A beginner's guide to effects pedals

by Leon Waters, May 13, 2016

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You’ve gotten your hands on the guitar of your dreams, and you’re shoving fresh notes through a shiny new amp. Whether we’re talking about a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall stack or a Chapman ML-1 twinned with a Blackstar combo, you are officially ready to make some noise! Now it’s time to have some serious fun!

Even if you don’t yet know the names of the different effects pedals available to the guitarists of today, you’ve definitely already experienced their (pardon the pun) effects first hand. Every song you’ve ever heard features effects of some kind. Some are subtle, others more obvious – but rest assured, they are there.

We’re going to take you on a short tour through the world of guitar-friendly effects – no bank-breaking professional studio setup required. Along the way, you’ll discover how some of the most popular tone-mangling gizmos can help you get closer to the sound of your dreams, and make your playing deeper, more emotionally evocative, and infinitely more fun!

Guts and grit

Distortion – that filthy, crunchy effect that has lent heart and swagger to many a rock and metal track – is everywhere today, but it is certainly not new. In fact, distortion has been around for as long as amplifiers have existed.

One form of early distortion was generated by pioneering guitarists such as Willie Johnson, who simply pushed their amps beyond the volume limits intended by the original designers to get the hell-raising tones they desired. Others took a rather more aggressive approach; Dave Davies of The Kinks famously went at his speaker cones with a razor blade before recording You Really Got Me in 1964, heralding a new era of nasty, distorted rock tunes. By the late seventies, now-legendary groups such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath could be found employing amps that allowed more control over distorted tones than ever before – and thus heavy metal and “hard rock” were born.

Today, an amp that doesn’t offer both ‘clean’ (non-distorted) and ‘dirty’ (distorted) channels is very hard to find indeed. Distortion is simply standard issue. And if your amp doesn’t deliver the grit you need, you can also buy stomp-boxes (small floor-bound effect units with one or more footswitches) that can add that all-important filth to your tone for surprisingly low prices.

Today, distortion boxes commonly fall into one of three categories: Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Overdrives provide a warm and fairly mild tone when your amp’s volume is kept low, and let you get as harsh as you please when you crank it up. Distortion boxes offer the same amount of distorted tone regardless of volume (great for practicing metal while your other half’s family are in the next room), and fuzz lets you get really crazy, turning the most mild-mannered guitar sound into a brutal, bloodthirsty beast. Some boutique effect designers (such as New York’s own Death By Audio) even sell pedals that can blow up your amp! However raw you want to get, the gear world has you covered.

Spacing out

If you walk into the demo room of any guitar store in the world and plug your guitar into the amp that the last occupant played through, chances are you’ll suddenly feel as if you’re trapped in a cave. Reverb (short for ‘reverberation’) and delay (also known as ‘echo’) are true staples of the guitarist’s effect-based diet, allowing as they do a taste of pure, unadulterated epicness. Reverb creates the illusion of a wide open space within which your guitar sound is free to float and sing, while delay / echo duplicates your notes and repeats them over and over again for as long as you choose. Close your eyes with both effects engaged, and you will feel as if you’re sitting on top of Mount Olympus playing to the gods.

Maxed-out delay and reverb settings are as addictive as opiates and Angry Birds, but toning things down can yield great (and far less overwhelming) results. The potential contained in a simple pair of pedals is utterly boundless; the only limit is your imagination. U2 guitarist The Edge has penned many a tune inspired by a love of spacious effects (take U2’s hit Where The Streets Have No Name, for instance), and delay can even prove useful in the practice room. If you can hear your own notes repeated back to you in real time, you can easily practice nailing those tricky bends and get a sense of how your licks will sound to listeners without the need for serious recording gear.

Turning off the echo box for a second, let’s consider a handful of other common sounds. Fans of the original James Bond Theme’s final chord will require a tremolo pedal (which continuously cycles a signal’s volume from loud to quiet and back again) to achieve that same haunting effect. Compressors can be found on the pedalboards of funk guitarists everywhere, evening out a signal’s volume levels to snag the machinelike consistency required if you want your listeners to get down and dig it. And if you’re into jazz-fusion à la Allan Holdsworth, a chorus pedal (which combines your guitar’s ‘clean’ signal with a slightly detuned one for lush, shimmering impressions) is essential. 

Chorus fits nicely into pop, too – see Andy Summers’ guitar work on The Police’s mega-hit Message In A Bottle for evidence. Flangers and phasers may sound like weapons from Star Trek, but they work in a similar manner, blending an untouched guitar signal with another, altered one to create all manner of swooshing and swirling atmospheres. Both effects were used to brilliant effect by the one and only Eddie Van Halen on his band’s 1978 debut album; the intro to Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love demonstrates the flanger’s ability to mutate a master’s notes, while the immortal two-handed tapping section from Eruption sees Eddie employ a phaser to add some otherworldly spice to a harmonically dense piece of none-more-flash guitar work.

Of course, when it comes to alien guitar and psychedelia, we could never be forgiven for leaving out perhaps the most iconic guitar effect of all – the wah pedal. It’s impossible to resist the urge to try out the beginning of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return) with a wah pedal under your feet – but funky strumming is not the wah pedal’s only specialty. Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have both taken the wah pedal’s potential for vocal-like expression to new heights and depths through tunes like Surfing With The Alien, Cryin’, For The Love of God, and Bad Horsie. In the never-ending battle between lead guitarists and singers for that all-important spotlight, the humble wah pedal is the definitive weapon of choice.

It’s guitar, Jim, but not as we know it

Almost fifteen years into a new millennium, the world of guitar has evolved way beyond the limits experienced by musicians of old. At one point distortion alone was considered weird, even demonic! Today, things are not the same. We’re used to all kinds of odd sounds assaulting our ears, to the point that many of the effects we’ve already covered may simply sound passé, even boring!

Let’s assume you really want to turn heads and blow minds with your tone. How can you do it? Well, if all you want is to pound your listeners mercilessly into submission with wave after wave of sheer insanity, look no further than the ring modulator. Ring modulators take even the most sweet and graceful notes and mutate them into something more akin to a Dalek having a heart attack, as demonstrated during the solo section of Black Sabbath’s classic Paranoid and the intro to Roulette Dares by The Mars Volta. A word of warning, though: If your girlfriend asks you to play her something nice on the guitar, and you switch on your ring modulator, she may never speak to you again. 

More than any other guitarist, the undisputed king of making a guitar sound like anything but has to be Tom Morello. A full exploration of Morello’s contribution to the world of warped and wicked guitar work could take up an entire book; but the time-honoured centrepiece of his pedalboard is Digitech’s now-infamous Whammy pedal. Listen to the searing high notes in the solo from Rage Against The Machine’s UK number one hit Killing In The Name, and you’re hearing a Whammy pedal set up to shift the pitch of any note up two octaves. Check out the solo to Know Your Enemy, and you’ll hear a Whammy pedal digitally harmonizing every note, with completely out-of-this-world results. Further examples can be found throughout Morello’s work with Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave, and as a solo artist in his own right.

If you’re serious about taking your guitar beyond its own limits, the world of effects is definitely for you. Don’t fret about affording a crate of stompboxes, either; there are plenty of handy multi-effects units out there offering many different sounds in a single heavy-duty (and affordable) box. In the twenty-first century, there just aren’t any limits anymore. If you can hear it in your head, there’s a way to make it real.

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