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Guitar Pedal Buying Guide

pedalboard with guitar pedals

How to Choose a Guitar Pedal

Like picking the all-time best ice cream flavor or a favorite color to paint your living room, choosing the right guitar pedal is completely subjective, and no one can tell you what you’re going to love. However, there’s a lot to know about different kinds of guitar effects and what they can do for you, so before you start buying pedals at random, you’ll want to get a solid overview of the basics. This Sweetwater Buying Guide takes a pedalboard-style approach to your signal path, providing important insights into the wide world of guitar effects.

Signal Flow

By and large, the path from your guitar to your amplifier is a straight line, and anything you stick into that path will affect everything down the line. That makes the order of your effects almost as important as the kind of effects you put on your pedalboard. While there’s no right way to arrange your pedals, the most common arrangement looks like this: guitar → gain stage → frequency → modulation → time → amp. Let’s take a look at each section and the kind of effects that belong there.


Gain-staging Effects

The first part of your signal chain is where you’ll typically stick any effects that are based on gain staging. That can rage from pedals as mild as clean gain boosts to insane fuzz effects, and the topic is so deep that we have an entire Buying Guide devoted to these effects. The important thing to keep in mind is that these pedals shape the foundation of the rest of your tone. You can construct harmonically complex tones with gain-based effects alone, but if you’re at the beginning of an extended signal chain, you may get better results by keeping it simple. There are many kinds of gain-staging pedals: gain boost, overdrive, distortion, compression, and volume control.

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Gain Boost

Also called clean boosts, gain boost pedals are basically in-line preamps designed specifically for high-impedance guitar signal. They range from totally transparent to mildly colored. There are two main purposes for gain boost pedals. First, you can use them to hit amplifiers and overdrive effects with an extra-hot signal, pushing them into the sweet spot with the click of a footswitch. The other common use for gain boosts is to compensate for signal loss over extensive effects pedal chains or extended cable runs, in which case they may need to be placed at the end of your pedalboard.

Some gain boost pedals include limited tone-shaping options, but most feature only a single volume control and a footswitch. Gain boosts are commonly found paired with overdrive effects as well.

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Overdrive

Overdrive picks up where boost pedals leave off, and there’s a fair amount of overlap between the two. Ostensibly, overdrive pedals simulate the breakup you get when you push an amplifier to the point where it starts to distort, emulating the progressive compression and distortion intensity based on incoming volume. However, many overdrive pedals (e.g., the classic Ibanez Tube Screamers) are often used as dirty boosts, driving your amplifier’s preamp while adding a bit of color and texture as well.

There are two gain stages in a typical overdrive: the input volume (how hard you hit the effect) and the output volume, which drives the rest of your signal path. It’s also common to see at least a simple tone control for backing off high frequencies, though bass, treble, and other tone-shaping controls aren’t rare.

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Distortion

If your tone was a batch of chili, then the various types of distortion pedals would be the peppers. They come in a wide range of styles, each with its own flavor and heat range, but they all serve the purpose of spicing up the mix. While some rare tube models exist, typical distortion pedals use diodes and some form of transistor to push incoming signal to the clipping point. The transistor has a lot to do with the character of the distortion, with variants such a silicon-, germanium-, and FET-based models each imparting a particular set of nuances. Taken to an extreme, where the distortion loses virtually all its dynamics, you get fuzz effects.

Common controls you’ll find on distortion pedals include an incoming volume adjustment, drive (gain boost), and a tone knob that usually rolls off harsh high frequencies. They’re also regularly combined with other effects and processors, such as compression and overdrive.

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Compression

As a type of signal processor, guitar compressors aren’t all that different from the compressors you’ll find in the studio. They turn down the volume of signal that’s louder than a certain threshold, decreasing the dynamic range. If the compressor is set to kick in quickly and boost the output, effectively making the quietest sound close to the same volume as the loudest ones, then you get a sustain effect that’s great for solos. On the other hand, if the compressor is set to kick in after a short delay, allowing unaffected transients to pass without gain reduction, then the punchier effect you get is ideal for chicken pickin’ and other more articulated playing styles.

Compression pedals vary in complexity from simple one-knob compressors with fixed settings to sophisticated studio-style compressors with attack, release, threshold, ratio, and volume controls. The most common configurations you’ll find consist of two or three knobs including a gain adjustment and additional controls that frequently combine two other functions, such as ratio and threshold, into one knob.

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Volume Control

These large rocker pedals are more of a utility than an effect, essentially placing a volume control at your feet. Though you can stick one anywhere in your signal path, volume control pedals usually live somewhere toward the end of the gain stage section. They’re perfect for creating smooth swells that add ambience to your music or subtle fade-outs, but their variable levels make them less effective than gain boost pedals when you want to give your amplifier an extra push.


Frequency Effects

Filtering effects cover anything in the frequency domain, including equalizers, wah-wah effects, pitch shifters, and similar effects. This stage follows gain staging because gain-based effects tend to add a lot of harmonic complexity to your sound, which either negates filtering or produces unflattering results.

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EQ

When it comes to making precise frequency adjustments, sculpting your harmonics, or correcting problems in your tone, nothing does the trick like an EQ pedal. It’s possible to use one of these at the end of your signal chain to correct for frequency imbalances caused by modulation, delay, reverb, or other effects, but most guitarists seem to get the most out of their EQ pedals by sticking them right after the gain-staging section. That way, you can fix any tone problems before they throw off other effects and create more serious frequency imbalances that are much harder to correct.

Most guitar equalizer pedals are graphic EQs with between five and 10 frequency bands. These are easy to dial in on the fly, in case you need to make quick adjustments to suit a particular venue. Other formats range from simple amp-style tone controls to full studio-style parametric layouts, both of which are great for punching in creative tone shifts as well as fixing frequency imbalances.

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Wah-wah and Envelope Filter

There’s a whole class of effects pedals based on sweeping a resonant peaking filter across the frequency spectrum to create a vocal-style articulation. The oldest of these types of pedals is the wah-wah, which lets you sweep the filter manually by rocking your foot. As a rhythmical element, it’s a mainstay of funk and disco, but the continuously variable expression of the wah-wah is a fundamental sound of classic-rock and blues-rock solos as well. While the controls are generally pretty simple, dominated by a single rocker pedal and a few adjustments at most, wah-wahs differ considerably based on their circuitry and their control mechanism (potentiometer vs. optical sensor).

The autowah pedal (also called an envelope filter) was developed soon after the original wah-wah pedal. By triggering a resonant peaking filter off of incoming transients (usually the pick hitting the string), the autowah was originally intended to produce the same choppy rhythm sound you can get from a wah-wah pedal. However, the faster automatic frequency sweep response that these pedals provided opened up a new range of effects. Add to that a broad range of controls, including filter styles, dynamics response, envelope shape, and others, and no two envelope filters sound or behave the same.

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Pitch Shifter/Harmony

Pitch shifters and harmony pedals come in many styles, from the classic momentary octave up pedal or octave down bass-emulation models to polyphonic harmony pedals that let you dial in full chords. Each of these pedals is its own unique beast, with controls depending entirely on its function. If you enjoy creating unique sounds and thinking outside the box with your tone, then you can have a lot of fun with pitch shifters and harmonizers.

One thing to consider about pitch shifters and harmony pedals is that, although effects manufacturers have made great strides in pitch-shifting technology, there are two things you should know. First, while the effect can be creative and cool, none of these pedals sound particularly realistic, and the more you alter the pitch, the less realistic they sound. Second, the lower the pitch you play, the harder it is for a pitch shifter to track the note, and you may end up with significant lag or glitches. If you have to choose between playing low and adding harmonies above or playing high and adding harmonies below, the latter is almost always the better option.


Modulation Effects

While modulation pedals affect combinations of gain staging, frequency, and time, they tend to live in a special place on your pedalboard, somewhere between frequency effects and more pronounced time-based effects. The term “modulation” really just means that the effect is based on changing something over time. In the case of modulation pedals, the change is regulated by a low-frequency oscillator (LFO), and the part of your signal the LFO affects is the biggest defining characteristic in this class of pedal.

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Tremolo and Vibrato

Both tremolo and vibrato effects are based on a simple LFO that modulates one tonal element and nothing more. Tremolo pedals modulate volume (a classic rockabilly and surf effect), whereas vibrato pedals modulate pitch in a way that’s similar to a Leslie rotary speaker. In either case, basic controls include depth (the extent of the change in volume or pitch) and rate (the speed of the effect).

Most of these pedals will allow you to shape the LFO as well, with tremolo pedals regularly offering a range from smooth pulses to a hard square wave that adds a percussive click to your sound. Those vibrato pedals that try to more closely emulate Leslie speakers will usually include controls for changing the rate of the effect (often limited to two settings) as well as adding ramp-up time between changing speeds.

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Chorus and Flanger

Chorus and flanger effects are so similar that they’re not only frequently confused, but they’re also often covered by the same pedal. This makes sense because flanging emulates an old studio trick involving desynchronizing two tape reels, and chorus is the result of an early attempt to emulate flanging that produced slightly different results. The biggest difference in the effect itself is that flanging produces a distinct rise-and-fall sound, whereas chorus pronounces a more spacious shimmer with noticeable delay.

Flangers produce a movable comb filter (a series of frequency dips and peaks) by doubling the incoming signal, delaying the doubled signal slightly (no more than a few milliseconds), modulating the delay so the filtering shifts a bit, and feeding a small amount of the delayed signal back into the effect. Typical flanger controls include the modulation rate and depth as well as the amount of feedback.

Chorus effects involve modulating a delayed signal just like a flanger, only there’s considerably more delay and no (or very little) feedback. They tend to have broader depth and rate controls. Additional controls include pre-delay for further offsetting the delayed signal and a tone knob for cutting down the brightness. The result is that you can produce considerably more pronounced effects with a chorus than with a flanger, with more noticeable delay.

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Phaser/Phase Shifter

Phasers use an interesting method of phase cancellation to create a number of frequency notches and peaks at evenly spaced intervals across the spectrum. An LFO modulates the cutoff frequencies of the phase-shifted signal, causing a gradual sweep that’s similar to flanging, but a bit subtler. It’s a favorite effect for adding color to rhythm guitar. While classic phasers typically have only a single rate control, some modern phasers include a depth control, which lets you increase the amount of resonance in the filtering to produce a much more noticeable effect.


Time Effects

From subtle ambience to infinitely deep, spacious textures, time-based effects are found on pedalboards throughout all of modern music. They range from distinctly artificial to astonishingly realistic. Like distortion effects, time-based effects pedals are all a matter of taste, and the perfect delay or reverb pedal for surf guitar may have little in common with the one you’d want for a metal lead.

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Delay

At its simplest, delay is an effect based on taking the original incoming signal and repeating it some time (or multiple times) later. The basic controls of any delay pedal include the delay time, the number of times the delay is repeated (the feedback), and the balance between the incoming signal and the delayed signal. More importantly, delay effects are common to any kind of modern music, from the short slap-back delay used in surf and rockabilly to the long delays favored by blues-rock lead guitarists. Many guitarists don’t consider a pedalboard complete without delay.

Delay types are generally based on the type of circuitry or digital algorithm used to create the effect. Early analog delay pedals used loops of tape or a series of bucket brigade chips, both of which produce distinct harmonics and decay characteristics as the delay repeats trail off. Later, digital delays developed distinct sounds of their own, with Adaptive Delta Modulation and PCM delay types providing unique characteristics that guitarists still love. Today, delay pedals often feature multiple delay styles and delay lines (taps) that let you create an impressive range of effects.

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Reverb

The goal of any reverb – regardless of whether you’re using the effect on vocals in the studio or a keyboard onstage – is to create a sense of space around the sound. Some of these effects are purely synthetic (and impressively musical), others emulate classic analog-reverb types such as springs and plates, while yet others emulate the sound of large rooms and real spaces. Comparing one reverb to another is next to impossible, since reverb is all a matter of personal taste.

Depending on the onboard options, reverb pedals can have anywhere from a single level control to a plethora of digital settings that allow you to craft your ideal reverb tone. The common controls you’ll find include decay (how quickly the reverb effect fades out) and either a level or a wet/dry balance to adjust how much reverb you hear. Tone controls to tame high end are also fairly common.


Other Effects Pedals

There are a number of additional types of guitar pedals that fall somewhat outside this typical pedalboard arrangement, including amp emulators, instrument modelers, loopers, multi-effects pedals, and more.

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Amp Emulation

Lying somewhere between distortion and overdrive, amp-emulation pedals model the specific characteristics of particular styles of guitar amplifiers. Amplifier-emulation pedals are a lot like amplifiers, in that there are many of them, and they each offer a different range of tones, from subtle warmth to insane distortion and drive. These are extremely cool, particularly if you use a neutral, solid-state amplifier or want to record direct, without an amplifier. Depending on whether you want to use it as a type of distortion or to simulate an amplifier, you may stick your amp-emulation pedal toward the front or the back of your pedalboard.

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Instrument Modeling

Want to switch to an acoustic guitar mid-song? How about turning your guitar into an organ? There are some seriously interesting instrument-modeling pedals out there that can totally transform your sound. What’s more, these pedals seem to be getting more popular every year, so there’s always something new to explore.

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Loopers

Over the past decade, looper pedals have become increasingly popular. The idea is pretty simple: you start recording when you step on the footswitch, and when you step on it again, what you just played loops back indefinitely. There are loopers that are much more complex than this, with multiple parts, sync capabilities, and other cool features, but even a basic looper can be an amazing songwriting and practice tool. What’s more, there are many excellent ways to use loopers onstage, particularly to create background rhythms and continuous effects.

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Loop Switchers

Not to be confused with loopers (and not strictly speaking effects at all), loop switchers are a major part of advanced pedalboard construction. These devices let you set up independent effects loops that you can switch on and off and arrange in various configurations. One of the biggest bonuses of using a loop switcher is that you can leave all of your pedals engaged and, with a single press of a footswitch, engage them all. This lets you pull off massive tone changes mid-song, including switching amplifiers right along with your effects. If you look at the pedalboards of the top guitarists out there, there’s a good chance you’ll find a powerful loop switcher in there.

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Multi-effects Pedals

Take all of these other pedal types and toss them into one oversized pedal, and you get a typical modern multi-effects pedal. Some of these pedals are extremely cool, with physical modeling that not only covers all of the bases, but also allows you to dig in deep and tweak your effects as though they were individual pedals. If you play in a cover band or on a worship team, multi-effects pedals can save you a lot of money and a lot of trouble. They don’t offer quite the same freedom and possible sound quality as traditional pedals, but having your whole pedalboard in a single unit that can be as small as a single pedal is mighty convenient.


Advanced Concepts

There are a few additional concepts that will help you make informed decisions about the pedals you buy. These are deep subjects, so these quick overviews don’t cover everything, but they’re a good place to start.

Stereo vs. Mono

Some pedals – particularly time-based types – include the option to run the effect in mono or stereo. The advantage of running pedals in stereo is that you get to take full advantage of the depth and dimension of spacial effects such as room reverbs and ping-pong delays. The downside is that, unless you’re either recording or running two amplifiers, stereo doesn’t do you much good. What’s more, stereo effects can come with some unpleasant phase-related issues that can cause your tone to be lost in the mix. It’s a bit of a gamble, but when stereo effects work, they’re absolutely amazing.

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True Bypass vs. Buffered Bypass

This is the topic of endless debates between tweaky guitar players. The simple answer is that neither true bypass nor buffered bypass is inherently better than the other. Ostensibly, true bypass completely cuts the circuitry of the pedal out of the signal path when it’s not in use, keeping your signal path free from any additional coloration caused by the pedal’s circuitry. However, there’s still a considerable amount of wiring in guitar pedals, and several true-bypass pedals in a row will add the equivalent of several feet of extra guitar cable.

Buffered-bypass pedals may affect your tone, but the small amount of amplification they provide improves signal retention and fights the high-end attenuation caused by an extended cable run. If you’re running a few pedals over a small distance, true bypass may be better for you, but if you have a packed pedalboard, then buffered bypass may provide you with better tone all of the time.

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Batteries vs. AC

There’s a persistent myth that all AC power supplies are noisy and can ruin your sound. While there’s no getting around the fact that bad power can affect your pedals, and batteries will get around that issue, bad power is going to be an even bigger problem for your guitar amplifier than your pedalboard. Some pedalboard power supplies are great at fighting power-related noise, but the best thing you can do for your guitar gear is to get a decent power conditioner and run your amp and your pedals through it. That way, you get clean sound, and you don’t need to worry about juggling 9-volt batteries when your pedals die mid-show.

Any Questions?

Of course you still have questions about guitar pedals. This subject is insanely dense, and there are so many things to cover. Lucky for you, we have a staff of extremely knowledgeable Sales Engineers, and lots of them geek out about this gear as much as you do. Don’t miss out on taking advantage of their years of expertise. Give us a call at Sweetwater: (800) 222-4700.

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