Back in the saddle again for this week,
Guitar pedals and effects. So many choices. So many models. So many types, uses, and configurations. It can be overwhelming even for experienced players, never mind beginners. Deciding on your very first pedal to buy, or what pedal to get next can be a bit challenging.
However, we are here to help you navigate this seemingly daunting undertaking. Keep in mind that information is key, and nowadays we have a lot of it: use it. But the most important part of this equation is you. Yup, that’s right. A choice of effect or pedal that might work wonders to a certain player can be 100 % wrong for you.
And it’s not only a matter of which style of music do you play. Obviously, if you are a straight-ahead jazz guitar player, your pedal choices are likely gonna be drastically different from a metal shredder. But even within the same style of music, a pedal or effect beloved by a certain player might not be right for another player. After all, like most things guitar-related, effects and pedals are a largely personal thing. Here are the six things you need to know about guitar effects and pedals.
Effects alter the sound of your guitar
This sounds obvious. But notice I did not say they make you a better player? More on that later…
An effects pedal is a small device that alters the sound of the guitar. Plain and simple. There are many ways in which this is done, depending on the actual effect being used.
Effects come in different presentations. To make it more usable while playing, they are usually activated by foot. Just step on the footswitch, pedal or bank and there it is. There are stompboxes, racks, footswitches, foot controllers, plug-ins, etc.
Distortion and overdrive are the most common
Distortion/overdrive is a feature widely used by guitar players of many styles, especially in rock and blues. This effect is usually achieved by increasing the gain to create a gritty, fuzzy and more aggressive sound.
You can have an extremely distorted sound that might be suitable for a metal guitar player for instance. You can also have a much less distorted sound, typically know as overdrive. Overdrive is widely used in rock, blues, pop, country, and many other styles or situations. It adds a bit of grit and sustain to the sound which can be very musical for solos or some accompaniment.
Distortion and overdrive can come from pushing the tubes on a tube amp or through a remote unit or pedal. A very famous distortion pedal is the Ibanez Tube Screamer (TS9). It has been around for decades and is still a staple in many guitarists’ pedalboard. Another well know overdrive pedal is the RAT from Music Co, made popular in the ’70s.
Chorus, Flanger, and Phaser are also popular
Known as modulation effects, Chorus, Flanger, and Phaser will make your guitar sound bigger and more spatial. They will not add any grittiness to the sound and instead will keep it clean but “wet”.
Flanger mixes two identical signals from your guitar sound and then delays one of them. Phaser is closely related to Flanger but is considered a different effect. We will not get into physics of sound or polarity here to exactly describe how they are different.
Chorus is also a very popular effect, to the point that it's even included in some amplifier models like the legendary Roland JC-120. Chorus is produced by mixing two signals, one of them with the pitch a bit shifted.
Time-based effects are simple… until they’re not
Effects that alter the original signal based on time include Reverb, Delay, and Echo. Reverb is quite popular and is even included in some legendary amps like the Fender’s Twin Reverb and Princeton Reverb. It is an effect typically used to add ambiance.
So, what’s so complicated about that you might ask? Perhaps you will keep it simple on the Reverb and Echo, but when it comes to delay… you can alter your sound in ways that go from mild to mind-blowing. On a delay pedal, you can typically dial in the amount of delay in milliseconds to match whatever you are trying to do. And it can get very mathematical, very fast. And sure, you can also use a delay to just add another touch of ambiance to your sound.
Dynamic effects are your friends
Even though distortion and overdrive fall under the category of dynamic effects, I had to mention them first due to their extreme popularity with guitar players.
However, when it comes to dynamic effects, we also have compressors and limiters. A compressor basically helps you control your loudness in a musical way. You set a threshold, and as soon as you pass that threshold the effect kicks in and starts dialing back your sound by a ratio you assign.
There is also the limiter, which basically cuts off everything past that threshold you set. And if you are asking why would you ever want to do that, the answer is to avoid being extremely loud and avoid clipping (a nasty sounding and unwanted type of distortion).
Effects and pedals are not a replacement for practice
You have probably heard this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. If you want to get better at guitar, you have to practice. You can get all the pedals and effects you want; none of them is a substitute for practicing. There is no talent-booster stompbox. Nor will there ever be.
Wrapping it all up
There are several kinds of effects, offered in a plethora of presentations and configurations for the guitar player. Which and how you use an effect, and which brand or presentation you choose is a very personal matter. As always, the best is to try many to develop criteria.
Effects are a very important aspect of a guitarist's gear arsenal. Choosing the right stompboxes, racks and effects units to create the ideal toolbox is a subject debated endlessly in online forums and music stores. But remember, no pedal or effect can make up for practice. If anything, effects will just expose and highlight your ability, or lack thereof.
That’s it for this week. Stay tuned and…