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

Boss OC-3 Super Octave Pedal Review

Boss OC-3 Dual Super Octave Pedal review
 

Pearl Jam is one of the original four bands that have turned grunge from a small niche genre into mainstream. None of that would have been possible without Eddie’s ingenuity, but also McCready’s out of the box thinking. His tone has shaped the image of Pearl Jam, so today we are going to check out one of the tools he used to do so.

Boss OC-3 octave pedal is one of the simplest and most effective stompboxes of its kind. Mike loved it and used to with a lot of success. Because of that, we have decided to do a brief review of the pedal and show you what kind of benefits it could bring to your tone. Let’s get started.

Boss OC-3 Octave Pedal Review

Boss OC-3 Dual Super Octave Pedal review

Octave pedals belong to a group of effects that aren’t used as much as say distortions or overdrives, but have a lot of potential. Just by using an octave pedal, you can completely alter the sound of a specific guitar riff. With that said, Boss was one of the first brands to offer a pedal of this type that was effective and attainable at the same time. The predecessor to OC-3, the OC-2, was a legendary model, however OC-3 brings some changes that give this platform even more character.

Design

If there’s one thing Boss is known for aside from their quality, it’s their pedal bodies. A large majority of Boss pedals come in a simple but robust chassis that hasn’t changed much over the years. Same goes for Boss OC-3. The pedal features a dark bronze color, which is the only way you can tell what you’re looking at from a distance. As always, Boss has utilized a simple approach to designing the user interface, making it extremely easy to setup and dial in the pedal to your liking.

Features

In terms of features, it is worth noting that Boss OC-3 is an octave pedal that can work with both electric guitars and electric bass guitars. There are separate inputs on the right side of the pedal, which are clearly labeled. Although this might not sound like much, finding a good effects pedal that works well with a bass guitar is not as easy as it seems. We have to give it to Boss for adding another level of versatility. The left side of the pedal is where your outputs are. You have a mono output and direct output.

Looking at the controls, there are a couple of interesting features that stand out. Going from left to right, we see a level knob and Oct 1 level knob. What comes next is where the real fun starts. On the far right side of the pedal you there is a mode select knob with three values. Those who loved the OC-2 will be pleased to know that there is an OC-2 mode which brings that same old performance, but there’s more. Boss has added a true poly octave mode on top of the standard one. Then, we have the Drive mode. Drive mode actually allows you to add some overdrive to the selected octaves, which is more than neat.

oc3 super octave

Performance

Performance is what makes this whole package worth it. In standard octave mode, you are looking at one of the best tracking octave pedals out there. It is simple, reliable and just works. Many had their doubts regarding the new modes Boss has chosen to implement. After all, Boss OC-2 was known for its rugged simplicity and compact size. None of that has really changed. Instead, those new modes only added a variety of flavors to the pre-existing platform. Not only that, but new modes also extended the range of this pedal. For example, if you wanted to play chords while using the original OC-2, chances are that the result wouldn’t be great at all. The new poly octave mode allows you to do exactly that. Chords sound fuller and more defined.

The pedal has shown to work great with bass guitars as well. You won’t run into issues with tracking or getting a noisy tone. On top of that, the drive mode really adds a lot of value when used with a bass guitar. What is most impressive is how Boss has managed to offer all of that in the very same compact format, at a price range that is more than affordable all things considered. Are there more powerful octave pedals out there? Sure, but expect to lay down a fairly big chunk of cash for one of those. Boss OC-3 represents an attainable solution that isn’t a compromise, but rather a really capable platform and a true force multiplier. For that reason alone, we have to say that OC-3 is a worthy successor to the now famous Boss OC-2. As far as simple octave pedals go, this is about as good as it gets right now.

Here’s a video demo showing how to get the best from your OC-3 Super Octave.

Conclusion

Octave pedals are a somewhat niche category of guitar effects. Not many people use them when compared to some other types of effects, but those who do know exactly how much of a value a good octave can bring. Boss OC-3 is one of the best, plain and simple. It offers a very reliable octave effect that is now more versatile than ever before, at a price that is hard to argue. Mike McCready recognized this back in the day with Boss OC-2, and probably loves the OC-3.

If you are trying to find a good octave pedal for your setup and you are on a budget, chances are that Boss OC-3 is your best bet. Same goes for those looking to replicate McCready’s tone. It is right in that sweet spot where you aren’t risking performance or reliability, but you’re not paying a boutique-type price for a single effect. Even though Boss has had some hit or miss attempts before, OC-3 is definitely a solid choice.

Feature Pick

Boss Electronic Keyboard Pedal Or Footswitch Oc3

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DigiTech Whammy 5 Review

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

The world of effects pedals developed at varying speeds of progression and technological advancement. There were periods of exponential growth followed by periods of stagnation. With that in mind, it’s not so surprising to have large quakes in the industry from time to time.

One of the best instances of a single pedal creating a lot of ruckus was when Digitech took a gamble and shocked the community with their WH-1 Whammy pedal. Funny enough, the reactions to this new gadget were rather bleak. Purists were all up in arms about it, claiming that it’s a gimmick that won’t take hold, and that DigiTech took a wrong gamble.

Feature Pick

Digitech Whammy Pedal Re-Issue With Midi Control

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However, what actually followed proved that these voices of judgment were completely out of touch with reality. DigiTech Whammy went on to become one of the most iconic guitar effects pedals ever made, being used by hundreds of famous guitar players on award winning albums. Today we are going to introduce you to this awesome pedal, and show you what the fifth generation of DigiTech WH-1 Whammy has to offer. With that said, let’s get right down to it.

DigiTech Original Whammy – A Bit Of History

Whenever a product appears, despite what industry it belongs to, that claims it’s the jack of all trades, people will be skeptical. That is completely normal and expected. However, the type of treatment WH-1 was subjected to was rather uncalled for. At least until everyone realized just how much potential this pedal offered to the users. After that brief moment of clarity, the popularity of WH-1 skyrocketed to legendary heights. That is pretty much where it is today, even though it’s rather old by now.

Before we dive into its full features, check out this video demo by Evert Zeevalkink of the Digitech Whammy V (the one we are looking at today) showing off a little bit of what this pedal can do.

Features Of The Digitech Whammy 5

Once you first unpack this bad boy, you will notice what appears to be an expression pedal in a wider body with lots of LEDs on the right side. Understanding what those are for turns this pedal from a confusing piece of gear to a very intuitive effects pedal. So, what is it that Whammy brought that was so impressive in the first place? Well, let’s just say it was among the first and most complex pitch shifter pedals you could get at the time. There are three modes of operation, each with a variety of its own options.

whammyrichochet

To start things off, let’s look at the Whammy mode. This is basically your octave effect part of the pedal. You can choose between six different options. You have 2 octaves up, 1 octave up, both of those options only in the other direction of pitch shift, and then there are dive bombs along with drop tunes. This mode alone is what a good number of guitar players are buying this pedal for. On to the next awesome feature.

Bend Modes

Harmony bend modes are where the real power of the Whammy is at. There are so many different options to choose from, including 2nd up/3rd up, 4th up/5th up and so on. The combinations are numerous and well executed. Then we have the Detune mode that offers two different values of detune. You can have a slightly detuned signal that is layered on top of your guitar’s source signal, or a more detuned one.

One day with this pedal will tell you all you need to know about how valuable and practical of a tool it really is. Once you figure out how to use it efficiently, you will wonder how you ever managed without it. DigiTech Whammy WH-1 doesn’t discriminate based on the genre of music, nor does it require some special type of use. It’s a true tool of a modern guitar player.

Here’s Tom Morello talking about the DigitTech Whammy and how it adds to his arsenal.

Performance

The model of Whammy we are reviewing today is the fifth generation of this legendary pedal. Most people will tell you that the first one was the best one, however DigiTech managed to bring the fifth iteration very closely to their initial design. In terms of performance, the pedal is just a beast. One of the main issues with pitch shifting pedals is their ability to track. This becomes even more obvious once you start shredding some complex shapes on your guitar. Saying that Whammy WH-1 has no problems with this phenomenon would be a straight lie, but its limits are very well defined.

Check out this full demo of the Whammy 5 by Youtuber Shnobel.

Once you hit polyphonic features of the pedal, things will work out rather well until you start increasing the tempo. That’s when the pedal might have trouble keeping up with you. However, a slight amount of caution takes care of that issue completely. When used in its harmonic setting, DigiTech WH-1 Whammy is just a beast that eats up everything and anything you have to throw at it. Once really good addition to this new model is true bypass. Now you can exclude this pedal out of your signal chain without having to worry if it’s going to change your tone in any way.

Conclusion

What started as a high-risk gamble, turned out to be one of the best business decisions DigiTech has ever made. The amount of value and versatility Whammy brings to any guitar setup is hard to measure. This is partially why some of the most legendary albums in circulations were recorded with Whammy on the list of used gear. One of the guitarists who really leaned towards this guitar is Tom Morello, and we all know what he could do with it. Adding the DigiTech Whammy to your pedalboard is sure to introduce at least few completely new dimensions of sound.

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The only thing you need to worry about if you want a completely trouble-free experience is that you don’t push the pedal past its limits. The price is a bit high, but it perfectly reflects the value you are getting out of this thing. Actually, it’s might even be considered a true bargain at this point in time. If you are on the fence about this pedal, we definitely suggest that you at least try one out. It’s one of those things where you have to see it for yourself in order to appreciate its value.