If you’re one of those “I plug directly into the amp and don’t need no stinkin’ guitar effects pedals” kinda dude, then godspeed and thanks for stopping by. On the other hand, if you own a pedal board upon which you trip the light fantastic, stick around — this list of guitar effects pedals you must have will validate what you might know, illuminate what you don’t know, and quickly help you generate a massive and highly versatile sound palette.
For more guitar effects pedals tutorials and information, check out Jeff McErlain’s full course, the Guitar Effects Survival Guide, which is a must-have tone almanac for electric guitar players.
1. Boost Pedal
Recommended: Xotic EP Booster Pedal >
The simplest effect pedal is the clean boost. All it essentially does is boost the signal of your guitar. Guitar players loved this because it allows us to hit the front end of our amp with more signal. This increased volume level will drive the input section of your amp harder and provide some more gain.
The earliest boost pedals used a germanium transistor and was often in the form of a treble booster. The most famous treble booster is the Dallas Rangemaster which is rumored to have been used by Eric Clapton on the Bluesbreakers record, often referred to as the Beano record or Beano tone. (This is because Clapton is reading a Beano comic on the record cover). At the time Eric was using a Marshall JTM45 2×12 combo (commonly referred to as the Bluesbreaker because of this recording) and a Les Paul and man does it sound good. Allegedly he was using the Rangemaster to push the front end of the amp into more distortion. This has never been confirmed to my knowledge but is the source of much Internet speculation. But I have played an old Bluesbreaker amp with a Les Paul and it sounded pretty darn close.
Both Brian May from Queen and Ritchie Blackmore did use treble boosters for sure in their rigs to get more gain out of their amps. Germanium transistors are very inconsistent and are subject to temperature changes so they can be finicky. They also certainly color your tone to a large extent, which is something you may want. Clean boosts that use silicon transistors are much more common and reliable, they can also boost your signal without effecting your tone too much. For a general clean boost I would go for a modern one. If you want an old school sound, I’d check out a germanium based unit. Or like me, I’d get both.
2. Overdrive Pedal
Recommended: Ibanez Tube Screamer Overdrive Pedal >
The term overdrive refers to when a tube amp is driven past its range to supply a clean tone. This is something we as guitar players have come to love and seek out. A common question is “what is the difference between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz as the terms have become interchangeable?” The short answer is not a lot, just one is more extreme as we go down the line.
Overdrive can be subtle and produce warm slightly overdriven tones, think SRV. Distortion is easy to see as simply more overdrive, these tones are more saturated and compressed. The spectrum of overdriven tones is huge, from BB King’s slightly overdriven tube amp tones to Eddie Van Halen’s cranked Marshall, to Metallica’s thick distortion, to Smashing Pumpkins’ fuzz tones. It is all actually the same idea is a general sense, these tones may be gotten with amps, pedals, or a combination of both but it is all the same idea, overdrive. What was considered a heavy distorted tone in the 70’s is tame to the metal sounds of today.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is the industry standard for overdrive pedals. Kicked into legendary status by the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Tube Screamer TS808 was first released in the late 70’s and now catches a small fortune on the vintage market but fortunately there are reissues and many boutique clones out there. The Tube Screamer is not the only overdrive circuit of course, there are many excellent options, it is just clearly the most famous. What makes the TS so cool is the way it interacts with an already overdriven amplifier. It can add a nice amount of gain, sustain, and tonal shaping options. They do provide a bit of a boost in the mid frequencies that many people love as it helps to cut through a band. The list of TS users is extensive but Stevie Ray is the most notable.
3. Distortion Pedal
Recommended: Fulltone OCD Distortion Pedal >
A distortion box produces what we call hard clipping, as opposed to an overdrive pedal that produces soft clipping. What does that mean? If we were to look at a note on an oscilloscope we would see a wave (hence the term sound wave) with a nice rounded top and bottom. When we overdrive or distort a note the top and bottom of the sound wave flattens out, or clips. The more clipping of the wave the more distorted the note. A fuzz pedal produces so much clipping it is seen as a square wave, completely flat on the top and bottom of the wave. There are many excellent distortion boxes on the market but some classic industry standards are the Rat distortion box, the Boss Super Overdrive (a bit more of a distortion box really), MXR Distortion +, Boss Distortion, and the Boss Heavy Metal Pedal.
Many distortion pedals can also be used as overdrive pedals simply by reducing the gain, so once again we see how these terms are a little loose. In high gain amps like a Mesa rectifier the amp is taking advantage of gain staging, many pedals do this as well. Gain staging is simply putting one overdriven tone into another and cascading them to produce even more gain or distortion. So in a Mesa, one preamp tube is being run into another to bump up the level of distortion, there can be any number of gain stages. We can also do this by stacking pedals as well, as we will see in the gain staging pedal chain section. Dialing in a good distorted tone can take some time and slight EQ changes can make a big difference.
4. Fuzz Pedal
Recommended: Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face Pedal >
The fuzz pedal is one of the earliest stomp boxes on the market. A very simple circuit the fuzz box altered the guitar’s signal by transforming it into a square wave. The first widely available fuzz was the Maestro Fuzz Tone by Gibson. The Fuzz Tone pedal was released in 1962 and didn’t really catch on until Keith Richards used one on the opening riff of “Satisfaction” and the floodgates opened. Another definitive fuzz pedal of the late 1960’s was the Sola Sound Tone Bender made famous by Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
You can hear one all over Led Zeppelin’s debut record and all over Jeff Beck’s trademark “Heart Full of Soul” intro riff from the Yardbirds. He also used it extensively on the Jeff Beck Group sessions. Of course the most famous fuzz pedal is the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. This pedal was favored by Jimi Hendrix and set the benchmark for fuzz tones that we are still chasing to this day.
There are two distinct kinds of transistors used in fuzz pedals, germanium and silicon. In the early 1960’s silicon transistors were fairly new and very expensive and germanium was the norm. Germanium transistors are susceptible to temperature changes and noise so they can be unreliable at times. They do have a very distinct tone, they also react very well to the guitar’s volume knob by cleaning up very well. As silicon transistors became less expensive they largely replaced their germanium counterparts in pedals due to their stability. The Silicon fuzzes generally produce more gain but often don’t clean up as well.
As a lover of fuzz pedals myself I have both kinds and find uses for them, they sound different and excellent. Other famous fuzz users are Eric Johnson, David Gilmour, Joe Bonamassa, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to name a few. When shopping for a fuzz, try to play as many as you can next to each other, even of the same model. Due to the transistor values the same model pedal can sound and feel very different from pedal to pedal.
5. Octavia Pedal
Recommended: Fulltone Octafuzz Octavia Pedal >
The Octavia was created by Roger Mayer for Jimi Hendrix in 1967. It’s musical debut can be heard on “Purple Haze” on the Are You Experienced record. One of the many ground breaking sounds on this recording. The pedal produces a doubling effect an octave above the fundamental note. The octave is similar to a ring modulator in that it is kind of dirty and strange sounding.
The best way to get this sound out of an Octavia is by using the neck pickup on the guitar and by experimenting with the tone knob to get a more pronounced octave effect. Some other famous Hendrix tunes using the Octavia are “Who Knows” and “Machine Gun” from Band of Gypsies. If you want to put together a Jimi Hendrix pedal board, the Octavia is a must. There are many great reissues of this pedal on the market, but if you get a chance, like fuzzes, try a few of them next to each other. Even a few of the same pedal, as they often sound very different. One may have more of an octave effect, or be warmer sounding etc. This is due to the use of the transistors that can often have slightly different values that can make big tonal changes.
6. Reverb Pedal
Recommended: TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb Pedal >
Reverb is one of the earliest effects for guitar players, originally built into the amp itself like the Fender Deluxe Reverb and Super Reverb. Traditional spring reverbs actually send the guitar signal into the springs causing them to vibrate and simulating reverb. With the advent of digital technology reverb units pedals made their way onto the market but mostly as rack units, but as technology improved and shrank many of those units can fit into a pedal now.
There are many excellent pedals out there, I especially like the ones that contain multiple reverbs like, plate, spring, hall, church, etc. Reverb can be a great subtle effect adding a slight bit of ambience to your guitar sound. This is especially nice when playing in small or dry rooms. Usually the larger the room, the less reverb you may want as the room produces its own reverb, which is exactly what we are trying to create with the effect! One of my favorite reverb tones is the old surf guitar sounds made famous by Dick Dale and the Ventures.
7. Analog Delay Pedal
Recommended: MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay Pedal >
The first analog delay units used magnetic tape to record the original signal and play it back shortly after. The most famous tape units are the Echoplex and the Roland Space Echo. As cool sounding as these units are they require a fair amount of maintenance and they are rather large and aren’t practical for the gigging musician. But boy do they sound good!
Another early analog delay was the Binson Echorec, this unit recorded your guitar signal onto a magnetic disk much like a hard drive does. This unit was favored by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Analog delay pedals made their debut in the 70’s with the use of what was called bucket brigade chips. These chips move the signal down a line like the way an old bucket brigade would pass buckets of water down a line to put out a fire. The most famous of these pedals is the Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man.
A fantastic sounding unit and U2’s The Edge original delay sounds were a Deluxe Memory Man used on “I Will Follow” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Some cool added features to the Memory Man is the added chorus effect you can put on the delays. This is one of the coolest delay pedals ever. Many pedals now digitally model the sound of an analog delay pedal and come very close with the added flexibility a digital delay pedal provides like extended delay times and tap tempo.
8. Digital Delay Pedal
Recommended: TC Electronics Nova Digital Delay Pedal >
In the late 70’s digital technology boomed and made its way into the guitar community. It first entered in the form as rack units which were expensive and relatively large. As costs came down and the technology shrank, digital delay pedals were introduced into the market by Boss in 1984 with the Boss DD-2. Since then as technology advanced, delay pedals now offer many features in a very small box such as tape echo, analog, reverse delay, modulated delay, and loopers.
The main difference between analog and digital delays is delay time and note clarity. Digital delays can produce multi second delay times whereas the Deluxe Memory Man offered a delay time of 550ms. Digital delay units also introduced the tap tempo function which is extremely useful when using delay as a rhythmic tool. There are many excellent companies producing excellent delay units, certainly a ground breaker was the Line 6 DL4 which is still popular today. Although I love the sound of a true analog delay, the latest offerings from companies like TC Electronics and Strymon offer so many options and analog emulation options it makes it a tough sell to stick with analog delays.
9. Tremolo Pedal
Recommended: Fulltone Supa-Trem Tremolo Pedal >
There are two basic tremolo circuits found in classic amps; power tube tremolo and photocell tremolo. They produce basically the same effect, a fluctuation in volume. For the best definitions I have come across I’ll borrow from the Strymon website: “Power Tube Tremolo utilized the LFO signal to directly influence the power tube bias of the amplifier’s push-pull output stage. The power tubes are biased into lower and higher idle currents, creating the fluctuating gain that produces the tremolo effect. The effects of crossover distortion at low tremolo volumes, increased power tube harmonic distortion at maximum tremolo volumes, as well as the influence of power-supply sag, all add up to the boggy and dirty nature of this tremolo circuit.”
“Photocell Tremolo is found in mid-1960s American amplifiers. Those classic circuits used a light-dependent resistor to attenuate the input signal, coupled with a miniature neon bulb that is connected to the LFO. As the LFO oscillates, the bulb gets brighter and dimmer which in turn varies the resistance of the LDR. The varying resistance works with other circuit impedances to change the signal level, which produces a characteristically ‘hard’ sounding tremolo that moves between two levels, reminiscent of a square wave.” Got that? Well it is tricky and they do sound somewhat different but essentially they produce the same effect. The pedal I am using here, the Fulltone Supa-Trem uses a photocell to produce the sounds found in the classic Fender amps and most common tremolo circuit.
10. Chorus Pedal
Recommended: Boss Super Chorus Pedal >
Chorus pedals really made their mark in the 80’s with the likes of the Boss CE-1 and CE-2, the Electro Harmonix Small Clone and the TC Electronics Stereo Chorus. I found a nice definition of chorusing on Wikipedia: “Chorus pedals mimic the effect choirs and string orchestras produce naturally by mixing sounds with slight differences in timbre and pitch. A chorus effect splits the instrument-to-amplifier audio signal, and adds a slight delay and frequency variations or “vibrato” to part of the signal while leaving the rest unaltered.” A chorus is a modulation effect but the modulation we hear is produced by delaying the wet signal a very short duration causing the doubling effect we hear. So it is actually a time based effect.
Chorus pedals can provide a nice subtle doubling effect to the guitar or an extreme “watery” effect when maximized. Famous tunes that use chorus is “Come As You Are” (1991) by Nirvana, and “Brass in Pocket” (1979) by The Pretenders. But basically almost any clean guitar sound in the 80’s had some chorus on it! Certain effects are timeless such as overdrive, reverb and delay. Other effects like chorus can evoke certain time periods such as the 80’s so that is something to keep in mind when using an effect.
11. Flanger Pedal
Recommended: MXR Flanger Pedal >
The flanger is one of the more distinct effects out there, known for its jet-like sweeping sounds, it can also be very subtle as David Gilmour and Andy Summers have shown. It is similar to a chorus pedal in that it is a modulation time based effect. The flanger delays a copy of the original signal and mixes it in with the dry signal. The displacement of the time causes the swooshing effect. This can be done in multiple stages to produce a more dramatic flanged effect. “Originally flanging was done with tape machines” as explained here in a quote from Wikipedia. “The name “flanging” comes from the original method of creation.
Originally, a signal would be recorded to two tape machines simultaneously. The playback-head output from these two recorders was then mixed together onto a third recorder. In this form, minute differences in the motor speeds of each machine would result in a phasing effect when the signals were combined. The “flange” effect originated when an engineer would literally put a finger on the flange, or rim of one of the tape reels so that the machine was slowed down, slipping out of sync by tiny degrees. A listener would hear a “drainpipe” sweeping effect as shifting sum-and-difference harmonics were created. When the operator removed his finger the tape sped up again, making the effect sweep back in the other direction.” Famous tunes using flange effects are “Unchained” by Van Halen, “Spirit of Radio” by Rush and “Bold as Love” by Jimi Hendrix. The flange on “Bold as Love” is credited as being the first recorded use of the effect in stereo.
12. Univibe Pedal
Recommended: Fulltone Deja Vibe Univibe Pedal >
The Uni-Vibe was released in 1968 and became an immediate favorite of Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, and Robin Trower. It is actually a phase shifting effect, but what makes it groundbreaking is its use of an LFO (low frequency oscillator) to create the sweeping effect. It also uses a photocell to control the speed of the sweeping effect. That is basically a little light bulb inside the unit that will pulse at whatever speed the rate knob is set to. Also the brighter the pulse of the bulb the more dramatic the effect.
Unlike the unit I am using here, the original units were large, AC powered, and the speed was controlled with an external pedal. Vintage Uni-Vibe pedals are very expensive at this point but fortunately we can find some very high quality reissues. Famous uses of Uni-Vibe are “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix, “Bridge of Sighs” by Robin Trower, and “Breathe” by Pink Floyd.
13. Phase Shifter Pedal
Recommended: MXR Phase 90 Phase Shifter Pedal >
Phase Shifter pedals found their way into the guitar community in the 70’s with pedals like the MXR Phase 90, Mutron Phase Shifter, EH Small Stone, Foxx and others. The sweeping sound it produces is unmistakable and a legendary trademark of many guitarists sound. The MXR Phase 90 can be heard all over Van Halen 1 and II. Brian May used the Foxx phase on “Sheer Heart Attack,” The Eagles “Life In The Fast Lane”, and Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” to name but a few.
The effect also took Nashville by storm in the 70’s as well and was a favorite of Waylon Jennings’ music and others. What the effect does is mix the guitars signal with a slightly delayed reproduction of the signal. This delay shifts the waveform a few milliseconds thus producing the out of phase sound. It then uses a LFO (low frequency oscillator) to control the sweeping effect of the phaser. This pedal is key to the classic VH guitar sound!
14. Compressor Pedal
Recommended: MXR Dyna Comp Compressor Pedal >
A compressor “compresses” the signal that your guitar produces by normalizing the dynamic range of the audio input signal based on a threshold value. This effect is used virtually everywhere in recording. Everything you hear in music that is produced today is compressed in some way–and it can sound anything from a subtle barely noticeable effect to a thick, dampened squish.
The benefit of a compressor lies in that every note played will be at nearly the same amplitude, and therefore nearly equal in volume. This will help normalize tones that are sometimes lost in the mix because of complex overtones, and it will result in a more articulate sound. Notice that if you don’t pick all notes of an arpeggio at exactly the same pressure you will likely get a different sound for each note, especially if you are playing a tube amp. Tube amplifiers react dynamically to stronger and weaker signals it’s the allure of them and thus the non-uniformity of picking at different strengths will be exaggerated. A compressor will fix this problem and normalize all notes of the arpeggio regardless of the player’s technique and equipment, which is consequently why many soloists prefer them.
Compressors also have the ability to increase the sustain of notes beyond sounds that are normally usable on the instrument; yet another reason the effect is a popular tool in the soloist’s arsenal. The tiniest signal can be normalized to the same amplitude of a fierce pick attack, and a trailing note will resonate at the exact same volume until the string stops inducing a signal on the pickup.
15. Volume Pedal
Recommended: Ernie Ball VP JR Volume Pedal >
The volume pedal is about as simple as a pedal can get. It is basically an external volume knob that you work with your foot. They are an excellent way to control the volume of your rig and can be placed at different places in your guitar chain. When placed first for example it can be great for volume swells (as we will see), reducing your amp gain by acting like your guitar’s volume knob. If placed after your gain section it will bring down your overall volume without reducing changing your tone or gain. You can really experiment with the placement of a volume pedal to see what matches your needs.
16. Wah Pedal
Recommended: Dunlop Original Cry Baby Wah Wah Pedal >
The Wah Wah pedal is one of the coolest guitar effects ever. Released in 1967 as the Vox Clyde McCoy. Oddly enough Clyde McCoy was a trumpet player as the pedal was to be used when amplifying the horn. Fortunately guitarists picked up on the almighty wah. The name Cry Baby has become de facto for the wah as it became the most popular. A wah is basically an active tone control that boosts lower frequencies through higher ones by using the sweep of the pedal. A guitar’s tone knob is passive and just rolls off high end, the wah electronically boosts frequencies.
What makes the wah so timeless is its versatility, it can emulate a human voice, be a rhythmic device, boost a screaming lead, a tone shaping tool, among other uses.The first known commercial recording of a wah pedal is Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses”. As we know the distinctive sound caught on with just about every guitar player on the planet! There are too many uses of the wah to mention here, almost 50 years later it is still a must have pedal for every guitarist. For an in-depth look at wah history and a great read please check out “Analog Man’s Guide To Vintage Effects”.
What are your favorite guitar effects pedals? Let us know in the comments!
For more guitar effects pedals tutorials and information, check out Jeff McErlain’s full course, the Guitar Effects Survival Guide, which is a must-have tone almanac for electric guitar players.