Guitar Effects Pedals – What You Need to Know

pedal-rigOne of the key tools in any guitarist’s tool belt is their effects rig. Whether it’s just one pedal or many pedals mounted on a massive board, nearly every guitarist uses guitar effects pedals to create their own personal tone.

Many guitarist struggle to choose the best pedals to meet their needs. This high level overview will take away some of the confusion and make sure you’re on the right path to setting up your effects to help create your signature sound.

Basic Types of Pedals

Phaser, flanger, overdrive, talk box, distortion, delay…the list goes on and on. With so many varieties of effects, not to mention scores of brands, how are you supposed to know which ones will work for you, give you the effect you need and the sound you want?

It’s best to think about pedals in 5 main groups:

  1. Gain effects
  2. Frequency effects
  3. Modulation effects
  4. Time effects
  5. Others

Gain effects are any pedals that create gain boosts or cuts. This includes clean boosts, overdrives, distortions, compression and volume pedals. These pedals have a variety of functions from a simple raise or decrease in volume to an all out in your face fuzz attack.

Frequency effects are pedals that filter the frequency of your sound. The most common types of filters you’ll see in the market are equalizers, envelope and wah filters, pitch shifters and harmonizers. These types of pedals can create volume boosts, add or subtract frequencies from your playing, create doubled guitar tracks and more. They are often used for soloing to give interesting tones.

Modulation effects are oscillation effects that change the sound of your guitar over time. This family of pedals includes the tremolo, vibrato, chorus, flanger and phaser. You can use these effects to add depth to your tone and to create interesting sound combinations due to the rise and fall characteristics associated with these effects.

Time effects typically repeat your signal over a period of time. Most commonly this is done through delay and reverb pedals. These effects add depth and character to your sound by delaying and repeating your guitar’s signal either very quickly (reverb) or more slowly and more often (delay).

Others covers all the remaining pedals not encountered in the other groups. This includes things like inline tuners, noise gates, emulators, modelers and loopers. These effects can make your guitar sound like a completely different instrument, control feedback and hiss, help keep you tuned up or create sound loops you can jam on top of.

Which Pedals Should I Start With?

There are a five effects pedals that most guitarists must have in their rig to give them flexibility and help to create their sound. Consider what your amp has in the way of channels and tonal flexibility, as this will help to guide you in a few places. If you already have an overdrive channel on your amp, you may not need an additional overdrive or distortion, but you might choose to add one or both in to provide flexibility in your sound.

Most players start with an overdrive and distortion. This allows you to have a clean sound and an overdriven sound along with a heavier sound. These two pedals will give you a huge amount of options when it comes to playing different songs and genres. They can even be set up to add volume for solos, which means you won’t need a frequency effect pedal right away.

The next two must have effects are a chorus and a delay pedal. You will find these staples in most rigs. They are widely used in various genres of music to add depth and warmth.

The last must have pedal is an in-line tuner. This helps greatly in letting you see a display while you tune and can act as a noise gate since it can be set up to kill your output signal when engaged.

Setting up Your Pedals For Great Tone

Just like with many other things in music, setting up your pedals is a bit of trial and error and a lot about what sounds good to you. You should spend a lot of time learning about each function on each pedal so you know precisely how to dial in a sound you want on the fly.

Keep in mind that what sounds good while you’re practicing by yourself may not cut it when you’re playing with a band, so knowing your equipment will help you dial things in a lot quicker.

When setting up your sounds on your pedals, make sure you don’t layer effects. Having other effects on will make it more difficult to isolate the sound you’re trying to adjust and you will just end up frustrated. Do yourself a favour and keep it simple. Once you dial in each pedal, you can start layering them together and adjusting to your taste.

Pedal Chain Order Matters

There are a few basic conventions to consider when placing your effects pedals in the chain. Following these conventions will help to ensure you maximize the sounds created by the effects and minimize interference from other effects. This will ensure you get the best tone possible.

The typical order you will see in many effects chains goes tuner —> gain effects —> frequency effects —> modulation effects —> time effects.

The tuner goes first so it can capture the clean signal which reduces noise and makes tuning easier. Overdrive and distortion are typically second to ensure that the signal hasn’t been changed by other effects before being distorted and to cut down on noise. I highly recommend placing the tuner and gain effects first, but you can experiment with what order the gain effects are in. Sometimes they will interact with each other in different ways depending on order.

How you arrange the next three is more a matter of personal taste. This is where some experimenting comes in handy to find out what will sound good for your set up and purposes. Try a delay before a chorus or a chorus before an equalizer. You might find some interesting results that you really enjoy.

The generally accepted layout is not a hard and fast rule. Make sure you take some time to find what sounds good to you and allows you the maximum amount of flexibility in to al character to meet your needs.

Putting it All Together

Now you have a basic idea of the kinds of effects you will want to start looking at, how to set them up and how to put them in order in your effects chain. By understanding the basics of your effects pedals, you can get good guitar tone.

The biggest thing I must stress is to take your time really understand your equipment as this will make it so much easier for you to adjust tones on the fly and make sure you sound great in any situation.

What are your go to pedals? Have you found any interesting pedal chain orders? Leave me a comment below!

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