A Guide To Effects Pedals
So you’ve got your guitar, you’ve got an amp, and you’re well on your way with this playing lark. You’ve mastered E minor, A minor and you’re an absolute wiz at power chords. Kurt Cobain, eat your heart out, eh?So now you’re probably thinking about trying to emulate some of your favourite artists, and you’re going to realise pretty quickly that effects are a big part of doing that, but you really don’t know where to begin. It’s a bit of a minefield. What the difference between a delay and a reverb, or distortion and overdrive for that matter. Also, what is a Flanger?!?! Seriously…In this blog we’re going to try and give you a short outline of what each of these pedals will actually do to your guitar sound, so you have a better idea of whether or not they belong on your board.
So this isn’t, strictly speaking, an effect, but it’s a pedalboard essential (No really, it is). This tells you whether or not the strings of your guitar are tuned to the correct pitch, and allows you to adjust accordingly.
I’ve grouped these 3 together, because they’re sort of different approaches to the same thing. It’s all about gain (not gains, you can leave your protein shakes at home). All of these effects are intended to distort your signal, they just go about it in different ways or to different degrees.Boost – Generally speaking, a boost will be used alongside something else, whether that be a valve amp, another pedal or a dirty or drive channel on a digital amp. The idea with a boost, as the name suggests is to boost your signal slightly, introducing a little more gain and resulting in a distorted guitar signal. Boosts can also be used after other effects as a clean volume boost, which can be useful for solos etc.Overdrive – much like a boost, will add gain to your signal, but in the case of an overdrive effect this can be used independently, so could be run directly into a clean amp to produce a distorted guitar signal. It can also be used alongside another effect, exactly as described with the boost, to produce a more intense distortion. This is called gain stages, and can be useful if you want a dirtier guitar tone for heavier sections in songs. Generally speaking, an overdrive will be more dynamic than a full distortion pedal in the way it breaks up your signal. This means if you use an overdrive and play more lightly your signal will become a little cleaner, and if you play with a heavier hand, the overdrive will react and produce a more heavy distortion.Distortion – works on the same premise as an overdrive, but is less reactive and will usually be a more complete distortion than what you would get from an overdrive pedal.
Ever noticed how much better you sound when you sing in the shower? That’s reverb at work. You’re hearing your own voice bouncing back at you from all the reflective surface, which makes your voice sound fuller and also masks imperfections. That’s exactly what a reverb does, but you can change the sound of the room so your guitar can sound like it’s in the bathroom or in a canyon.
Lay… lay… lay. Delay pedals produce an exact copy of the original sound, which plays after the original and degrades over time. If you would like an example of this that you might be familiar with, just think of anything U2 have ever written. The length of time between the original sound and repetitions can be extended or shortened and the “decay” can be changed as well, which determines how many repetitions you will get and how quickly they will fade. So there’s lots of fun to be had with this, and if used properly it can sound great, although if used improperly it will sound like a hot mess.
Fuzz is a specific type of distortion which uses extreme clipping, basically squaring off the waveform of the signal, creating harmonic overtones which make up the bulk of the sound. A fuzz tends to mostly occupy the higher frequencies, and can sometimes scoop the mid frequencies from your sound, which can cause it to get lost in the mix. This means a fuzz might not cut through as well as a standard distortion or overdrive, so probably isn’t ideal in a band set up, but is a useful tool to have if what you really need is some complete, messy filthiness.
A compressor essentially squeezes your signal. What this means is that the smaller (quieter) parts of your signal are much closer to the bigger (louder) parts. The practical upshot of this is that you have way more consistency when playing live, and don’t have to adjust your volume to be heard when playing softer parts of songs. I’d recommend a compressor for every pedal board, they are incredibly useful, just make sure you spend some time properly setting the levels, or you’ll get unwanted distortion.
Again, this is kind of an honourable mention, as it’s not really an effect, but it’s a really useful tool to have on an effects board. Guitars and pedals generate a lot of signal noise. This isn’t really an issue when you’re playing as the sound of the actual guitar masks this, but when you’re not the last thing you actually want is a load of hum. A noise gate allows you to cut this out, by effectively muting you when the level of your signal drops below a certain point.
Loopers are almost entirely responsible for Ed Sheeran’s career. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m just saying it’s a thing. What a looper allows you to do is play a section of a song, which the looper then records and repeats for you. You can then play something else over the top. Most loopers allow you to layer these and build entire scores over the original section. If you want a pretty incredible example of one of these in use, check out KT Tunstall playing Black Horse & The Cherry Tree on Later with Jools Holland.
Modulation covers all manner of sins but I’ve decided to group these pedals as they’re a little more out there, and while you might have one or two of them on your board, it’s pretty unlikely you’d have all of them. Although what a sound that would make…Chorus/Vibrato –Think “shiny” and “12 string”. What a chorus does is maintains your original signal, whilst also slightly moving the pitch of your guitar up and down from the original note or notes in a wave, giving a short of glowy washy sound. This can also sometimes be known as a vibrato.Wah – is basically a tone knob, turned into an effects pedal and given super powers. It allows you to sweep up and down through the EQ spectrum, filtering out some and boosting others while playing. If done right you sound like Jimi Hendrix, well sort of.If done wrong… well just don’t do it wrong. Wah’s can also be “cocked” which essentially means turning it on and leaving it in a fixed position, causing it to act as a sort of filter.Phaser –Basically, a phaser does what a wah does, but it’s automated. There is more to it, but in a nutshell, that’s the idea.Flanger –This makes your guitar sound “swirly”. There are scientific and complex ways of explaining this to you, but frankly they make my head sore, and I feel like “swirly” is the best way of getting an audio effect across in text form. You should be one cause it’s a great word.Tremolo – causes your volume to oscillate (that’s fancy talk for go up and down) in a fixed wave pattern. You can generally set the speed, depth and sometimes wave shape of this effect. A famous example of this would be “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths. Octave/Pitch shifter – pedals both change the frequency of sound produced by the guitar, so that it comes out either higher or lower when it reaches the amp. In the case of a pitch shifter, this is generally variable and can be done in steps or even to deliberately detune your instrument to create dischord. A great example of this is Tom Morello’s solo on Audioslaves “Like a Stone”. In the case for an octave pedal, the pitch is going up or down by entire octaves, so from low E to High E or vice versa. Royal Blood are a great example of using octave pedals to great effect, it’s home a bass player and drummer manage to sound like a full band.There are effects which have been omitted from this list, but hopefully this covers the majority of them, and will aid in your quest to aural perfection. Just remember, often less is more. By all means have all of the pedals, but for the sake of sanity, don’t turn them all on at once.
Vox VFS3 Footswitch