101 Guide on Buying Effects Pedals
By Nikki O'Neill
Are you thinking about buying effects
pedals for your guitar? In this article you'll learn about
the different types of effects and how they work. Effects
pedals color your sound in addition to the "dry" sound
you get with just a guitar and amp. You can buy single
pedals or multi-effects - a combination of several effects.
Multi-effects come as pedals, which you control with your
foot, or as rack-mountable units with knobs that you dial
in (these are better for recording than stage use). Pedals
are easy to use: they have a built-in footswitch, so that
you can turn the effect on and off with the tap of your
foot. That's why they're also called stomp boxes. Multi-effects
are programmable and give you the ability to use several
sound effects simultaneously. They require a little manual
reading to get the most out of them. Does every great musician
use multi-effects? Not at all - Slash sticks to a great
sounding guitar and amp + a distortion pedal and a wah.
Prince displays an army of little stomp boxes on stage.
Steve Vai, on the other hand, is a big fan of multi-effect
units. It's totally up to your preference - and budget.
If you have limited cash-flow, get a good distortion pedal,
a delay and a wah. That will take you VERY far. Now let's
check out some common effects for guitar players. Some
of them are also used by bassists, keyboard players, violinists
Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz
The powerful "overdriven" amplifier sound - which happens when
an amp is overpowered with sheer volume - is one of the most
sought after sounds by guitarists. Overdrive makes your tone
sound "broken", but in the right way! You can get all kinds
of flavors - from amp-like overdrive pedals to rockier and
more intense "dist" pedals... or really brutal pedals for
metal sounds. Some famous brands include the vintage Ibanez
Tube Screamer, Electro-Harmonix
ranging from Super Overdrive to Metal Zone. Fuzz tones fall
somewhere in between overdrive and distortion. This effect
came out in the 60's and was used especially by Jimi Hendrix.
Not everybody likes it - fuzz has a stinging, in-your-face
quality. But it's a must for psychedelic rock sounds. Some
brands: the vintage Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Electro-Harmonix
An EQ is a tone control by which you can shape the timbre of
the sound in different frequencies - low, mid and high range.
It's usually featured on amps already, but it's great if you
want to create even more tonal variety. If you want to accentuate
or get rid of unwanted frequencies in your amp or guitar tone,
EQs come in very handy. They can boost your guitar's output
level if you need a little more volume for a solo. EQs also
help you to eliminate feedback from your amp. The most common
EQ types are graphic and parametric. Some brands: MXR
the rack-mountable Behringer
Wah and Envelope Filter
The wah pedal is probably the most popular
guitar effect, along with distortion pedals. Say the word
and you'll get what it sounds like. Or listen to the intro
to Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo
Child" and funky disco tunes, like "Carwash". Sly Stone connected
it to his vocal mike in "Don't Call Me Nigger (Whitey)".
It's a foot-controlled tone potentiometer - similar to the
tone controls/pots you have on your electric guitar or bass.
By moving the pedal up and down (like on a sewing machine),
you shift the tonal balance around. Some brands: Dunlop
. Envelope Filters - also called Envelope Followers,
Dynamic Filters, Auto Wah or Touch Wah - allow wah-styled effects
without using a foot control. Once the pedal is on, it will
automatically produce a sweeping wah-like effect. They usually
respond to your picking attack as well (how hard or soft you
hit the strings). Envelope Filters can't replace a real wah-pedal,
but a lot of funk and rock guitarists and bass players use
Reverb and Delay
Reverb simulates acoustic room sounds. It can make you feel
like you're playing in a big concert hall. Singers usually
like to have some reverb added to their vocals at gigs. Processed
reverb is applied to all instruments in recording situations.
Too much reverb sounds fake (if you're not actually playing
in a big cathedral), and it causes the instruments to lose
definition in the overall mix. Most guitar amplifiers have
built-in reverb, but you can buy really sophisticated rack
units for studio use. They offer more control and variables
like room size (room, hall, cathedral, etc.) Some brands: Electro-Harmonix
, Alesis Quadraverb. Delay is a repetitive echo
that samples what you play and plays it back to you after a
specified amount of time. Listen to The Edge from U2 and you'll
hear what it sounds like. You can set the number of repetitions
and the time (either by seconds or by bars, beats and tempo).
Modern delays have pretty long minute loops, allowing you to
jam and harmonize guitar parts with yourself. Very cool! If
you set the delay with very short time increments, you get
a doubling effect, which can make your instrument sound fuller.
Some brands: BOSS
Second Digital Delay.
Modulation Effects - Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Vibrato, Tremolo
Modulation effects get their sound from
an oscillator, which creates a repeating sweep of the effect.
The rate control knob lets you determine how fast you want
the sweep to be. The chorus almost gives you the sound of
a 12-string guitar. It creates a doubling effect - the notes
you play get "twin notes" that
sweep up and down in the same pitch. Check out old Police records
with Andy Summers to hear this...he used a Roland Jazz Chorus
amp to create his unmistakable sound. Flanger is related to
the chorus, but has a lot more metallic sound - like a spaceship!
Famous examples: Heart's "Barracuda", Lenny Kravitz's "Are
You Gonna Go My Way". Phaser creates a swooshing, gradual sweep.
Extremely popular in the 70's, it was used by singers, drummers,
bass players and guitarists. Eddie Van Halen is a prominent
example. You can also hear it in funk tunes, like Parliament's
hit "Flash Light". Vibrato was made popular by Jimi Hendrix.
The controls resemble those on phase pedals; the intensity
knob controls the degree of the effect, and the speed knob
controls the rate of vibrato. Tremolo sounds like you have
somebody turn your amp volume knob up and down while you're
playing. It has a classic 1950's and 60's sound and can be
heard in all kinds of music today, from blues to country. Rotary
is not the club (!), but a simulation of a Leslie organ cabinet.
A Leslie is a spinning speaker system that creates a haunting,
trembling sound. It's really popular in surf music. You can
also hear it on Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Some common
brands of modulation effects: MXR
, the vintage Uni-Vibe vibrato.
Dynamic Effects - Compressors, Sustainers and Limiters
Compression doesn't affect your tone.
It reduces or boosts uneven signal levels to create a balanced
and even sound. If you hit the strings too hard, it brings
the volume down. If you played so soft that it's too quiet
in the mix, it raises the volume. This is a standard effect
in recording studios for all instruments - especially bass.
Sustain emphasizes the weaker signals. When you hit a note
and it starts to decay, the sustainer gives it an extra push
and lets it ring longer. The problem is that sustainers also
boost all kinds of humming and white noise... Limiter cuts
your volume at a pre-set threshold peak. It doesn't change
your tone. It's good to have if your amp "caves in" from
your hard string attacks. Common compressor brands: BOSS
Octavers, Pitch Shifters and Harmonizers
Octave pedals fatten up your guitar tone
by adding a note that's an octave above or below the one
you're playing. Some pedals today can stretch the pitch to
two octaves and even let you play chords - which you couldn't
do before, because it would sound really muddy and awful!
A great tune featuring octavers: Prince's "Temptation" (which
also has tons of delay). Common brands: BOSS
POG (Poly Octave Generator). Pitch shifting simulates the dive-bombing
sound of a Floyd Rose whammy bar on guitars. But you can also
expand your overall note range with it... and produce pitch
bends and harmony shifts. They usually have a foot pedal, like
a wah. Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) made this effect
really famous. He made his guitar sound like a scratching turn-table
- perfect for their rap-metal vibe at the time. Common brand: Digitech
Whammy Pedal. Harmonizers have been embraced by guitar wizards
like Steve Vai and Brian May. Unlike the octaver, they can
create additional intervals like fourths and fifths, etc.
Intelligent pitch shifting - or "smart shifts" - perform
harmony by detecting the pitch you're playing and incorporating
the appropriate interval structure. Conventional pitch shifting
just performs the interval you set, whether it sounds good
or crappy with what you're playing. There are many rack-mounted
harmonizers out there... some can be pretty pricey. One brand
Ultra-Harmonizer DSP4000 (this is the only company who's allowed
to use the harmonizer name).
Noise Gates help you quiet all the hissing sounds from amps,
long chains of effects pedals, single-coil guitar pickups,
bad wiring jobs in guitars, long patch cables and fluorescent
a popular noise reduction pedal.
Other odd-ball effects...
Talk Boxes were really hip in the early
70's. Peter Frampton is the most famous user with his hit "Do You Feel Like I Do?".
Bon Jovi also used it on "Living On A Prayer". It's made
of a long plastic tube that you stick in your mouth. When
you talk or sing, the sound travels to an effects box, and
you can manipulate the tone with your mouth movements. You
need to hook up your mike to a PA system to make it work!
Acoustic simulators change the tonal spectrum and EQ of your
electric guitar so that it sounds like an acoustic one. They
sound more like a plugged-in, thin-bodied acoustic than a
Martin. Pretty good if you don't want to carry several guitars
to a gig.
Finally: How to combine your effects...
Now you need to know how to arrange your different effects
to create the best possible sound! Check out what happens when
you place your compressor before or after your distortion pedal.
An EQ can create sonic wonders - or disasters - depending on
its placement in the effects chain. Tons of pedals can get
quite noisy. Try to be a minimalist and get the best possible
amp sound before you add pedals. Here are some common set-ups
from guitar to amp that you can use as a reference: GUITAR
- WAH - OVERDRIVE/DISTORTION - EQ - AMP (a classic!) GUITAR
- WAH - OCTAVE - NOISE GATE - MODULATION - DELAY - AMP (for
the crazy guitar heads!)
DO NOT: Put overdrive at the end of the chain - all your
effects will sound distorted. Ugh! ..Place reverb before
the other effects - this will add reverb to all the other
effects. Pedal boards are great for keeping your effects
neat and organized, unless you only use one or two of them.
They also have several 9-volt outlets. You don't want stomp
box batteries dying on you during a gig! Right-angled 1/4
-inch cables are great for connecting your pedals to each
other and the pedal board's effects loop input jack. Get
the best quality brands (Monster, etc) even if they cost
more. They're well worth your money...as they reduce noise.
TURN UP THE POWER! GET READY TO PLAY!!!
article was previously published in www.femmuse.com.
An edited version was also published in Rockrgrl
Magazine in April, 2005.
Nikki O’Neill is a singer, songwriter
and guitarist in Los Angeles. She’s taught “Women’s
Contemporary Rock Guitar’’ at The New School
in New York – the only university-level guitar class
in the U.S. focusing on female rock and blues players. She’s
been guest teaching at a rock college in Sweden for women
only, and interviews guitarists like Warren Haynes, Nels
Cline (Wilco) for Swedish guitar magazine FUZZ. She’s
endorsed by Daisy Rock Guitars.
Her websites: www.myspace.com/nikkioneillmusic and www.nikkioneill.com