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

Voodoo Lab Tremolo Guitar Pedal Review

Voodoo Lab Tremolo Review
 

Features

The first thing you notice about Voodoo Labs Tremolo is its robust chassis. They probably could have packed everything into a much smaller package, but when you are building an effect pedal such as this one, you can give yourself some leeway. And they sure did. Voodoo Labs Tremolo features a double wide body made of die cast metal, which is finished in a custom graphic. Just by looking at it you can determine that it is the type of pedal that can take whatever abuse you are capable of dishing out. It might look like a studio queen, but it is definitely not.

Feature Pick

Voodoo Lab Tremolo

Buy On Amazon

Top panel reveals a very intuitive and simple control cluster that consists of four large knobs. Voodoo Labs has used pretty robust components, as they generally do, so this comes as no surprise. Inputs and outputs are found at the back of the chassis, which makes it slightly harder to put it into a daisy chain format. Far from impossible, though. Going from left to right, you have the intensity knob, a slope knob, speed and finally volume. Underneath those, Voodoo Labs has included a very durable foot switch. It is undoubtedly one of the most solid components on the entire pedal, as you would expect it to be. Controls feel great during hands on use, offering linear feedback. Lastly, the pedal can either use battery power, or run off a DC adapter. We would just like to add that running a decent aftermarket power supply really benefits the overall experience.

jack white pedal board

Performance

When it comes to performance, Voodoo Labs Tremolo brings a decent amount of concrete performance, but also some nuances you don’t often see nor hear these days. Remember how we said that Voodoo Labs is flirting with boutique classification from time to time? Well, their tremolo is probably as deep into this category of effects pedals as it gets. The core of its performance revolves around delivering that vintage tube style tremolo. The same kind you could find in a an old valve amplifier from back in the day.

The result is a very organic trem effect that is just teeming with raw energy. Many will describe its sound as buttery smooth, and they would be correct. Voodoo Labs’ secret lies within using the very same lamp and photocell circuitry that you would find in a truly vintage amplifier. Best of all, that refined and unique performance is easily controlled with the knobs available. Each one, including volume and speed, have plenty of range that is often lacking in other tremolos of this kind. Dialing in a good tone might take some time, but it is well worth the effort. When it comes to making quick adjustments on stage, it is fairly easy. Although controls could be labeled as sensitive, it takes very little getting used to for anyone to know exactly when to make adjustments and in which amount. The only real downside is the fact that Voodoo Labs Tremolo isn’t easy to operate in low light conditions. On a dark stage, you might find yourself chasing ghosts in the dark. That, however is not something we can really count as a fault since lighting conditions change and many other brands feature the same policy when it comes to finishes.

Lastly, when you are done using Voodoo Labs Tremolo and you hit that foot switch, something truly awesome happens. The signal becomes completely devoid of Tremolo’s presence. That is right, Voodoo Labs packs these with a proper true bypass switch, ensuring that there is absolutely no signal coloration when the pedal is not in use. As basic as it may sound, many brads advertise the use of true bypass switches, but the number of those who actually do include this feature is rather small.

Conclusion

young coconut musician

Boss TR-2 Tremolo Review – Tremming The Machine

boss tr2 tremolo pedal

Rage Against The Machine originally became famous for its strong message that has moved generations – and continues to do so. However, that message would have reached far fewer people if it wasn’t for an appropriate vessel. That vessel came in form of Tom Morello’s work. Morello, unlike many of other famous guitar players, wasn’t all that willing to bury his signal with effects. With that said, being the only guitar player in a band that wanted to push a message across with a decent amount of emotion, he had to be pretty resourceful.

One of the more significant stompboxes on his pedalboard is the Boss TR-2 Tremolo. This pedal is considered to be among the very best tremolos on the market. and it is rather simple in nature. Even so, it was enough to give the RATM a certain edge that has definitely helped them get to the level they are on right now. Today we are going to take a closer look at this pedal and see how it can help you spice up your tone. Without further ado, let’s jump right in.

BOSS AUDIO TR2 Tremolo Pedal review

Boss TR-2 Tremolo Review

Modern tremolos are divided into two pretty distinct categories. You have your vintage tremolos, which offer a very specific kind of swirl, and then you have the modern ones. The latter are more clinical in terms of color that add to the tone. That is something some guitar players are looking for, but most want the good old vintage stuff. The reason for this is simple. A vintage tremolo has a warmth that simply flows well with any kind of electric guitar music. This statement is exponentially amplified if you are planning on playing blues, rock or similar more tamed genres of music. Boss TR-2 Tremolo offers this type of experience at a pretty reasonable price.

Features

When you look at a Boss pedal, there are two things you can expect to get from it, no matter what. First one is a completely indestructible enclosure. Their stompboxes are known to take an immense amount of abuse before even showing signs of giving up. The other thing is clean control cluster. Boss TR-2 Tremolo shares both of these traits. The enclosure is the standard Boss type, only this time it comes painted in a darker shade of green. Controls are also a bit different in terms of aesthetics. They have used their older layout with larger knobs, just like you can see on the DS-1.

boss tr2 tremolo pedal

Speaking of controls, there are three available. You have your Rate, Wave, and Depth knobs. Rate determines the speed of the tremolo effect once you turn it on. The slower rate will give you a more subtle effect while higher rate gets you into that golden swirly territory. Depth controls how ’deep’ the dips go. In other words, the level to which your tone is going to be lowered in order to create the tremolo effect. Lastly, we have the Wave control. This knob has two values, square and triangle, on each of its end positions. By turning the knob, you change the wave shape of the effect from a triangle to a square. Naturally, you can dial in anything in between as well

In terms of powering the pedal, things are simple, as always. You can either go with their power adapter that requires a wall socket, or a single 9V battery. Using a battery will definitely help with the tremolo as it any kind of noise being produced by the adapter can put a dent in the effects’ performance.

Performance

When Boss first released the TR-2 a long time ago, many wondered whether or not it can even live up to the hype. Packing a vintage tremolo effect that is actually good, into an essentially affordable package, has raised quite a few eyebrows. However, over time its worth has been proven many times. The controls it comes with are considered to be standard these days, but they offer a lot more tone-shaping potential than you would usually get from a Trem effect.

One great thing about the TR-2 is that it doesn’t suck the life out of the tone. Even if you choose to infuse your signal with a very aggressive tremolo, there will still be definition and volume to boot. On the other hand, using a more subtle setting can give you that warm vintage vibe we all love. On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of versatility, Boss TR-2 ranks somewhere around 4. It does what it was designed to do and a bit more, but it is far from a super versatile modern tremolo pedal. For the most part, that is fine. Vintage tremolos fill a very specific role, which TR-2 gets just right. Reliable, consistent and overall decent, this stompbox is a perfect tool for anyone who needs to swirl up their sound a bit.

Check for deals on the Boss TR-2 Tremolo Pedal on Amazon

Conclusion

Tremolo has been around for quite a while now. Its uses have proven to be many. More than it was initially anticipated. Boss TR-2 is a noteworthy member of this family for a number of reasons. Not only does it offer one of the best vintage style tremolo effects you can get at the moment, but it does so at a remarkably decent price. It is living proof that a guitar effects pedal doesn’t need to be expensive in order to be good. That is something we can conclude by the fact that Tom Morello and many others use it extensively to this day.

If you are looking to emulate Tom’s tone, TR-2 is going to be an essential part of your rig. On the other hand, if you are just looking for a good tremolo pedal that brings vintage swirls at a reasonable price, TR-2 is one of the very few solutions which are worth considering. Boss simply doesn’t disappoint, especially with crucial effects such as tremolo. Their experience has allowed hem to build a model that anyone can use, and quite honestly, should use.