracked cleanly and without any glitches or artifacts. Using the three knobs you can quickly turn a regular guitar into a 12-string guitar, a bass, an organ, or duplicate a vast array of other sounds.
One small downside – the Micro POG does not have a battery compartment, so you must use a power supply and you should stick to the one that comes with it (or something like a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2), since some other adapters won’t work well. Aside from that, if you want a simple octave pedal – this (or its big brother) is the one to get if you have the cash!
Features: A simple 3-knob control arrangement, buffered bypass, runs on (included A/C adapter).
Pros: Great sound, great tracking, dead-simple controls make this a breeze to set up and start using.
Cons: No battery – doesn’t cooperate well with other adapters. Still not cheap.
Pitch shift pedals can be among some of the most outrageous and useful pedals in a rig. Not every guitarist needs them, but when you do, there is no substitute!
If you’ve got the need for a pitch shifting pedal, but none of the three on this page really seemed to fit the bill, fear not! We’ve got lots of in-depth reviews over many more models for you to find the perfect pedal!
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