Ever since the advent of the acoustic guitar, players have sought ways to create new sounds and push the limits on what a single guitar can accomplish. Many guitar heroes from Robert Johnson to Eddy Van Halen have used incredible technical skill and years of practice to propel the guitar forward while some have used more a mix of technique and technology.
Tom Morello, The Edge, and even Jack White have used effects pedals to great success to amplify and accentuate their guitar playing and create sounds unlike any heard before. While some of their pedals and playing styles are pretty out there, they still had to learn the basics about guitar effects, modulation, and experimentation before they could take the next step to legend status. Let’s take a look at a few of the basic, most popular pedals and how they can help take your playing to the next level and inspire creativity.
While these pedals are technically three different types, we’ll group them as one here for simplicity’s sake. Basically, the idea here is to change the signal by overloading it and changing the physical sound waves. For physics nerds, you’re taking the nice, clean sine wave of signal, and squaring it off thus changing the harmonics and sound by altering the frequency. For guitar and bass players, you’re taking your nice, clean signal and adding noise and volume.
Typically, this effect was produced naturally by traditional tube amplifiers when volume was cranked up, the tubes warmed up, and players hit the strings harder. Many drive, distortion, or fuzz pedals try to recreate this sound in solid state amps or help push tube amps to break up at a lower volume. This is a huge help, especially for amateurs who are often required to play in dorms, bedrooms, or houses where you cannot turn your amp up enough to naturally distort it.
Generally speaking, overdrive pedals produce the least amount of this effect, instead giving more of a vintage feel associated with early blues and rock legends. Distortion is a bit more of a compressed, hard clipping device that is not meant to drive the tubes to distortion, instead manually “distorting” the sound signal itself. This produces a heavier, grittier, thicker sound and is associated with louder and heavier rock and metal playing. Try comparing the overdriven tone of The Rolling Stone’s “Jumping Jack Flash” to their distorted riff on “Satisfaction”.
Fuzz is like distortion but the next level by being an even harder clipping, more compressing, distorting monster. Often, you hear people describe a fuzz tone as controlled chaos or mayhem, this is because fuzz pedals just produce these crazy harmonics and tones at will. If you’re looking to start an all-out audio ambush on the audience, a fuzz pedal is for you.
Next, we come to one of my favorite types of pedal, the echo or delay pedal. Typically echo pedals are described as a short delay or “slapback” kind of sound, and have been widely used in country, rock, and pop music. Delay pedals typically cover longer delay sounds be it either in terms of the length of time between each signal or the number of “delays” or repeating signals. The basic ideology is simple; take what you play and repeat it over and over again with a slight delay in between each signal. These pedals are often used to add texture to guitar solos or to create ambient, lush backgrounds to build songs over. The delay’s biggest endorser in the years has likely been U2’s The Edge who used it to add musical muscle to the band’s simple, one guitar attack. The pedal is also often associated with “shoegaze”-type music that features dense guitar effect sounds and looping.
Chorus is one of a handful of modulation effects available and widely used by musicians, especially in jazz and alternative rock performances. Some have described the chorus as fattening up your tone while making it sound warm, full, or dreamy. Chorus pedals work by having a circuit that creates two copies of your signal with a delay between them. In theory, they are supposed to create the sound of a backing choir but for your guitar signal, a sound that rings out, fills space, and sounds like multiple signals converging to sound as one.
Often built into amplifiers but also popular as a pedal, reverb is another classic guitar effect that has been featured on numerous legendary records. Reverb can be described as bringing space or depth to your music and while a chorus pedal may sound like a choir for your guitar, a reverb pedal sounds like the cathedral hall where the choir’s voices echo and carry.
Reverb is often split into a few smaller categories such as spring reverb or hall reverb. Hall reverb mimics the sound of your guitar tone reflecting off a myriad of surfaces a lot like the way sounds carry through large rooms. Spring reverb is more common on vintage amplifiers such as the wonderful Fender silverfaces or Vox AC30 models. It is characterized by having a tank that houses a number of springs that uses vibrational energy to reflect the sound artificially and amplify it.
When most people think of wah pedals, they think of blistering guitar solos instead of the technical sine wave manipulation that causes that signature “crying tone”. Wah’s mimic the human voice to some degree by allowing for notes, pitches, and frequencies to swell up and down. The pedal takes the peak response of the frequency filter and alternates it up and down quickly, based vaguely on how a mute can be used on trumpets to alter the sound. The wah can be used in a fixed position to get a specific tone for funk or reggae upstrokes or can be manipulated using the foot pedal to create the full spectrum of sounds that are produced by alternating the frequency response.
Building Your Pedal Board
These are just five of the most popular pedals and there are dozens more that have been used throughout the electric guitar’s history. Many of these pedals are also popular with bassists, especially fuzz and chorus, who are looking to help their bass tone cut through the mix or add texture to a song. If you’re just starting to build a pedal board, it is hard to go wrong with any of the five pedals listed above, but always check to see if any of these are built into your amp and controllable by footswitch. Now that these five are out of the way, what other pedals or guitar signal processing techniques would you like to learn about?