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There are thousands upon thousands of guitar pedals on the market.
What are the different types of guitar effects?
Discover effects pedals that are best for your playing style!
When it comes to guitar pedals, there are an endless amount of choices and models. This seemingly infinite feast of stompboxes, pedalboards and more, keeps expanding as companies frequently release new products.
In other words, there are so many types, uses, configurations… where do you even start?
It can be overwhelming even for experienced players, never mind beginners. Deciding on which pedal to buy, or what pedal to get next can be a bit challenging but we’re here to help!
Guitar Pedals And You
To take on this seemingly daunting task, it is important to be as informed as possible. However, it is crucial to understand that the most important part of this equation is you.
One guitar pedal that might work great for a certain player can be completely wrong for you.
And this goes well beyond the type of music you play. Naturally, if you are a straight-ahead jazz guitar player, your pedal choices are likely going to be drastically different from a metal shredder.
But even within the same style of music, a pedal or effect beloved by a certain player might not be right for another player. After all, like most things guitar-related, guitar pedals are a largely personal thing.
What Are The Different Types Of Guitar Pedals?
Distortion pedals belong to the category of dynamic effects or gain staging effects. However, we’ve put them in a separate category here as distortion is perhaps the most popular effect for the electric guitar, with a vast amount of models to choose from.
Gain boost pedals are made specifically for a high-impedance guitar signal. Depending on the exact model, you can get anything from a transparent sound to a somewhat colored tone.
As the name implies, these pedals boost the signal to hit amplifiers and overdrive effects so they are pushed into the sweet spot.
Boost pedals can also compensate for signal loss over long effects pedal chains or extended cable runs. Most boost pedals feature single volume control and are frequently found paired with overdrive effects.
An overdrive basically adds grit to your signal, giving you a sound similar to a cranked amplifier at the edge of breakup.
Most overdrive pedals start out with a “pushed” clean tone that can stretch to a crunch, depending on how it’s been dialed in and how hard you pick your guitar strings. A popular overdrive pedal among professionals is the Keeley D&M Drive.
Distortion pedals typically use diodes and some form of a transistor to push the incoming signal to the clipping point.
The character of the distortion is determined in large part by the transistor, with variants such as silicon, germanium, and FET-based models each imparting a particular set of nuances.
Distortion pedals generally offer you a variety of saturation, ranging from overdrive all the way to fuzz. One of the most popular and legendary distortion pedals is the Ibanez Tube Screamer.
The TS9, as it’s also known, has been around for decades and is still a staple in many guitarists’ pedalboards, with several models of its own. Another well know overdrive pedal is the RAT from Pro-Co, made popular in the ’70s.
Fuzz pedals use extreme clipping to turn your signal into what’s essentially a square wave. This creates massive amounts of harmonic saturation, but it diminishes the intensity of the fundamental (which is the note you’re actually playing).
The Electro Harmonix Big Muff is a famous model of fuzz pedal that is still highly sought after today, also with many different models.
Fuzz has long been associated with Jimi Hendrix. The iconic legend used the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal, powered by a pair of germanium transistors.
Dynamics effects alter the volume of the sound automatically based on a few parameters.
Since the purpose of dynamics effects is to compensate for fluctuations in volume, people often won’t notice the impact of the effect, because it just sounds “right.”
Dynamic effects don’t directly alter the tone of the sound like an equalizer would, so their impact can sometimes be more difficult to discern.
A compressor helps you control your loudness in the most musical way possible. Basically, you set a threshold, and as soon as you pass that threshold the effect kicks in and starts dialing back your sound by a ratio you assign.
In other words, when your sound gets too loud, a compressor helps to tame it.
Also, you can set the compressor to kick in quickly and boost the output when you play something very quietly, making it more audible.
A highly desirable compression pedal that is a staple among discerning guitarists is the Original Effects Cali76, which offers studio-grade FET compression.
The Cali76 Compact Deluxe is an 1176-style studio-grade FET compressor, featuring high-current, low-noise, discrete Class-A circuitry and a dedicated parallel compression control… all contained in one compact, stompbox-sized package.
A volume pedal gives you volume control at your feet. Besides being able to change the volume while playing and without interruption, volume pedals are used for creating smooth swells that add ambiance to your guitar parts.
However, they are typically less effective than gain boost pedals if you just need a big signal boost.
Modulation effects use LFOs (low-frequency oscillators) to vary some property of the sound. An LFO is simply a slow, continuously cycling signal that is used to vary (modulate) the volume, pitch, or some other aspect of the guitar sound. You can hear LFOs very clearly in flanger, phaser, and tremolo pedals and all these pedals will include a “rate” or “speed” control for controlling the speed of modulation.
LFOs are typically only talked about in the context of synthesizers despite being ubiquitous in modulation pedals. Chorus, flanger, and vibrato pedals all use modulated delay lines to create detuned effects. This is because when the speed of a delay line is modulated, the incoming signal expands and contracts to compensate, and this affects the pitch. You can hear this effect on many analog delay pedals when you change the delay time, though delay pedals are a separate category of effects.
A chorus pedalfunctions by taking your source signal, doubling it, and setting the second signal slightly out of tune and time with the first.
This creates the sound of two instruments playing simultaneously. Some chorus pedals will have more than one copy of the input signal for an even thicker “unison” type sound.
Chorus, like most modulation effects, offers better results when used in moderation, otherwise it just takes over the sound and the listener will be distracted by the effect.
However, if you want to dive deep into experimental sounds and music, then the sky’s the limit and exaggerated use of chorus may be just what you’re looking for.
A flanger pedal works by mixing two identical audio signals, with one of the signals varying slightly up and down in pitch. This creates “comb filter” effects as the two signals are so close together that they reinforce and cancel out different frequencies.
The sound of a slow flanger is often likened to an airplane flying overhead. You can hear a flanger pedal at the very start of Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine:
Flager is often lumped in with chorus as it operates in a somewhat similar way, but flanger pedals have a much more obvious “up and down” effect. As a matter of fact, Electro Harmonix’s Electric Mistress is a popular choice of pedal that combines both flanger and chorus into one compact unit, with fantastic results.
The Stereo Electric Mistress lets you manually flange your signal, or freeze the modulated sound in Filter Matrix Mode. You can achieve some truly incredible modulations using the Flanger and Chorus controls together.
Phaser pedals were adapted to create an array of sounds in ’60s psychedelia for that swirling effect and were notably used later by Van Halen.
Some folks confuse phasers with flangers. The difference is that phaser pedals filter signals by creating a series of “notches” in the sound, whereas a flanger pedal has a thicker, detuned sound. Simply put, phaser pedals tend to sound “cleaner” than flangers.
Tremolo and Vibrato
A tremolo pedal simply fluctuates the volume up and down. This produces a watery, sometimes stuttering sound (depending on the amount used).
A great example of tremolo can be heard in Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang
Vibrato is very similar and is often confused with tremolo. However, vibrato refers to fluctuations in pitch, not volume, and so a vibrato pedal will modulate the pitch instead. Vibrato pedals can achieve rotary speaker effects or extreme detuning depending on how heavily they are applied.
Time effects, like their name indicates, expand sound along the time axis to create subtle ambiance to deep, spacious textures. Like most things in this list, time effects depend largely on your needs and wants, as these units vary greatly.
Delay is an effect based on taking the original incoming signal and repeating it after a short (or long) time.
The basic controls of any delay let you choose the time and strength of the repeats (feedback), and the balance between the incoming signal and the delayed signal.
Delay has been a widely used type of effect for guitarists, in virtually all genres in a plethora of situations and contexts. Delay pedals are generally based on a type of analog circuitry or digital algorithm (DSP) used to create the effect.
Early analog delay pedals used loops of tape or a series of bucket brigade chips, both of which produce distinct harmonics and decay characteristics as the delay repeats trail off.
With time, digital delays developed their own sounds, with Adaptive Delta Modulation and PCM delay types implementing unique characteristics that musicians still use today.
A reverb pedal simulates the acoustic reflections of various spaces. Some of these effects are purely synthetic.
On the other hand, some imitate classic analog-reverb types such as springs and plates, while others emulate the sound of large rooms and physical spaces. Reverb is a highly personal choice, as there are many types and flavors.
As far as pedals, the Strymon Sky Big is one of the best reverb units on the market today.
Frequency pedals work by altering the harmonic content of the signal in a number of ways. The most obvious choice here is an equalizer, that works much like an equalizer in your DAW.
Wah-wah, envelope filters, and harmonizers also operate by altering frequencies, albeit in different ways.
An EQ pedal allows you to make precise frequency adjustments. You can sculpt harmonics, correct problems in your tone, etc.
Guitar equalizer pedals tend to be graphic EQs featuring between five and ten frequency bands that you can manually adjust. These units are very useful not only for the reasons mentioned above but also to help you adapt to difficult rooms.
Other formats range from simple amp-style tone controls to full studio-style parametric layouts, both of which are great for punching in creative tone shifts as well as fixing frequency imbalances. MXR makes the popular M108S, an EQ pedal with ten bands.
A wah-wah pedal works by sweeping a resonant peaking filter across the frequency spectrum to create a vocal-style articulation.
You sweep the filter manually by rocking your foot to create a rhythmical element. Besides being a staple of funk and disco, the wah-wah effect is a fundamental sound of rock and blues rock as well. It’s an extremely expressive effect that adds a very literal human quality to your playing.
This pedal is still widely used by guitarists of many styles, particularly more melodic ones, and legends like Slash and Tom Morello, all the way to newcomers like Joe Bonamassa use it often.
Also referred to as auto-wah, the envelope filter works by triggering a resonant peaking filter off of incoming transients (usually the pick hitting the string).
To achieve this, envelope filters use envelope followers, which react directly to the volume of your playing. This envelope follower moves the “wah” filter up and down.
Although it is similar to a wah pedal, the envelope filter allows you to play expressively in a whole different way as it reacts faster than your feet!
A pitch shifter or harmonizer raises or lowers the pitch of your audio signal by a chosen interval. For example, a pitch shifter set to increase the pitch by a fourth will raise each note three diatonic intervals above the notes played.
There are many types of pitch shifting pedals on the market, from classic momentary octave up pedal or octave down bass-emulation models to polyphonic harmony pedals that let you dial in full chords.
Eventide’s Pitchfactoris a popular pitch shifter pedal among guitarists, as it offers everything from octaves all the way to harmonies and full chords.
There are several other types of guitar pedals that don’t fall into any of the main categories above. These include loopers, multi-effects units, and more. Some of them, for instance, loop pedals, have become quite popular in recent history.
In simple terms, a loop pedal is an electronic device that creates instant recordings of a performance and plays those recordings back in real-time.
This allows the guitarist to overdub themselves, effectively creating part upon part. By adding layers on top of each other, you get a lot of creative choices to play.
Taken to the extreme, loopers allow you to create a wide polyphonic soundscape based on your own, real-time performance.
One of the most known loopers is superstar Ed Sheeran. Although he now has a custom loop station pedal, Sheeran used the very popular Boss RC-20 loop station for years.
Multi-effects pedals are as diverse and varied as possible. Some are simple and cover just the basic effects, with the bonus of typically being budget-conscious.
Others are quite intricate and offer everything from a wide collection of effects, presets, expression pedal, and even the ability to create your own custom effects and sounds.
Add to that physical modeling of amps and other seemingly endless features, and you’ll naturally have a correspondingly high price tag attached. You get what you pay for, and multi-effects units are a true testament to that.
Some of the most comprehensive units include the Line 6 Helix, Headrush Pedalboard Amp, Effects Modeling Processor, and the Kemper Profiler Stage Floorboard.
True bypass effectively cuts the circuitry of the pedal out of the signal path when engaged, keeping your sound devoid of any additional coloration caused by the pedal’s circuitry.
That said, several true-bypass pedals in a row will add the equivalent of several feet of extra guitar cable, which is likely to add noise. The solution to this is to use pedals with buffered bypass circuitry.
Most of the time my answer to this is simply to go with analog pedals where possible. However, it truly depends on what you like.
Digital tends to offer more flexibility but analog tends to offer more authenticity.
For overdrive and modulation effects, I would definitely prioritize analog pedals.
However when it comes to reverb, digital is the way to go. Analog can only get you so far here as it’s really hard to fit all the parts into a pedal. Spring reverb is about as close as you’ll get here, but it’s also a more limited type of reverb.