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

Our Favorite Albums That Use Proco RAT Distortion Pedals

 

It’s no surprise why many a musician, famous and not, have gotten themselves a ProCo RAT to use how they like.  It’s noisy, but in just the right way.

RAT Distortion History

The RAT story begins in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, at the Pro Co Sound Factory.

As RAT has always strove to be the “Sound of the Underground”, it seems only fitting that they found their beginnings in a basement, with actual rats, developing the prototype for what would become the first RAT pedal, the Bud Box Rat, from 1978.

There were only 12 of these pedals made, prototype included, and they were all hand made, drilled, and finished with a silk screen logo.

The first actual “Rat” came out in 1979 and was the first to be mass produced, achieving the classic look and sound of the pedal we (or some of us) know and love.

From there, the RAT chronology goes a little something like this.

  • The Rat (ver. 2) 1981-83
  • Small Box RAT 1984-88
  • R2DU 1984-88
  • RAT 2 1988-present
  • Turbo RAT 1989-present
  • Vintage RAT 1991-2005
  • Brat 1997-2001
  • Deucetone RAT 2002-present
  • You Dirty RAT 2004-present

There are alternatives to the RAT pedal such as the VFE Alpha Dog, Dr Scientist Elements, Emma Reezafratzitz, and others.  But most RAT fans I think will agree that you can’t quite get the same effect as the real deal, which is why RAT users stay RAT users. 

They might buy other pedals, but generally they don’t take the RAT away.  

Not only have RAT pedals been used by just about everyone trying to get some decent distortion in their sound, but there’s a whole bunch of musicians you definitely would know that love the RAT’s distorted sounds to the point where they have featured the pedal in some of their biggest songs.

We wanted to share with you some classic albums that changed our lives personally, that have a healthy dose of the RAT distortion sound.

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Pro Co Deucetone Rat

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Pro Co Turbo Rat Distortion Pedal

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Proco Rat2 Overdrive Distortion Pedal W/ Jhs Pack Rat Mod+ 9V Power Jack

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Some of these albums you may know, some you may not, but we suggest you to go check these albums if you somehow missed ’em.

Kill ‘Em All by Metallica

When people think RAT distortion, they tend to think of that classic dirty sound, but then from there it becomes somewhat confusing as to what genres of music actually fully embrace the RAT. 

The reason we say that is because in the gear forums, there are arguments on whether or not RAT pedals are good for metal or not?  Some say no, some say hell yeah.

The thing is, one of the metal gods themselves, Metallica, was big on RAT pedals back in the day, and featured them on their debut album – Kill ‘Em All.  Now, you might argue that Metallica wasn’t even “metal” at the time, but instead “thrash”. 

But, the term is actually “thrash metal”, so it’s a type of metal music.  No, it’s not not death metal, but it still falls under the metal banner, and paving the way for many bands to follow.

With Kill ‘Em All, we will say that there is even some debate about the presence of RAT distortion in the mix.  People attribute their sound back then to other parts of the early Metallica rig.

It does makes sense that it is slightly vague, because Metallica weren’t famous yet and so no one was keeping track of their rig by taking press pics or fan pics or whatever people do now to try to figure out what pedals a band uses.  

However, we believe that RATs are in there, and once you tune into the sound, there seems to be no denying it.  Here’s a video that makes a good argument that Metallica was beefing up their sound with some RATs, particularly Kirk.  Watch this and see what you think.

If you are still on the fence about whether Kill ‘Em All was using RATs, it’s going to be hard to convince you 100% at this point, short of a direct quote from the band or a picture of their pedalboard (which we can’t find – goddammit). 

Then, we feel, the question becomes – Can you use a RAT to get the Kill ‘Em All sound (since we can’t travel back in time to take pics of their gear back in ’83), and the answer to that we think is HELL YEAH YOU CAN.

Watch this video which seeks to mimic Search and Destroy’s tones and see if you think that the tones match.  We think you’ll agree, it’s pretty damn close.

Now, for the album in question.  Here’s Kill ‘Em All.  Listen and enjoy, and if you hear a RAT in the mix, let us know in the comments.


Monster by R.E.M.

rem-monster-album-rat-distortion

R.E.M.?  What are they doing here? 

R.E.M. isn’t necessarily the first band you think of when you think of “dirty” or “heavy”, since they are generally considered to be more of a jangle-pop band by reviewers trying to describe their sound.  It’s typically full of arpeggiated guitar licks and they never did release a metal album of any sort, did they?

But, to be fair, R.E.M. did have a period back in the ’90’s where guitarist Peter Buck got into using that unmistakeable RAT distortion sound for their Monster album, especially live on tour that year in 1995. 

The goal, at this time, was to hit people with something that they maybe didn’t see coming – a real ROCK album, followed by a real stadium rock tour.

Tracks such as “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, as well as severals others from this album, feature RAT distortion.

By the time Monster arrived in ‘94, R.E.M. had long since left behind being maybe the best underground band to come out of Athens, Georgia besides the B-52’s.  They were, by the mid-90’s, well known for albums like Green, Out Of Time, and Automatic For The People. 

For the most part, R.E.M. was almost known as a folk band because they used a lot of instruments like mandolin and acoustic-y sounds which gave them more of a lighter touch on their mid-career albums.

On Monster, Peter Buck finally let loose with some decidedly heavier riffage, influenced most likely by the “Seattle Sound” that had swept across the nation a few years prior. 

Although tremelo was also a big part of the Monster album, the RAT pedal was in there just as much as the tremelo, providing some spicy mids. 

R.E.M. eventually did return to their more subdued side before calling it a day in 2011, but for a while there, they were rockin’ the RAT and getting some fat sounds.


Blur by Blur

blur-self-titled-graham-coxon-rat-distortion-pedal

Blur is a band that has been around since the early 90’s, and they started their career as a Brit-pop band, writing slightly woozy and somewhat psychedelic songs like “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way”.  In other words, songs that had nothing to do with RAT distortion.

Once they hit their second and third albums, the band was getting huge in the UK, and basically writing some of the UK’s most classic albums with Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife.  Still, they were not known to get “heavy” really…ever.

That said, Graham Coxon, the band’s wizard guitarist, is a master of tones and effects.  As the band grew, so did his pedalboard.  It was just a matter of time before Blur decided to do what R.E.M. did at the mid-life point of their career – get kinda pissed off, and go heavy.

In 1997, the band was fed up with being “brit-pop” and hit the public with their most distorted song to date – Song 2.  You know, the “Whoo hoo!” song.

Well, this song was brought to you by RAT – specifically, not one but TWO Proco Turbo RATs to get that beefy sound, and on the bass yet, and maybe the guitar too.  It’s just one giant wall once the song really kicks in.

But we wouldn’t put this album, actually called Blur, on this list if the RAT was just used on Song 2.

If you’ve actually listened to this album, you would know that there are several really distorted, dirty songs that really boost up the grunge a whole lot. 

The album goes in several different directions at once, and this is because Graham, the guitar player, is having a field day with some new sounds for the band. 

The RAT was just one sound he incorporated into this mish-mash of a weird-ass album, but he managed to succeed in creating what is definitely the heaviest album of Blur’s career.


Foo Fighters – Self-Titled Album

foo-fighters-first-album-rat-distortion

You may not remember this, but the Foo Fighters were once a quirky little punk pop rock band.  Their first album was released to no fanfare with an alien laser gun on the front, and even the singles from that time had UFO imagery all over them. 

This timeframe of the band as a wacky UFO-themed band only lasted about a year, with Dave Grohl kind of hiding behind the Foo Fighters name and the label, Roswell Records, which basically was Dave Grohl as president and that’s it.  Roswell Records was an imprint of RCA, so it wasn’t exactly an indie label.

dave-grohl-1995

Coming from the punk scene and Nirvana, and having worked with Butch Vig and Andy Wallace, it’s not surprising that the first Foo Fighters album was pretty grunge-y itself.  That is, full of big drums and distorted guitars. 

People gave Dave flack for “copying” Nirvana somewhat, but Dave’s response was basically “Are you kidding me?  What did you expect me to do?” (<- not an exact quote)

Here’s the band’s first appearance on Letterman back in 1995.

The cool thing about that first Foo’s album, for some fans, is that it was actually more of a punk rock album than anything.  Before Dave was in Nirvana, he was in Scream, which was a total punk rock thing, and never really rose above underground status.  

Dave really wanted things to sound dirty, and scream-y, and punky.. but also huge.  So he turned to RAT for a boost, like many 90’s alternative rock bands did at the time.  It was kind of either Big Muff, RAT, or both.

Anyway, that first album is a whole lot of RAT distortion, and you can check it out below with a lesser known track called Winnebago.


Radiohead – The Bends

radiohead-the-bends-on-vinyl

Jonny Greenwood isn’t so much a guitar player as he is a guitar scientist.  The sounds he can make with his instruments are definitely otherworldly, but Jonny has always had a way of approaching his sound that is like Matt Damon solving a huge equation on a 10 foot blackboard, in that it looks complicated to us, but to him it makes perfect sense. 

There’s a lot of things going on upstairs with that guy in terms of musical ideas, and it reflects in his playing.  Half of it is experimental noise and madness, but half of it is very calculated and under control.  Is this the sound of a man who’s in control?

So, yeah, the guy likes to fuck around.  That said, if you cast your mind back to 1993, Radiohead was just a band that was considered a one-hit wonder with their song “Creep” from their album Pablo Honey.  Some people loved the song, others hated it.  But, what defined Creep, was Jonny’s big guitar ca-chunks that caught people’s attention right away.

At the time they released The Bends in 1995, bands like Oasis, Blur, and The Stone Roses were the big British alternative bands of the day, and it didn’t seem like Radiohead were going to take over as the next kings of British alt rock.  And then they kind of did.

They released Just, the first song to feature the band with a video that was rather strange, and this catapulted the band to the next level.  Just who were these weirdos?

While the band has been more known to the general rock fan as the band that made OK Computer and won some awards, it was The Bends that raised their profile, and one thing that was fairly characteristic of that album was the distortion it used, and this included RAT distortion.

Being an album full of angst, it makes sense that Jonny, Thom, and Ed would put the RAT to use.  Their layered guitar approach was, on this album, now becoming a staple of their sound, and they always liked to sneak some distortion into the mix when they could.

The tracks on The Bends, such as the first single, My Iron Lung, may not have had the brutal punch it did without the RAT.  

Radiohead was a band that seemed to have developed a bit of a complex, like they as a band had been bullied by the press and some fans on the first album, for writing such a wussy song like Creep.  You know, it took them years to get over that. 

Creep, while it is a good song, is basically a song about being a loser, but not a cool loser like Beck’s “Loser”, but an actual “I’m waiting to get my ass kicked” loser.

By 1995, it was time for the band to fight back, and they used RAT pedals to help them do it.  


Sonic Youth – Dirty

Sonic Youth has been around since the early ’80’s and they are one of those bands that has a ton of music that they’ve released. 

At one point, they were dubbed as “no wave”, which is like a form of new wave but inverted to sound like the nightmare doppelganger of that movement.  In fact, Thurston might have been the one who came up with that label in the first place.  They were always kind of a heavy band.  They weren’t really about lighter fare.

With songs like Shaking Hell, Society Is A Hole, and Tom Violence, Sonic Youth established themselves as a band that were not on friendly terms with mainstream society.  Even though they did achieve some sort of mainstream success, they were basically a punk band to the end.

In ’88, they surprised a few people with Daydream Nation, an album that showed that they had some great super catchy riffs up their sleeve, and were willing to take their creativity to the next level.

It was then that their cult got very big, especially in Europe, where they toured a lot to some huge crowds who could relate to their “fuck absolutely everything” aesthetic that they managed to ooze through their amps and through the throngs of disenchanted Europeans of the ’80’s.

In ’92, Sonic Youth was back again with their album Dirty, which was…quite a dirty little album, featuring better production thanks to their label Geffen, more money thanks to Nirvana, but nastier and trashier songs that featured more noise, more guitar jams, and frankly more vision.  It was enough to drive your grandparents to drink.

Thurston Moore, being a real music nerd as he is, was always into pulling in as many influences as he could grab out of the air into the Sonic Youth palette, but one thing he always loved was a bludgeoning heavy dissonant riff. 

And yet, he also loved beauty, so him and Lee and Kim would come up with some nice, melodic passage, and then drop the hammer on it with some heavy distortion…

This is where the RAT pedal came into play heavily for Sonic Youth.  Thurston, being a RAT man for a long time by then, was way into the pedal by the time of Dirty and he really let it fly for that album. 

The RAT was the perfect pedal for Thurston to thrash out to, and when you turn it up loud, it really raises the hair on your arms and makes your little doggie pee on the carpet.  

The RAT isn’t the only pedal used on the album, because the band loves their effects pedals, but the RAT certainly it gets its day in the sun on Dirty.


So there ya have it – classic rock albums that sink their teeth into a RAT sandwich.  Visit the RAT website below. 

Visit http://ratdistortion.com/