Japanese company Boss changed the lives of us guitarists forever, when it introduced its first pedal tuner in 1998. At last it was possible to simply step on a pedal and tune between songs with the signal muted. The tuner pedal has been a vital ingredient in every professional’s arsenal ever since, with dramatic effects on the sound of live bands.
Many like to have their tuner placed as the first pedal, others prefer their tuner to be the last link in the chain. Both positions work equally well. We like to view tuners – and their placement – in terms of the aspects of signal buffering and true bypass, which do have an important bearing on how the first effects will react and sound.
2) Wah-wah, auto-wah/filters & EQ
Compared to many other instruments, the guitar’s frequency range is somewhat limited. Most of the vital information is contained in the mid-frequencies, which means that manipulating the mid-band can lead to drastic tonal changes.
Filters that react to (and interact strongly with) your playing dynamics should be placed close to your instrument. This way they will be in direct contact with the guitar and its pickups.
A wah-wah pedal lets you shift a narrow filter by moving your foot on its treadle. The wah pedal lets you highlight certain frequencies by putting the focus squarely on them.
The first wah-wah was developed as an effect for trumpeters and trombonists, even though it found its way quickly into the very limited effect arsenal of the Sixties guitarist. The wah pedal is a very lively, emotional and evocative effect, and even makes it possible to imitate the human voice. This is probably the reason for it being such a quintessential guitar effect. The wah can make your guitar sing, laugh or cry, depending on where you want to take it.
Many also use a “parked wah” – that is a wah that is kept in one position – or a slowly moving wah-wah to boost their lead parts. You can also achieve this effect by using a filter, an EQ, or an auto-wah.
An auto-wah (envelope filter) uses the same basic idea as wah-wah, but here the guitarist controls the frequency sweep using his (or her) playing dynamics. You adjust the filter’s cut-off frequency, as well as the auto-wah’s sensitivity, and control the rest with your pick attack.
An auto-wah can sound like a quacking duck or the gurgle of a wild river, depending on the way you use it. The effect is very similar to a wah-wah pedal, but the auto-wah has no treadle; instead, it reacts to your playing dynamics.
The auto-wah is also widely used to funk up slap bass parts, electric pianos, or clavinets. If you want a wah sound, but don’t fancy using your foot, you should try an auto-wah.
An EQ (short for equalizer) is most often used as a mid-booster for your lead breaks and solos. It lets you boost or cut different frequency bands in a non-time-dependent fashion. The results are much more neutral and precise than with filters. An EQ is less of an effect and more about fine-adjusting your tone. If you know what you’re doing, filters and EQs will help you to fade out unwanted frequencies from your sound and/or highlight the most important aspects of your tone to cut through a busy live mix. It can also be used to even out differences between different guitars.
Remember that you don’t necessarily need to boost anything to achieve the best results. Try to cut some of the clutter that makes your guitar clash with the snare drum or the keyboards for a better band sound. You could also try leaving room for the bass player and the second guitarist in your signal’s frequency spectrum.
The compressor is an important tool for shaping many a guitarist’s tone, which is why it’s often placed at the beginning of the chain.
Many legendary guitar tones have been created using a very healthy dose of signal compression. Take “chicken picking”, for example, which relies heavily on lots of compression. Old Ross compressors are great for using compression in this way. Many current compressor pedals take their inspiration of these models, or at least from them. These traditional compressors can really squeeze your signal and totally level your playing dynamics, while retaining your plectrum’s attack “click”.
Other compressor pedals take their cue from recording studio equipment, and work with more finesse. This type of compressor can be used to iron out unwanted signal spikes discretely, making finding the best amplifier settings much easier. In some cases the compressor is an important, but hardly noticeable ingredient in a guitarist’s signature tone.
Most of us find it easiest to start out with a more muscular compressor. Once you’ve understood what exactly a compressor does, it’s easy to apply the effect a bit more sparingly. Many use a compressor to simulate an amp’s sag characteristics in low-volume situations, while placing a compressor behind an overdrive pedal will give you an additional boost stage to push the amp over the edge. Remember, that this effect will also amplify your signal, including any hum, buzz or other extraneous noises.
4) Harmonizer, Octaver and Octafuzz
These effects take the original signal and add a second, “artificial” signal on top of it, which is based directly on the original signal. With these stompboxes the cleaner the signal is, the better and more reliably they will work.
There are different ways of looking at octavers. Some will add a higher octave, others a lower. Then there’s the division into analogue and digital octavers, too. Using an “octave down” octave pedal will give you organ-like tones, which are often used by neoclassical guitarists, who like to inject some Bach into their playing. Most modern pedals also allow you to adjust the balance between the original signal and the octave.
Octafuzz pedals don’t give you a true, pure octave, but rather a kind of bent mirror image of the original signal that our ears process as a higher octave. Legendary effects guru Roger Mayer originally developed this type of fuzzed out octaver for Jimi Hendrix. Thanks to Jimi’s legendary status, this type of effect is still sought after.
Most octavers, regardless of their type, tend to work best when fed with the signal of a neck pickup, especially if you go for fast runs. The neck pickup’s signal contains much more of a note’s vital fundamental, which the octaver needs to do its job properly, than the overtone-rich bridge pickup. It’s also very important to have a clean technique when using octaver pedals, because octavers rely solely on the incoming guitar signal. Especially digital effects should be placed as close to the guitar as possible.
The great advantage of digital octavers is their ability to work polyphonically, meaning they can transpose whole chords (instead of single notes only). Digital octavers first appeared at the beginning of this millennium. Polyphonic octaving can help you imitate a 12-string guitar, or even a harp.
Harmonizers (also called pitch shifters) produce the harmony guitar type of effects digitally in real-time. Listen to the Eagles, Thin Lizzy, or Iron Maiden for prime examples of twin-guitar harmonies. Queen’s Brian May even built whole guitar orchestra’s on many of the band’s songs.
A harmonizer can make you sound like a couple (or three) guitarists playing lead lines in perfect harmony to a song’s key. You can also use these devices to create more outlandish soundscapes. These digital effect pedals are real founts of inspiration.
Group B – Gain Pedals
The main function of a gain effect is to raise the signal level. Often this means overdriving and/or distorting the guitar sound. You can roughly sort gain pedals into the following groups (from mild to wild) – boosters, overdrives, distortions, and fuzzes.
Overdrive and distortion pedals should be hooked up with the more “brutal” stompbox coming first. If you use two overdrive/distortion pedals at the same time, the high-gain stompbox will take charge of your sustain, while the “tamer” effect will be more of a tone shaper. Putting the high-gain box closer to amp usually tends to yield less useable results.
Overdrives and distortions can produce a large variety of sounds, ranging from a very slight boost all the way to the sound of an amp stack at full tilt. In the latter case, guitar anoraks will call such a pedal a “foundation-pedal” – a sonic foundation on which the rest of a guitarist’s tone is build.
Fuzzes are the most uncompromising gain effects. Many fuzzes are even more brutal than high-gain distortion pedals. If a distortion pedal does sound like a stack running on full tilt, a fuzz pedal often sounds like a faulty amp driven to extremes. But note, the word “fuzz” can mean different things to different people. Some think of fuzz as a creamy, thick lead sound, while others say “fuzz” when they mean the most grinding riff tones ever.
Fuzz pedals have been built ever since the Sixties, a time when solid state components were still very capricious. The unpredictable and temperature-dependent nature of early germanium transistors lent early fuzz pedals a near mythical air, and a very soft-edged tone. Modern germanium pedals use hand-selected transistors to produce the types of sounds the best vintage pedals are famous for.
If you want to control your germanium fuzz pedal from your guitar’s volume knob, you shouldn’t have many effects in front of the fuzz. Players who use this technique want the pedal to react faithfully to the volume control, which is why they need the germanium fuzz close to the guitar. You can try to place it at the beginning of the effects chain and listen do you hear any difference in the sound behaviour.
When silicone transistors were phased in they changed the sound of fuzz pedals. Silicone transistors are less temperamental, more dependable, and they offer a much higher gain ratio. For many guitarists this is the way a fuzz pedal should sound. Thanks to both transistor types still being used, you can find the “right” fuzz pedal for any taste.
A distortion pedal will add a healthy dose of signal clipping to proceedings, turning the signal into a saw waveform. The distortion sound you’ll get from transistors is quite similar to what you’d get from the preamp section of a high-gain valve amplifier. Both will give you the bite and crunch modern hard-and-heavy guitar styles call for.
A distortion doesn’t rely much on interaction with the amp – it will sound like itself, even if direct-injected into a mixer. Most guitarists use distortions plugged into a clean amplifier channel, which is then turned into a fire-breathing stack, simply by stepping on the pedal.
We think “traditional wisdom”, stating that a genuine Metal-sound can only be achieved with a hot stack, is much too narrow-minded. Using a quality distortion pedal can turn almost any amp into a Metal Machine.
The easiest way to distinguish an overdrive pedal from other effects in the gain group is to think about the way it is used. In contrast to a distortion or a fuzz, which are somewhat more independent, the overdrive is meant to work in tandem with the guitar amp to drive the signal over the edge. The pedal becomes an organic part of the natural tone of the guitar and amp combination used. Overdrives produce a mild subtle and sweet clipping on the signal peaks, while leaving the rest of the signal’s waveform linear, much in the same way tube amp overdrive works.
You can also find overdrive effects producing unsymmetrical clipping, which is similar to the effect unmatched output valves can have in a tube amp. This results in the positive and negative halves of the signal’s waveform getting different amounts (or types) of overdrive, which will give you a fatter sound with more grind and an added dose of dissonance.
Your classic overdrive tone is always a combination of the pedal effect and the inherent tone and character of your amp. The pedal does a little bit of clipping and fattening, but its main objective is to push the signal level, so that the amp starts to overdrive, too. A traditional overdrive pedal usually doesn’t sound that great when played on its own, because it needs to interact with the amplifier.
The new class of so-called foundation overdrives is different, though. This new type of overdrive takes over the role of the guitar amp in shaping and recreating the overdrive tones of different amplifier models, for example classic amps from the UK or the States. These pedals can be used as stand-alone effects, because they form the complete sound of an overdriven amp, making them a welcome addition to more traditional pedals.
Group C – Modulation
The history of modulation effects is full of chance discoveries and garbled-up terminology. Many of these effects started out by people trying to recreate the swooshing, magical tones of a Leslie rotor cabinet in an easy-to-carry pedal form.
These days there are many different and interesting permutations of modulation pedals available – far too many to list them all, or to sort them neatly and comprehensively. You can find your sonic approximation in many shapes and forms – be it a chorus, a vibe pedal, or a phaser.
Modulation-pedals work terrifically well, when placed right behind the overdrive and distortion boxes. All the added texture will give the modulation effects something to work on.
Even though this list shows you the modulation effects in a certain order, the exact placement of modulation effects inside this group leaves a wide field for experimenation. The only important thing is placing the tremolo last.
Usually modulation effects are used one at a time, but let your imagination run wild, and let your own ears decide what suits in to your music.
8) Chorus, Leslie & Flanger
The idea of the chorus effect has a very long history. In churches hymns were sung by many singers at the same time to fatten up the sound. Church organs soon became equipped with technical gimmicks to achieve the rich sound of a choir of voices (look for organ stops labeled “vox humana” or “chorale”).
The Hammond organ and the Leslie cabinet were originally conceived as modern alternatives to the mechanical church organ. In the recording studio a similar effect was created by playing or singing the same part twice as overdubs. The fashion for double tracking later led to the recreation of this sound automatically, using Automatic Double Tracking, which is a sort of forefather to the chorus effect.
The first chorus effect carrying this name was introduced in the Seventies by Japanese company Roland as a built-in effect in their successful Jazz Chorus guitar combo. Since then chorus has become one of the most-used guitar effects ever.
Progress in solid-state technology meant ever-smaller chorus-pedals with less complicated circuits. The deepest, richest, and most organic chorus effects, though, still can only be created by chaining a number of electronic circuits. This is why some of the best effects around today still come in a rather large format physically.
It’s hard to imagine certain musical styles without the use of a chorus pedal. In the 1980s the chorus sound was so prevalent that many guitarists started to become fed up with it. Nirvana and other Grunge bands later put chorus effects squarely back on the map, and the effect hasn’t left us since.
When it came out in the 1940s the Leslie cabinet, with its rotating speakers and/or rotating baffles, quickly became a standard issue for organists, but it took the better part of two decades before guitarists discovered the effect. At the tail end of the Sixties the Leslie effect became a favourite of many Psychedelic Rock guitarists.
With a physical Leslie the magic’s in the mechanical workings of its speakers, baffles, and motors. Only quite recently processor technology has managed to catch up with all the finer details of the Leslie cabinet’s sound and features.
In the beginning flanger was purely a studio effect, which was achieved by playing back the same material on two tape machines simultaneously. By creating an offset between the two tape machines – either by braking the tape spool (also called a flange) with your hand, or by using a vari-speed control – you got a very rich swooshing effect from the occurring frequency cancellations. It is said that Beatle John Lennon himself came up with the term “flanging” in 1966 while the band were recording the album “Revolver”.
The deep sound of flanging had much of the charms of a slowly rotating Leslie, and quickly became a popular gimmick on records of the late 60s and early 70s. Achieving a convincing flanger electronically (without tape machines) was surprisingly complicated. Even in the Seventies flangers were huge rack-mounted effects, which contained a lot of different components.
You have to remember, though, that most phasers and vibes use only four to eight modulation stages, while the best flangers modulate the signal up to a hundred (or more) times. You need complicated circuits to do this, which is why – with flangers – big can be beautiful.
9) Phaser and Vibe
The most famous use of a vibe pedal was Jimi Hendrix’ set at Woodstock, as seen in the concert film. The vibe is probably the single most “psychedelic” effect available.
Originally conceived as an electronic version of the Leslie cabinet, and later superseded by its milder cousin, the phaser, it still holds a special place in the rigs of many guitarists.
It was born out of Psychedelia in the 1960s, with Robin Trower carrying the Univibe flame into the Seventies. The vibe sound, which is based on phase manipulation, has become a legendary classic. Vibe pedals can be used in many musical genres. Pink Floyd’s sound wouldn’t have quite been the same without a vibe, the same goes for Jimi Hendrix.
The phaser was originally developed to achieve two things – it was meant to recreate the sound of mechanical flanging used in the Sixties in recording studios, while also trying to sound like a swooshing Leslie cabinet – just like the Univibe-pedal.
It didn’t take long for phasers – which tend to have a milder, less “wet” sound – to become more popular than the more drastic-sounding Univibe. Still, the two effects have a lot in common tonally, so we’d suggest you check them both out to try and find the best effect for your needs.
10) Vibrato and Tremolo
Leo Fender messed up musical terminology for generations to come by calling his Stratocaster vibrato bridge the “Synchronized Tremolo” in 1954. Thanks to this misnomer, many guitarists still have trouble keeping the terms “vibrato” and “tremolo” apart.
Vibrato is probably the oldest effect known to mankind. It means pitch fluctuation – just what a singer does with his vocal cords, or a guitarist by softly shaking his left hand. Vibrato makes a note sound more natural and lively.
Electric guitar makers latched onto the importance of vibrato early on. Many guitars came factory-equipped with mechanical devices to “wobble” the strings’ pitch. But this meant having to deal with a vibrato bar of some kind while playing, and many guitarists felt this encumbered their right hand picking. This is why amp makers tried to achieve vibrato effects electronically. Building an analogue vibrato isn’t easy or cheap. This is probably one reason why Leo Fender called the tremolo circuits in many of his amplifiers “vibratos”. A vibrato pedal can sound great in Roots Blues or if you’re after spaced-out, psychedelic tones.
Originally, “tremolo” meant a quick and steady repeat of the same note, and it has been part of the musical vocabulary for string instrument players for centuries (think mandolins, for example). Guitarists, too, are using tremolo – both in the classical and electric guitar fields.
When keyboardists wanted to have their share of the tremolo action, inventors devised mechanical and electro-mechanical ways of doing this. Tremolo became the sound of a long note chopped up into a flow of short notes and short rests, which sounded like the note being repeated very quickly. This choppy type of tremolo is what found its way into tube amplifiers, and later into effect pedals.
Very often tremolo effects are used to conjure up images of vintage Americana. Tremolo fell out of favour for a while, but when Nineties’ Hollywood started revisiting the Fifties, the old guitar effect was brought back from the dead. When used in a tasteful manner, tremolo effects will bring back golden memories of high school dances, full-fat milkshakes, and gleaming tail-finned cars.
Group D – Time and Space
The exact placement of the volume pedal in the signal chain makes a large difference in the final sound. If you place the pedal in front of everything else, it will control the guitar’s signal level going into your pedalboard. If you place the volume pedal behind your distortion effect, the amount of distortion will stay unaffected of the volume pedal’s setting. It will just make your sound louder or quieter to fit circumstances.
Placing the volume pedal right in front of your delay box will make it possible to keep the repeats going, while simultaneously muting the rest of the guitar signal. If you need a master volume and mute control, you should put the volume pedal last on your pedalboard.
Some effects allow you to connect an expression pedal. The expression pedal lets you control predetermined parameters of the effect on-the-fly, for even more precise tone shaping. This special feature of some digital effects helps you create very interesting and fresh guitar sounds. There are version on the market that share both functions. Expression pedal does not not have anything to do with signal chain, so do not worry about it´s placement on the pedalboard.
12) Delay and Echo
Guitar players very often use the terms “delay”, "echo" and “reverb” interchangeably, when they talk about time-based effects that add a sense of space to their guitar sound. We have to make clear distinctions to avoid confusion, whenever we talk about effect pedals.
Tape echo simulations tend to be a strong player’s favourite among this group of effects. They usually sound great, and they often are a bit unpredictable, which will feed your inspiration.
These pedals have their roots in the genuine physical tape echoes of the Fifties and Sixties, which used magnetic tape (or sometimes discs) to produce their repeats. Tape echoes are an integral part of the history of the electric guitar. Thanks to modern processors and digital modelling, the sound of tape echo pedals has become virtually undistinguishable from their analogue forebears.
When we say delay, we mean clearly distinguishable (single) repeats, often with relatively long delay times. An echo effect tends to have shorter delay times and multiple delays, which often also have multiple repeats. An echo is like shouting into a canyon, with your voice being thrown back at you a number of times.
Delay pedals first became available in the 1970s, thanks to miniature solid-state components. The most basic of delay effects simply records the incoming signal, and then plays it back with a player-determined time delay (tempo). Most delays tend to sound cleaner and more transparent compared to tape echoes.
Although the sound quality of the first analogue bucket-brigade-delay chips was quite greasy, many guitarists made the switch gladly, because the pedals were compact, reliable, and more stable in tempo than bulky tape echo units.
After the initial rush to first-generation digital delays, with their pristine, but often rather one-dimensional sounds, digital went out of favour for a while. Luckily, times have changed. A well-designed modern digital delay will keep your dry, analogue signal intact, and mix it with the effected signal. Modern digital delay units offer fantastic sound quality, making the swampy analogue delay more of a specialist tool, these days.
A delay (or echo) is usually placed very near the end of the signal chain, to allow the delays to affect any other effect combinations.
In terms of pedal effects, a reverb is an effect that simulates the sound of a room, a concert hall, or a mechanical spring or plate reverb. Reverb always adds a sense of depth, but usually doesn’t feature distinguishable repeats in its decay phase.
Naturally, a reverb is placed last in line, because it is meant to add reverberation to the finished signal. It adds a sense of space to your tone.
Apart from the tape echo, reverb is by far the most-used and most important ingredient in the short history of guitar tones. When talking about reverb, most guitarists mean the sound of a (mechanical) spring reverb (also called a reverb tank). There are a number of other popular reverb types, but most of us will go for a spring reverb sound first.
The first reverb tanks were external add-on effects, but manufacturers quickly found a way to install spring reverbs in their combo amplifiers. Thanks to the mind-boggling progress of audio technology, fantastic-sounding spring reverb simulations can now be packed into very compact pedals. It isn’t so long ago that digital reverbs still sounded flat, cold and sterile, and simulated spring reverbs lacked the wet “sploinging” and “splashing” so typical of the genuine article.
Luckily, the newest generations of spring reverb pedals will give you all the depth and wet pleasures their mechanical ancestors became famous for.
The last ones in the row
14) Looper pedals
A looper is a recording device allowing you to record your guitar playing, and then play it back as a loop. The “bigger” the looper (read: the more memory space it offers) the more recording time will be available, making very long loops and/or lots of overdubs possible.
Looping originally started in the Sixties with tape machines and tape echoes and they have become an important tool for buskers and solo artists. It’s relatively easy to achieve impressive results, when soloing over a (self-recorded) looped backing.
Of course, you can also run your loops through other effects. Try running a loop through a delay pedal for some spaced out soundscapes. Or add distortion to some parts, while keeping the rest clean. The biggest loopers are crammed with features, basically putting a whole recording studio at your feet. Go where your imagination takes you!
15) Booster pedals
Most of the amps of the 1950s and 60s had far too much headroom for our modern taste. Back then distortion was considered totally unwanted. In the late Sixties tastes began to change, and guitarists were looking for fatter tones and a long, singing sustain.
Boost (or booster) pedals were developed to push the signal level up, in order to make the amp’s preamplifier distort. If applied in the right way, you can even make the booster affect the amplifier´s output tubes, which will result in a very tasty mix of all the overdrive sounds from the different gain stages in your guitar amp.
A booster should be placed at the very end, right in front of the amp, so it can boost your signal without messing up any other effects. We wouldn’t recommend to place a booster in front of an overdrive/distortion pedal, because their circuits often mush up when fed with a too hot signal.
Effects for Bass Guitar
It isn’t only guitarists who can have fun using stompboxes. Many effects work well with bass guitars, too. Modulation effects and filters are used quite often, but the most popular bass effect is without doubt some kind of a gain pedal. Effects from the echo-group are probably the least used (except if you’re Roger Waters), because of their tendency to mush up the bass sound.
A tastefully distorted bass doesn’t necessarily stick out as distorted – it is often simply perceived as fatter. Some effect boxes will gobble up your important bass frequencies, though, which is why most bassists run a dry DI-signal to the mixer in parallel. The desired tonal balance can then be achieved by mixing the right amount of wet signal into the straight bass tone.
Most specialized bass effects have this signal split already built in, offering a blend (or level) control to set the correct balance between the clean and effected signals. There are some very tasty overdrives, distortions and modulation pedals to be had, that will liven up your bass’ upper frequencies without eating up your bottom-end punch.
Some guitarists – especially the ultra-low tuned Metal crowd – have recently started to explore bass pedals, too, because their different frequency ranges suit their style.
Variations on the basic order
You are free to try out placing any of the stompboxes in any possible place in your signal chain. It might change your tone radically, and may well be worth the effort. And remember, you won’t break anything, and you can always put things back to where they were before. Making music is not about strictly adhering to rules – let your ears decide on how you want to use your effects.
- Try putting your wah-wah behind your fuzzes and overdrives. You will get a rather harsh effect that will cut through anything.
- You could place your modulation-effects in front of your overdrive/distortion. Some vintage modulation-effects may even work better placed before the gain-group, while the differences may not be as pronounced in modern stompboxes.
- Why not place a booster before the gain-group, regardless? You might find you like the sound of saturated transistors waving the proverbial white flag.
- Put a compressor is right behind all gain-effects, where it would serve more as a signal booster.
- If you put a Whammy behind a distortion pedal, all the hiss and additional noises produced by the distortion will also be pitch-shifted, resulting in additional digital chirping.