Guitar Pedals 101 : Sound and Color
It’s rare to open a guitar magazine, or walk into a club and see a guitarist using only one or two, much less NO pedals. Seemingly everyone loves effect pedals for guitar. OK, except for a few purists who plug straight in, believing anything in their signal path ruins their tone. But pretty much everyone else – loves them. So many options are available, offerings from well-known and “boutique” manufacturers. So much variety you can spend upwards of the downpayment on a car on them if you’re into that sort of thing. But with even a small investment, suddenly anyone player is able to add to and alter their gain structure, add sustain, echoes and so much more. Used correctly, they can become an integral part of your tone. But for the uninitiated, it can be daunting. You wonder “What’s the difference between ‘overdrive’ and ‘distortion’?” “What’s a ‘chorus’?” “When would I use a compressor?” “In what order do I place guitar pedals?” “What’s an FX loop?” You can purchase effects pedals in single, or multi-effect units. Which one is right for you? These are the questions your local music store’s accessories department employee gets asked several times a day. The purpose of this blog will be to break all of that down, so you can skip the Q & A part of the trip, and hopefully just walk in the store educated, knowing exactly what you want already!
Guitar effects are basically divided into three main categories: gain-altering, modulation/time-based, or frequency-altering effects. The former either compresses (makes uniform) boosts or adds gain stages to your signal, and are more often than not run in front of your amp, the idea being you’re hitting your amp’s input harder. A stronger signal means your amp will break up, or distort more quickly. Held notes will sustain longer. This is desirable if you’re playing heavier types of music, or just want a fatter, more authoritative lead or single-note sound. These include Overdrives, Fuzz, Distortions, (typically classified by the level of gain they provide) and Compressors. Modulation effects, on the other hand, split your signal (also useful for running stereo rigs, more on that later), and either delay one side of it, or slightly (adjustably) alters the pitch of it, or both before summing the two sounds to the desired level. Depending on the level of modulation and/or delay between the two signals is how Chorus, Flanging, Tremolo, Vibrato, Delay and Echo effects are acheived & classified. A frequency-altering effect is just that – it allows you to boost cut frequencies (at a preset or selectable rate/hz). This covers Envelope Filters, Wahs, Graphic and Parametric EQs. See, not as involved as you thought, huh? Armed with that knowledge, now it’s just a matter of deciding which one or ones are right for you!
As mentioned, there is a huge variety of manufacturers with products at all levels of the price spectrum. Seymour Duncan has an amazing, ever expanding line of effects pedals that are surprisingly affordable, sound incredible, and are built like tanks! So wherever possible, we’re going to use those as visuals, and for those where there’s not a Duncan video example we’ll provide some songs you can check out for examples of each effect. Let’s start off with gain-altering effects. Before we get to Overdrive/Distortion, let’s talk Boost, and Compression. Then we’ll get into time and frequency-based effects.
Pickup Booster – The Duncan Pickup Booster is a line-driver that provides a clean, High-Def boost to your signal w/o altering your tone. Its resonance switch allows you to add fatness to say, a single-coil pickup when a humbucker tone would be the song’s go-to sound. In addition to acheiving a humbucker tone out of a single-coil, it can be used to allow you to cut through a dense mix, providing clarity.
Vise Grip Compressor – Designed for guitarists who want to take control of the dynamics of their playing, the Vise Grip is a studio-grade soft-knee compressor that will not sacrificing the musicality of your tone. Precise control is available via the Blend, Attack, Volume and Sustain controls, allowing the player to tame loud volume levels, boost low levels, and dial in the exact desired amount of compressed vs uncompressed signal. Whether you’re looking for spanky funk, punchy country twang, or searingly sustained articulate metal lead tones, the Vise Grip has you covered!
Studio Bass Compressor – C’mon, you didn’t think we’d restrict the compression fun to guitarists alone, did you? The Studio Bass is a similar 4 knob, studio-grade soft-knee compressor designed with bass players in mind. Its 3-way switch allows you to tailor the frequency of the compression, and of course you can tailor the desired amount of “wet” vs “dry” signal to the output. Though usually you’d put this at the beginning of your signal chain, sometimes with bass effects like envelope filters/auto wahs it works better after, so Duncan encourages you to experiment – no harm in trying!
805 Overdrive – Adding anywhere from a subtle boost to hearty crunch to just enough gain to drive a distorted amp into full-meltdown (this author’s favorite application), the 805 Overdrive is an amazing little beast. It’s incredibly versatile, and can be used for Rock, Blues, Country, or anything else you can think of. This pedal can do stinging blues to searing rock and metal leads. Combining a classic OD circuit with a 3-band EQ, the 805 provides amazing flexibility in tone, and like all Seymour Duncan pedals is true-bypass so it’s out of your signal path when not in use.
Dirty Deed Distortion – For those needing a little more sonic whallop than the 805 can provide, Duncan created the Dirty Deed. This pedal crosses the overdrive threshold & combines the best of fuzz and distortion pedals. It’ll do anything from crunch to metal. A pair of MOSFET transistors evoke tube-like harmonics and lush sustain like an overdriven amp. The Treble and Bass controls allow 12db of active boost or cut to allow greater tonal versatility. When slab of beef-level distortion is what you need it, the Dirty Deed will not fail you.
Shape-Shifter Tremolo – The Shape Shifter Tremolo is designed not just to give classic (stereo!) Tremolo effect textures, but is also capable of extreme sounds like helicopters, backwards swells, and piano stabs (in stereo!). It’s true-bypass and allows total control over the Wave, Shape, Depth and Speed of the effect. It also provides stereo phase control, and tap-tempo with an LED indicator and Ratio option. All of the classic, shimmery tones you’d expect, in stereo with tap-temp and greater control.
Vapor Trail Analog Delay – The Vapor Trail is a true analog, studio-quality bucket-brigade delay that provides authentic tones with enhanced clarity, warmth and presence. Controls for Rate, Repeats, Depth, and the Delay speed itself are all top-mounted and designed for ease of use, and an LED indicator allows you to quickly set the tempo visually. In addition to its stunning tones, it also proves a seperate TRS out to send the wet signal to another pedal or to faciliate wet/dry stereo setups. Another personal fave never leaving this author’s pedal board!
Some other effects not (yet!) represented in Seymour Duncan’s pedal line would be Chorus, Phase Shifting, and Flanging. They’re all very popular effects, though they were somewhat overused in the 80s. They’re generally used at much more subtle levels in current music. All are modulation effects and are quite similar – Flanging is a more extreme version of chorusing, basically. Phasing is the same concept taken in an otherworldly direction. Again you’re splitting the signal and changing the time, the pitch and at what level at which your hear the split or wet signal as opposed to the dry signal. It could be thought of this way: You know the subtle shimmer of Andy Summers’ Police-era guitar tones? Chorus.
Think the chording in “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” Add a little delay and you’ve got “Walkin’ On The Moon.” That “WHOOOOOSH” every time EVH chugs the low D in the Van Halen “Unchained” riff, or the “too pronounced to be chorus” warble of the “Hear About It Later” intro riff? Flanger.
And of course, no discussion of effects pedals would be complete without mention of the venerable Wah pedal. A Wah sweeps a preset (or variable if you want to go expensive) frequency curve and is controlled via a treadle-style footpedal. That quacky, vowel-like vocal tone – that’s what a wah does in the right hands, er under the right foot. You know what I mean. The most iconic example of the use of that effect would have to be Jimi Hendrix “Voodoo Chile (A Slight Return). Or maybe if you’re old enough to remember the original (think there’s been a remake, too), the theme from “Shaft”. The Dunlop Crybaby and Vox wahs are some of the most popular available today, with many variations offered. Similar is an Envelope Filter, but that applies the “Q” effect in relation to the volume of the input signal. Robert Fripp was apparently a fan of Envelope Filters so you could likely catch some in vintage King Crimson.
So that then leaves us with EQs. “What’s the difference between a graphic and a parametric EQ?” you ask. Simple. A Graphic EQ’s frequencies are set, and you have a usually 10 or 12db range of boost or cut you can apply to said set frequencies.
A Parametric, on the other hand, allows you to play within a range of frequencies and then provides a level of boost or cut to the frequencies you’ve selected. Graphic EQ pedals are seemingly FAR more prevalent, however, because they usually provide only 6, 7 or 10 bands of set frequencies thus easily fitting in the footprint of a pedal housing. For example the classic MXR 6-band or the Boss GE-7. A parametric is much more involved (sometimes 3 controls per band of EQ) and is more often rack-mounted. Dimebag, for example, swore by the Furman PQ-4. There ARE, however, pedal versions available from manufacturers like Boss, Carl Martin/TC Electronics, Empress, and Correct Sounds among others.
So, that pretty much covers your basic effect pedal types. Mentioned before were Multi-effect pedals, which, if you’re on a budget, have limited space or have no interest in carrying around a bunch of pedals or a pedal board, can be quite useful. While there are some good units out there the “jack of all trades, master of none” and “you get what you pay for” adages apply heavily here. Meaning it’s hard to get a versatile, high-quality sounding multi-effect pedal that does ALL of its advertised effects well without spending what it would have cost you to get the individual pedals. However, if single pedals are your thing, you can always get a PedalTrain or similar board and start assembling your dream pedal board.
Also, how to order them? What’s an FX loop? Simply put, there’s no right or wrong way to order effects. It depends on what you want to hear. But the general rule of thumb is: Gain-altering FX first, then time and/or modulation based. Think about it this way – do you want your distorted
But wait, we’re not done!
More Sonic Examples!
Chorus: The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Flanger: Van Halen – Hear About It Later
Wah: Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Chile (A Slight Return)
As promised, here are a few of the afforementioned musical examples of the effects and/or pedals mentioned in the previous pedal section (where haven’t our own pedal, or video for it yet) so you can further wrap your ears around the tones. Hopefully after reading this you’ll have a better understanding of what each effect does, and better be able to identify their use in your own favorite music. You’ll be able to skip the step of asking the guy at the counter “What’s the effect so-and-so is using on_________?” and him/her saying “Never heard that song.” You can walk into your favorite music store already totally confident in what you’re looking for to acheive the sound you want to hear. Happy experimenting, and good luck! After reading this, what pedals do you have your eye on?