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

digitech-whammy-pedal-re-issue-with-midi-control

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

mxr-m134-stereo-chorus-273109

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

ISP Technologies Decimator II Noise Reduction Pedal Review

ISP Technologies Decimator II Noise Reduction Pedal review

Most Alice In Chains fans are probably aware of just how clean their tone is, even for a grunge band. This genre of musing requires a certain dose of dirt and chaos, but that doesn’t mean you have to be sloppy. One person who knows exactly how to dial in some organized chaos is Jerry Cantrell with his wide selection of guitar effects. One of the more interesting pedals you will find on that pedalboard is the ISF Decimator.

ISP Technologies Decimator II Noise Reduction Pedal review

What makes the Decimator so awesome is the fact that it doesn’t add anything to the tone of the guitar. Quite on the contrary, it takes something away. Noise gate pedals are a known tool in many guitar player’s toolboxes. However, to call the Decimator a noise gate would be doing it a major disservice. There is a reason why so many popular guitar players, including Cantrell, have one of these in their box of goodies. Let’s take a closer look and see what ISF Decimator is all about.

ISF Decimator Review

There are many reasons why noise gate pedals were invented in the first place, and why they are so widely used today. The most obvious reason can be observed by just plugging in your guitar, unleashing full volume and just letting go of everything. That background noise made by the pickups is something every guitar player battles with. Some pickups are worse than others in this regard, which only makes the need for a solution that much more necessary. A noise gate pedal senses when the volume in the signal drops and effectively mutes the tone when that point is reached. However, ISF Decimator takes that process to a whole new level, increasing the overall practical value of this type of pedal.

decimator isf

Features

One quick glance at the Decimator might leave many wondering what all the fuss is about. ISF used what appears to be that standard Boss design, which isn’t even painted but just treated with some sort of clear coat. With that said, using a popular design such as this one has its benefits. For one, the pedal is indestructible. You can unleash all kinds of abuse and it will still get you to the end of the show. The control panel is simple, to say the least. All you get is one knob, which is used to set the threshold.

In other words, you are setting the level of volume at which the noise gate kicks in. That pretty much sounds just like any other noise gate pedal, right? Sure, but that is not the end of the story. ISF’s Decimator utilizes a patented technology that keeps the pedal working even when you are still playing. In that case, it doesn’t kill off your signal nor does it interfere with the volume. The only thing it does is remove a very fine layer of noise that is pushing through with along with the tone.

ISP Technologies Decimator II Noise Reduction Pedal Review

Performance

There are two very important aspects when it comes to the performance of a noise gate pedal. First has to do with its core function, while the other has a much more basic impact. Let’s start with the latter. If there is anything that can become really annoying during a gig, it’s hearing that click noise when you engage or disengage an effects pedal. ISF’s Decimator has zero issues of that nature. The pedal is silent as they come, which definitely goes along with its core purpose – to provide silence. When put to use, Decimator is just pure awesome packed into a stompbox.

What this noise suppressor does that most others are not capable of, is filter out every imaginable impurity out of your signal. Take for an example a Strat, or similar single coil guitar. These are inherently noisy due to the design of single coil pickups. Forcing three singles to be silent is a tall order, even for the Decimator. However, it kills off so much of that interference that you are pretty much left with the core, unaffected tone. It feels almost surreal. Sustain is not negatively affected, as it is the case with a variety of noise gates out there. A single threshold knob doesn’t look like much, but it is all you need essentially.

The trick with using the Decimator is to fine tune that balance. You need to carefully find the threshold level that works for your rig. The problem with doing so is that you won’t really know whether you have selected the right value right away. You will simply need to test everything out thoroughly, and that takes time. However, once you do reach that sweet spot, you won’t be able to recognize your own guitar. ISF recommends that you link the Decimator at the very end of your signal chain, however, some experimentation is recommended. Every chain is different, so you might just find a setting that works better for your specific case.

Check price of the ISP Decimator on Amazon now

Conclusion

Using a noise gate pedal is something most experienced guitar players turn to. It becomes important once you really start to get into the subtleties of guitar tone. When every single detail matters, getting rid of all that background noise is something worth investing in. ISF Decimator has offered a new and rather intriguing solution to this problem. They have managed to design a pedal that is simpler than almost anything on the market while being more capable as well.

While it is definitely not the cheapest thing out there, its price is worth it. If you are the type of guitar player who has invested heavily both in your guitar, pedals, and amplifiers, skipping out on a noise gate such as this one is doing yourself a disservice. Especially considering that more pedals equals more noise. Every packed signal chains need a noise gate to keep everything in check and prevent the pedals to completely ruin the integrity of the signal. If Jerry Cantrell won’t go anywhere without one, you can only imagine what kind of effect this pedal can have on heavier genres of music.

Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor Pedal Review

 

When you mention guitar effects pedals, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is some sort of distortion, overdrive or something similar. Something that is clearly heard if used, and makes a large impact on the tone of the guitar. With that said, there is a whole line of pedals which are designed not to be heard at all. When they are used as intended, you won’t even hear them being there. Nothing short of going onto the stage and looking at the pedalboard itself will tell some of these pedals are used.

One type of effect that pretty much defines this odd category of pedals are noise suppressors. When you reach the level of skill and taste where every single bit of your tone’s character matters, noise suppressors become a must have item. Their only job is to delete certain sounds from your tone, thus increasing the clarity and quality of said tone. One that has proven to be great, at least good enough for Yngwie Malmsteen, is Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor. Today we are going to introduce you to this awesome little tool, and show you what it has to offer.

Feature Pick

Boss Ns-2 Noise Suppressor Pedal

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Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor Review

Have you ever noticed that as soon as you stop playing, your guitar goes haywire? All of that feedback is suddenly amplified and you have to constantly keep your hand over the pickups. Even so, the buzzing sound from your amp is just piercing the mix. Some genres of music are more tolerant of this noise, but some definitely aren’t. When finesse matters and every detail of your performance requires utmost sonic clarity, having your pickups buzzing is the last thing you need.

Noise suppressors eliminate this effect and do so much more. Depending on the type and complexity of the pedal, you can achieve all kinds of results in terms of noise reduction. Boss NS-2 belongs to the more basic category, but even so, its performance is on the level that you would want to have at your disposal.

Features

One of the best things about Boss pedals is the fact that they all share the same, recognizable enclosure. It is almost like opening a Christmas gift – you never know what is inside by just looking at the box. Another benefit of this approach is the fact that we already know just what kind of abuse this pedal can take before it even hits the shelves. Boss stompboxes have been in use for so long that their reliability is no longer put into question.

The design of this particular model is a bit different from the rest. Boss NS-2 comes with three knobs and that classic stomp switch. Instead of offering just an input and an output, you get a bit more. Due to its nature, Boss has found it necessary to include an effects loop of sorts that would allow you to limit the noise suppression effect to whatever selection of pedals you want. This is mostly because certain pedals such as delays and other temporal effects, don’t usually play nice with noise suppressors.

With your noisiest pedals in the loop, these being distortions and similar, you will want to link the remainder of your gear after the NS-2. Whatever is in the loop will be affected by the available controls. You have a threshold knob, which defines when noise suppression kicks in. Next is the decay knob. This control determines how long it takes for noise suppression to fade out and allow the unwanted noise to creep back into the signal. Last but not least, we have the mode select knob. There are two options available here – reduction and mute. The reduction is the default mode where noise suppressor is allowed to work. Mute is basically the bypass feature that kills the noise suppressor and everything that is in its integrated loop.

One interesting thing about the NS-2 is the fact that it can power other pedals in your chain. Since it requires little to no power to work, you can siphon some of that power and supply it to other pedals in your chain. While this is not really an important feature, it is a cool one nonetheless.

NS2 Noise Suppressor

Performance

The performance of noise gates or noise suppressor pedals is measured by their accuracy and consistency. Being a relatively basic and affordable model, Boss NS-2 offers a pretty decent balance of these two attributes. Is it the best noise suppressor on the market? Nope, not really. However, it is one of the easiest to use. Once you plug everything in, you will have to find the right threshold. This value is going to depend on the guitar you are using since the pedal relies on the input signal for activation, and the selection of pedals in the integrated loop.

Overall, it is not that hard ti dial in a comfortable threshold level that is easily activated and still suppresses all the unwanted noise from your signal chain. One of the biggest issues with noise gates is their tendency to suck out the tone from the pedals they are suppressing. Boss NS-2 is pretty decent in this regard, limiting the unwanted effects to the bare minimum. Seeing how Yngwie Malmsteen prefers the NS-2 over much better alternatives out there, this pedal definitely has a lot of potential to offer.

Here’s a video review of the Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor Pedal by SweetwaterSound that will give you an up close and personal look at the pedal and its abilities.

Conclusion

Noise gate or noise suppression pedals are among the last pieces of equipment guitarists tend to acquire. Their use becomes necessary only when you have mastered the art of tone shaping to a point where even the smallest details matter. With that said, figuring how to use one with your setup early on can make things much easier for you down the road. When you include it in your signal chain and find the setting that works for you, chances are you will wonder how you ever managed to play without one. Friendly to beginners and great for professionals, Boss NS-2 is definitely a noise gate worth your time.