When your favorite artist hits those first notes, you recognize them immediately. The reason for this is that a guitarist’s pedals — and those initial tones — add as much to an artist’s personality as the way they play. Here, we’ll explore the different types of guitar pedals and what makes each one unique.
Tuner and Volume Pedals
Tuner and volume pedals are usually the first pedals in your pedal chain.
Your tuner pedal can instantly tell you which string/s are out of tune. Tuners offer a visual to allow you to tune quickly. You can also cut your sound signal and tune your guitar silently.
Chromatic tuners can tune to any note, so they allow you to set your guitar up with alternate tunings (drop D, open tunings, etc.). Non-chromatic tuners can only handle standard tunings.
A polyphonic tuner allows you to tune all your guitar strings at once. One sweep of the hand tells your tuner which notes are in tune and which are out. However, you have to tune those strings individually, so it only saves a little time.
Your tuner pedal should be the first pedal in your pedal chain. Many players bypass it when they’re not using it.
Some guitarists place the volume pedal at the beginning of their pedal chain. Other guitarists have multiple volumes to control different effects. Still others put the volume pedal toward the end of the chain to cover the volume of all effects.
A full section on volume follows as the next to last pedal type.
Filter Effect & Shifter Pedals
Guitar filter effects and shifter pedals can be explained as the pedals that shape your guitar’s waveform and tone. These pedals bypass, reduce, or accentuate different frequencies in order to change the way your guitar sounds.
Equalizer pedals are like the equalizer controls from your car radio. They change the tone of your music as you adjust the bass, middle, and treble tones. You can decide if you want to accentuate the highs or lows of your guitar.
For example, a bass EQ pedal can cut out higher frequencies and accentuate lower frequencies to fatten up the sound of your bass solo.
Graphic equalizers are easy to use because they give a visual of your sound. Sliders increase or decrease frequency bands for sound changes.
Parametric equalizers use rotary knobs to control each frequency band’s volume and frequency change width (the quotient of change or Q). This type of equalizer is more precise, but it’s more expensive and is most often used in studios.
The wah-wah pedal is one of the classic guitar pedals. It makes a “wah-wah” sound like a doll crying in slow motion. You can hear the wah-wah pedal in classic rock and funk solos like the beginning of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady.”
When you push the toe down, you highlight high frequencies, and when you put your heel down, you highlight bass frequencies.
The wah-wah can be an interactive and fun pedal to use. You can keep it in just one position to feature that frequency. However, the real fun begins when you rock it in a rhythm.
The envelope filter (or auto-wah) sounds like a wah-wah pedal, but you use a control knob to set the amount of “wah.” An envelope filter uses signal strength to control high and low frequencies.
You can hear an example of an envelope filter in Guthrie Govan’s “Wonderful Slippery Thing.”
The talk box uses your mouth as a frequency filter. The pedal pulls the signal from your guitar through a mouth tube. Your microphone picks up the sound from your mouth and then runs it through your amp system.
The sound that comes from the talk box is heavily vowel sounds like you hear in Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” Don’t confuse the talk box with the Vocoder which picks up actual words to sound like a robot voice.
An acoustic simulator turns the sound of your electric guitar into the sound of an acoustic guitar.
If you’re playing a gig and want to switch to the sound of an acoustic guitar, an acoustic simulator takes up far less space than another guitar. The cost is also much lower than buying an acoustic guitar if you don’t play acoustic that often.
Compressor pedals make notes more uniform to sound like you’re playing them all at the same volume. It increases the note’s sustain to make the quietest notes louder. Louder notes become quieter. To do this, a compressor pedal compresses or squashes signals.
A famous example of this effect is in the compressed D in the Law & Order gavel sound effect.
The compressor pedal is popular with bass players to make sure each note rings clearly and correctly. Soloists also use it to make their notes ring louder and more clearly.
Pitch Effect Pedals
Pitch effect pedals add or change notes. The way these fun pedals alter pitch can help you to create a unique signature sound.
Octaver & Octave Fuzz
Octavers and octave fuzzes double or half your note to change the octave and then adds the new note back into the signal.
Octave down pedals can make it sound like you have a bassist playing along with you even when you don’t have one. You can hear an example of this in The White Stripes’ “Seven Army Nation.”
Octave up pedals add a higher octave to the notes the guitarist is playing. Octave up effects are often called “octave fuzz.” One of the first artists to use an octave fuzz was Jimi Hendrix. You know this sound from “Purple Haze.”
A pitch shifter is one of the most versatile pitch effect pedals. Guitarists often use it alongside a wah-wah or volume pedal for a glissando or gliss effect. It moves the pitch up or down a specific amount with a continuous upward or downward slide between notes. You can hear this haunting guitar sound in Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien.”
Glissandos create a horn-like phrasing on the guitar. You can do this effect by hand. However, pitch shifters allow you to easily slide up or down one or two octaves and land back on your starting note with ease.
Harmonizers are fun pitch shift pedals to use for instant harmony. When you use this pedal, you keep your original note along with a new note in a shifted pitch. You can set the new note to harmonize at whatever interval you would like such as a 3rd or a 5th.
You can hear a harmonizer in the chorus of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
Synthesizer guitar pedals allow you to use your guitar like a synthesizer. It can create a variety of sounds ranging from old video games to nostalgic guitar sounds. Synth pedals use the pitch of your guitar signal to tune and activate an oscillator. The pedal produces the synth sound with a synthesizer circuit.
They come with a variety of knobs depending on the type you get. Some have waveform knobs to choose the sound you want. Others include an octave knob that works like an octaver or harmonizer pedal. Yours might have a mix knob to mix in your original guitar sound with your new synth sound.
Gain Effect Pedals
Gain effect pedals (or distortion pedals) are some of the most popular types of pedals. The signal passes through a transistor or diode to make a cranked-up amp sound. Some of these pedals allow you to adjust the amount of gain you want in your sound while others are really just a sound filter.
When you’re setting up your pedal chain, it’s best to order gain effects before modulation effects.
Some people call the sound that an overdrive pedal makes a “crunch.” This “crunch” is the same you’d get from a tube amp when you turn it up as high as it will go. It’s a smoother, cleaner sound that other gain effects. This pedal drives the signal to the amp to make a warmer, heavier and thicker sound like in The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.”
Valve or tube amps bring out the best sound from an overdrive pedal because of their natural distortion. However, some bass overdrive pedals have mastered this sound without needing a tube amp.
The fuzz pedal makes a sound like your amp is about to blow. The idea for this pedal supposedly originated when Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath dropped his amp down stairs and busted his speaker cone. The “fuzz” sound is like the cone flapping around his broken speaker.
This is another sound people associate with Jimi Hendrix, but you can also hear it in Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” where it makes his guitar sound more like a blatting saxophone.
A boost pedal increases the strength of the signal through your amp. You can use a boost pedal to increase your volume for a melody without distortion. The difference between using a boost and volume pedal is that the boost pedal adds definition and makes the girth of the notes fatter without grittiness.
Distortion pedals are one of the best-known gain types and probably the most popular pedal next to the tuner. It distorts the guitar signal to add volume, sustain, aggression, and sharpness to the original sound. You can also use this pedal with a gained amp for even more sound boost.
Distortion pedals are popular in grunge and heavy metal music. They produce the hard buzz saw clipping sound you hear in heavy guitars. A great example is in the opening of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Noise gates take care of hums and unwanted buzzes coming from amps. This is especially helpful if you chain together a lot of high gain pedals or if you’re using a high gain amp or guitar.
A noise gate helps you to preserve your tone. You will want to place the noise gate behind the pedals causing the noise, so you may need to do a little experimentation with placement.
Modulation Effect Pedals
The Leslie Cabinet rotating speaker was the companion speaker for the Hammond B3 Organ. The Leslie Cabinet used different speed settings to produce all of today’s common modulation effects. Various companies have created digital pedals to copy these sounds. This is a lighter-weight alternative to a heavy speaker cabinet.
Modulation effect pedals double the guitar signal, modulate it, and then add it back into the original sound. The pedal tweaks the doubled signals in different ways.
A chorus pedal makes a warbling sound like an underwater soundscape. The sound is like another guitarist playing slightly out of time. The pedal can thicken a guitar or bass sound.
When this pedal doubles the signal, it slightly shifts the pitch of the second signal in and out of time with the original signal. The sound can sound like two different guitarists playing the same notes at the same time.
You can hear this in many songs including Metallica’s “Welcome Home Sanitarium.”
The sound of a flanger pedal is similar to the cyclical sound of a cassette tape slowing down and speeding up. The effect is the sound of the signal going up and down in pitch. Eddie Van Halen uses a flanger in “And the Cradle Will Rock.”
A flanger pedal doubles the note. The second signal slows down and then catches back up to the original signal.
At its most extreme setting, a phaser pedal sounds like a plane taking off and jetting overhead. It has a cyclical sound like your amp is moving away from and toward you. You can change the length and speed of this movement with your pedal.
Phaser pedals double the original signal, and the new signal cycles in and out of phase with the original.
A prime example of a phaser pedal is in Heart’s “Barracuda.”
The cyclical pitch change of the vibrato pedal is like the player is constantly using the whammy bar or using hand vibrato on every note. The Smashing Pumpkins use vibrato in “Rhinoceros.”
Vibrato pedals double your signal and use pitch to modulate the signal. You can change the pitch modulation by twisting knobs on the pedal.
A Univibe is the most like having a Leslie Cabinet because it can create all the modulation effects. Some pedals allow you to tweak each effect individually, but most only allow you to adjust the speed of the effect.
Volume Effect Pedals
Volume effect pedals change the volume of our guitar in different ways. Some guitarists put the volume pedals behind everything in their pedal chain except their time effect pedals. This is so volume changes apply to the effects of the pedals ahead without affecting the time effects after it.
The simplest type of volume effect comes from the volume pedal. Moving your foot from heel to toe changes the volume from quiet to loud.
An envelope pedal is an auto-volume pedal that works to change volume by rocking the pedal from toe to heel. You can hear this in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Sir Psycho Sexy.”
The envelope pedal masks the sound of your initial picking and then brings the note to an audible level to sound smoother like a bowed instrument. You can choose how quickly this effect happens, how intense, and how much it mixes.
The tremolo pedal creates a cyclical rising and falling volume effect. This is one of the earliest recorded effects because it was a common feature of old amps.
The tremolo chops the guitar signal to sound like the volume is rising and falling. You can change the speed that the drop happens and the severity of the cut off. You can add an extra layer of rhythm if you set the tremolo to the same tempo as the song.
You often hear the tremolo in country-western music, but you’ll definitely remember it from Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.”
Time Effect Pedals
Time effect pedals make the biggest effect on your sound. These should also come last in your pedal chain.
Delay pedals give an atmospheric echo to your notes. A delay can play your note back once or multiple times. You can also choose the delay time. If you place the delay in the right place in the tempo of your song, it can make extra notes for you. When delays last a long time, it can make it sound like the guitar is being played in a larger room.
Digital delay pedals give longer and cleaner delays. However, some guitarists like the unpredictability of the analog delay pedal sound. You should be aware that older analog delays can create a feedback loop that can blow your speaker.
Country guitarists often use one repeat over a short time to make their slap-back delay sound. The Edge uses a delay pedal for U2’s signature sound such as in “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Reverb pedals give guitars an echo effect. You may not need a pedal if your amp already has a reverb setting.
Echos decrease in volume over time. The number of repeats depend on the location of the echo or what it’s echoing through. Reverb pedals digitally replicate the sounds of different playing environments such as small rooms, concert halls, cathedrals, or canyons. Some also replicate the sound of passing the signal through different mediums like a spring, plate, or piece of metal.
You know this sound from Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”
Loopers are great for the one-man-band. You can use them to record your own accompaniment to play alongside. You can use them to practice harmonizing with yourself. You can even use it to record a new phrase you want to remember for later.
Some loopers only allow you to record one track that’s no more than 10 or 12 minutes long. However, there are others that will record multiple tracks with many hours of recording time. Some even include drums to add in or allow you to record sounds from your computer to add in.
Ed Sheeran is the king of the one-man loop-pedal band. You can hear him use it to play along with himself in “Shape of You.”
Final Thoughts on Types of Guitar Pedals
Adding guitar pedals can significantly change your guitar’s sound and how you play. Decide what effect you want, and then start adding classic and unique guitar pedals to your collection. Then, experiment with pedal placement and settings to create a sound unique to you. Your imagination is the only limit.