The Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Pedals

By Mark
Updated on

Effects pedals are an essential part of a guitarist’s sound and tone. It’s what helps us recognize the guitar tones of Eddy Van Halen or Randy Rhoads. 

I’ve done the research to create this quick Beginner’s Guide to help you get a better understanding of all the different types of guitar pedals.

In this guide, we’re going to cover: 

Dynamic Effect Pedals

Overdrive/Distortion Pedals

Modulation Pedals

Delay Pedals

Reverb Pedals

Wah Pedals

Dynamic Effect Pedals

The pedals that we’re going to talk about from this family of guitar pedals are:

  • Equalizers
  • Boost
  • Volume 

Equalizers

One of the first types of pedals we’re going to talk about is the equalizer pedal.  

What is an equalizer pedal? An equalizer pedal allows you to cut or boost a specific range of frequencies. Guitar amplifiers come with a 3 band equalizer. Equalizers made for the guitar will have many bands that deal with a range from 80 Hz to 1200 Hz, the range that the instrument produces.  

Why should you use an EQ pedal?

  • Fine-tuning: an EQ pedal will help you fine-tune your guitar tone and help bring out certain qualities in your guitar playing.  You can tune in more boomy low end and mids for metal tones or you can focus the mid-range for country guitar playing.
  • Consistency: when moving your rig from one room to another, your guitar will sound different from the previous room it was in.  Dialing in your tone into an equalizer will help keep your tone consistent no matter what kind of room you’re playing in.
  • Feedback elimination: having an EQ pedal can help you control and eliminate the frequencies that produce feedback.  Or depending on your taste you can choose to add feedback to your guitar tone.  

Behringer Equalizer - EQ700

Boost Pedals 

Boost pedals give your guitar a huge boost to cut through the mix.  They add more volume to the amplifiers, giving your guitar that extra kick it needs for a killer guitar solo.  Using a boost pedal first in the signal chain will add sustain in front of the overdrive and distortion pedals.

Volume

Volume pedals are simple in their design.  They move the volume control of the amp into an easy-to-use foot pedal.  Pressing the toe all the way down will turn the volume all the way up. Having the heel part down will have the volume all the way down.  

How a volume pedal is used depends on where it is in the signal chain.  If it is placed at the beginning of the signal chain, the pedal acts similar to the guitar’s volume knob.  If it is placed at the end of the signal chain, the pedal controls the amount of gain in the sound.  Most guitar players will place the volume pedal at the beginning to easily control the volume of their guitar.  

Dunlop Volume Pedal

Overdrive/Distortion Pedals

Next up are the bread and butter of tone, the overdrive and distortion pedals.  These pedals have the ability to turn a clean guitar into a rock and roll axe.  Let’s go into what each of these pedals do individually, starting with overdrive.

Overdrive

Overdrive pedals are the classic sound of the 70s.  They mimic turning your amplifier’s valves up as high as they can go and drive the valves to the point of distortion. Except pedals are much safer than overdriving an amp.  Overdrive provides a softer clipping sound. It focuses on a smooth dynamic sound rather than an aggressive one.  The effect doesn’t come through as much when playing softer. Overdrive will have a more pronounced effect when digging into the strings.  

Boss Overdrive Pedal

Distortion

Distortion pedals provide a more aggressive sound than overdrive.  Where overdrive has the sound of an amp turned all the way up, distortion takes that sound and turns it up way beyond what the amp is capable of.  Distortion has a more consistent sound than overdrive.  No matter how hard or soft you play, the effect of the distortion will always come through because distortion compresses the tone and provides more sustain.  The more aggressive sound is ideal for metal, rock and heavier genres.

Fuzz

Fuzz pedals take the distortion and overdrive effects to an extreme level.  The tone of the fuzz pedals is saturated and makes your amp sound like it’s broken.  Think of Jimi Hendrix’s tone when thinking of fuzz.  

Fuzz Pedals

Modulation Pedals

The next set of pedals that go into the signal chain are modulation effects.  We’ll be going over the following:

  • Chorus
  • Flangers
  • Phasers

Chorus

Guitar players love to use chorus pedals to beef up the tone.  The chorus gives the illusion that multiple instruments are playing at the same time.  The pedal splits the signal of the guitar and slightly alters the pitch of the signal with a small delay and then recombines the two to create a choir-like sound.  

MXR Analog Chorus

Flanger

Flangers work in the same way that chorus pedals do.  They split the signal, alter one of them, and recombine them to create a new sound.  Flangers can control the placement of the split signal.  The effect is similar to a plane passing overhead.  

Phaser

Phaser pedals are similar to other modulation pedals but during the split, the wave changes in multiple stages with an all-pass filter.  The result is a rippling, pulsing effect, quicker than a flanger but less saturating.

Delay Pedals

The next set of pedals we’re going to talk about are delay pedals.  Delay pedals work by recording input and playing it back after a short period of time, usually in milliseconds.  Depending on the pedal, the recorded signal can be played only once or multiple times.  You can also control how long the signal is delayed.  

Echo pedals are a small subset of delay pedals.  The echoes are designed to sound like the echoes that you hear in nature.  

Boss Digital Delay DD-8

Reverb Pedals

Reverb pedals are digitally designed to emulate the effects of natural acoustic reverberation in an audio signal.  These effects are usually mixed in with the original signal to give a greater sense of space.  

There are typically 4 parameters on reverb effects:

  • Effect Level: relative level of the reverb-affected signal
  • Pre-delay: this is the amount of time between the initial signal and the reverberated signal.  
  • Decay time: this is the amount of time it takes for the level of the reverberated signal to reach zero.
  • Damping: the rate that the higher frequencies decay relative to the main decay time.

Wah Pedals 

Finally, we have the wah pedals.  Wah pedals provide some of the most unique and expressive sounds you can play with a guitar.  

How does a wah pedal work? The short explanation is that a potentiometer divides the pedal’s internal voltage.  This potentiometer that is connected to the rocking plate, which you control with your foot, creates the change in voltage which is what creates the sweep and tone of the wah pedal.  

The wah pedal also transfers tone control from your picking hand to the foot pedal.  When the heel end is fully depressed, lower frequencies pass through.  When the toe end is fully pressed, higher frequencies pass through.  

Vox Wah Pedal

Final Thoughts

This is an introduction to the world of guitar pedals. We’ll be taking a look into the different ways we can connect them. We’ll even go over how to build a pedalboard in future articles. For now, don’t forget to check out the following articles: 

How a Guitar Amplifier Works

How to Learn to Play Guitar

How to Read Guitar Tabs

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