Thinking of your first instrument brings back some great memories. The feeling of getting your first guitar is something that you’ll never forget. Experienced players, who have been rocking for quite a while now, will also fondly remember how exciting it was to get into the world of guitar pedals and all the other exciting accessories. However, no matter how interesting this is, some of the stuff about guitar gear might be confusing for the beginner players. As a result, some of the rookies might get discouraged, even to the point where they feel like completely giving up on electric guitar.
And that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? Just imagine all the fun times you can have while jamming all your favorite songs with all the different pedals and effects to spice things up. With this in mind, we’ve decided to make a beginner’s guide for guitar pedals where we’ll shed some light on the matter and explain what these pedals are and what they do. If you’re struggling to understand some of the stuff about pedals – don’t worry, you’re not alone. After reading this guide, you’ll definitely have a clearer picture of the topic, which will serve as a solid basis for further research. So let’s get started.
In order to make things easier for beginners, we’ll try and divide all the pedals into different categories. We will then explain some of these effects as well as some basic controls and parameters and how they alter the tone.
Okay, this is technically not an effect. These are just guitar tuners in the form of pedals that allow you to tune up while completely cutting off your signal to all the other pedals. Pretty useful if you don’t want to make your bandmates angry for playing open strings and tuning at full volume.
They usually have a display or an array of LED lights that help you see the notes that you’re tuning to.
Filters, as their name suggests, filter out certain frequencies in your tone. Some filter pedals, like the Line 6 FM4, can help one player emulate the tone of some old synths.
However, the best-known filter pedals are wah-wahs. They, essentially, have a sweepable peak frequency that goes up and down, filtering high and low frequencies as you move the rocking part of the pedal. Wah pedals usually have some controls on them, like the depth of the effect.
There are also automatic wah pedals that change the peak frequency either according to the given tempo or according to the dynamics of your playing.
Equalizer pedals work the same way like an EQ on your average guitar amp. The difference here is that they usually have 5 or more frequency ranges to choose from, plus a volume control. They are pretty straightforward and can do a lot to your tone and help you sound completely different for this particular part of a certain song.
Another difference compared to the average EQ on your amp is that they have sliders for each of the frequency ranges instead of regular knobs. In addition, there are also parametric equalizer pedals where you can alter the bandwidth, amplitude, and the center frequency for each of the frequency ranges. These are a bit more complicated so it’s advisable to start with standard graphic EQ pedals.
Boost pedals are pretty straightforward – they just boost your signal. While it may seem like boring effect, some boosters do additional tone-shaping thanks to different types of transistors in them. At the same time, they are useful in combination with tube amps as they boost the signal and rely on the amp’s properties to create that “natural” and “organic” distortion which reflects the dynamics of your playing.
Treble boosters used to be popular back in the ’60s and the ’70s, with a piece like the Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster that was used by various guitar heroes, including Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore.
There have been some talks about compressors in some previous feature articles (like this one https://www.samash.com/spotlight/the-most-underrated-guitar-pedal-what-is-compressor-and-why-you-need-to-have-one/). Not to be confused with audio data compression, compressor pedals control your dynamic range. They turn up the volume for quiet parts and turn down the volume for louder parts. In addition, they can help you achieve better sustain. The resulting tone sounds “fatter” and can help beef up the twangy single-coil pickup tone.
Usual controls that you can find on a compressor include volume, threshold (the intensity at which the compression is applied), ratio (how much compression will be applied after the threshold), attack, and release.
The most famous pitch shifter pedal is arguably the DigiTech Whammy, the one that you can hear in songs like “Killing in the Name” or “Seven Nation Army.” The Whammy controls the pitch and can go anywhere from one octave below to one octave higher than your guitar’s current pitch. It is controlled by a rocking part, similar to the one seen on an average wah pedal.
Octaver pedals add a lower note to what you’re playing, either one or two octaves below. They can be pretty interesting for guitar solos or any parts that are played with single notes. They usually don’t work that well with chords.
Harmonizer pedals are a bit complex and can do some pretty mindblowing things. You can use these pedals to add a higher or a lower interval. This can be a fixed interval, like a major 3rd or a diminished 5th. But the magic starts when you use these pedals in their “smart” mode where they follow your playing diatonically. You set the tonality and the scale that you’re playing in and they add the harmony that you want. It is required that you have some basic knowledge of music theory in order to use them properly.
And here comes the main part. We’ve discussed distortion in another featured article. The distortion is achieved when the signal is purposefully pushed to the limits of your amp or a pedal, “clipping” the signal in the process. With different types of clipping, we get classic distortion, overdrive, or fuzz.
They are usually simple to operate, featuring volume and gain controls, as well as a simplified EQ or just one tone knob. As opposed to the volume control, which controls the output volume, the gain controls the intensity of your distortion.
The most famous distortion is probably the Boss DS-1 that’s been used by a whole bunch of guitar heroes over the last few decades or so.
If compressor and distortion pedals are a foundation to your tone, modulations are all the fun, wacky, and colorful things added to it. The most popular modulation effect is the chorus, but there are also other effects in this category, like flanger, phaser, vibrato, tremolo, and rotary.
Chorus adds the “copy” of your signal, gives some latency to it, and just slightly tweaks the pitch up and down at a desired speed. The resulting tone can resemble the sound of 12-string guitars.
Tremolo is a pretty simple one that cuts off your volume at some rapid rates. Vibrato simply messes with your overall pitch, while the rotary effects emulates well-known vintage rotary speakers.
But even with all these effects mentioned above, your guitar might sound pretty “dry” if there’s no delay or reverb to it. They are often used for solo sections, but you can hear both of these effects in many rhythm parts as well.
We’ve placed them in the same category as they usually serve the same purpose. However, you’ll stumble upon guitar players who use both at the same time. If that’s something you want to do as well, you’ll need some time accommodating and tweaking these pedals to avoid sounding too “weak” or too “distant” in the mix.
Delay pedals add a delayed signal to your tone that repeats multiple times, with each of the repetitions getting gradually quieter. Well, this is essentially an echo effect, which is why these are often labeled as “delay/echo” pedals. On them, you can control the time between the two repetitions, how long they will keep repeating, and the effect’s intensity, also labeled as “mix” or “blend” on the pedal. Some delays even have additional simplified EQs for the wet signal.
As opposed to the delay/echo effect, reverb creates the impression of playing in a large room. It is achieved when the signal is “reflected” many times, then builds up and slowly decays. Reverb creates many of these “repetitions,” or “reflections,” that are all below 50 milliseconds from one another.
The volume pedal simply controls the volume of your signal. If you’re playing in a larger band or an orchestra, where the dynamics are of great importance, a volume pedal should be the most important part of your setup.
Expression pedals do nothing on their own. Although they resemble volume and wah pedals, they are designed to alter certain parameters of various other effects, like filters, modulations, or some delays. They can help you open up a whole new world of different sonic possibilities.
Of course, these effects that you want to control need to have a separate jack for the expression pedal connectivity.
Again, just like expression pedals, tap switches do nothing on their own but work in pair with any effects that can support them. These are usually any kinds of effects that work with certain timing or tempo parameters, like delays, phasers, and automatic wahs.
And yet another pedal that does nothing on its own. They feature a series of programmable steps that repeat in a given tempo. They too require for pedals to have a separate jack to plug it into.
Just like expression pedals and tap switches, sequencers are usually not something you’ll find on a beginner’s pedalboard. Either way, these are pretty fun to use and we encourage you to do more research on how they work.
What is the correct order of pedals on a pedalboard?
But with so many different effects, one might wonder “In which order should I arrange all these pedals?”
Before we go into anything, it should be noted that there are no official written rules about how pedals should be arranged. But with this being said, there is a recommended order that will give the clearest possible sound without any unconventional or weird noises. It goes:
Guitar – tuner pedal – wahs and filters – equalizers – compressor pedals – boost – pitch shifter/octaver/harmonizer – distortion/overdrive/fuzz – modulations – volume pedals – delay – reverb – amp
The volume pedal placement has a few variations. Some may prefer to have it at the beginning of the signal chain. However, in this case, you should be using a high impedance volume pedal. This way, your volume pedal practically does the same effect as the volume knob on your guitar.
If you place the volume pedal after the distortion and before the delay, you’ll have a master volume control without altering the delay repeat volume. In this case, you should use a low impedance volume pedal, the ones with “L” in their name.
The third option is to use it at the very end of the signal chain, right before the amp. In this particular case, the volume pedal will also control the volume of repeated delay and reverb tones. Just like the previous case, you should also use a low impedance volume pedal if you’re placing it at the very end of the chain.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to experiment and find the best possible option that works for your music. But before you start spending your money on dozens of pedals (and eventually even regretting buying something that won’t suit your needs), maybe you can try out some of the multi-effect pedals and processors in order to learn how all these things work.