Between the Guitar and the Amplifier, you can get a massive array of sounds and tones. For some guitarists though (and I emphasise some) there will come atime when a particular sound or effect is required to push the sound envelope further and create some interesting textures.
Guitar Effects Pedals are not for everyone, tone purists refuse to use them believing that each pedal sucks a certain percentage of tone from the natural signal of guitar to amp (Keith Richards and Angus Young are examples). Others just simply don't like having to dance around on stage with yet another thing to worry about (Slash solved this problem by having someone else to do all his pedal stomping for him!!). Then of course there are musicians, such as pure Blues musicians, who simply do not have a need for a Hyper Jet Flange.
But then you get those of us who do love pedals. I have spent years testing and trying out different pedals. I did the classic, beginner thing of building a pedal board that was ridiculously large and finally settled for a tasteful, slightly smaller pedal board that gives me everything I need. The simple fact is pedals are fun! You can make just about any sound you want these days with the technology available. By testing out a few for yourself, you will soon learn what you like and what you don't like. Below is a guide I have created on the main Guitar Effects pedals and what they do. I have given a brief description of each type of pedal, what my pick is of the pedals available on the market today and an alternative that is also worth mentioning.
I have left off the obvious ones such as Tuner Pedals and Equalizer pedals as I think it is a bit obvious what they do and do not want to insult you! I have also left out Multi-Effects pedals, as they are something that I do not know enough about to warrant offering information on. I feel that they are a 'practiser of many, master of none' type effect. Unless of course, you have serious money to burn and can afford something like the TC Electronics range, in which case you will want to do your own research!!
Guitar Effects Pedal Guide
Overdrive and Distortion
Overdrive is the one effect every guitarist loves playing through. The idea of an overdrive pedal is to replicate the sound made by a valve (tube) amplifier when it is being cranked. The result is a crunchy sound that cannot be beaten. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to crank a valve amp to 10 so an overdrive pedal is the next best thing. Overdrive ranges from slightly overdriven sound, to a bluesy drive, to a classic crunch. You will find beautiful harmonic overtones, natural compression and sustain, as well as extended bass response in an overdriven tube amplifier. A must have sound for any rock fan, in fact any music fan.
Justin's pick: Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive. This pedal is in my chain. I use it on a light setting to have a 'slightly overdriven' sound on clean or I use it to push the distortion channel into further chaos!
Worth mentioning: Ibanez Tube screamer. THE classic overdrive pedal.
Primarily used in rock music, distortion can provide the crunch for rhythm guitar or the much-needed drive and sustain for lead lines and solos. These pedals often simulate tube sounds like the overdrive, but offer enriched harmonic values - a smoother but harder sound. Distortion pedals are very similar to overdrive pedals but offer more gain and sustain, ideal for rock and metal but certainly not limited to either. It is A LOT of fun to crank the distortion and pretend you are Eddie Van Halen!
Justin's pick: Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion. The DS-2 is an update of the classic DS-1 popularised by Kurt Cobain. The DS-2 offers pretty much every distortion sound you will ever want or need. Plus John Frusciante uses it and he is always right!! This pedal would definitely be in my chain, were it not for the fact I use my amps distortion.
Worth mentioning: Mesa Boogie V Twin Preamp Distortion (if you are loaded!!)
Imagine sticking a pencil in the speaker cone of your amp. It will create a really fuzzy tone like the one in 'You Really Got Me' by the Kinks. Well this is exactly what Link Wray did when he recorded his track 'Rumble' back in 1958. Years later fuzz pedals were all the rage, recreating that famous fuzzy sound Link created. Jimi Hendrix, for example, used fuzz all the time. It is hard to think of his sound without thinking of the Fuzz face. It is also the main ingredient of 'stoner rock' (I hate that term) and is a really cool sound. It is difficult to describe the sound of a fuzz pedal without sounding patronising because quite honestly, it sounds fuzzy!!! Think of the sound used for most 70's rock and you have a good idea.
Justin's pick: Electro Harmonix Big Muff. The funnily named 'Big Muff' (hehe) is one of my favourite pedals. Originally designed with Hendrix in mind, the focus got shifted to Carlos Santana when Jimi died. Later, it was used heavily in 90's Alternative bands. I love this pedal a lot.
Worth mentioning: Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face - it was used by Hendrix and looks like a face. It's a winner!!
A compressor is like a level control, restricting the overall range of an input signal, limiting the amount of variation between the loudest and the softest sounds. Used heavily in Studios, it also works well as a pedal. Compressors 'smooth' out the volume of what you are playing and keep everything at the same level of volume. Primarily, compressors are used for lead playing; if you play a lead line really softly it will come out at the same volume as if you were playing much harder.
Justin's pick: Boss CS-3 Compression / Sustainer Pedal. A great and very fun pedal to play around with. You can get endless sustain with the CS-3 which is very useful if say, your drummer decides to have an opinion. This pedal is a big part of Dave Gilmour’s sound.
Worth mentioning: MXR Dyna-comp Compressor. I love the simplicity of MXR Pedals
The first Flanger effects were created in studios by playing back the same sound on multiple tape decks, while the engineer used a finger on the tape reel's edge (known also as a flange) to speed up or slow down the duplicate signal. This produced a sound reminiscent of a jet plane going overhead. A very cool effect to play around with and apparently, it was John Lennon who coined the term 'flange'. You can get quite a variety of flanger pedals these days ranging from the subtle to the hi-band extreme. The latter is what I choose!! A fun pedal that may not be used as much as any of the others so experiment with the other pedals first.
Justin's pick: Boss HF-2 Hi-Band Flanger. This pedal creates some mad effects. You really can make your guitar sound like an aeroplane!
Worth mentioning: Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress Flanger
The phaser is very similar to the Flanger but less intense. The sound is not so jet like but more swirly and 'other worldly'. The phaser is an audio signal processing technique used to filter a signal by creating a series of peaks and troughs in the frequency spectrum. The position of the peaks and troughs is typically modulated so that they vary over time, creating a sweeping effect. For this purpose, phasers usually include a low frequency oscillator.
Very popular in the 70's right through to today, the Phaser is a staple of any pedal board. Originally intended to reproduce the sound of a Leslie cabinet, the producers failed miserably but did come up with this cool sound! Featured heavily (for the first time I think) in 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' by Status Quo and 'Itchycoo Park' by The Small Faces in the 60's. The Phaser's most famous user now though is probably Eddie Van Halen who features it in most of his lead stuff, using it in the unusual position of first in line on his effects setup. Eddie even has his own Phaser on the market which is a modified version of my favourite (below).
Justin's pick: MXR Phase 90. The perfect pedal. It is small so fits nicely on a pedal board. It has one knob to mess around with (I hate modern, 500 knobs and 10000 different sounds, but none of them sound good pedals) and an on/off button. That is it. You cannot go wrong. Plus, it is built like a tank!!
Worth mentioning: Electro Harmonix Small Stone
Chorus pedals are a great way to thicken up your sound. By taking the original signal you are playing and by adding a second, slightly delayed (and I am talking milliseconds of delay) and detuned signal, the result will sound like duplicate guitars being played. Play chords with this pedal and it will sound like there are multiple guitarists when there is only one. A great example of this is the introduction to 'Paradise City' by Guns n Roses. Dave Navarro is also a big fan of Chorus, as was Kurt Cobain.
Justin's pick: Boss CE-5 Stereo Chorus Ensemble. This pedal gets a lot of flack. You will either love it or hate it and I love it. With a little tweaking (okay a lot!!) you can produce some fantastic sounds!! Always on my pedal board.
Worth mentioning: Electro Harmonix Small Clone Chorus
Tremolo pedals modulate the guitars volume, rapidly turning the volume control up and down. There are different waveforms used to modulate the volume level. There are sine waves, which give a smooth effect, a saw wave (the pulsation lessened), square wave (cutting the sound in and out), and other interesting variations. You really have to try one out for yourself to hear what it sounds like. Or listen to the theme song to Twin Peaks. The Tremolo features heavily.
Justin's pick: Boss TR-2 Tremolo. I expect a lot from Boss and this pedal does not fail. Minimal features yet massive amount of sounds and built like a tank.
Worth mentioning: Voodoo Lab Tremolo
Pitch altering Pedals
Pitch Shifters are one of the most interesting pedals you can buy and come highly recommended by myself. Pitch shifters take the signal you are playing and then recreate a different signal in a different pitch and play them both back at the same time. For example, if you choose to have the pedal set to 3rds then the result will be whatever note you are playing and a note a 3rd above it as well i.e. G and B. See the intervals section of my site if you don't know what they are. You can have mild shifts (under a tone) that create chorus like effects or you can have big shifts (like up 2 octaves) that can make some insane noises and everything in between - a huge amount of pitch shifting is available. They are mainly used so guitarists can create harmonies by themselves. Don't go thinking that this is an 80's effect though. Tom Morello would be nothing without his pitch shifter and Jack White has it on whenever he is soloing (which is rare! Ha). Knowledge of Musical Intervals would be advantageous with these pedals.
Justin's pick: Digitech Whammy Pedal. One of my all time favourite pedals. The amount of things you can do with this is incredible. It has a wah like pedal feel so you can choose between the dry signal and the pitch you are shifting to (and everything in between). A great pedal - hardly a Tom Morello solo exists without one being used!
Worth mentioning: None, get the Digitech!!
Echo/Time Based Effects
Delay pedals are great fun. Basically, the original 'dry' signal is recorded to an audio storage medium and then played back for a certain amount of time. You can choose the level of repeats and the amount of time the repeats last for. The delayed signal can then be played back over and over or put back into the signal to create an echo effect. The original delays were analogue and although limiting, had a warm feel about them. For this reason, they are extremely popular today still, despite the digital delay coming to light in the 80's. With Digital Delays, and the technology we have today, the results are endless with countless options available and HUGE amounts of delay time on offer. After the overdrive/distortion, this is the pedal I would recommend to get next.
Justin's pick: T-Rex Replica Delay Pedal. It is expensive, but man, it is worth it!! You can do loads with this pedal, including tapping your own tempo!!
Worth mentioning: Boss DD-7 Digital Delay
Imagine you are in a Church. Whenever you speak, the noise from your voice rebounds off the walls, ceiling, floor, windows etc and then does exactly the same again. The result of this echo is called reverb. Similar to when you are in a bathroom and there is an echo but no repeats (delays). The reverb pedal recreates this particular type of echo and although it doesn't create delays, like a delay pedal, it creates amazing reverberations. In other words, it gives your sound an echoey, spacey feel! You know when there is a singer on a chat show and they do an impromptu singing performance? Out of the blue, a certain effect is put on their microphone to give them a big, more professional sounding voice? Yeah, well that effect is called reverb!
Justin's pick: Electro Harmonix Holy Grail. This pedal is ridiculously large and because of it, doesn't fit on my pedal board. It is an amazing pedal though and comes highly recommended by me. It is one of those pedals that are more fun to mess around with than actually use in songs!!
Worth mentioning: Boss RV-5 Reverb Pedal
A wah adjusts the tone on a variable frequency, kind of like an EQ filter that can be adjusted on the fly. The pedal is adjustable and when is flat on the floor creates a trebly sound useful for 'screeching' solos. When pushed back, the result is a bassy, thick sound (think of the 'Bad Love' intro by Eric Clapton). The pedal really comes into it's own when the two frequencies are combined creating what can only be described as a "wah" sound!!
Wahs can be used 2 ways, they can be rocked back and forth to create a flourishing sound of frequencies. This is what the pedal is mainly known for and a great example of this is the theme tune to 'Shaft' by Isaac Hayes. The second way, a favourite of myself, is to use it as an EQ pedal. You want a bit of treble on your solo then press down on the wah and leave it in position. The tonal possibilities are endless this way.
Used in everything from Funk to Metal, the wah will never leave my pedal board.
Justin's pick: Jim Dunlop Cry baby Wah. The classic wah. Strong, sturdy and reliable with plenty of frequency changes with minimal movement. This pedal will never be beaten
Worth Mentioning: Ibanez WH-10 Wah
Hope this helped