The sound of the guitar can be shaped, formed, and molded with gear. That’s not to say that technique isn’t important, but – to put it simply – gear matters!
You already know that there are hundreds of choices of guitars and guitar amplifiers, but when it comes to effects pedals, there are even more choices! You need to consider pedal circuitry, digital or analog, battery-powered or plug-in – they all matter! There are also different pedal sizes, different control options, bypass type – the list goes on!
If you feel like you’re in the weeds with effects pedals, this guide is here to help you make sense of these options! We’re going to take a look at the most common effects types, talk a bit about the various sounds you can expect from each, and how best to use them together.
We also have more in-depth guides for each effect type, once you narrow your choices. In these guides we talk about common features and controls that you may want to look for, and we dive into individual models.
Here are the various types of effects that we’ll be covering:
||Used to even out volume spikes and add sustain
|Drive pedals (Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz)
||Add some grit to your sound – from mild to over-the-top!
||Give your guitar some bow-chicka-wow.
||Sculpt and shape your tone for maximum effect with an EQ pedal.
|Pitch shifter pedal
||Need to cover a bass part, add some harmony, or play high enough that only a dog can hear it? A pitch shifter pedal can do it!
||Imitates the sound of multiple guitarists playing at once – giving your sound a subtle shimmer or a spacious warble.
||Puts your guitar in and out of phase with itself for a rising and falling sound that is hypnotic and useful for all sorts of styles!
||Imitating the sound of a reel-to-reel machine that is just slightly out of sync, flanger pedals can add spice to your sound!
||Not to be confused with the tremolo on a guitar, this pedal chops your sound into ear-sized chunks!
||Also called an echo pedal, this pedal can give you a subtle slapback, or a long, arena-rock echo.
||From springs to caves, a reverb pedal can add a little bit of breadth to any guitar sound.
Other Effects Pedals
||Can’t decide which effects you want to use? Why not try all of them!
Gain-staging effects cover everything from subtle compression to thick, aggressive fuzz, and everything between!
Choose these pedals carefully! Since they are often at the beginning of your effects chain, they can drastically influence the pedals that come after them! See this image of a typically constructed effects chain (credit for the image to Roland):
Compressor pedals, though subtle, are one of the most important pedals in any guitarist’s rig.
No matter if you’re looking for a pedal to give you a crisp, punchy, twang or a full and creamy sustained sound – a compressor pedal will help you get there.
WHAT IS A COMPRESSOR PEDAL?
A compressor pedal (sometimes called a compressor/sustain pedal) does exactly what its name implies. Compressors take an input signal and compresses it. This prevents sudden spikes in volume while also preventing the volume from decaying too rapidly. This evens out playing dynamics (for clean or acoustic guitar) and can also increase sustain.
Most compressor pedals can also be used as boost pedals. With the level turned up, they can overload the input of a tube amp into a natural overdrive – with or without compression added. This gives compressor pedals the functionality of a boost pedal, and is yet another reason to own one!
WHO USES COMPRESSOR PEDALS?
The effect of a compressor pedal is generally quite subtle, so it’s often quite difficult to tell exactly who uses them. In general, though, just about every guitarist uses them at some point – it may be the most popular single type of pedal!
Compressor pedals are very common in:
- Jazz music
These are all styles that emphasize a clean, punchy sound with clarity and evenness. Compressors are also used in a lot of medium- to high-gain solos, where they provide extra sustain and a bit of volume boost as well!
HOW TO USE A COMPRESSOR PEDAL
Since compressors smooth out the initial attack and maintain a constant output, they work best when they get the cleanest signal possible. This means that compressor pedals generally work best right in front of your signal chain – just after the guitar.
This has the added benefit of giving all your following pedals a very consistent signal, which can make it easier to balance your guitar volume against the rest of the band!
Some like to have a compressor pedal last, though, and keep it always on. This will allow for an even volume between clean and distorted sounds – although getting a volume boost for solos will be more difficult.
COMPRESSOR PEDAL REVIEWS
If a compressor sounds like a pedal you need, check out our in-depth compressor pedal guides! These include in-depth reviews, compressor pedal features and controls, and more!
DRIVE PEDALS (OVERDRIVE/DISTORTION/FUZZ)
After compressors, the most common guitar effect pedal of all are drive pedals. Just about every major guitarist uses at least one (but sometimes many!) overdrive, distortion, or fuzz pedal at some point in their music!
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OVERDRIVE, DISTORTION, AND FUZZ?
Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz are all similar effects, and the lines between them can be blurry at times. Here are some tips in telling them apart, and what people mean when they use these terms.
Overdrive – Overdrive pedals are generally designed to do one or two things. Either they drive a tube amp harder to cause a natural overdriven sound or they mimic that sound without overdriving the amp. Sonically, overdrive is characterized by soft clipping of the sound wave and is generally considered “warm” and “natural”. These pedals are a bit more touch sensitive than distortion or fuzz pedals. This sensitivity allows the character of the guitar and amp to come through and lets the sound clean up when the guitar’s volume is lowered.
Distortion – Distortion pedals generate a more aggressive sound than a typical overdrive pedal, with harder clipping. Tonally, distortion pedals can cover a very wide range from warm and thick to thin and abrasive. These pedals usually let less of the natural amp and guitar sound through than overdrive and stay aggressive even when the guitar’s volume is lowered.
Fuzz – Going one step further than distortion is fuzz. Fuzz pedals mimic the sound of a heavily distorted amplifier with a torn (or cut, in some cases) speaker cone. These are often even more opaque than distortion pedals – letting less guitar and amp character through. While often excessive, many players have used the over-the-top nature of fuzz boxes to great effect!
WHO USES DRIVE PEDALS?
The short answer is: Almost everyone!
While different types of drive pedals are more appropriate for certain types of music (you usually don’t see heavy fuzz in country music, for example) just about every guitarist has at least one type of drive pedal in their effects chain.
If you have a favorite band or guitarist, spend a couple of minutes with Google and find out how they get their distortion. This will give you a place to start looking – you don’t want to spend hours researching overdrive pedals if you really need a distortion pedal!
HOW TO USE A DRIVE PEDAL
Drive pedals are among the easiest to set-up, but make sure you take the time to do it right!
First, you’ll want to plug it in before any modulation or time effect and then turn the drive knob to find your distortion amount. You may also want to adjust the tone knob(s) to dial in your sound too, but don’t get too picky yet!
After you’ve gotten the approximate amount of distortion, then adjust the volume knob to find out “unity gain”. That is, the volume setting on the pedal where the sound with the pedal off and on is the same volume. Once you’ve found unity gain, you can adjust the pedal’s volume if you want a bit of a volume boost (for a solo, for example) and then adjust the tone knob to taste.
DRIVE PEDAL REVIEWS
No matter what style of drive pedal you need, we’ve got in-depth guides to help you pick out the perfect one! With reviews of drive pedals from basic to boutique, we can help you find your drive sound!
Generally, after your gain pedals, you’ll want to have your frequency-modifying effects. Drive pedals add lots of complexity to the sound, and you’ll get a more pleasing sound by using frequency effects to modify the distorted sound. Distorting the pitch-altered sounds can be interesting for certain effects, though.
Of course, you can (and should) experiment to find your own sound!
What do funk, Hendrix and Kirk Hammett of Metallica all have in common? The wah pedal was an essential part of all their sounds. From rock to funk to blues, the wah pedal is useful in almost every style!
WHAT IS A WAH PEDAL?
A wah pedal is, at its heart, a basic idea.
The wah pedal is a band-pass filter (only letting through a small range of frequencies) with an adjustable resonant frequency. This adjustable peak frequency is changed on-the-fly by the sweep of the pedal. The wah pedal gives the guitar a vocal-like character.
WHO USES A WAH PEDAL
Wah pedals are most often found in:
Although they do sometimes appear in other genres.
Wah pedals used during solos can give a vocal and cutting sound, while a wah pedal that is used in a rhythm track can liven up even the most simple lick! One of the most famous guitar licks to ever use a wah pedal (the theme from the movie “Shaft”) is a great example of how a wah pedal can make even a single note memorable!
HOW TO USE A WAH PEDAL
Using a wah pedal is simple, although it takes some practice and coordination to get it sounding just right.
For the typical “waka-chika” sound, simply rocking your foot in time with the music while strumming either muted strings or a single note is all you’ve got to do! Try changing the speed of your foot (while keeping the same strum pattern) for more variety.
There are other ways to use a wah pedal, though. You can leave it set (or parked) in one position to get a more cutting sound, you can sweep it very slowly (over 4 or 8 bars), or you can use it to break up musical phrases in a solo.
One thing to keep in mind – sometimes the wah pedal is placed before the drive effects instead of after. Try it both ways, and see which way sounds better to you!
WAH PEDAL REVIEWS
If you’re looking for that perfect wah pedal, make sure to read our in-depth wah pedal buying guide. We can help you find the wah pedal with the pefect features that fits your budget!
One of the most powerful tone shaping effects in a guitar’s arsenal is an EQ pedal. These pedals can let you tame unwanted feedback, remove a harsh treble sound, or get rid of a flabby bass.
WHAT IS AN EQ PEDAL?
An EQ pedal lets you cut or boost certain frequencies, to more precisely sculpt your guitar tone. These pedals are like the tone controls on your amplifier, but much more powerful.
Generally, EQ pedals have between 3 and 10 bands that you can selectively adjust. While more bands mean more tone-shaping possibilities, it also makes them a bit more difficult to adjust.
WHO USES AN EQ PEDAL?
Just about everyone, actually!
EQ is one of those effects that gets a lot of use in just about every studio session, to get the sound just right. It’s also quite common to see it on the pedalboard (or rack) of a touring guitarist to enable easy sound adjustments on-the-fly.
HOW TO USE AN EQ PEDAL?
You use an EQ pedal just like you use the tone knobs on your amp – just turn them up or down to find your desired sound.
EQ pedals can be quite a bit more flexible than the tone stack of an amp, though, for a couple of reasons. First – most EQ pedals have quite a bit more frequency bands and more available boost/cut than a typical amp EQ stack. Additionally, where you put the EQ pedal in your chain can have dramatic effects on the final tone. Try putting the EQ pedal just before and just after your drive pedals, as well as at the very end of your chain, to see the difference!
EQ PEDAL REVIEWS
If your sound needs some fine-tuning, an EQ pedal can help! Check out our EQ pedal in-depth guide and reviews so you can pick the best pedal for all your EQ needs!
Sometimes called an octave pedal or a harmonizer, pitch shifters make your guitar even more versatile! They give your guitar an extended range or duplicate the effect of two guitars playing at once!
WHAT IS A PITCH SHIFTER PEDAL
Pitch shifter pedals, like the name implies, take the note you play, and add in another note at a specific interval. Some pedals allow fully chromatic pitch shifting while others only give you a few options. Some pedals also let you pick the key and scale (major, pentatonic, etc.) and will stay in that key automatically.
You can adjust the mix of your guitar note and the pitch shifted note, to either blend the two or have only the adjusted note.
WHO USES PITCH SHIFTER PEDALS
While pitch shifter pedals aren’t especially common, there have been quite a few noticeable guitarists using them to great effect.
Jack White, of the White Stripes, uses one to simulate a bass guitar in Seven Nation Army, while Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello uses one to get unusual or even DJ-like sounds (listen to the Bulls on Parade solo for an example).
HOW TO USE A PITCH SHIFTER PEDAL
Generally, pitch shifters should be placed toward the beginning of your effects chain. Even before your distortion and drive effects (but after your compressor).
The reason is that these pedals need the cleanest possible signal to do accurate pitch shifting. Having a distorted or modulated sound fed into the pedal can confuse it, and cause weird glitching. That being said, if you want glitching, put it wherever!
After that, how you use it is up to you (and the specific pedal). Some pedals allow for control via an expression pedal (like the Digitech Whammy pedal), and can produce “bend” effects as well as simple pitch shifting. While others excel at tracking and harmonizing with one or multiple notes (like the Electro-Harmonix POG2).
PITCH SHIFTER PEDAL REVIEWS
If you think a pitch shifter pedal may be in your future, make sure to read all our in-depth reviews to pick the right one! While there are lots of good-quality pitch shifting pedals available, knowing the pros and cons of specific models can help you find the best pedal!
Unlike frequency effects (where only the frequency of the sound is changed by the pedals), modulation effects modify the sound of the guitar over time (generally just a few milliseconds).
These pedals can add subtle depth or over-the-top craziness to any guitar sound!
One of the most popular modulation effects, chorus pedals are designed to make one guitar sound like many. Featuring aspects of both phasers and flangers, chorus pedals can add a subtle depth to a single guitar.
WHAT IS A CHORUS PEDAL?
A chorus pedal takes a single input signal, divides it into separate signals, and adjusts their pitch and time slightly. This gives the effect of many guitarists playing the same part but slightly out-of-tune and microseconds apart.
WHO USES A CHORUS PEDAL?
Chorus pedals are used in all genres of music, but they are probably most popular with rhythm guitarists in the genres:
There are lots of popular guitarists and songs that use chorus pedals to great effect. Songs like Nirvana’s Come As You Are and, more recently, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky use the chorus pedal to add a little shimmer to single-guitar licks.
HOW TO USE A CHORUS PEDAL
Chorus pedals are pretty simple to use – just plug it in and turn it on!
Like other modulation pedals, you generally want to put chorus after your drive effects. If your amp has an effects loop, start with the modulation there!
Chorus pedals sound great on simple chord progressions or single-note arpeggios. In these types of riffs the chorus can add a depth of sound without getting in the way of the vocals or other instruments.
CHORUS PEDAL REVIEWS
If you need to add some shimmer to your rhythm figures, a chorus pedal may be just the ticket. Read our in-depth articles and advanced feature reviews to pick out the perfect chorus pedal for your budget!
Also known as phase-shifters, phaser pedals take a signal and move it into- and out of-phase with itself, creating a constant rising-and-falling sound.
WHAT IS A PHASER PEDAL
While the specifics of how a phaser pedal work are a bit complicated, here are the basics. The phaser splits the signal, and takes half the signal and moves it both in and out of phase with itself. When the signal is 180-degrees out-of-phase, a “notch” is created.
This phase shifting, combined with a LFO (low-frequency oscillator) that shifts the point at which these notches occur, creates an effect that can vary from subtle waves to dramatic.
WHO USES A PHASER PEDAL?
Phaser pedals can add a nice subtle bit of motion to an otherwise simple or sparse riff, and so they have a spot on the pedalboard of guitarists in a variety of genres:
- And more!
Some of the most notable guitar tracks ever recorded feature prominent phaser usage. You can hear it at the end of Eddie Van Halen’s tour-de-force Eruption, in the rhythm guitar during the solo on Lenny Kravitz’ Are You Gonna Go My Way?, and Rolling Stones’ Shattered.
HOW TO USE A PHASER PEDAL
Like other modulation pedals, phasers generally go best after drive pedals. In the effects loop if you have one.
Generally, the phaser effect should happen in time with the music – usually one up-and-down cycle either every bar or every two bars (depending on the desired effect and the tempo of the music). Set this way, phasers can liven up a slow, strummed chord progression or a simple melodic riff.
PHASER PEDAL REVIEWS
If you want to add some whoosh to your sound, look no further than a phaser pedal! Pick out the best one for you (and your budget) by checking out our in-depth reviews of all sorts of phaser pedals!
A flanger pedal is, in concept, like a chorus pedal, but sounds a little different. Old-school flangers were created when a recording engineer played two copies of the same track on reel-to-reel players, and pressed his thumb against one, causing the two unison tracks to slide in and out of sync.
While chorus pedals create a “shimmery” effect, flangers produce a more prominent rise-and-fall sound.
WHAT IS A FLANGER PEDAL?
Flanger pedals, like chorus pedals, take the original signal and double it. Then the flanger pedal will delay the signal a slight (but changing) amount, and feedback a slight amount of that delay back into the pedal.
The effect created is somewhat more prominent than either chorus or phasers, and can be almost dizzying at high levels.
WHO USES A FLANGER PEDAL?
Since flangers are a much heavier (some would say oppressive) effect than either chorus or phasers, it is somewhat less common.
You can get a sense of how a flanger can take over the sound by listening to the intro guitar riff to Heart’s Barracuda, the final bridge of The Eagle’s Life in the Fast Lane, and the main guitar riff in Rush’s The Spirit of Radio.
HOW TO USE A FLANGER PEDAL
Flangers are used like any other modulation pedal – plug it in (usually after your drive effects), set the knobs to 12 o’clock, and turn it on!
Be aware, though, that the flanger is a more “harmonic” effect than both chorus or phaser. Depending on the rate of flanging, this pedal can add lots of life to a simple riff or become heavy and distracting. Used sparingly, though, flanging can be quite effective!
FLANGER PEDAL – FINAL WORD
If you want to up your modulation game with a flanger, make sure you get the one that fits all your needs (and your budget)!
Tremolo (or “trem” for short) is probably the most misused term in all guitar equipment. In musical terms, a tremolo is actually a rapid repetition of the same note, rather than a change in pitch (like the tremolo on a guitar). The tremolo-style bridge featured on a Stratocaster would more accurately be called a vibrato.
WHAT IS A TREMOLO PEDAL?
The term “tremolo” refers to a rapid alteration of a note or notes (think Dick Dale’s Misirlou). While this effect is possible on a single string with good alternate picking, tremolo pedals make it much easier and more consistent.
Tremolo pedals also let you perform this effect on all six strings simultaneously – something that is impossible to do otherwise.
WHO USES A TREMOLO PEDAL?
Tremolo pedals are a fairly common effect in lots of alternative and pop music. Generally, it’s an effect best used sparingly (as too much can be a little unsettling), but it can be effective when used well.
HOW TO USE A TREMOLO PEDAL
Tremolo pedals, while simple to set up, can be a bit tricky to use, since generally you want the tremolo effect to happen in time with the song.
Pedals which have a display or a tap tempo footswitch are generally easier to adjust than those that only have a knob to control the rate.
In general, you’ll want to use the tremolo pedal either on longer chords or on slower moving single-note riffs. Fast passages played with a tremolo pedal are generally not effective.
TREMOLO PEDAL – FINAL WORD
If you want to give your guitar sound a little bit of a slice-and-dice, you can’t go wrong with a tremolo pedal.
From subtle to swooshy, time-based effects can add a lot of texture to any basic guitar sound.
While these effects may seem a bit simple, there are lots of sounds packed inside these types of pedals.
Also called an echo pedal, delay pedals are among the most flexible pedals in a guitarist’s arsenal. Delays can create effects from a subtle slapback to intricate counterpoint, and everything between.
WHAT IS A DELAY PEDAL?
Like the name suggests, a delay pedal takes the sound you’ve played, waits a short amount of time, and then plays the sound back. Some delay pedals will also allow you to change the delayed sound.
WHO USES A DELAY PEDAL?
Delay pedals are popular in just about all genres of music
Fast, slap-back delays are popular for styles like:
with clean guitar sounds and fast chicken-pickin’.
Longer delay sounds are popular in:
where they can create the impression of playing in a large, echoey, room.
U2’s The Edge uses multiple delay pedals set to different timings to give his one guitar the ability to fill out the band’s sound without complex riffs. Brian May of Queen used delays (and pitch shifters) to create complex guitar orchestra sounds from his single guitar!
HOW TO USE A DELAY PEDAL
Depending on what you want to do, there are lots of ways to use a delay pedal. Generally speaking, though, you’ll want the delay pedal toward the end of your effects chain, after modulations.
For short, slapback delay sounds, set the delay time short (around 100-200 milliseconds) and 1 repeat. You can use an even shorter time (50 ms or so) to thicken up your sound, or a longer delay time (200 ms with multiple repeats) to imitate a moderate reverb. With a dotted-eighth delay setting, you can play twice the notes with half the effort!
If you want a longer delay for a spacious solo, it may be necessary to have the delayed notes be in time with the music. Like tremolo pedals, having a tap tempo (or digital display) can make this much easier to set up.
DELAY PEDAL REVIEWS
A good delay pedal can be one of the most versatile pedals in any guitarist’s arsenal. Find the best delay pedal for your budget with our in-depth guide and individual pedal reviews!
Reverb pedals duplicate the natural sound you get when playing in a big room (old church) or through special studio equipment.
Reverb is one of those effects that can be at its best when no one notices that you’re using it!
WHAT IS A REVERB PEDAL?
Reverb pedals have a big job – duplicate the effects of some arbitrary type of room without sounding artificial. Since everyone has heard natural reverb at some point, this is no easy task.
In addition to the natural reverb, these pedals often duplicate specialized equipment in studios and amps. Plate reverb (found in studios) and spring reverb (found in studios and amps) are more artificial but popular with guitarists.
WHO USES REVERB?
In short – everyone.
While reverb is common in studio recordings, it’s much less common to use in live situations, since any room will have its own reverb. As such, if you are only doing live work, you may not need a good natural reverb, and you can focus on less traditional reverb sounds.
HOW TO USE A REVERB PEDAL
Reverb pedals, like delay, generally go at the end of your effects chain. While usually reverb goes last, there are some interesting effects that you can get by swapping delay and reverb (or putting reverb earlier).
Reverb is a common effect to find in a recording studio – generally in the form of reverb tanks or big, expensive digital rack units. Lots of times reverb isn’t actually added to a track until after it’s recorded. It’s a lot easier to add more later than take it away!
Live, reverb pedals need to be used judiciously. Unnatural reverb (like spring or plate reverb) can add a depth to your sound that you can’t duplicate by a large room alone, but be careful! Too much extra reverb (especially in a big room) can make your guitar sound “mushy” and hard to hear!
REVERB PEDAL – FINAL WORD
No matter if you need reverb for live use or recording, don’t skimp on quality with a reverb pedal because, as said previously, bad quality reverb pedals can muddy your tone.
OTHER EFFECTS PEDALS
Can’t decide on a single distortion, delay, or chorus pedal?
Do you love trying out new effects, or do you need several different pedals to cover a large variety of musical styles but don’t have the budget?
If so, then a multi-effects pedal may be the best kind of effects pedal for you!
WHAT ARE MULTI-EFFECTS PEDALS?
Like the name implies, multi-effects pedals feature a wide range of effects in a single unit.
These pedals can vary in complexity and features, and many people think that some effects sound inferior in digital format. Although with the advancement of computer processing the sounds and feel of these units has gotten much better in the past decade.
WHO USES MULTI-EFFECTS PEDALS?
Most musicians have access to some of the best vintage equipment in the studio. Old guitars, amplifiers, and effects pedals, highly coveted for their “mojo” are often (relatively) easily available.
Out on tour, though, it’s a different story. Complex setup and teardown procedures, compounded by the wear and tear of transporting equipment thousands of miles, means that the vintage equipment rarely makes it out on the road.
For simplicity sake, some professional guitarists have moved almost completely to either floor- or rack-mounted multi-effects units when out on tour. While purists may complain of “sterile” or “digital” sounds, in live situations the difference is much more difficult to hear. In fact, some guitarists are moving to multi-effects units in the studio as well!
HOW TO USE A MULTI-EFFECTS PEDAL
Using a multi-effects pedal really isn’t that much different than using regular pedals. While some powerful multi-effects units can be a bit harder to setup than a single pedal, they are often easier to transport and setup!
One of the main challenges with multi-effects units (aside from their complexity) is resisting the urge to have every effect turned up to 10! In guitar effects, as in music, many times less is more!
MULTI-EFFECTS PEDAL – FINAL WORD
If you’re going to invest money and time in an all-in-one solution, make sure you pick the best one for you!
Lawrence is our mysterious chief in house writer. Is he a famous novelist? Is he a famous journalist? We don’t know. All we know is that he is Lawrence.