Guitar Effects Pedal Buyer's Guide
One of the great things about being a guitar player is the variety of sounds you can get. A clarinet is a clarinet, but your guitar can be a sweet sounding classic guitar, a cool jazz box, an acoustic that sounds like a cannon, or any of hundreds of electrics with sounds suited to country, blues, classic rock, or sizzling metal and everything in between. Guitar effects pedals increase the sonic variety by many orders of magnitude and give you the chance to experiment with sounds and moods in your playing. You don’t have to be an advanced player to make use of most pedal effects – with a few exceptions they require no special playing technique. There is also no right and wrong or best and worst in the choice of a guitar pedal effect: It’s all a matter of taste, mood, and experimentation. Effects can define a style, such as the ever present use of reverb in the surf guitar and rockabilly styles. They can also be used for a specific purpose, as in the use of Fuzz in the Rolling Stones’ "(I can’t get no) Satisfaction," the first hit to feature the Fuzz and the Stones’ only use of that effect. What about effects for vocals or other instruments? Although these effects are often called guitar stomp pedals, they can often be used for vocals, keyboards, electronic drums, or any other instrument with an electronic output. In some cases pedals have separate inputs for bass or are optimized for specific frequency ranges. This is usually noted in our description or on the pedal itself. The first effects were fairly cumbersome and limited, such as the tape echo effects developed by Les Paul in the 1940s or the spring reverbs found in early guitar amplifiers. Beginning in the 1950s many players made use of the new tremolo effect built into their amplifiers. In the ‘60s players found they could get a grittier sound with interesting overtones by overdriving the amplifier – increasing the gain to levels beyond with the amps were intended to handle. Then in 1962, the Maestro Fuzz Tone came out as the first stomp box effect. It didn’t get much interest until the Rolling Stones used it in “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” and then the stomp box explosion began. Sam Ash is proud to have been part of this revolution with several different effects including the Sam Ash Fuzz Boxxx and Volume Baby. Our Fuzz Boxxx sold originally for about $29.99; today, if you can find one, they are selling for as much as $800 depending on condition. The major effects types are the following:
Distortion and Overdrive
Distortion effects include Fuzz and Overdrive and create warm buzzing or to recreate the distorted sounds of an overdriven guitar amp. Distortion is a great first choice for starting your collection of guitar effects. An Overdrive effect is also nice to have if you’re amp can’t deliver a good “tube” sound. Today, you can get digital, analog, and some overdrive effects with real 12AX7 tubes for a truly authentic tube amp sound. See our Distortion Pedal Buyers Guide.
A Delay repeats the original sound after a period of milliseconds or longer, creating an echo effect. A Reverb uses similar processing to simulate the reflections of the sound from various room surfaces giving the sound the extra fullness you hear in a concert hall or other venue. Most reverbs give you a choice of room sizes and types and many are designed to simulate the effects of old analog reverbs like the spring units in 1950s and 60s Fender amps (but without the explosive bang the old spring reverbs produced when jostled). The great sonic enhancement you get from a reverb makes it another great way to start your collection of effects. See our Delay Effects Buyers Guide and our Reverb Pedal Buyers Guide.
Chorus adds a slightly delayed slightly modulated version of your sound to the original creating the illusion of two or more instruments playing in unison. A Phaser or Phase Shifter uses a similar technique but sweeps the modulated signal sweeps from in phase to out of phase in a constant rotation to give an effect similar to a rotating speaker. Eddie Van Halen frequently makes use of the MXR Phase 90 and the Rolling Stones used a phaser in the song Shattered. The Flanger is the most subtle version of this effect, with more sweeps and changing speeds over time creating an ethereal spacey sound typified by the psychedelic sounds of Jimi Hendrix or the song Blue Jay Way from the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. By the way, the word “flanger” comes from the way the effect was originally produced. In the studio, two identical tracks would be played on two different tape machines. The effect resulted by putting a finger on the flange of one of the tape reels to change the speed of one machine from time to time (very cumbersome compared to the modern electronic effect). See our Chorus/Flanger/Phaser Pedal Buyers Guide.
Phrase Loopers require a bit of playing experience beyond rank beginner status. They let you record a phrase or passage of music, play it back on command, and play along with it. Using the better units, you can record more and longer passages and record layers of performance on top of them. See our Phrase Looper Pedal Buyers Guide.
Anyone with a stereos system is familiar with EQ. EQ boosts or removes certain frequencies and at extreme settings can create unusual effects, such as extra deep bass or an emphasized midrange. Tone controls are the most familiar EQ filters, but you can get very creative with an equalizer and this is where the EQ Pedal comes in. EQ Pedals can also be used to boost your signal by moving up all the faders and hitting the button, but watch out, it will be quite a boost and could damage your speakers. See our EQ Pedal Buyers Guide.
Wah Wah pedals
Wah Wah Pedals work by varying the filtering of frequencies dynamically with your foot to give a Wah Wah or quacking sound to your playing. A Wah Wah pedal is essentially an EQ that can be constantly varied by your foot. Since you need to coordinate the movement of the pedal with your playing, the Wah Wah is not a tool for rank beginners. See our Wah Wah Pedal Buyers Guide.
Auto Wah - Envelope Filter Pedals
An Envelope Filter Pedal, sometimes known as Auto Wah or an Envelope Following Filter, alters the cutoff frequency of a filter according to the volume of the sound. It does this as each note is attacked, sustained, and decays (hence the term Envelope Filter pedals) so the Wah Wah effect responds faster than a foot controlled Wah Wah pedal. It takes some practice to control the response of the Envelope Pedal, so this is not an effect for the novice. The Auto Wah effect is featured in The Who’s "Going Mobile", Dire Straits’" Industrial Disease", and U2’s "Mysterious Ways" to name a few. Stevie Wonder used this effect with his Clavinet Keyboard to get the distinctive sound of "Higher Ground". See our Auto Wah Pedal Buyers Guide.
Talk Boxes let you play the signal into your mouth for filtering control. By varying the shape of your mouth, you can use a Talk Box to get a Wah Wah effect or even to shape your guitar tone into recognizable words. The Talk Box was made famous by artists like Joe Walsh who featured it in Rocky Mountain Way. Use of the Talk Box is closely associated with Peter Frampton, notably on his hit Show Me the Way. The Talk Box also features prominently in Sly and the Family Stone’s "Sex Machine," Aerosmith’s "Sweet Emotion," and Queen’s" Delilah", and Metallica’s "The House the Jack Built." See our Talk Box Buyers Guide.
As the name implies, Octave and Pitch Shifter pedals duplicate the original signal at a different pitch. The effect can be of two instruments playing in unison an octave apart or of two instruments playing together at different intervals such as fifths. See our Octave/Pitch Shifter/Harmonizer Pedal Buyers Guide.
Although the terms are used interchangeably, technically Tremolo is an up and down pattern of volume and Vibrato is an up and down patter of pitch. The tremolo/vibrato sound is a natural part of the tone of an accomplished singer, wind player, or violinist. For organs and other keyboards the effect was generated by the rotating Leslie speaker until electronics were capable of recreating this effect. The effect has been a feature of guitar amps for a long time but today’s digital electronics give you a more sophisticated and controllable result. See our Tremolo/Vibrato Pedal Buyers Guide.
Major Brands of Effects.
The major brands of effects pedals include Boss (by Roland), DigiTech, Dunlop, Ibanez, Korg, Line6, Morley, MXR, and Zoom. These brands can provide you with excellent value and sound quality. There are also boutique brands such as T-Rex Engineering, Keeley Electronics, and Gravesend, offering ultra high quality components and true hardwired bypass (see our guest article on the Buffer/True Bypass compromise) to completely eliminate noise and distortion when the effect is switched off.
Effect Pedal Boards:
You can get a lot creativity out of a Multi Effect pedal (see our Multi-Effect Pedal Buyers Guide), but somehow, most players end up collecting effects units and stringing them together in a pedal board, including multi effect units. That is because you can also change your sound by the order in which you place your pedals. For example, you can place your distortion pedal before your flanger for a cleaner sound, or put your flanger first for the Eddie Van Halen sound. The order of the pedals doesn’t matter technically, but changing the order enables you to experiment with different tonal effects. See our Effect Pedal Board Buyers Guide. Have Fun and Make Great Music!