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You’ve probably encountered guitar effects pedals if you’ve been playing guitar for a while. These clever little devices can transform your guitar sound into something truly unique.
There are roughly five main categories of guitar effects pedals and about 20 different types within those categories. The main types of guitar pedals are boost, overdrive, and distortion pedals, dynamic effects, frequency effects and filters, modulation effects, and time-based effects.
In this post, we’ll explore a range of effects pedals for electric guitars, from classic models used by iconic guitar players to modern digital designs used on contemporary songs. By the end, you’ll better understand these incredible small boxes!
Different Types of Effects Pedals and How They Work
For guitarists, effects pedals are an essential component of their gear setup. These devices manipulate the guitar’s sound by altering the guitar’s signal.
Guitar effects pedals work by taking the electrical signal from your guitar, processing it through various circuitry, and then outputting a new sound that is processed in real-time.
Numerous different types of guitar pedals are available, each with unique characteristics and sonic capabilities. Let’s discuss the main types of effects pedals.
Boost, Overdrive, and Distortion Effects
Boost, overdrive, and distortion pedals are undoubtedly some of the most popular effects pedals for electric guitarists. These pedals increase the signal, or gain, before it reaches your amplifier.
The result is an overdriven sound ranging from a subtle crunch to full-on heavy metal distortion. Examples include the famous Ibanez Tube Screamer, the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal, and the MXR M77 Custom Badass Modified Overdrive.
Clean boost pedals increase the volume of your guitar’s signal without adding any distortion or coloration. This can provide extra volume on solos or combine well with an overdrive pedal.
Some examples include the TC Electronic Spark Mini and the MXR Micro Amp.
A treble boost can help counteract some of the muddiness and lack of definition in the low-end frequencies that can occur with a clean boost pedal. And an EQ boost allows you to refine your sound even further.
The Catalinbread Naga Viper treble boost and Fender Engager Boost are examples.
Preamp boost pedals are based on vintage pieces of audio gear. For example, the Xotic EP Booster is based on the preamp section of an EP-3 Echoplex tape delay.
Overdrive pedals are similar to clean boosts but with an added kick. These give your guitar signal an extra punch, resulting in a thicker, more saturated sound.
An overdrive pedal emulates the sound of a tube amp on the verge of breakup. Sonically, overdrive sits between a boost pedal and distortion.
Whether you have a tube amp or not, an overdrive pedal adds character and warmth to your sound. Different pedals will range in the amount of signal distortion.
For example, the BOSS BD-2 Blues Driver and the JHS Morning Glory are more transparent, while the Ibanez Tube Screamer allows you to achieve higher-gain tones.
Distortion pedals push the signal further and add color to your guitar’s tone. This results in a heavier, more saturated sound appropriate for hard rock and metal.
The guitar’s signal is clipped, and varying levels of compression and saturation are applied. This is not your transparent overdrive pedal.
The type of distortion pedal greatly influences the tone. For example, the classic Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal creates a sound that’s somewhat tame compared to the face-melting Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal pedal.
The ProCo RAT 2, the MXR M104 Distortion Pedal, and the JHS 3 Series Distortion Pedal are all examples of popular distortion pedals.
Fuzz pedals have their name for a reason. The guitar signal is saturated with additional distortion to the point where note dynamics are dampened, creating a indistinct fuzzy tone.
Fuzz pedals were first popularized in the 60s, but continue to be featured in modern music. There are primarily two transistors that create fuzz pedals–germanium and silicon.
Germanium transistors are characterized by lower gain and warmer tone, but can be affected by environmental conditions. Silicon transistors are more stable, and produce a brighter tone.
Some fuzz pedals are combined with an octave effect that doubles the note an octave up. For example, the Dunlop JHMS2 Authentic Hendrix ’68 Shrine Series Octavio Fuzz Pedal adds an octave-up effect giving you an authentic Hendrix vibe.
Other examples of fuzz pedals include the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, and the ZVex Fuzz Factory.
Dynamic effects pedals are used to shape and control the dynamics of your guitar sound. These types of pedals work by altering the dynamic range or how loud and quiet the signal is.
Examples include compressors, noise gates, and volume pedals.
Compressors reduce the dynamic range of your guitar’s signal, making the loud parts quieter and the quiet parts louder, creating a more consistent sound.
This evens out your sound and helps retain subtle picking dynamics while reducing rough edges. Most guitarists have a compressor in their chain to thicken the signal and control signal peaks.
Although not its primary purpose, a compressor can help boost sustain for solos. By leveling out the signal, the compressor has the added benefit of lengthening sustain as the note decays.
Examples include the MXR M102 Dyna Comp, and BOSS CS-3 Compression Sustainer.
Noise gates are dynamic effects that filter out unwanted noise, such as hisses, hums, and string noise. Sounds under a certain threshold are filtered out, which helps eliminate noise in your signal.
For example, metal players using a lot of distortion can reduce the background signal noise with a noise gate. The background hiss between notes is lessened or removed.
Examples include the BOSS NS-2 Noise Suppressor and the MXR M135 Smart Gate Pedal.
Volume pedals control the volume of your electric guitar signal in real time. This is useful for creating volume swells or adjusting your guitar’s volume at specific points in a song.
While you can use the volume knob on your guitar to the same effect, having a dedicated volume pedal makes it easy for on-stage adjustments.
Examples include the Ernie Ball VP JR, and Dunlop DVP3 Volume and Expression Pedal.
Frequency Effects and Filters
Frequency effects adjust the frequency response of your guitar’s signal. They can add a unique character to your sound by adding harmonics or overtones or altering specific frequency ranges.
Examples include the wah, envelope filter, and EQ pedals.
Just like an EQ (equalizer) on your stereo system or audio software, EQ pedals adjust the levels of bass, mid, and treble frequencies of your guitar’s signal.
The adjustments will vary depending on the pedal, but a dedicated EQ pedal usually has between 5 and ten bands of adjustment.
Some available EQ pedals include the BOSS GE-7 7-Band EQ Pedal, the MXR M109S Six-Band EQ Pedal, and the MXR M108S Ten-Band EQ Pedal.
The wah-wah pedal is one of the most iconic guitar effects ever. It produces an unmistakable vocal-like sound often used in funk or rock music.
It applies a frequency band filter controlled by a foot rocker switch, allowing you to sweep through the frequency spectrum manually.
Examples include the Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal and the Vox Classic Reissue Wah Pedal.
Listen to the intro to Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix for some classic wah pedal sounds.
Envelope Filter (Auto-wah)
The envelope filter or auto-wah creates a wah pedal effect that is triggered through pick dynamics instead of manually with a foot rocker switch.
Some examples include the Electro-Harmonix Nano Q-Tron Envelope Filter Pedal and the DOD Envelope Filter 440.
Pitch Shifters and Octave Pedals
Pitch shifters are used for creating harmony and octave effects. Most modern pitch shifters have a range of two octaves or more, allowing you to create some unusual sounds.
Examples include the Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork Polyphonic Pitch Shift Pedal and the Meris Hedra 3-Voice Rhythmic Pitch Shifter Pedal.
An octave pedal is a type of pitch shifter that creates an additional frequency signal one or two octaves above or below the original sound.
Octave pedals can be used to create a full, thick sound that emulates a bass or organ. Paired with a fuzz pedal, use it to create heavy rock riffs or unique lead lines.
Check out Blue Orchid by the White Stripes for an example.
The Boss OC-5 Octave Pedal expands on the classic OC-2 pedal with extra capabilities.
Modulation effects change your guitar sound by manipulating elements of the signal with a low-frequency oscillator (LFO). These effects include phaser, chorus, flanger, tremolo, and vibrato.
Chorus pedals are a popular modulation effect. They work by modulating a delayed version of your guitar’s signal. The result is a shimmering effect that adds depth and texture to your sound.
Some examples are the BOSS CH-1 Super Chorus and the Walrus Audio Julia V2 Analog Chorus/Vibrato Pedal.
Flanger pedals mix your original signal with a delayed and modulated version, creating an unmistakable sweeping sound.
Eddie Van Halen used the effect in the 80s on tracks including Unchained and And the Cradle Will Rock. The MXR EVH117 Eddie Van Halen Flanger Pedal can help you recreate that legendary tone.
Check out the intro to Unchained for some classic flanger tones.
Phase Shifter (Phaser)
A phase shifter or phaser pedal creates a swirling sound by altering the signal across the frequency spectrum at evenly-spaced intervals.
A low-frequency oscillator (LFO) modulates frequency levels creating a swirling effect that adds texture to your sound. Phaser pedals are similar to flanger pedals, but the effect is a bit more subtle.
The Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter and the MXR M101 Phase 90 are popular phaser pedals.
In addition to the flanger, Eddie Van Halen used a phaser in his iconic playing. Check out the MXR EVH Phase 90 Pedal and listen for it in the intro to Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.
Tremolo and Vibrato
Both tremolo and vibrato pedals modulate one element of your guitar signal. Tremolos change volume, while a vibrato alters pitch.
Adjusting the rate and waveform of the tremolo creates everything from a subtle, pulsating sound to a more pronounced and choppy effect.
You might hear a tremolo pedal used in classic surf tunes, rockabilly, and psychedelic rock.
The Boss TR-2 Tremolo and the MXR M305 Tremolo are two examples of popular tremolo pedals.
Vibrato pedals modulates the pitch of your signal producing a wobble effect similar to a Leslie rotary speaker. These effects are often combined with a chorus pedal.
The MXR M68 Uni-Vibe Chorus/Vibrato Pedal and the JHS Unicorn V2 Analog Uni-Vibe are two examples of vibrato pedals.
Check out Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner or Breathe by Pink Floyd for some Uni-Vibe sounds.
Time-based effects are a way to shape your electric guitar’s sound by adding dimension and texture. These effects, including delay and reverb, create additional reflections of your signal.
Delay pedals repeat the original signal at regular intervals, creating an echolike effect. Reverb pedals simulate natural reverberations, adding spatial depth and atmosphere to the sound.
These effects can help create a fuller sound or a dramatic ambient atmosphere.
Reverb pedals simulate the acoustics of an enclosure or space, creating a sense of depth and atmosphere in your guitar tone.
This effect can range from subtle to dramatic. Some reverb pedal settings are intended to emulate natural plate or spring reverb from an amp, while other settings recreate the atmosphere of a hall or performance venue.
The Boss RV-6 Digital Reverb Pedal and the Strymon BigSky Multidimensional Reverb Pedal are two examples of popular reverb pedals.
Delay pedals create repeating echoes of your guitar sound. Depending on the settings, these can be short and subtle or long and spaced out.
Delays add depth to your sound and can be used to create rhythmic patterns. A delay pedal can help your solos stand out, adding definition and presence.
Combined with reverb, delay can create a thoroughly spacious and atmospheric sound.
The Boss DD-3T Digital Delay Pedal and the Strymon TimeLine Multidimensional Delay Pedal are two examples of popular delay pedals.
Check out Where the Streets Have No Name by U2 for a classic use of delay to add rhythmic elements by the Edge.
Other Effects Pedals
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, but many guitar effects pedals don’t fit neatly into one of our categories. And others combine multiple effects into one pedal.
With a looper pedal, you can record and layer musical phrases on top of each other to create backing tracks or complex compositions.
Some looper pedals have drum and rhythm tracks built in. These devices are perfect for developing solos and practicing with a backing track.
Some affordable examples include the TC Electronic Ditto Looper Pedal and the BOSS RC-1 Loop Station.
Amp modelers simulate the sound of classic and modern amplifiers and different speaker cabinets without the need to own a collection of gear.
These devices are more expensive than a single stompbox, but they give you access to a full range of tones, including vintage and modern amps and all the necessary effects.
Check out the Neural DSP Quad Cortex Quad-Core Digital Effects Modeler or Kemper Profiler Stage Floorboard Amp Profiler for examples.
Multi-effects pedals are great for guitarists who want the convenience and flexibility of having multiple effects in one pedal. These pedals have a wide range of sounds, from classic vintage tones to modern high-gain distortions.
Examples include the Line 6 Helix Guitar Multi-Effects Floor Processor, the BOSS ME-80 Guitar Multi-Effects Pedal, or the BOSS GX-100 Guitar Multi-Effects Pedal.
Guitar effects pedals are invaluable for adding texture and complexity to your sound. With the right combination of effects pedals, you can create a unique sonic signature and take your tone to the next level.
Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for creating the perfect guitar tone. But with a little experimentation and knowledge of the different effects pedals available, you can find the sound that best suits your musical style.
Guitar pedals are a great way to expand your sound, whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out. Check out online demos or test drive some pedals in person to find the sound that inspires you!