Guitar Pedals Explained
Posted by Michael Mueller on June 5, 2015 at 3:25 PM
Guitar is a unique instrument because so many distinct sounds can be created through effect pedals. A guitarist’s tone is like other parts of their music – melody, lyrics, rhythm – that helps create a unique voice. In the quest for a unique sound a variety of pedals have been invented, and sometimes it can be confusing to keep track of them all! In this article, I’ll explain what each guitar pedal does to your tone.
I’ve grouped effects into five groups – distortion, time delay, dynamics, filters, and modulation. Each group changes your guitar’s input in a different way – some change the frequency, while others change the gain and power. I’ll briefly describe each effect’s purpose and how it works. In future articles I’ll describe each pedal individually and in more detail.
Distortion is one of the most popular guitar effects. The sound is made by clipping the signal, which gives it a nasty, crushing, dirty sound. Every pedal is different, but in general they all boost your lows and highs, increase your gain, and alter the shape of your signal to create a distorted sound. Unlike some of the effects below, distortion pedals have approximately the same effect at any volume.
Fuzz pedals add a specific type of distortion that gives it a fuzzy character. It alters your guitar signal into a square wave, and adds complex overtones to the sound. Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” is a good example of a song with fuzz. It was one of the first guitar effects built in the early 1960s.
Overdrive is a subtle form of distortion that works by increasing your gain. The distorted sounds only occur with louder playing. It creates a more natural sound, and creates an effect similar to pushing a tube amplifier to its limit and “over-driving” the signal.
Delay / Echo
Delay pedals play back your guitar’s signal with a slight lag. This creates an echo effect, and can be adjusted to provide depth to the sound, similar to reverb, or to build an ongoing repeat that creates a musical canon. The Edge from U2 is known for his use of delay.
A much subtler version of delay, this adds depth and ambiance to your tone. These pedals emulate the reverb created when you play in a large concert hall or cathedral. Many amps have this functionality built in, but there are reverb pedals for those who would like more control.
A more extreme version of delay, looping allows you to record a lick on the spot, and play it back continuously. These pedals allow you to record anywhere from minutes to hours of playing. Loop pedals are great for improvising – they can be used to lay down rhythm layers, and then you can solo over them.
Volume pedals allow you to control your guitar’s loudness level with your foot. You can use it to add expression, or add a tremolo effect (quickly increasing / decreasing the volume). They’re simple, but useful.
Boosters are simple – they boost your guitar’s signal, without distorting your sound. They are a “clean” volume increase. In practice however, they are used to drive your amp harder to increase distortion at lower volume settings. They can also be used to increase your volume cleanly during a solo.
Compressor / Sustain
Compression pedals normalize the dynamic range of your signal. That means that softer sounding notes will be louder, and louder notes will be softer. This cleans up playing and creates a more even sound. It’s also used to sustain notes longer. Since compressors increase quieter sounds, as notes fade out the pedal is increasing its volume – therefore increasing how long it sustains for.
Noise gates control the output of sound. They only let sounds through after it reaches a specific threshold. These pedals are a great way to reduce noise from your pickups or other effects, as the gate will only let sound through if you’re actively playing. They can also be chained with other effects to create original sounds.
Wah pedals change the frequency response of your tone as you move the foot pedal. That means as you adjust the pedal, certain frequencies become more prominent than others. It creates a wah-wah sound, like a crying baby. It’s one of the most commonly used effects. You can hear it in Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”.
An EQ box lets you control the output of different frequency bands. Equalizers are commonly used by recording engineers to balance the final recording, but can also be used on your pedalboard to adjust your tone before it gets recorded. It’s an easy way to increase/decrease your guitar’s treble, mid, or bass.
One of the more unique pedals, the talk box is a pedal that changes your tone based on the shape of your mouth. The pedal has a plastic tube that you place in your mouth, and the sound travels through the tube. You then position yourself near a microphone so that the sound is amplified. It sounds like your guitar is speaking. Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on A Prayer” was made with a talk box.
A chorus pedal adds a second signal that is slightly pitch shifted, and delayed. This creates an effect that is similar to multiple instruments playing at the same time. It sounds like a group of singers in unison. It creates a richer, more complex sound.
Vibrato pedals do exactly what the name implies – it adds vibrato to your sound. Vibrato is a rapid back and forth pitch fluctuation. It can be achieved without a pedal by quickly moving your string up and down while playing. With a vibrato pedal, you can get this effect while playing normally.
The tremolo effect is a rapid back and forth volume fluctuation. Tremolo is often confused with vibrato because it creates a similar feeling. But instead of changing pitch, it changes the loudness of your sound. It can be created by moving your volume knobs up and down, or getting a tremolo pedal.
Harmonizer / Pitch Shifter
Harmonizers usually have two functions – they let you create harmonies with yourself or they can shift your pitch. To create harmonies, you set the pedal to the key and type of scale you’re playing (major, minor, etc.) and what key you’re in. You then set the type of harmonies you want it to play (up a 3rd, down a 5th, etc.), and the pedal will create harmonies with every note you play. It’s also useful as a pitch-shifter. For example, you can drop your guitar down an octave and play low notes that normally aren’t possible on guitar.
Phasers take your guitar’s signal and overlap a copy that is out of phase, or more simply, out of sync. It makes a swirling sound that can be varied in speed depending on the settings. It can also create a sound that emulates rotating speakers.
Flangers are similar to phasers, but with a more exaggerated effect. Flangers also overlap a copy that is out of phase, but compared to phasers the signals are more out of sync and more feedback is used. It creates a “whooshing” effect. Compared to a phaser, it makes a more edgy, complex, and metallic tone.
Ring modulators create a unique sound by multiplying your signal with another, distinct signal called the “carrier wave”. The carrier wave is normally harmonically dissimilar to your input signal. This dissimilarity creates wild sounds that are jagged and synth-like. You can create a variety of sounds by changing the settings of the carrier wave.
Since there are so many different guitar pedals, one of the best ways to get started is by getting a multi-effects pedal. These emulate a wide variety of pedals and provides an all-in-one solution. They’re a great way to try out a ton of different effects to see which you like best. But nothing is as good as the original, so once you figured out what you like best, you can get those specific guitar pedals individually.
Did we miss your favorite guitar effect? Let us know in the comments and we’ll add it.
Thanks to Alexander Soto for providing this content.