We provide a complete beginners guide to guitar effects pedals, perfect if you’ve just got a new electric guitar, you want to buy the right pedals for your future rock star kids or need to know the essential guitar effects pedals for your board!
If you’re new to the world of guitar pedals, it can be a little daunting if you’re thinking to yourself “which guitar effects pedals do I need?”. Maybe you’ve bought your son or daughter a new guitar for Christmas or their birthday, or you’ve decided to really get serious when it comes to changing your sound up and you want to know where to start, what guitar effects pedals do and what sounds different guitar pedals make. Either way, we’re here to help with our handy guide to guitar effects pedals, complete with sound examples.
We’ll go through each type of guitar pedal from the likes of distortion to delay and everything in between, whilst keeping it super simple. We’ll leave out some of the more technical details as this is just a beginners guide to guitar effects pedals, but if you feel you’re ready for a complete guide on putting together a pedal board, then we have a more in-depth blog here for you to read: Read our how to build a pedal board blog.
Right now, let’s get stuck in to the most widely used pedals!
First up we have the most widely used and most useful pedal ever created – the Distortion pedal! If you’re wondering “What is a distortion pedal” the clue is in the name with how this pedal sounds. It basically takes your signal (the guitar) and distorts it, adding volume, crunch and sustain to your sound and is basically used as a contrast to the natural sound of your guitar. Often used in the chorus of some of your favourite songs.
A distortion pedal can often be confused for a fuzz or overdrive pedal, but the trained ear can definitely hear the difference. We won’t go too in depth here, but if you want to know the difference between the three you can read more about it in our differences between overdrive, distortion and fuzz blog.
A distortion pedal also changes the sound of your guitar and responds differently depending on which guitar you use. Below, Sam shows us one of the most famous distortion pedals ever, and demonstrates how it makes our guitar sound more aggressive.
View all distortion pedals.
If you’ve already got an amplifier, chances are that it’s got reverb pre-installed, so you might not necessarily need a pedal. However, some amps don’t give you the option of turning it off at will via a foot pedal.
A reverb pedal basically gives an echo effect and gives your guitar more weight. Think of the sound you hear when you walk into a church or cave – a big expansive sound that reverberates off the walls. In addition, if you want to completely oversaturate your sound with reverb to sound like you’re in a massive cave, you can turn the reverb up all the way and engage it when the song calls for it.
We actually covered some of the best reverb pedals in our best reverb pedals blog, so check that out for a list of great options, however we’d recommend the Electro Harmonix Holy Grail Nano, or the BOSS RV-6 reverb – both industry standard reverb pedals.
Here's a few of our favourites below:
View all reverb pedals.
Wah pedals make exactly the noise they’re named after – yep a “Wah” noise! If you say to yourself “Wah, Wah, Wah” slowly, that’s the same sound the pedal makes. Imagine a baby crying in slow motion and you kind of get the idea. The Wah sound was probably best captured on “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix and is widely used in funk and rock solos thanks to its really cool sounding effect.
The most famous Wah pedals are the Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Wah pedals, especially the Dunlop GCB95 Crybaby Wah Guitar Effects Pedal, however the new Electro Harmonix Wailer Wah is also an amazing option too.
View all Wah pedals.
Overdrive pedals are very different to distortion pedals, and without getting too technical, they drive/push your guitar signal harder rather than changing the sound completely like a distortion pedal does. An overdrive pedal retains a lot of the original sound of your guitar and amp but pushes the amplifier harder to give it a heavier, thicker signal. They’re ideally used with valve/tube amps as they push the tubes to their limit and allow them to bring out the more natural distortion that tube amps are so renowned for. Incidentally, we wrote about the best tube amps for home use here, but if you wanted some great practice amps, we also wrote about them here too!
View all overdrive pedals.
Delay pedals take your original signal, a guitar chord or note for example, delays it and plays it back exactly how the pedal hears it the first time. It can either play the note back once or multiple times depending on your settings or “feedback time”. Often, you’ll see Digital Delay pedals as well as Analogue Delay pedals. The major difference is that digital delay pedals will offer longer delays and a ‘cleaner’ exact sound, however guitarists often prefer the analogue sound for all the subtle nuances and slight unpredictability in sound. This comes down to personal preference but both options sound great.
Some industry standard delay pedals are the Electro Harmonix Memory Boy Delay Guitar Effects Pedal, BOSS DD-3 digital delay and the MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay Guitar Pedal.
View all delay pedals.
Fuzz pedals provide guitarists, bass players and even keyboard players with a hefty amount of distortion that sounds VERY different to regular distortion sounds. Fuzz pedals make your guitar sound like its pushing your amplifier to the point of blowing up. A fuzz pedal completely changes the sound of your guitar signal into a heavy, fizzy, and extremely noisy sound that, depending on which pedal you choose, can provide a bass heavy noise, to a spitting ‘broken’ amp sound. Think Velcro being ripped apart and you’re somewhere pretty close.
There’s a great selection of fuzz pedals out there to choose from, but some of the most popular options are the Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi, BOSS FZ-5 and the Jim Dunlop Fuzz Face. Check out our top 5 best fuzz pedals blog for some great sound samples.
View all fuzz pedals.
Boost pedals increase the strength of your signal going in to your amplifier. This means you don’t have to use distortion to get that volume jump when you want to make the chorus or lead line jump out. A boost pedal increases the signal without adding distortion, and can be used to fatten up your sound, ‘pushing’ your amplifier harder and louder, just without the grit that a distortion pedal will add.
View all boost pedals.
Chorus pedals actually make your guitar sound like there are a variety of different guitarists playing the same thing that you are playing, but with a different guitar and slightly out of time with you. This effect makes everything you play sound a little bit ‘warbly’ and thickens up your guitar or bass lines. We recommend experimenting with these as you can use them subtly to add weight to your sound or as a full-blown effect that completely takes over your signal.
The most famous chorus pedal would have to be the Electro Harmonix Small Clone, as it appeared on Nirvana's song 'Come As You Are' and many other famous tracks. The Boss CH1 Super Chorus Guitar Effects Pedal is also a widely used option.
View all chorus pedals.
A phaser pedal is similar to a chorus as it thickens up your sound but also adds a sweeping effect – almost as if the speaker within the amplifier is spinning around or moving up and down. If you pretend the speaker is moving away from you and moving closer and back again – you’ll get an idea as to how it sounds. You can change the length of the effect and how quickly the movements are via the pedal.
The MXR Phase 90 is one of the most widely used phase pedals, made famous by Van Halen, Smashing Pumpkins and more.
View all phaser pedals.
A flanger is similar to a chorus pedal but makes more of a whooshing effect. This is more noticeable than a chorus. This makes your signal rise up in pitch and down again. The BOSS BF3 Flanger pedal is one of our favourites.
View all flanger pedals.
An EQ pedal has been designed to allow you to tune certain parameters of your sound such as the bass, middle and treble frequencies. They are predominantly used by more experienced guitarists who want to add or take away specific bands of sound. These are great for guitarists who want to really boost the treble, bring out the bass or just ensure their guitar signal sounds as flat as possible. The MXR M109S Six band EQ Pedal is one of our favourites.
View all EQ pedals.
If you’re new to the world of guitar or bass, a looper pedal is a great way to hone your skills. A looper pedal is not an effect, but more a tool that allows you to record chord progressions, notes or riffs and then play it back through your amp. It’s ideal for playing a chord progression or rhythm section, looping it and then playing a lead line or riff over the top – like two guitars playing together.
It essentially records for you when you hit the pedal and then plays it back when you hit it again. Each time you stand on the pedal it allows you to lay another track down. Looper pedals are great for live use and home use when you need to make it sound like there’s more than one guitarist.
View all looper pedals.
A compressor pedal is another type of pedal that you could class as more of a tool than an effect. It essentially takes all the dynamics out of your playing and ensures every note you play is the same volume. When you engage this pedal, regardless of whether you play a string lightly or hard, it will sound the same in terms of volume.
These are favoured by bass players as they ensure each note can be heard correctly and are loved by guitarists who like to solo as they add sustain to your playing by allowing the note to ring out longer. One of our favourites is the MXR M102 Dyna Comp.
View all compressor pedals.
A tremolo pedal takes your signal and chops it up, making it sound like the volume is dropping and reappearing very quickly. Imagine what it would sound like whilst holding a note and turning the volume down on your amp and back up again and you’ll get the idea. A tremolo allows you to change the speed at which the volume drops happen and how severe the cut off is. You can have it set to completely cut your sound out or just gate it, which allows a certain amount of sound through at each interval. The BOSS TR2 Tremolo is one of our favourites here at PMT.
View all Tremolo pedals.
A tuner pedal is an absolute essential purchase for guitarists of all levels. This is a quick and convenient way to be able to tune your guitar during a live set or at home. They also cut your signal when they’re engaged so no one has to listen to you tuning up!
A guitar tuner pedal is an absolute must have if you’re serious about guitar as it provides accurate tuning instantly and can even allow you to tune your guitar to alternative tunings such as Drop D, open tunings and more. Check out our top 12 Best Guitar Tuners blog for more info on guitar tuners. The absolute industry standard is the BOSS TU-3 tuner pedal - a must have.
View all tuner pedals.
A volume pedal is ideal for those guitarists out there who like to use volume swells or fade-ins, and those who don’t want to have to use the volume pot on their guitar to do so! All you do is apply pressure on the front or back of the pedal to get the desired effect and you’re good to go! They’re super simple to use and only change the signal rather than the tone of your guitar or bass.
View all volume pedals.
Noise gate pedals
If you’re using a bunch of high gain pedals, or a lot of pedals chained together, chances are you’ll get a little bit of hum or unwanted buzzing coming from your amp. This is especially noticeable if you’re using high gain amps and guitars. If your amp is buzzing when you’re not playing anything, you might benefit from a noise gate pedal as they cut out all that unwanted noise but preserve your tone.
A noise gate pedal completely cuts off your signal when you’re not playing anything and prevents noise from getting through to your amplifier until your start playing again. The Electro-Harmonix Silencer Noise Gate / Effects Loop Pedal is a great way to get rid of that pesky hum or buzz affecting your signal.
View all noise gate pedals.
An octave pedal listens to what note you’re playing and adds the next octave up or down (depending on your settings) making it sound like someone is playing the octave note with you. If you’re familiar with guitar or just learning, you’ll know that an octave is the distance between one musical note and it’s corresponding note at a higher or lower pitch. For example, if you play an open E string and then play the E string on the 12th fret, it will sound the same, just an octave higher.
You can set an octave to play the higher or lower notes or both at the same time. This is ideal for those who want to really thicken up their sound and are often used by heavy metal guitarists to make solos and riffs sound really cool! The Valeton OC-10 Octave pedal is a budget friendly choice and the Electro Harmonix Nano Pog is an industry standard option.
View all octave pedals.
Acoustic simulator guitar pedals
If you love the sound of both acoustic and electric guitars, but you want to play both at the same time without draping one of each over your shoulder, then an Acoustic simulator pedal is ideal. These pedals take your guitar signal – regardless of what electric guitar you’re playing and make it sound like it’s an acoustic. These are often used by guitarists on stage who want to switch between an acoustic and electric guitar sound during a set or even the same song. The Boss AC-3 Acoustic Simulator is a great option.
Essential Effects Pedals
Now we’ve covered almost all the guitar pedal types available, but If we had to pick our favourite pedals, or the essential guitar effects pedals we think you’ll really need, it would be the following 4:
1. Tuner Pedal
Although it won’t improve your playing or change your sound, you need a tuner pedal on your board to ensure your guitar or bass is always in tune. There’s nothing worse than hearing a guitar out of tune, so make sure you’re always tuned up before you plug in!
Here's our 3 favourite options:
2. Distortion Pedal
A Distortion pedal is a must, it really helps bring out those chords, solos and riffs and makes sure they stand out. It gives you the volume jump when you need it and changes the overall sound of your guitar, giving it power and aggression. Of course, you don’t always have to dial in the pedal for bone crushing riffs as a distortion pedal can provide a smoother sound, but at least the option is there!
3. Delay Pedal
As discussed, Delay pedals add so much more weight to your sound and gives your guitar a doubling effect, which is really useful to make it sound like there’s two guitars on stage. They’re also great for creating psychedelic sounds and experimenting with riffs. Again, you don’t have to dial in big delay effects and can use the pedal subtly to add resonance.
- Electro Harmonix Canyon Delay and Looper Pedal
- Blaxx Mini Delay Pedal
- Valeton AD-10 Analog Delay Guitar Pedal
4. Looper Pedal
Like we said; if you’re just starting out in the world of electric guitar, a looper pedal is a great way to learn how to play in time and play with other musicians. As you can jam along with yourself, lay down a rhythm track and play lead over the top, you get to learn what works best. It’s also a great song writing tool as you can jam with yourself and create some killer tracks. You may not use it live but you’ll definitely use it!
Want to know more about guitar effects pedals?
If you want to learn more about guitar effects pedals, or need to know how to put a pedal board together complete with all the accessories, power supplies and patch cables to create a full live and recording rig, check out our how to put a pedal board together guide.
We hope you've enjoyed our beginners guide to guitar effects pedals, but if you need more information check out a full selection of guitar effects pedals over at PMT Online or call in to your local PMT store to speak to any of our guitar experts about getting the best guitar effects pedals to suit your needs.