Jump To Section
What Is a Guitar Pedal?
A pedal, sometimes known as an effects pedal, a stompbox, or an effects unit, is an electronic device that alters the sound of the instrument connected to it in some way. Pedals are closely associated with guitar players and the electric guitar. Vocalists and other instrumentalists can also use guitar pedals to produce unique and interesting effects.
6 Different Types of Guitar Effects Pedals
There are many different categories of pedals that do different things, and within those categories there are thousands of different pedals that alter the sound in various different ways. Five broad categories include:
- Distortion Pedal and Overdrive Pedal. These are pedals that add a grittiness to the sound of the guitar. This type of pedal saturates the notes being played on the guitar—pushing them to peak intensity and adding harmonic overtones that complement the primary note. This gives the guitar a distorted, grainy sound. Distortion and overdrive have been used to great effect in rock music, from the 1960s onward. Some famous overdrive pedals include the Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer (made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan) and the Fulltone OCD (favored by Robin Trower). Some famous distortion pedals include the BOSS DS-1 (used by Kurt Cobain) and the ProCo RAT (used by artists ranging from Radiohead to Sonic Youth to Metallica).
- Fuzz Pedal. For a big sustain in your sound, opt for the fuzz pedal, which clips audio signals and creates a sound about as far away from an acoustic guitar as possible. This pedal is optimal for playing chords; however, because it cuts out a lot of mid-range frequencies, it’s less ideal for solos where your guitar has to cut through the mix. Jimi Hendrix and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan are well known fuzz players. Two of the most iconic fuzz pedals are the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi.
- Filter Pedal. These pedals literally filter frequencies being played, either taking out the high frequencies or the low frequencies. The most common type of filter pedal is a wah pedal, which lets the player toggle between high and low frequencies by rocking the pedal back and forth. The Dunlop Cry Baby wah was made popular by Jimi Hendrix and has remained on pedal boards ever since.
- Chorus Pedal. A chorus pedal doubles an audio signal just a few milliseconds out of phase, which creates the illusion of multiple instruments. The chorus effect was extremely popular in 1980s synth pop, but it can be heard in everything from grunge (like the guitar solo on Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”) to jazz (it’s part of Mike Stern’s signature sound).
- Delay Pedal. A delay pedal essentially records notes played and then replays them at time intervals that can be dialed in on the pedal itself. There are many variations on delay pedals, from analog delay (like the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man) to digital delay (like the Boss DD-7) or simulated tape echo (like the JHS Lucky Cat). The opening bars of “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n’ Roses is a great example of a delay pedal in action. A reverb pedal uses similar technology to that found in a delay pedal, and it mimics the echoing sound you might hear in a spacious hall.
- Fuzz Pedal. For a big sustain in your sound, opt for the fuzz pedal, which clips sounds and provides a long reverb. This pedal is optimal for playing chords, not as much for solos, since it distorts the sound in a “fuzzy” way.
Pedals Versus Amps
Whether you get your tones from your pedals or from your amplifier is a matter of personal taste. Some amps, like the Vox AC30 or the Mesa/Boogie Mark V, produce enough natural overdrive that distortion, overdrive, or fuzz pedals aren’t needed. Other amplifiers, like the Roland Jazz Chorus or the Fender Twin Reverb, may have built in vibrato, chorus, or tremolo functions that some players prefer to the pedal-generated version.
The most important thing is to select an amp that has a clean tone that you like. You can always add distortion, chorus, or tremolo, but if you don’t like your amp’s clean, unaltered sound, there’s not a lot you can do to change it.
7 Best Guitar Pedals to Try
- MXR Phase 90. This MXR phaser pedal produced by Jim Dunlop, creates a classic, simple modulation of the guitar sound and is one of the oldest pedals still in production today. The design is simple, with only a knob to control the phase frequency, a red light to indicate it is working, and the pedal button.
- DOD EQ. This is an equalizer pedal that will allow you to make the most out of your PA system. Rather than relying on a sound person to boost the volume of a guitar for a solo, for example using this pedal will allow you to do it yourself on stage.
- Boss DD-7 Delay. This is an effects pedal that guitar players will use to create a digital delay on the sound of the electric guitar. The delay creates an echoing sound and is essentially a recording of the notes that are played back. Some electric guitar players will have two of these pedals right next to one another on their pedal board. One is set for a long delay to use during traditional soloing, while the other is set for a shorter, slap-back delay that allows you to create helicopter sounds and ping pong-style effects.
- DigiTech Whammy. At its most basic, the Whammy allows you to pair a note you are playing with that same note at different intervals, almost like you are playing a guitar and a bass at the same time. It allows guitar players to make some crazy sounds!
- Wah Pedal. On a technical level, a wah-wah pedal is a tone sweep effect that can be controlled with your foot. Pressing the wah-wah all the way down filters out low frequencies and only allows higher frequencies to be heard. Rocking the wah-wah all the way back creates the opposite effect: only low frequencies come through to the listener. Nearly all guitars have the same effect built in—it’s called the tone knob. But it’s impossible to manipulate the tone knob and simultaneously pick the strings (unless you’re blessed with three hands), and so the wah-wah remains popular to this day. Jimi Hendrix is an artist very closely associated with the wah pedal in modern rock music, especially his song “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
- DigiTech Space Station. This is a great pedal for creating futuristic synth and computer-like sounds (think R2D2 from Star Wars). These pedals create unique sounds for electric guitar players that they may not otherwise be able to create.
- Eventide H9. This is a stompbox pedal for a variety of special tones. For those who like to really experiment with the tones one can coax from an electric guitar, the H9 will provide a wide array of possibilities all housed in a compact pedal.
Learn more about guitar playing techniques in Tom Morello’s MasterClass.