A Beginners’ Guide to Guitar Pedals

beginners guide to guitar pedals

The world of electric guitars opens up new horizons of expression in music. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that it’s one of the most popular instruments out there. After all, there are so many different things that you can do with an electric guitar, making it a very potent musical tool for almost all of the genres that we can think of today.

The fact that it’s an electric instrument that sends a signal to an amplifier opens up new ways for further altering and improving its tone. With the development of guitar effects, guitarists worldwide were given a new tool that would help them to more easily convey their artistic message.

So it’s not unusual to know that many guitar players have dedicated their time and effort in building elaborate pedalboards. Some of them even feature very complex loops and even external controllers to create different combinations of sounds.

huge guitar pedal board

If you’re new to guitar pedals, some things might get a bit confusing. Well, you’re definitely not alone in this, and even the most experienced guitar players have been there. After all, with so many different pedals and effects, it does get difficult to keep up with how things work.

With all this said, we figured we could help clear things up for beginners and do a detailed guide on guitar pedals. We sorted them out by categories, explaining what these effects do, and how adjusting their parameters affects your tone. At the end of this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of guitar pedals and enough knowledge to start building your pedalboard.


Tuners

Peterson Stomp Classic Strobe Tuner

Tuner pedals are not effects, but we still need to include them in this guide. Essentially, they are like regular guitar tuners, only in the form of guitar pedals that you can put in your signal chain.

What’s important to note here is that they have a display or an array of LED lights along with a display so that you can easily see when the open string hits the desired note.

They’re nothing fancy, but they serve their purpose for live settings. You just hit the footswitch, mute the tone, and tune your guitar. That’s it!

However, tuner pedals usually have buffered bypass, which can serve its purpose in the signal chain. Essentially, they can balance the signal and sort things out, but that’s a whole other discussion that we’ll touch upon some other time.

Read a review of one of our favorite tuning pedals here


Filters

DigiTech X-Series Synth Wah Envelope Filter review

Up next, we have filter pedals that serve the purpose of filtering out certain frequencies in your tone. This means they can also pronounce certain frequency ranges of the audible spectrum by filtering out everything else. One of the examples of filter pedals is the wah-wah.

Wahs can change the peak frequency, pronounce it, while everything else stays the same or gets filtered out. By moving its rocking part, wah pedal sweeps over the spectrum. We also have automatic wah pedals that change these frequencies according to the input signal, or the dynamics of your playing.

Other types of filter pedals are “static” and keep the tone according to your parameters. As a result, they can emulate some quirky synth tones. An example would be Line 6 FM4. However, these are usually more advanced “toys” that you don’t exactly need as a beginner.

Check out our review of the DigiTech Synth Wah Envelope Filter Pedal here


Equalizers

eq700

Just like your guitar amp has a 3-band equalizer with bass, middle, and treble controls, there are standalone pedals that can further shape your tone.

The simplest form of an EQ is a tone control on your guitar, and the most complex examples would be things like 30-band EQs or parametric EQs.

EQ pedals for guitar usually have anywhere between 5 and 10 frequency ranges that you can control using sliders. By turning the pedal on, you change the tone according to the set parameters, and then go back to the original tone when it’s turned off.

This is pretty useful if you need to change the tone for a certain section of a song, like pronouncing mids for a solo. MXR’s M108S is a good example of a 10-band EQ pedal.


Boosters

Fulltone Fulldrive2 MOSFET Overdrive Boost review

We could say that these are the simplest types of pedals out there. All they do is boosting the guitar signal without creating distortion in their circuit. If you need a slight volume boost without changing your tone, they come in handy.

However, they are also very useful with tube amplifiers or other tube pedals and devices in your signal chain. Tube amps tend to “break” their tone and cause that “natural” or “organic” distortion when reaching their limits.

A simple booster can help you achieve that vintage-sounding distortion with a tube amp or another tube-driven pedal.

Check out our review of the MRX MC401 Boost Pedal here


Compressors

boss-cs-3-compression-sustainer-pedal-review

Compressors often get overlooked, which is quite a shame as they are pretty useful. The proper name for them would be dynamic range compressors as they turn up the volume of quiet parts and keep the louder parts quieter.

Of course, you’re able to set parameters and intensity of this compression. They can also boost the signal when needed, but the main purpose is to keep everything in check and prevent anything from popping up in the mix.

This is why they’re very useful for bassists and rhythm guitarists.

Read our review of the BOSS CS-3, one of our favorite compressors


Expanders, aka noise gates

Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor Pedal review

An expander is the opposite of a compressor – quiet parts get quieter, and louder parts get louder or just stay at the same volume.

This effect is perfect for dealing with high gain distortions that tend to add that hissing sound when you’re not playing. While it can’t filter out the hissing during your playing, it does keep things quiet in between the notes.

They usually have just one control that sets the threshold at which the effect is activated. They’re simple to use but still require some experience to implement properly without soaking up your tone.

Check out our review of the Boss NS-2


Pitch-altering pedals

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This is where the fun stuff begins. Pitch shifters can alter the pitch of your whole output or add one or more intervals to what you’re playing.

For instance, the famous example here is the Digitech Whammy that can alter the pitch of your tone as you rock the moving part of the pedal back and forth.

Kind of like a wah pedal, but it changes the pitch. You can hear this one in Rage Against the Machine’s famous song “Killing in the Name.”

Octaver pedals are also pretty common on pedalboards, and they usually have settings to add two additional tones to what you’re playing, one and two octaves below.

They can find uses in lead sections or anything that doesn’t involve playing more than one note at a time. Boss has some great Octaver pedals, like the OC-3.

We also have harmonizers that add the desired interval above or below notes that you’re playing. These can either work chromatically by adding a fixed interval (i.e. major third) or diatonically where they work “smart” and accommodate the intervals according to the scale that you’re playing.

To use these “smart” versions of harmonizers, you need some basic music theory knowledge. Examples of harmonizer pedals include Boss VE-2, Boss VE-8, TC Helicon Harmony, and many others.

Read our review of the Digitech Whammy 5


Distortion

Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion review

Now we get to the most important part of every pedalboard – distortion pedals. In the world of guitar, the distortion effect is divided into three categories, which are overdrive, classic distortion, and fuzz.

They create this effect by intentional boosting and clipping of the signal. Different types of clipping create different types of distortion.

There’s something for everyone’s taste these days, and the most attention is usually dedicated to finding proper distortion pedals for certain styles of music and playing.

Some of the famous examples include Ibanez Tube Screamer with all of its variants, Boss DS-1, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, MXR M75, the legendary Klon Centaur, Pro Co Rat, and many others.

Read our review of the Pro Co Turbo Rat distortion pedal


Modulation

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Modulation effects include everything that adds the copy of your signal, alters it a little, and blends it in with the unprocessed signal.

The most famous modulation effect is the chorus that adds a very short delay and alters the pitch up and down according to the set amplitude and speed.

We also have flanging and phasing, which are in some technical ways similar, but in practice produce completely different effects.

Most of the modulation pedals have a “mix” or “blend” control that determines the ratio between unprocessed and processed signals.

There are also depth and speed controls, along with a few other things. Strymon has a great chorus pedal called Ola. MXR has the M134 stereo chorus that’s pretty great too.

Check out our review of the MXR M134 Stereo Chorus Pedal


Atmospheric effects: delays and reverbs

electro harmonix holy grail reverb

To keep your tone more interesting, you should think of different “atmospheric” effects. After all, you can’t keep it “dry” all the time. For this purpose, we have delay and reverb pedals. Both of these add repeated copies of your tone to create an illusion of a bigger or smaller room.

Delays add simple repeats according to set parameters. You can control the time distance between these repeats, the number of repeats, and the mix between the original and repeated signal.

It’s the classic echo effect. In some cases, pedals also have separate EQ controls for shaping the tone of the repeated signal. There’s anything from the simple stuff like the MXR carbon copy, up to very complex pieces like the Empress Echosystem.

Reverbs also repeat the signal, but in a more “shimmering” manner, giving the impression of one prolonged atmospheric continued repeat. It’s as if you’re playing in a large hall or a cathedral.

They also include blend or mix controls, just like delays. Strymon’s Big Sky is a great example of a very spacious-sounding reverb.

Read our review of the TC Electronic M3000


Volume pedals

morley-volume-pedal

While they could be the most boring part of one pedalboard, volume pedals should be an essential part of every signal chain, especially if you’re playing in a bigger band or an orchestra.

They’re pretty simple – you use them to control your output volume. They have a rocking part that you use to turn the volume up or down. There’s usually the “minimum volume” switch that sets the volume when the pedal is at its minimum position.

There’s a common misconception with beginners thinking that the volume pedal can do the same thing as the booster pedal. The thing with volume pedals is that you’re reducing the volume to the desired level. You use it when you’re supposed to keep quiet in the mix.

There are high impedance and low impedance volume pedals, but we’re not going to get too much into technical details about this. Low impedance pedals are more common and they go at the very end or near the end of the signal chain. Ernie Ball has its MVP volume pedal that’s very reliable.


Expression pedals, tap pedals, and sequencers

8StepProg-large

Some of the effects we mentioned usually support connectivity with external control sources. For this, we have expression pedals, which are just multi-purpose potentiometers in the form of a pedal.

Automatic wah-wah, certain modulation pedals, or even delays can work with an expression pedal, but only if they have a separate input jack for it.

On their own, expression pedals do nothing, although many volume pedals also have the expression pedal functionality.

Tap switches work the same way, it’s just that they have one control switch that sets the tempo of the effect. For instance, you connect it to a delay, and when your delay pedal is turned on, tap the switch pedal twice and the tempo of your repeated tones will be set according to the tempo that you tapped.

Sequencer pedals are a bit more complicated, and they’re definitely not something that a beginner would use. It’s a complex controller that has a sequence of adjustable steps.

It controls any effect with the expression pedal connectivity feature, but it does nothing on its own. An example here would be the well-known Electro-Harmonix 8-Step Program Analog Expression Sequencer.


What’s the correct order of pedals in the signal chain?

First off, there’s no such thing as the “correct” order of pedals. There are, however, some standards in arranging your pedalboard that may help you get the clearest tone without any unwanted noises or hisses.

This is the usual order, but you’re free to experiment. The whole thing is open for discussion.

From guitar to the amp, it goes like this: tuner – filter – EQ – compressor – boost – pitch altering – distortion – modulation – volume pedals – delay – reverb. Volume pedal can also come after the delay and reverb.

We Review the Best Distortion Pedals For Metal

TC Electronic TC1210 Spatial Expander & Stereo Chorus + Flanger Review

TC 1210 spatial expander

Whatever is the instrument that you play, it’s always a good idea to have some additional effects to enhance your tone. Not too much, but just something that will help you in not sounding so dry all the time.

Of course, there are plenty of pedals out there that will help you get all the tones that you need. But what if you want to take it to a whole new level and get yourself a rack-mounted multi-effects unit? After all, this is something professional musicians have been doing for their entire lives, so it must be a good thing, right?

With this in mind, we decided to look more into one of the discontinued pieces by the legendary TC Electronic.

Generally speaking, it’s a unit that’s often used by instrumentalists, even for live shows. We’ve seen some of the biggest names in the world of the guitar using it, including Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Steve Vai, Alex Lifeson, and even Dream Theater’s John Petrucci.

TC 1210

This unit is featured on our John Petrucci Rig Rundown here

Without further ado, here’s some exciting info about TC 1210 Spatial Expander & Stereo Chorus + Flanger.

Features

First off, the TC 1210 is a rack-mounted product featuring a few onboard different effects. It is based on the company’s famous SCF Stereo Chorus/Flanger pedal but with a bit more features.

The whole idea behind the TC 1210 was to have a suitable effect for creating a solid spatial stereo image of one’s tone. In addition, there are some other effects that we will discuss here.

It is an entirely analog unit relying on the old bucket brigade device technology that people are still crazy about these days. There are seven different presets and effects to choose from: spatial expander, two choruses, two flangers, a doubler, and a stereo delay.

The 1210’s greatest superpower comes with its stereo features. Each of the effects can be used either in stereo or mono modes. In addition to this, you’re able to use two separate inputs as two independent channels and process them individually.

There are plenty of controls on there for separating these channels, using the same or different effects on them, and even using each of the dedicated outputs individually or as one whole audio image. All of the features and controls just wouldn’t fit into one brief review.

Inputs and outputs are located on the rear panel. There are two inputs and outputs for regular 1/4-inch jacks and additional XLR inputs and outputs.

Aside from that, there’s an input for bypass footswitch control and the “speed” footswitch jack that lets you choose from five different effect speed modes. There is also a “direct mute” switch that completely mutes the signal coming out of the unit.

Overall, 1210 provides a surprising amount of controls for such an old piece. The combinations are almost endless, and they’re all designed to provide you with some really spacious choruses, flangers, delays, doublers, and expanders.

Design

Although not many will go to the lengths of looking into your rig, we could say that the TC 1210 seems pretty neat. Nothing too fancy, but it clearly shows somewhat of a vintage-ish ’80s and ’90s feel.

The writing on it is a bit too small, but when you get used to setting it up, you won’t have any trouble knowing where each control is. At the end of the day, not many will care about the looks of your rack pieces so there’s nothing to worry about here, really.

Performance

Just like its name would suggest, there is a lot of “spaciousness” feel to all the effects on it. But the TC 1210 is best known for its 3D stereo chorus.

Most of the guitar players who have used it over the years were able to create some really spacious feeling stereo tones through it. At some points, it could feel as if there are actually two instruments playing.

But whatever is the effect that you want to use on it, it provides a very 3D feel to it. In some cases, even when the sound coming from the left speaker is louder, you’ll get the impression that the tone is coming from the right speaker.

The illusion is created by delaying the signal to the left output. It is just one of the examples of how complex and detailed this piece actually is.

The analog feel is definitely noticeable with TC 1210 and it won’t sound like any of the standard sterile digital products you can find today. However, the whole operation is a bit outdated.

These days, you can get some pretty convincing (at least in our opinion) digital replicas of analog effects that would be a lot more easier to set up.

1210 will also provide stable operation for any kind of setup, whether you want to use it in front of an amp, FX loop, or in the standard rack configuration.

You can also send the signal to two amps or to separate it and go into an amp and a mixer. The options are endless, but it would take some time getting used to TC 1210.

Conclusion

One thing you need to know is that these are not exactly easy to find. TC 1210 has been really popular throughout the 1990s and these days you can find a used one for well over $1,000.

It’s an entirely professional vintage analog device that will provide some really “spacious” tones.

The TC 1210 is succeeded by some of the modern pieces, all of which are based on this old rack unit. For instance, there’s the TC 1210-DT Desktop Controller, which has a similar spatial expander effect on it.

But to conclude this review, this multi-effects piece is something those vintage seekers are crazy about these days. Aside from the guitar, it can be used for processing vocals or any miked-up acoustic instruments.

But if you’re a beginner and an average enthusiast, you’ll probably want to skip this one and go with something a little more simple and practical.


Featured Video

MXR M134 Stereo Chorus Pedal Review

mxr_m134
 

Ever since effects pedals became a thing, chorus pedals became one of the most practical and most used tools in the industry. Not everyone has the luxury of having several guitar players standing by to give their tone some girth. And while most genres of music will deal with a single guitar player just fine, adding a bit of range to your tone can’t really hurt. On the contrary, using a chorus pedal can turn your tone upside down within minutes.

These days almost every self-respecting guitar player will have a chorus pedal of some sorts on their pedalboard. One of the better models which has really stood out due to its uncompromising performance is the MXR M134 Stereo Chorus.

mxr-m134-stereo-chorus-review

This pedal brings this effect in a simple, yet powerful package. Today we are going to take a closer look and see what is it that makes MXR M134 Stereo Chorus so popular.

MXR M134 Stereo Chorus Review

Until somewhat recently, MXR has been an independent brand with a long history and a track record full of legendary effects pedals. Ever since Dunlop took charge of MXR’s operations, we’ve seen a very significant increase in quality and overall performance of MXR pedals. MXR M134 is just one of the models which perfectly illustrates just how true this statement really is.

Features

What you see here is a rather chunky effects pedal. Its design is rather reminiscent of the ’70s, which has been something MXR excelled at since ever. The pedal comes in an old school fully metal, double wide enclosure which is painted yellow. In terms of graphic design on the top panel, MXR delivered a very simplistic layout. Again, nothing all that strange considering the decades-long history of this brand.

Feature Pick

Mxr M134 Stereo Chorus

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The top panel is also where you will find all of your controls. Unlike a lot of other chorus pedals on the market, MXR M134 isn’t cluttered with useless and counter-intuitive controls. Instead, you get a very clean layout which you can easily use under normal conditions, or on stage. Knob cluster is actually divided into two separate clusters. On the right, you will find all of the controls necessary to shape nature of the chorus effect. On top of that, you also get a two-band EQ on the other end of the control section.  If you take a look at the input-output cluster on the MXR M134, you’ll see both mono and stereo outputs. That’s right, you can hook this bad boy up to two different amps for even richer tone.

Underneath the knobs, there is a single foot switch accompanied by a very bright red LED light. MXR switches used to be a part of controversy several years ago. Thankfully for us, those issues have been resolved so far and MXR is back in business. The exact switch on this pedal is a heavy duty model designed to take and withstand some serious abuse.

Performance

One of the things that really make MXR M134 Chorus so attractive is how much performance you can get without too much effort. In other words, how well it responds to input. For one, the effect you get out of the box is worthy of praise in all aspects. The controls are pretty rudimentary, which is something a number of guitar players probably won’t like. However, this thing was not made for clinical use where high levels of fidelity are a must. On the contrary, this is a working man’s chorus pedal which will get you what you need, without making you spend 20 minutes dialing in the tone.

Here’s a demo of the pedal courtesy of ProGuitarShopDemos.

For the most part, M134 is transparent. Chorus effect it offers comes across as organic, and is very responsive to your adjustments. This type of nature allows you to touch it up in the middle of a performance, if necessary. Since it has its own two-band EQ, you can expect to get a bit more than just a chorus out of this pedal. Placing this bad boy somewhere in the middle of your signal chain will allow you to do one more layer of tone shaping before the signal hits the amp. While an EQ is not essential for a good chorus, it is a neat addition.

Hooking the MXR M134 in stereo mode offers some pretty interesting results. The pedal translates well to two different cabs, and definitely brings out that saturation once you kick things off. With that said, most people will be using it in mono configuration. Compared to some other chorus pedals on the market, MXR M134 is holding its ground with a lot of success.

If you are someone who’s looking for proven quality at a reasonable price, you should definitely consider the MXR M134. After all, some of the most skilled guitar players of today are using this exact pedal. If you’re wondering who that might be, we’ll give you John Petrucci as one of the heavy hitters. Those familiar with Dream Theater and Petrucci’s playing style will know that he has pretty high standards when it comes to his gear. Him owning and actively using the M134 is all the proof you need that this pedal delivers.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what kind of pedal you’re looking for. MXR M134 can be your best friend, or a complete disappointment depending on your personal requirements. It’s not one of those high end, high tech pedals which will let you change just about every single variable. It was never designed for that type of use. Instead, MXR M134 offers the raw chorus effect which is full and organic.

mxr-m134-stereo-chorus-273109

Pair this thing with a decent single coil guitar, and you are in business. The sheer range, flexibility, and versatility of this pedal is bound to impress even the most talented, experienced guitar players out there. MXR M134 is something you should definitely add to your shortlist of choruses.

Which Chorus Pedal Does Yngwie Malmsteen Use?

Boss CE-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble review
 

If you are a fan of Yngwie Malmsteen, you’re probably familiar with just how pedantic he is when it comes to his guitar tone. In all honesty, his skill is definitely on a whole different level, however it’s his approach to guitar tone which also elevates him to a category above most guitar players out there. Malmsteen is not the only one who has a very defined taste in terms of tone, but he absolutely has one of the most intriguing approaches to the gear he uses.

yngwie-malmsteen

Since he is mostly a solo artist, a chorus pedal is a type of effect which can boost his tone where necessary. Out of all of the chorus pedals out there, including some pretty outlandish boutique models, Malmsteen turned to Boss for a solution. To be more precise, Malmsteen chose the Boss CE-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble as his main pedal of this type. While this came as a surprise to many, the answer why is quite simple. Today we are going to answer that question and give you an honest review of this pedal. Who knows, it might be exactly what you were looking for all along.

Boss CE-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble

Feature Pick

Boss Ce-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble

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We have already talked about how determined and meticulous Malmsteen is when it comes to dialing in that perfect tone. That being said, the tools he uses to accomplish this task aren’t necessarily complex. On the contrary, Malmsteen is known for his use of rather average effects pedals both on stage and in the recording studio. Boss CE-5 is no exception. This pedal delivers the quality that is good enough for Malmsteen, all while keeping things relatively simple.

Features

No matter which Boss product you pick up, there’s always going to be one thing you can count on. Quality and reliability. One simple glance at the Boss CE-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble will tell you this pedal is packaged in the very same bulletproof Boss enclosure. We are talking about a body which can take a lot of abuse, and a foot switch that just keeps working. Beyond these standard features, CE-5 comes with a very similar layout of controls, only this time they are assigned chorus-specific functions.

Starting from left to right, we see the Effect Level knob. This control is pretty self explanatory, and regulates the how much chorus your signal is going to contain at any given moment. Next is Rate, followed by Depth and finally Filter knob. That last control comes in form of dual potentiometer design. The inner knob is going to be your high cut filter while the outside one is the low cut filter. You have probably noticed the word Stereo in the name of this pedal. If you look at the left side panel of the enclosure, you will see two outputs labeled as A and B. As expected, in order to use stereo mode on Boss CE-5, all you have to do is feed each output to a different amp. In terms of features, that is pretty much it. This is a very simple pedal above anything else, which is partially why it’s so attractive even to people like Yngwie Malmsteen.

Performance

In use, Boss CE-5 is every bit as solid. Since it’s a relatively simple design, taking grasp of all of its controls will take you a couple of hour at the most. One of the best things about the CE-5 is the fact that it allows you to create anything fro ma very subtle chorus effect, to one that is very apparent. It all comes down to how you dial in the filters and what type of music you are playing at the moment. In our own opinion, once you crank out the effect level above the 12 o’clock position, the pedal loses a lot of its natural and organic vibe. On one hand, some might consider this to be a drawback, but keep in mind that different music styles benefit from different chorus settings. Even if it sounds a bit artificial once you start nearing its maximum potential, it is still pretty useful.

What we like the most is the no-nonsense approach CE-5 has when it comes to creating a great chorus effect. There’s no special bells or whistles, but you do get a very refined range of controls which are more than enough to get a great chorus tone going. Since chorus is probably even more popular on acoustic guitars than it is on electrics, we are happy to say that Boss CE-5 works on both platforms with nearly the same quality. On top of all that, Boss has once again employed their reasonable pricing policy, meaning that CE-5 is not exclusive to those with a deep pocket.

Boss CE-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble

Conclusion

Boss CE-5 is by far one of the best chorus effects on the market at the moment. The fact that Yngwie Malmsteen is a proud owner of one should be all the proof you need of how well CE-5 performs. It’s well built, solid in terms of tone, and rather affordable. Combine all of these traits and you have one memorable effects pedal. With that said, everyone has their own taste. Some people like the vibe CE-5 is capable of producing, while others won’t be too overwhelmed by it. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what type of pedal you’re after.