Almost as long as the electric guitar has existed, players have been looking for ways to alter the sound of the signal produced. While there will always be a time and a place for the warm, clean sound electric guitars were originally designed to produce for jazz players, guitarists like Les Paul were already experimenting with the instrument’s sound as early as the 1940s by manipulating reel-to-reel tape machines. In the next decade, many amps came equipped with built-in effects like tremolo, vibrato and spring reverb.
But this wasn’t enough. In the early days of rock-n-roll, guitar players were already looking for new ways to add an edge to their tone. They had already been experimenting with turning tube amps up past their normal threshold to create warm overdrive. Then came Dave Davies.
As the lead guitarist for the Kinks, Davies famously sliced the cone of his amp with a razor blade while recording one of the band’s best known songs, “You Really Got Me,” in 1964 to achieve an even grittier distortion effect. Soon thereafter, the introduction of transistors made stompboxes portable and durable methods of achieving numerous effects. Davies wasn’t the first to use distortion on a recorded guitar track, but the success of “You Really Got Me” and the invention of stompboxes led to a heightened fascination with effects from the mid-60s onward. Keith Richard’s famously used a Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone for the famous riff from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and Jimi Hendrix took the art form to a whole new level with his distortion, wah-wah, octave pedals, along with many others.
Here, we will discuss the intricacies of the different types of effect pedals, and what each can do to improve the tone of your pedal chain.
As mentioned before, echo was one of the original effects used in studios by manipulating reel-to-reel tape. Throughout the 1950s, rockabilly, surf and other guitarists extensively used slapback echo to achieve what we know today as their classic sound. Today, many digital delay pedals can achieve these effects as well as much longer and more complex delays without losing frequency information.
Two of the earliest effects, first built into amps like Fender’s Tremolux and Vibrolux models of the 1950s, tremolo and vibrato effects produce similar modulations to a guitar’s tone. Tremolo produces a quick variation in the volume of the signal, while Vibrato produces small, quick variations in pitch. The variations of each are controlled by the amount of “depth” given to the modulation, as well as the speed at which the modulations occur, to create slight or extensive changes to the original sound.
Also one of the earliest effects, reverb was originally created in the studio by building an echo chamber, and spring reverb units were (and still are) often built into guitar amps. Similar to delay pedals, reverb pedals create a large number of echoes, heard nearly simultaneously, that gradually fade away. Many different types of reverb are simulated in digital reverb pedals such as the aforementioned spring reverb, plate reverb and many other types to provide guitarists with numerous sound options.
Though the term “distortion” is commonly used to describe any guitar sound that is distorted, there are actually three different types of effects pedals used to achieve this tone.
Overdrive pedals are designed to recreate the overdriven sound of a tube amp without actually having to crank up the volume on the amp. Therefore, overdrive is a more warm and mild type of distortion. Just like an overdriven amp, the amount of distortion responds to how much gain is added.
A distortion pedal will actually compress a guitar’s sound to a maximum threshold, thereby producing the same amount of distortion no matter where the volume level is set. These pedals would eventually create the guitar tone used by many heavy metal players starting in the late 1960s.
Finally, there are fuzz boxes, which take the theory of distortion pedals to the next level by compressing the sound wave so much that it produces an even more distorted sound. However, the sound is so compressed that it is not as harsh as many distortion pedals.
Made famous by Jimi Hendrix and Cream-era Eric Clapton, wah pedals alter how loud the guitar signal is outputted at different frequencies, producing the titular “wah-wah” sound. Usually controlled manually with the guitarist using a foot treadle, auto-wahs are also available.
Chorus pedals do exactly as their name would imply: they make one guitar signal sound as if multiple guitars are playing simultaneously. Instead of simply doubling the original guitar sound, chorus pedals slightly delay and/or detune the duplicate signal, creating a more lush sound. Modern digital chorus pedals have a multitude of options creating many different chorus sounds.
Like manipulating reel-to-reel machines to create echo, engineers first created a flange effect by manually slowing down and speeding up tape with their fingers to create a “sweeping” effect. Flanger stompboxes recreate this effect by doubling the original signal and adjusting the phase of the duplicate.
Many people confuse phasers and flangers, and they are fairly similar in how they work. Basically, a phaser holds the middle ground between the relatively smooth duplication of a chorus pedal and the fairly extreme “sweeps,” or Doppler effects, of flanger pedals.
In a similar fashion as distortion pedals, compressors reduce the dynamic range of a sound signal. However, rather than use this to distort that signal, compressors just cut off the top and bottom of the sound waves at a set threshold, which quiets louder sounds and raises quieter sounds. This also often creates a sustain effect, making this audio manipulation similar to that used in sustain pedals
Looper pedals are like delay pedals taken to a new extreme. Originating with (and named after) tape looping in recording studios, looper pedals allow players to record entire sections of song. While the pedal plays back the recorded loop, guitarists are able to play new parts on top of what they already recorded. Vocalists also often use looper pedals to create multi-layered vocal parts with one voice.
Like any EQ control, equalisation pedals allow guitarists to boost specific signals while cutting other unwanted signals. These pedals can be the optimal tool for guitarists looking to fine tune their tone.
Though there’s not much to explain about what tuner pedals do, these can be one of the most important pedal in your chain. They provide quick, effective tuning on the fly in a concert setting. After all, no matter how long you spend tweaking your chain to get your exact desired tone, a guitar that’s not in tune will sound awful every time.
All of the above examples focus on individual stompboxes, but there are also a wide variety of multi-effects pedals available, many of which will provide all of the effects above in one compact unit. These vary greatly in both quality and price, but can provide a versatile, all-in-one solution for the guitar player that doesn’t want to purchase a multitude of separate pedals.
*As a final note, many of the effects listed above also come in models designed for bass guitar use. Additionally, there are many other types of pedals available to guitarists; the above are the most common. Experimentation with many different types of pedals, in different pedal board chains, is recommended to find which pedals make the best fit for your desired tone.