- Beginners Guide To Guitar Pedals
What Is a Guitar Pedal?
Guitar pedals are an important piece of the puzzle in shaping the sound made from your guitar. In their simplest form, pedals are small, metal enclosures housing circuitry you step on to activate; hence the slang name stompbox. Once turned on, it can drive, distort, modulate, reverberate your guitar tone and more, depending on what it's built to do.
Your amp and guitar contribute to your overall tone, but a guitar pedal can take it to the next level. There’s an infinite combination of effects to explore, from subtle changes to all-out and tone-defining. Use pedals to add new creative dimensions to your playing or simply improve overall sound quality.
We'll keep everything here as basic as possible to understand, free from unnecessarily technical jargon and confusing controls.
Why Do I Need a Guitar Pedal?
Simply put, guitar effects are used to make your tone sound better than they would with just a guitar and amp, or are used to create interesting tonal textures. Some effects are more widely used or essential than others. Reverb, overdrive and a select few modulations make up the majority of guitar rigs. This is the best way to expand your creative horizons as a musician.
For a beginner, it’s best to stick with reasonably priced, tried and tested stompboxes with simple controls just to get a feel for the sound they make. Once you have this basic understanding, then it's a good idea to try out some more unique effects.
How Do I Use a Guitar pedal?
Plug your ¼ inch guitar lead into the pedal, then plug another lead from the pedal into the amp. If you want to use more than one pedal, use shorter patch cables to link them all up. Using pedals through long cable runs weakens the signal. Keeping your cable chain short ensures a constant signal flow from your guitar to amp.
There are so many variables in organising what we call a signal chain; the order of pedals in between the guitar and amp. Every change has an effect on the sound. You'll need to consider everything from powering your pedals, to the order of pedals in the chain, and to the sound they make when they’re switched on.
Power supplies are a major factor. You need to provide pedals with power from the mains. A good power supply with isolated outputs sends electricity evenly to multiple pedals and protects them from sudden power surges and shortages.
Daisy chaining is an alternate method to use if you only have a regular mains plug. It only requires a cheap daisy chain cable - a quick solution. However, it’s a lot less reliable and reduces the performance of the pedals. Many pedals also run on batteries and can yield some great results when used in fuzz pedals. However, this is an expensive route to follow as pedals burn through them very quickly.
From here, turn your pedal on, have a play with the dials and learn as you go. The best way to get to grips with a new pedal is by putting it through its paces.
What are the Most Essential Guitar Pedals?
There are a few guitar pedal effects guitarists of any genre will gravitate towards. This includes overdrive, delay, reverb, a selection of modulations, as well as a trusty tuner pedal. Here’s a breakdown of all the popular effects you’ll want to check out when buying your first few pedals.
Overdrive & Distortion Pedals
The sound a guitar makes starts to break up and distort when gain is fed into an amp, or if the volume on a tube amp is cranked high. Those crunchy tones are the foundations to a huge chunk of guitar music in rock, metal and even pop. An overdrive or distortion pedal simulates this effect to varying degrees of intensity.
You can get pedals that produce light crunchy tone or thunderous heavy metal. If you want to sound like anything from AC/DC and Arctic Monkeys to Metallica and Slipknot, get an overdrive.
Reverb is the trailing sound after you make any kind of loud noise. If you’ve been in a church or large room, you would have heard reverberations as the sound bounces off the walls and back at you. Apply this to an electric guitar and voilà. This adds life and fullness to your sound.
Almost all genres of music utilise reverb in some way. Reverb is a staple option to enrich a clean guitar tone. The most common types are spring, plate, modulated and shimmer, which all have unique qualities.
One of the more obvious effects. Delay replicates any sound you make from the guitar and repeats it after you stop strumming.
Notable examples of delay in popular music include the intro to Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome To The Jungle and Walking On The Moon by The Police. There are a few controls you’ll find on almost every delay pedal, like the ability to change the speed of the repeats and how many repeats the pedal creates.
A tuner isn’t an effect, but a fundamental guitar pedal nonetheless. This should be the first pedal you plug your guitar into in a signal chain and probably has the most important job.
If you’ve already started on your guitar journey, you most likely have a clip-on tuner to keep your instrument in tune. But a pedal is loads more reliable, more accurate and can be positioned neatly with your other stompboxes.
Multi FX Units
Multi FX are larger pedals that contain several effects in one unit. There are lots of benefits to getting yourself one of these over individual stompboxes, especially to start off.
A multi FX unit is more likely going to cost less than buying all the equivalent individual effects. And as a beginner, it’s a great way to hear and experiment with a number of effects. This way, you can learn more about the effect types and get hands on. The only downside is that you’ll be missing out on more of the unique effects pedals from a range of indie brands.
Popular Beginner Brands
Some guitar pedal brands are better suited to beginners than others. Price is a major factor, as some boutique companies make very expensive pedals. Another reason is usability, as select brands specialise in unique sounds and effects suited to players with more experience and a deeper understanding of how they work. Here are a few companies you should check out.
Boss are of the very first pedal creators. The Japanese company designed the OD-1 distortion back in 1977 and have since released some of the most well-known effects in the guitar industry. They’ve never compromised great sound or truly accessible prices. They also make some great multi FX pedals.
TC Electronic Pedals
Another one of the concept originators. They produce a ridiculous variation of effects in loads of styled cases, which is part of the beauty of buying pedals. Arguably most famous for their Polytune and Flashback delay. Again, these effects are easily accessible at great prices and offer plenty of simple and crazy sounds to keep you occupied for hours on end.
Tone City Pedals
A newcomer to the game, but nothing to turn your nose up at. They focus a lot of their time on mini pedals, which are on average 25% smaller than a regular stompbox. Great tones for pocket money prices and they come in loads of quirky designs.
What Guitar Pedal Should I Buy?
Now we’ve laid out the guidelines, it’s up to you to pick out your first pedal depending on what sounds you’d like to make. Do you love rock music? Maybe an overdrive is the way to go. Do you enjoy making unusual sounds? Delay is a great choice. Soothing ambient music your thing? Reverb is perfect.
The whole point of guitar pedals is that you mix and match what you want, to create something unique to you. Go and have some fun!