While it’s undoubtedly true that sometimes there’s nothing more glorious than an excellent electric guitar going straight into a cranked tube amp.

More often than not, the flip side is more accurate: just a guitar and an amp can tend to be kind of boring. You may have what you think is the best tone in the world. But after a time, you may even get a little weary of having the same old-same old sounds.

Guitar effects

To help add a bit of variety to your sound. One of the best things you can add a few effects pedals to your rig. Yes, there are many different ones, and yes – it really can be confusing, however, as to which ones would be ‘must-haves’ for your particular tastes—making things potentially more complicated. There seem to be many different types of the same primary effect out on the market. So how would you know which one is the right tool for the job?

Large pedal board

Large pedalboard

All of that being said, today, we’re going to take a look at the significant types of guitar effects pedals. The intent is to educate you on what they do and how they do it. Once we’re done, you should be armed with enough background info to help do your search for the right tone set up a little less intimidating!

What are the effects of pedals?

Yes – that may seem to be kind of a silly question for those guitarists that have some time under their belt. For the beginner/uninitiated, though, effects pedals can seem to be a bit overwhelming.

An effects pedal is an enclosure (typically constructed from metal or plastic) in the simplest definition. It has a specific type of circuitry in it. It’s unique to the kind of effect you want to get. A footswitch mounted on the top uses your foot to turn the effect on or off.

Your guitar is plugged using a standard instrument cable into one side. The signal is processed as needed. Then another cable plugs into the other side, where you can then go right into your amp (or another effects pedal).

Pedalboards

It’s not uncommon for a player to string several effects together and mount them on what is called a ‘pedalboard.’ Pedalboards are meant to be portable units that can easily be transported. They ]can be as simple as a homemade piece of wood. On the opposite end of the scale, purchased pedalboards are plentiful in varying sizes. Some even have power capability built-in, so you only have to have one plug.

While most individual pedals can be powered with a 9V battery, having some power solution may be the best. Really…who wants to mess with batteries going dead all of the time? And the last thing you want is for one to go out on you on a gig or recording session!

Multi-effects

We’ve described above the most basic type of effects pedals. Each one has its effect. Some units have several types of effects built into one larger enclosure. Called ‘multi-effects units,’ they may be a more affordable and convenient choice based on players’ specific needs.

Moreover, how discerning the player is in regards to affects sound quality. But we say this just for your information only. The ‘individual pedal vs. multi-effects pedal’ is an ongoing, raging debate! In the end, it may serve you well to examine both approaches. Go with the one that makes the most sense for your particular use and application.

“And if I would have taken lessons I probably wouldn’t have done it, and what forced me to do all this weird stuff on the guitar was I couldn’t afford effects pedals, I didn’t have all this stuff when I was a kid so I just tried to squeeze all the weird noises I could out of the guitar, which brings me to building guitars.” Eddie Van Halen

The Major Types of Guitar Effects Pedals

So, how many effects pedals are out there? So many that it’s almost impossible to keep count! To help try and organize things a little better. We will approach grouping them into a few major categories as we go through each one. We will break them down into specific examples to demonstrate the differences. Trust us – there are more differences than you may realize!

Guitar effects | about Distortion

Distortion graph

Distortion graph

This section may be a little long compared to the other. However, distortion pedals are often misunderstood (on top of being the most used pedal type), So we will give you a little background info first.

Distortion pedals were created to solve a massive issue for many players. Back in the late 1960s, the concept of ‘distorted guitar’ came on the scene. Guitarists started to recognize that the tube amps they were using could be pushed to a level (called ‘overdriven’; typically by many volumes). It refers to the output that wasn’t the typical sweet and clean sound prevalent.

Sounds

Their speakers could be loud and brash; However, they also came with specific characteristics pleasing to hear. While factually accurate, the term ‘distortion’ is a misnomer in that the sound could have rich harmonics. Much more sustain and a ‘bite’ that you can’t get from a clean amp.

The big problem was the volume it took to get there in the first place. Depending on the amp used, it could get so loud that it was pretty much unmanageable. Distortion pedals came to the rescue by altering the signal before it went into the amp, giving a simulation of that tube distortion that most rock players have come to know and love.

This means that same glorious sound without having sound levels that would get you kicked out of your apartment!

We mention rock players specifically, but Distortion has made its way into several other music styles as well, such as country and jazz. And let’s face it – metal wouldn’t even exist without gobs and gobs of Distortion!

In our eyes, distortion pedals are probably the one effects pedal category that seems to have the most confusion associated with it. If you spend any time looking at all that’s available, you’ll see three main types: overdrive, Distortion, and fuzz. Some people tend to lump these together, but they have some distinctions.

Overdrive pedals

Tube screamer pedals

Tube screamer pedals

Overdrive pedals tend to be the most’ natural-sounding effect in this category. Their primary intent is to mimic the sound of a good tube amp brought to – and go past – its breakup point.

The breakup point is where the sound starts to get that slight hint of edginess. It’s not smooth and clean, but it starts to have some grit and determination.

Many players use an overdrive pedal to push the amp enough to get it to break up. However,  you can adjust it a bit farther to get into some full-out classic rock territory.

Distortion pedals

Distortion pedal

Distortion pedal

Distortion pedals can be viewed as ‘overdrive pedals on steroids.’ They do roughly the same thing as an overdrive pedal. They were intended to be much more aggressive right from the start.

You are more likely to get a heavily distorted tone with a true distortion pedal than an overdrive pedal for applications where lower amp volume is necessary.

The distortion pedal may be your tool of choice if you are into heavier rock and metal.

Fuzz pedals

Fuzz pedal

Fuzz pedal

Fuzz pedals were the first pedal of this type to be mass-produced. They were intended to mimic something that may even be ‘wrong’ or ‘radical’ in the entire guitar rig—for example, a ripped speaker or a faulty tube.

A fuzz pedal’s sound can tend to be a bit more raw and random than either an overdrive or a distortion pedal. But that’s entirely the point of having one!

Compressors

Compressor pedal

Compressor pedal

Have you ever heard a country song that seems to have a level of twang and snappiness to it?

It may be an extreme example, but that is the kind of effect you can get from having a compressor in your signal chain.

A compressor effectively takes the dynamics of your guitar’s signal and ‘compresses’ it.

That means that it takes soft sounds and makes them louder while making loud sounds and making them softer.

Used subtly, it can help make your sound more even, balanced and robust.

You can get that country snap we just mentioned in a more aggressive setting.

Controls

Most of them have the same basic controls, where you have a set point (called a threshold). That is the trigger point for the effect to kick in. Several other parameters affect the overall sound (vary from model to model).

Compressors may be among the most ‘boring’ effects on the list. That’s because the result often isn’t as evident or apparent as using other kinds. But that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t have immense value. Compressors, at some level, are ‘must-haves for just about all recording environments.

Give one a shot – it can be one of those things where you haven’t realized how much they can help your sound because you just haven’t thought to have tried one before.

Delay

Delay pedal

Delay pedal

Delay pedals do exactly what the name implies. They take the input signal and repeat it, albeit slightly delayed from the original. That sounds simplistic, and it can be a bit more involved than that once you get into the details on how to configure one.

Settings

The basic settings are a delay time (which is the amount of time from when the delayed signal is played compared to when the original sound is produced. Typically given in milliseconds) feedback (which relates to how many times the delayed signal is repeated. Often the effect gets progressively softer as the sound decays). The overall mix (the level of the delayed signal compared to the original).

Delays are used for varying purposes. Some players use them subtly, adding thickness and depth to their overall sound. One particular use is ‘slapback.’ This refers to the delayed signal being very close to the original level. Typically set up for only one repeat and has a short delay time or around 100ms. This is the classic rockabilly sound found on many early rock and rockabilly recordings.

Others take the use of delays far beyond being subtle. U2’s The Edge pretty much based his early career on the intelligent use of delays (often several of them simultaneously). Rock players such as Brian May (‘Brighton Rock,’ sounding like multiple guitars in harmony). Eddie Van Halen (‘Cathedral,’ sounding like a lush church organ solo) has used delays in more extreme manners to significant dramatic effect.

Modulation

Modulation pedal

Modulation pedal

These effects take the original signal and ‘modulate’ its waveform in ways. The resulting signal (often called the ‘wet’ instead of the ‘dry’ original). It is altered in a particular manner. This can be done on the base wave’s characteristics (or several). The amplitude, the pitch, the intensity, etc. Typically, this is achieved using an ‘oscillator’ integrated into the effect’s circuitry.

There are three main types of modulation effects: chorus, flanger, and phase shifter. This is also another category where the main effect types are often confused, so we’ll take a few minutes to detail the differences.

Chorus

Chorus pedal

Chorus pedal

A chorus pedal takes the original signal, makes a copy of it, slightly alters the pitch (hence the reason why it’s considered a ‘modulation’ effect’), then plays it back with the original with a very slight delay, that is typically around 20 to 50 milliseconds.

The overall effect is warm and inviting, and it is meant to sound similar to two people playing the same line (but not doing it correctly with each other).

It was used most back in the ’70s and the ’80s, with the latter being the period where it was most intense and borderline overused.

Flanger

A flanger is very similar to a chorus, but the delay time is much shorter – along with the fact that the delay is varied continuously.

The distinctive ‘whooshing sound of a flanger is its signature characteristic, as can be heard in everything from the middle section of ‘Listen To The Music (Doobie Brothers) to the intro of ‘Barracuda’ (Heart) and the intro to ‘Unchained’ (Van Halen).

Guitar flanger pedal

Guitar flanger pedal

Quick tidbit for you: have you ever heard the beginning of ‘And The Cradle Will Rock…’ and wonder how Eddie Van Halen got that monster sound on the guitar?

We have the answer…he didn’t! That was a Wurlitzer electric piano cranked through a Marshall stack with a – you guessed it – an MXR Flanger. Consider yourself informed!

Phase Shifter

Phase Shifter pedal

Phase Shifter pedal

A phase shifter is similar to both a chorus and flanger in that it takes the dry signal and makes a copy of it.

From there, a small amount of delay is added, and when the wet signal is mixed back in, it is configured, so specific frequencies are out of phase with each other.

As with a flanger, the delay is modulated, so the delay time changes continuously. As the effect cycles, the out-of-phase portions cancel out, creating that classic sweeping sound.

Phase shifters (also called ‘phasers’) are used on songs such as ‘Kashmir’ (Led Zeppelin…they even put the drums through a phaser to get that swishing tone).

A ton of what’s on ‘Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd (‘Breath’ is a particularly great example), and several songs by more recent artists such as Tame Impala.

Other types of modulation effects – tremolo and vibrato

We bundled both of these together because the terms are so often misused; we want to make it simple: tremolo is the variation in the volume (sound level) of a signal, and vibrato is the variation of the pitch (how high or low it sounds) of a signal. So every one of you out there (we’re talking to you too.

Leo Fender and Floyd Rose) that call their vibrato bridge a tremolo bridge, are just flat…out…wrong!

It can be looked at like this: vibrato is the same thing as the quick bending and releasing of a string, raising and lowering the pitch – a widespread technique on the guitar to add expressiveness and an almost vocal-like quality.

Tremolo would be the same as turning your volume knob up and down in a fast manner, but it’s pretty much impossible to play and crank your volume knob up and down a bazillion times throughout a song. That’s why tremolo pedals are so handy!

Reverb

Delay pedal

Delay pedal

Reverb pedals are meant to produce a relatively simple effect – the image of a sound being in ample space, therefore having the sound bounce back to you from all angles. While delays can give an expansive sound, the right reverb can do everything from adding a little color to creating a lush ambiance.

That effect can even be more engaging when used in conjunction with a delay.

However, Reverbs can be a bit more complicated than that, which makes them prime candidates for being built into effects pedals in their own right.

Different reverb types include:

Room: Replicates sound as it reflects off surfaces in a relatively smaller room. Room reverb tends to be the most natural-sounding and is often used for recording purposes.

Hall: Mimics the characteristics of being in a large concert hall. The effect is much more ambient and expansive than that of room reverb.

Chamber: Similar to hall reverb, but they tend to add a touch of crispness and clarity to help negate the intensity and overall enveloping effect that a hall reverb can produce

Plate: A type of reverb that isn’t necessarily intended to match a completely natural environment. Plate reverbs often used to have a significant effect on vocals, and let’s say Eddie Van Halen’s early ‘brown sound’ wouldn’t be the same without liberal doses of it.

Spring: Some of the first reverb effects were generated by sending the guitar’s signal through a spring. They have a bright sound often thought of as ‘vintage,’ as many older (and even current) amplifiers have these spring units built right in.

Equalization (or ‘EQ’)

Equalization pedal

Equalization pedal

EQ pedals perform a reasonably straightforward operation on your signal – adding or reducing volume levels for specific frequencies. Sometimes the tone stack on your amp (a ‘tone stack’ is a term for the typical bass, mid, treble, and presence knobs) can’t get your tone precisely the way you want it.

In these cases, EQ pedals are a quick and handy way to craft your sound to more exacting standards than you can with just the amp itself.

Various types of EQ pedals exist, such as graphic and parametric. With a graphic EQ, you can see the positions for any given number of exacting frequencies (with some pedals going as high as 10 of them) where you can set a ‘curve’ to match your desired tone.

For example, if you are a fan of scooped midrange, your curve will look like a smile: the low end (typically on the left of the curve) and the treble end are higher than the middle.

Parametric EQ

Parametric EQ’s work a bit differently in that the controls maybe a little more complicated, but the accuracy of the changes you make can be more precise. With a parametric setup, you typically have the option to select a primary frequency (called the ‘center point’) and then a range of frequencies from that primary called ‘Q’ (which stands for ‘quotient of change’).

Adjusting the Q parameter changes the number of frequencies related to the center point. A significant Q encompassing more and a smaller Q brings fewer frequencies to be adjusted.

While the primary use for EQ pedals is shaping overall sound, some players use them as boost pedals to get the effect of added volume for when it’s time to take that incredible guitar solo.

This is done typically by boosting specific mid-to-upper-mid frequencies in a way that tends to cut through the mix.

Filter

Filter pedal

Filter pedal

Filter pedals are the go-to when you want to make things a little weird – sometimes, a lot weird!

A filter works because it takes a specific frequency (or a range of frequencies) in your signal and sweeps them towards different ends of the overall dynamic spectrum. For example, a mid-range selection can be swept towards the treble end or down towards the bass side of things.

This is essentially how a standard wah pedal works. Auto-wah pedals work similarly, but they are designed to make the sweeping effects concerning the dynamics of how you play instead of manually engaging the rocking foot pedal.

Synth pedal

Another type of filter pedal is the synth pedal. While synth pedals essentially work similarly, they can certainly be much more aggressive and extreme, even to the point where your guitar won’t sound like a guitar anymore (and that’s typically the whole point of using one in the first place).

We should set your expectations here, though…a simple synth effects pedal may get you some otherworldly tones, and they may even get you close to mimicking some classic vintage keyboard synth sounds.

However, they typically aren’t sophisticated enough to make your guitar sound like a completely different instrument (for example, any horn).

For those extreme cases, a full-blown guitar synth system (which usually requires a special kind of pickup to be added to your instrument, along with an excellent-sized processing unit) would have to be used.
Exceptional cases…or ones that just do not fit with the others!

A few effects pedals don’t fall into our categories, but they are certainly worth an honorable mention.

Tuner pedal

Tuner pedal

Tuner pedal

Well, it goes like this – if your guitar isn’t in tune, you will not sound perfect. And contrary to what some may think, trying to tune up by ear isn’t always the easiest – or the most accurate – way to go about things. Besides, no one wants to hear the guitar player tuning up in between songs at a gig!

Having a good tuner pedal is a simple and effective way to keep yourself tuned throughout a live date, albeit a recording session, or just putting in a bit of practicing time.

Most have easy-to-read displays that will tell you whether or not you’re flat, sharp, or precisely in tune. And an excellent chromatic tuner (meaning that it will tune to all 12 notes in the traditional Western musical scale) can let you use alternate tunings to your heart’s desire.

Looper pedal

Loop pedal

Loop pedal

Loopers are effects pedals where you can effectively make short recordings of yourself playing. Then have that clip loop over and over while you play other parts on top of it.

They are trendy amongst solo performers when used effectively. They can almost mimic the effect of having several musicians playing simultaneously.


Loopers vary in range as to how long the loop can be. Some (like those commonly built into some multi-effects pedals) can be as short as 30 – 60 seconds. Other models can go up as high as several minutes’ worth.

Analog vs. digital – does it matter?

As you spend any time looking at effects pedals, the question is often debated as to which sounds better: analog or digital circuitry?

Sorry to break this to you…but we will have to go back to physics class for a little bit to talk about waveforms.

However, you will be pleased to know that there is no test planned at the end of the lesson!

Comparing the two, it’ll help to understand what the differences are. An analog signal is more of that you would see in ‘real-life.’ It has a continuous waveform.

In contrast, a digital signal is an exact opposite in that it has sharp peaks or steps. This is due to digital being a set of samples of a waveform.

Waveforms

There are some effects where a specific type of waveform works better than the other. For example, many players prefer the sound of an analog distortion (or overdrive) pedal to a digital one mainly because the smoothness of an analog signal tends to more accurately capture the physical properties of a warm, smooth overdriven tube sound.

Digital technology isn’t a bad thing, per se. Digital delays have been around for decades, and most multi-effects units tend to be all digital (even the distortions).

So which is best? The truth can be found within your ears. There is no one correct answer. It’s a matter of personal preference, and technology is getting better as time goes on. Making some analog vs. digital effects sound almost precisely the same.

What order should effects pedals be in?

Do an internet search of ‘what order should my effects pedals be in?. You’re bound to come up with a myriad of answers. And here’s the thing – all of them can be right (or wrong, depending on your point of view).

Guitar effects pedal board

Guitar effects pedalboard

Some may say never to put a compressor before a distortion pedal. However, you might like the sound you get if you do that! The same goes for any other type of effect. The only rules here really should be that there are no rules.

There’s no need to set something up ‘just because. We’d encourage you to experiment with all types of pedal placements within your signal chain. You may come up with a strange combination that is unique and exciting compared to what all of the other players are doing.

All of that being said, we do have one suggestion. Put your tuner pedal first. It may be easier to track a clean signal to tune up other than one mega-processed by ten other effects pedals.

Besides that, don’t let any limits hold you back!

Conclusion

Effects pedals are an excellent way to add color and variety to your guitar’s sound palette, whether you are a rocker that wants your solo lines to sing with sustain from an excellent analog overdrive.

Suppose you are a clean player that loves the ambiance of a digital delay, chorus, and reverb pedal all at the same time. Using pedals can open up an entire world of sounds that you can customize at your disposal.

Not only can they sound cool, but effects pedals can also open up inspiration that you might not come across with just a straight guitar sound.

And…most importantly…that all can lead to one elusive thing that no other guitar player on earth can ever have except you – your tone.