The Complete Beginner's Guide to Guitar Pedals

Getting your first electric guitar is one of the best feelings ever, and we're pretty certain that just about every guitarist out there will confirm that. The excitement, knowing that you'll be able to play all of your favorite songs the way that they're intended ñ blasting them on high volume with your distortion on... you just can't beat that!

However, in order to get the best out of your guitar and get the sound as good as possible, you'll need some sort of effects pedals. You know, those compact little things that you stomp on and give you distortion, overdrive, delay, chorus, and all the other tones.

So, as a beginner, you're probably feeling somewhat confused about what each pedal actually does and how they should be arranged. We're here to clear things up a bit and bring you a brief beginner's guide to guitar pedals. We'll sort them all into categories and explain what they do. Let's get this thing on the move!

Tuners
They're simply boring old guitar tuners in the form of a pedal. When you turn them off, your signal is cut off and you can tune your guitar using the LED display without making your bandmates angry for letting the notes ring out loud.

Filters
The best-known filter is a wah pedal. It essentially has a peak frequency that sweeps up and down as you rock the moving part of the pedal, ultimate creating that voice-like sound that everyone seems to be crazy about. Of course, there are also automatic wah pedals with either timed sweeping controls, like the Boss AW-2, or the ones that follow the dynamics of your playing, like the AW-3. The most famous wah pedals are built by Dunlop, and you'll definitely stumble upon some of their well-known Cry Baby models.

There are some other filter pedals, like the Line 6 FM4, that can imitate the sound of a synth. They're pretty fun to use but you don't see them that often on average pedalboards.

EQ
The EQ pedals basically work the same way like an equalizer on a guitar amp does. Or even the EQ on average music playing software that you have on your home computer. These pedals often have 5 or more (sometimes up to 10) frequencies to tweak instead of the standard bass, volume, and treble ones. This way, when you turn on the pedal, you get a different color to your sound. Highlight the certain low, mid, or high frequencies, or simply cut them off if you want to change the sound for your solos or any other parts that you have in mind.

Boost
This is a simple pedal that just boosts your signal. Treble boosters were quite popular back in the '60s and the '70s, but the old guitar heroes like Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi modified them to serve as full range boosters. Today, you'll find all kinds of boosters, even ones with EQs on them.

While the concept might sound boring, these can change your sound radically, especially if you use them with tube amplifiers.

Dynamics
The most underrated category of guitar pedals are the compressors. As the name suggests, they basically "compress" your tone by slightly turning up the quiet parts and turning down the louder parts. This often results in an overall thicker sound and adds more sustain.

Distortion, overdrive, fuzz
This is where all the fun begins ñ the distortion pedals. There are certain categories and we won't be going into full technical differences between the overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals in here. You can look at the overdrives as sort of those mild bluesy sounds, distortions as the stuff you hear on an average hard rock or heavy metal song, and fuzz is pretty much like a messier sounding distortion. On each of these pedals, you'll find basic controls like level, tone, gain, and sometimes even a few EQ knobs and various other switches.

There's a whole variety of products in this category, one of the most famous being the Boss DS-1. You can also find overdrives and distortions with tubes in them, adding some warmth and dynamic response to your playing. You'll likely spend the most time in search of the perfect distortion for your taste.

An example of a famous fuzz pedal would be the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff or the legendary Fuzz Face that was used by Jimi Hendrix. The best-known overdrive pedal is the Ibanez Tube Screamer that's been copied by many other bigger and smaller manufacturers over the years.

Modulation
This is the category where chorus, phaser, flanger, tremolo, vibrato, rotary and all the other fun and quirky sounding effects fall into. Add a different flavor or a weird slow "ascending" and "descending" feel to your sound. There's a whole variety of different modulations and it would take way more than just one article to explain them all.

Quite often you'll stumble upon a pedalboard with a chorus effect on it as it is used in various different genres, both for clean and distorted sounds.

Delay/echo
But not to keep your sound "dry", you'll need to get yourself a delay pedal. The delay repeats the sound that you just played, either once or multiple times, with a decaying volume ñ thus the "echo" name. The standard controls on it are volume, delay time, feedback, and mix. The delay time determines the time distance between the two repeated sounds, the feedback determines how many times the sound will be repeated, while the mix or "blend" determines how loud these repeated sounds will be compared to your dry signal.

Reverb
Ever wanted to sound like you're playing in an arena or a big spacious room? Well, then you should get yourself a reverb pedal. It can be an alternative to the delay or you can use both effects at the same time. But in that case, you would have to find some sort of a balance in order to not make your sound too "distant" or muddy.

How do I arrange the pedals?

There are no official rules on how to arrange your pedals. However, in order to get the sound as clear as possible, without any unwanted noises, it's best that you arrange them like this (going from guitar to an amp): tuner, filters, EQs, boosts, dynamics, distortions, modulation, delay, reverb. At the same time, you're free to experiment and find what suits you the most.
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