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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 and singers...

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 Big Muff and BOSS pedals 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 Graphic Fuzz.


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, BOSS, Electro-Harmonix and 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 Cry Baby, Vox, Roger Mayer. 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 them.

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 Holy Grail, 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 Digital Delay, Line 6, Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay.

Modulation Effects - Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Vibrato, Tremolo and Rotary

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, BOSS, Electro-Harmonix, Voodoo Lab, 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 Compression Sustainer, Electro-Harmonix NY-2A (rack unit).

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, Electro-Harmonix's 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's 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 is Eventide's Ultra-Harmonizer DSP4000 (this is the only company who's allowed to use the harmonizer name).

Noise Reduction

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 lights! Rocktron makes 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 they reduce noise.


This article was previously published in 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: and


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