The History of Guitar Effects

It's fair to say that electric guitar has completely turned modern music upside down. Aside from rock music, we've seen the instrument take a strong role in other genres, ultimately making a huge impact with its versatile tones. While we're at it, what made electric guitar so popular is the fact that its very nature was like a blank canvas for those who wanted to experiment with different sounds. However, the pedals and effects that we use today are kind of taken for granted. Back in the old days, it was really difficult to achieve distortion, not to mention some other effects like echo, reverb, or chorus. Since this whole topic is pretty interesting for most of the guitar lovers out there, we'll be looking at the history of guitar effects and how they developed over the years.


In the earliest days of electric guitar, the players noticed that tube amps tend to give that dirty distorted tone when pushed to their limits. While this was regarded as an error by audio engineers in the early 1950s, the guitarists and listeners really enjoyed this ear-piercing, yet somehow appealing tone.

First pedals

But the first-ever floor device that looked like something that we can define as a pedal was DeArmond Trem Trol tremolo effect. Soon after it, manufacturers began integrating effects like tremolo, reverb, and vibrato into guitar amp circuits.

However, the distortion and fuzz were still some of the most desirable effects and certain players have even used faulty mixers to implement this unusual new tone into their music. One of the practices for guitar players back then was to deliberately damage their amplifiers, like The Kinks eventually did on their hit song "You Really Got Me."

Funnily enough, there was no need for this as Gibson subsidiary Maestro already came up with FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone pedal in the early 1960s. First intended as a versatile multi-effect for bass (something like a primitive version of analog synth), it went unnoticed and was a commercial failure until The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards used it on "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and turned things around for the company.

One thing led to another and some other manufacturers began making distortion pedals. The first-ever device marketed as the distortion pedal was Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. Nonetheless, a lot of hard rock and early heavy metal guitarists still relied on pushing tube amps to their limits. In order to help them achieve better tones, some have used the Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster treble booster, like Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi.

Other effects

During the second half of the 1960s, Bradley J. Plunkett developed the first-ever wah pedal, something that would eventually help guitarist add more expressiveness to their lead and rhythm sections.

The decade also saw the rise of tape-based delay/echo effects. These units were usually quite bulky and the magnetic tape would often get tangled. The development of the so-called bucket brigade devices (BBD) allowed manufacturers to put echo and chorus effects into compact floor units. Boss CE-1 was one of the most successful guitar pedals in the 1970s, eventually paving a way for the development of other products.

More distortion

Of course, the 1970s were the time of new compact distortion pedals, like the Boss OD-1 and DS-1, MXR Distortion+, as well as the legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer. As the time went on, guitar players noticed they can use these overdrive pedals as boosters for amps like Marshall JCM800.

The 1980s saw the rapid development of distortion pedals, and some of the most notable ones are Boss HM-2 and ProCo Rat.

Digital evolution

During the 1990s, numerous companies further developed digital effects. These became a cheaper alternative to some of the analog bucket brigade device-based pedals. Despite old school players relying on the analog stuff, digital effects became increasingly popular in the '90s and the 2000s. Aside from delays, choruses, phasers, and other effects, pitch shifters came into the spotlight with a pedal like DigiTech Whammy blowing everyone's mind.

Multi-effects products also became popular as they were a solid alternative to enormous rigs and pedalboards. For an average player, even some semi-professionals, they proved to be more than enough of a tool in making a good tone. What's more, they had amp and cab simulators and allowed guitarists to plug them directly into PA systems.

Present day

During the 2010s, several companies began making so-called "digital amp modelers" that not only imitate the dynamic response of tubes but also completely replicate some of the classic guitar amplifiers. Things like Kemper and Axe-Fx are slowly taking over the guitar industry and even some famous players, like John Mayer and Steve Vai, began using it in their live rigs.

However, there's still a strong guitar community relying on analog stuff and claiming that nothing can beat the tone of those vintage products. Be that as it may, we're yet to see how things will develop. One thing's certain – the future will definitely be exciting.

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