The market is full of brilliant guitar pedal manufacturers and guitarists (and bassists) that use these pedal to create incredible art. With so much going on and so many options to choose from when it comes to pedals, it is important to understand the basics of each base effect and what the various pedal effects types aim to achieve.
Below is a list of the guitar/bass effects pedal types we’ll encounter:
- Tuner Pedals
- Expression Pedals
- Volume Pedals
- Buffer Pedals
- Switcher Pedals
- Compressor Pedals
- Limiter Pedals
- Expander Pedals
- Noise Gate Pedals
- Equalization Pedals
- Wah Pedals
- Preamp Pedals
- Boost Pedals
- Overdrive Pedals
- Distortion Pedals
- Fuzz Pedals
- Delay Pedals
- Reverb Pedals
- Leslie/Rotary Pedals
- Chorus Pedals
- Vibrato Pedals
- Tremolo Pedals
- Phaser Pedals
- Flanger Pedals
- Pitch-Shifting Pedals
- Octave & Harmonizer Pedals
- Envelope Filter Pedals
- Ring Modulation Pedals
- Synth Pedals
- Looper Pedals
- Controller Pedals
- Multi-Effects Pedals
- Other Pedals
In this article, we’ll go through each of the above-mentioned pedal “types,” discussing what they do; how they work (on a basic level); examples of real-world pedals, and any additional resources to learn more about each pedal type.
Let’s get into it!
Tuner pedals, when engaged, allow us to tune our instruments (notably guitar or bass guitar) to the appropriate tuning. Tuner pedals typically go at the very beginning of the signal chain.
What is tuning? Tuning a guitar (or bass) is the act of tightening or loosening the tension of the individual strings so that each string produces a defined and specific musical note.
Sure, these pedals aren’t the most flashy. In fact, they should do little to affect the tone of the signal. That being said, bring in tune is paramount to sounding great and a tuner pedal is, therefore, a worthy investment for every pedalboard!
There are certainly other methods of tuning. Some musicians can tune by ear, for example. For the longest time, I chose to tune my guitar live with a clip-on tuner (like the Snark SN5X) which tunes via the vibrations of the guitar. In quieter situations, a tuner with a built-in microphone can work fine as well.
Ultimately, a tuner pedal will be more accurate in noisy environments and you won’t have to worry about it falling off your instrument.
Tuner pedals are typically either chromatic or polyphonic and tune to the Western 12-tone system. Some offer variation in note frequencies (ie: A4 = 440 Hz or A4 = 432 Hz).
Related article: Fundamental Frequencies Of Musical Notes In A=432 & A=440 Hz
Chromatic tuners will tune one note at a time and tell us if the pitch of a single string is below or above the nearest musical note.
Polyphonic tuners can tune multiple strings at the same time, allowing for quick tuning. These pedals are often set to a specified tuning before they work.
The Boss TU-3 (link to check the price on Amazon) is the third iteration of Boss’s incredibly popular TU line of chromatic tuners. This tuner is very accurate and handles tuning one string at a time.
The TC Electronic PolyTune 3 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a great example of a polyphonic tuner. Polyphonic tuners can tune multiple strings simultaneously rather than one string at a time.
Boss and TC Electronic is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Expression pedals are tread-style/lever-like control pedals. As we’ll see later in this article, expression pedals are part of most volume and wah pedals. However, standalone expression pedals can be used to modulate certain controls on other pedals that are designed with expression inputs.
What is expression? Expression, in the context of guitar pedals, refers to a variable treadle-style pedal control rather than an on/off switch or a rotary knob. These pedals are similar to the expression pedals or keyboards, pianos and organs.
There are plenty of pedals on the market that have expression pedal inputs for additional functionality when combined with an expression. We’ll discuss a few of these pedals in the examples in this example.
An expression pedal can be thought of as a pedal potentiometer (as if it’s a knob on a pedal). In fact, many of the pedals that have expression functionality are set up so that the connected expression pedal “turns” one or more of their knobs to control certain aspects of the pedal.
So then, an expression pedal is continuously variable between heel-down and toe-down positions.
The Roland EV-5 (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of an expression pedal with a 1/4″ plug. It is designed for use with guitar effects pedals, keyboards and other expression-compatible instruments.
Other examples of expression pedals can be found in the example pedals of the folllowing sections of this article:
- Volume pedals (Ernie Ball VP Jr.)
- Wah pedals (Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby)
- Pitch-shifter pedals (DigiTech Whammy 5)
- Looper pedals (Boss RC-300 Loop Station)
- Switcher/controller pedals (Behringer FCB1010)
- Multi-effects pedals (Headrush Pedalboard)
Volume pedals are generally built as expression-type pedals and control the volume of the guitar signal by means of attenuation (rather than by applying gain). Volume pedals can be put anywhere in the signal chain.
What is volume? Volume, in the context of electric guitar signals, refers to the amplitude of the signal and, more specifically, to the attenuation of the signal (rather than to the amplification of the signal). Controlling volume should, by itself, leave the signal waveform unaltered except for the overall amplitude.
Volume pedals are easy to understand. The expression pedal will allow maximum signal in either toe-down or heel-down position and no signal at the opposite position, depending on how the pedal is set up.
Volume pedals do not only allow for muting, which is great between songs, while tuning, etc. They also allow for volume swells and other changes in dynamics due, in large part, to their continuously variable nature.
The Ernie Ball VP JR. (link to check the price on Amazon) is a popular volume pedal with a relatively small footprint (hence the name “Jr.”). This expression pedal will effectively control the volume of the guitar signal.
The VP Jr. also has a dedicated tuner output to connect a tuner or tuner pedal. The signal will be sent to the tuner even when the VP Jr. is in heel-down (0% volume) position.
Buffer pedals are designed to mitigate tone suck (a loss of high-end clarity_ due to capacitance and impedance mismatching in the signal path.
What is buffering? Buffering, in the context of electric guitar signals and pedals, has to do with impedance and proper signal transfer. Long, unbalanced patch cords/cables and pedals with high output impedance can significantly degrade signal quality. A Buffer drops impedances to help preserve the signal.
Guitar and bass guitar signals are carried through unbalanced patch cables. Other instruments that may utilize effects pedals, including synthesizers, may also carry unbalanced signals. The pedals, themselves, are typically designed with unbalanced inputs and outputs.
What does this mean? Why is unbalanced such a big deal?
Well, unbalanced signal is carried on one signal conductor (the “tip” on a 1/4″ tip-sleeve cable). The “sleeve” conductor acts as a return to complete the circuit and as a shield to help reduce electromagnetic interference.
There are a few issues with unbalanced signals. Noise and interference (when compared to balanced signals) is one issue. Another big issue, which is more important to us, is distributed capacitance.
Distributed capacitance means that longer cables will have more capacitance. More capacitance means more attenuation of high-end “treble” frequencies and a duller tone.
Buffer pedals help to reduce/reverse this signal degradation.
Buffer pedals also help to adjust impedance if we happen to be using vintage pedals or pedals with otherwise mismatched impedance ratings.
So, in short, buffer pedals help us to maintain our tone through our pedalboards. They aren’t always necessary but will make a big difference when they are required.
Note that all buffered bypass pedals (as opposed to true bypass pedals) will act as buffers in a signal chain. However, dedicated buffer pedals will typically yield better results since they are designed specifically to buffer the signal.
The Fender Level Set Buffer (link to check the price on Amazon) is an awesome buffer with some boost and EQ added to its circuitry. Its adjustable load allows us to alter its impedance to better suit the guitar signal passing through it.
Fender’s Level Set Buffer also features a dedicated tuner output that will feed a clean signal to a tuner or tuner pedal.
Fender is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
To learn more about buffer pedals (and about true bypass), check out the following My New Microphone articles, respectively:
• Are Buffer Pedals Necessary & Where Do They Go In A Chain?
• What Does ‘True Bypass’ Mean In A Guitar Pedal?
Switcher pedals allow us to route our guitar signal to different paths. A basic switcher pedal will have one input; two outputs, and a switch to route the input signal through either the first or second output.
What is switching? Switching, in the context of effects pedals, is act of changing/switching the path of the guitar signal. With a tap of a button, we can change the signal path to go through a different set of pedals, a different amp, or any other device(s).
Switcher pedals are very useful utility pedals. There’s a lot that can be done with them.
Using a switcher pedal in a rig requires some foresight into what we want to accomplish. Some common examples of switcher pedal functions include:
- Redirecting the guitar signal to a completely new line of pedals. This can effectively turn several pedals on/off with a single button.
- Switching between amplifiers. A switcher can have each output sent to a different amp if need be to change tone.
The Donner Path Seeker (link to check the price on Amazon) is a simple splitter pedal. It has one input and two outputs (A and B). We can control the volume of output A and B; the phase difference between A and B (0º or 180º), and whether the input is routed to output A, B or both simultaneously.
Compressor pedals, as the name suggests, act to compress the signal and make the guitar, bass or other instrument “thicker”.
What is compression? Compression, simply put, is the process of reducing the dynamic range of an audio signal. Compression attenuates amplitude above a threshold to bring the highest amplitudes closer to the lowest amplitudes in the output signal. Compression is used to “thicken” the sound of a guitar (or bass).
Compression is an incredibly useful tool in the realm of audio mixing. It stands to reason, then, that it can also be a great tool in a guitar rig.
As mentioned, the compressor pedal will squash/compress the dynamic range of the signal, bring the loudest parts and quietest parts closer to each other in terms out output amplitude.
Bass guitars often benefit more from compression that 6-strings since the dynamic range of different bass strings and playing styles can be more apparent. Who doesn’t love a fat bassline, anyway?
The Boss CP-1X (link to check the price on Amazon), like many of Boss’s pedals, is a classic. This compressor is simple but effective with a single input and ouput; level, attack, ratio and compression control knobs, and an LED gain-reduction indicator that allows us to visualize the amount of gain reduction/compression the pedal is causing.
Limiter pedals limit the signal amplitude at a certain threshold. Limiting is a form of compression.
What is limiting? Limiting is a type of hard compression whereby the signal is not allowed above a certain threshold. Rather than attenuating the signal (above the threshold) by a ratio, the limiter will simply cut off the signal at the threshold. We can think of a limiter as a compressor with an infinite ratio.
So while compressors attenuate the signal if it passes above the set threshold, limiters cap the amplitude at the threshold. In other words, the signal will not pass beyond the set amplitude.
Typically limiters are used as a “safety net” to keep signal levels tame throughout the signal chain. This will help us to keep signal levels under control and to avoid overloading any pedals or amplifiers further down the chain. Of course, if the signal is boosted after the limiter, there’s not much the limiter can do to avoid distortion down the line.
Overdoing it with a limiter will make the signal sound lifeless, flat and over-compressed. Think of the dreaded “loudness war” and how tiring some of these loud but dynamically boring records are to get an idea to limiters gone wild!
Limiter pedal example: Boss LMB-3 (link to check the price on Amazon)
Expander pedals are a rarity on the market but worth mentioning here since they do exist.
What is expanding? Expanding can be thought of as the opposite of compression. It aims to increase the dynamic range of the signal. An expander will reduce the amplitude of the signal if it drops below the set threshold, thereby “expanding” the signal’s dynamic range.
An expander pedal can help make a signal more dynamic by dropping off the quiet parts. Sure, the effect will make a difference in the sound but this effect is minimal when compared to compression and is, therefore, not overly sought after.
The Electro-Harmonix Steel Leather (link to check the price on Amazon) is one of the few expander pedals on the market. This simple pedal is designed for bass guitar. It effect level knob controls the amount of expansion while the response knob controls the threshold of the expander circuit.
Electro-Harmonix is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Noise Gate Pedals
Noise gate pedals can be our best friend or our worst enemies. They work by effectively muting the signal below a certain threshold.
What is noise gating? Noise gating is an effect that kills the output signal if the input signal drops below a set threshold. This helps to gate or remove noise from the signal when the guitar (or other instrument) is not playing. Noise gates are especially useful in noisy rigs, which often include vintage and/or fuzz pedals.
A noise gate is to an expander what a limiter is to a compressor. In other words, a noise gate is a hard expander.
Noise gate pedals are useful when there’s a lot of noise in the signal chain or feedback in the entire system.
When set up in an ideal manner, the noise gate will rid of any noise when the guitar isn’t playing and allow the signal to pass when the guitar is playing.
We see some fuzz pedals, which are known to be noisy, with noise gate circuits. These circuits clean up the sound when the guitar isn’t playing while maintaining the fuzz while the guitar is playing.
Of course, there are standalone noise gate pedals as well.
The ISP Technologies Decimator II (link to check the price on Amazon) is a great example of a standalone noise gate pedal. This simple pedal has a single knob to adjust the threshold. If the input signal drops below the threshold, it gets gated. Simple as that!
Equalization pedals adjust the “EQ” of the signal but altering the amplitudes (boosting or cutting) at certain frequencies.
What is equalization? Audio equalization (EQ) is the process of altering the amplitude of certain frequencies/frequency bands in an audio signal. This includes filtering out sound below or above a certain cut-off frequency (high-pass and low-pass filtering, respectively). It also refers to shelving, notching, boosting and cutting, which we’ll get to in a moment.
By boosting any cutting various frequencies, we can effectively shape our tone to how we see fit. This means EQ will not only help us to sound better alone but will also help us guitarists (and bassists) find our home within the greater context of the mix.
EQ, along with compression, is a must have in audio mixing. Why not have an EQ on the guitar itself to help shape its tone to what we want?
There are a few different types of EQ pedals we should be aware of:
- Graphic EQ: graphic EQ pedals have set frequency points (typically octaves apart) with amplitude sliders to adjust the boost or cut of each set frequency.
- Parametric EQ: parametric EQ pedals allow us to adjust the frequency points that are to be boosted or cut along with the “Q” or “sharpness” or the boost/cut. Generally, we can set one or more frequency values for each band (lows, low-mids, high-mids, highs, etc.)
- Semi-parametric EQ: semi-parametric EQ pedals allow some of the same functionality of parametric EQs but not all. The typical “bass, mids and treble” adjustments can be classified as semi-parametric.
The MXR M108S Ten Band EQ (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of a graphic EQ pedal with, as the name suggests, ten individual bands centred at ten different frequencies (each an octave apart).
This pedal offers a whopping ±12 dB boost/cut at each frequency and a ±12 dB overall boost/cut control for the entire signal. The M108S also has two different outputs to allow for two separate signal paths.
The Empress Effects ParaEQ (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of a parametric EQ pedal. We can control 3 frequencies with this pedal, including the frequency point; Q, and boost/cut amount.
The ParaEQ also features a boost circuit to help boost the overall signal.
The MXR M81 Bass Preamp (link to check the price on Amazon) is a preamp pedal for bass guitar with a semi-parametric EQ. We can see the pedal can control the boost/cut of bass, mid and treble regions. It can also control the set frequency of the mids.
Empress Effects is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
MXR is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
The wah effect is a classic guitar effect aimed at recreating the vocal-like sounds of “wah-wah” achieved by moving a mute in and out of a brass instrument’s bell.
What is Wah? Wah (or Wah-Wah) is a filtering effect that is common on guitars. Wah is achieved by sweeping one or more boosts in EQ up and down in frequency, thereby mimicking the human vowel sound of “wah”.
Wah pedals are generally built as expression pedals. Rocking the pedal back and forth will sweep the peak response of a frequency filter up and down, creating a spectral glide known as the “wah effect”.
Auto-wah filters, also known as envelope filters, typically do not feature an expression pedal. More on these pedals later in this article.
The Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby (link to check the price on Amazon) is a one of the many classic “Cry Baby” wah pedals from Jim Dunlop. This expression pedal is truly expressive and is an impressive tool for funk and many other genres that benefit from the pseudo-vocalizations of the wah effect.
Dunlop is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Preamplification is a necessity for many audio signal types including microphone signals and, of course, guitar signals.
What is preamplification? Preamplification is a gain stage where the guitar signal is amplified to a level for processing and improved noise tolerance. The preamp, in a guitar amplifier or pedal, can typically be overdriven to add saturation/compression/distortion to the signal though some preamps provide very clean gain.
A guitar amplifier will generally have both a preamplifier and a power amplifier. The preamp boosts the guitar signal to line level and adds most of the “colour” of the amp. The power amplifier then boosts the pre-amplified signal in order to drive the cabinet.
However, preamps can also be built into pedals. These pedals act to boost the signal and a really quite similar to boost pedals in that regard.
The main difference between boost and preamp pedals, I suppose, is their purpose.
Preamp pedals are designed to bring a guitar level up to a certain point. They work well when left in the on position.
Boost pedals, on the other hand, are built with the purpose of boosting the guitar signal up a few dB (or more) for musical passages when more guitar is required.
Electronically, however, the two pedals are very much the same.
The Xotic BB-Preamp MB (link to check the price on Amazon) is a great example of a preamplifier pedal. This pedal is capable of +30 dB of clean gain. It also features an overdrive circuit (controlled by the gain knob) and a two-way EQ (adjustable via the treble and bass knobs).
Boost pedals or “booster pedals”, as we’ve discussed, are very similar to preamp pedals in their design. Their purpose, however, is to increase the amplitude of the guitar signal periodically for certain musical parts.
What is boost? Boost is practically the same thing as preamplification. Boost amplifies the signal with clean gain to “boost” the level of the signal without adding any colouration.
A good boost pedal should afford us some extra gain for the parts of playing that require it (solos, etc.). The gain should be clean though some boost pedals offer some tone control as well.
Boost pedals give us some independence from the mixing engineer in live situations. If a guitar part (or bass part) is very important and needs an increase in amplitude, we can engage the boost pedal rather than relying on the mixing engineering to boost the level for us. The same is true when it’s time to come back down.
The TC Electronic Spark (link to check the price on Amazon) is an excellent boost pedal with some EQ (bass and treble control along with fat, clean and mid settings via the toggle switch) and some grit to dirty up the signal (adjustable via the gain knob).
Primarily, though, the Spark Booster is a boost pedal, boasting 26 dB of clean gain adjustable via the level control.
Overdrive pedals act to recreate the effect of overdriving a guitar (or bass) amplifier without having to actually overdrive the amplifier, which can get very loud.
What is overdrive? Overdrive happens naturally when a signal is amplified just passed its clean gain limits. Past this point, the peaks/troughs of the guitar signal are compressed and “soft clipped,” resulting in warm saturation in the signal. The overdrive circuit is designed to acheive this soft distortion with or without signal amplification. More overdrive can be acheived by playing harder/louder.
Overdrive is an awesome effect that plays with the dynamics of the signal. In other words, with overdrive, we get more the harder we play. This also means we can stay clean when playing softer.
The Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (link to check the price on Amazon) is the classic overdrive pedal. This legend’s circuit aims to mimic the performance of an amplifier vacuum tube being overdrive by signal. The TS9 does not have a tube in its circuit but certainly does sound amazing when pushed.
Distortion pedals are awesome for those of us interested in heavier genres of music.
What is distortion? Distortion, in terms of guitar pedals, has to do with hard clipping of the signal, in which the waveform is more significantly deformed. Distortion yields a great deal of saturation to the signal’s harmonics and sounds more aggressive than overdrive. Distortion affects the signal across all dynamics.
As mentioned, distortion pedals are less dynamic than their overdrive counterparts. With a distortion pedal, everything quiet and loud gets distorted.
Distortion pedals give us that grittiness without having to crank our amps up to eleven.
The MXR M104 Distortion + (link to check the price on Amazon) is one of plenty distortion pedals on the market today that sounds awesome. This pedal is simple. It has a volume control (output knob) and a distortion control (distortion knob). Adjust as necessary and have fun with the dirty tones this pedal is capable of supplying!
Fuzz pedals really destroy the guitar signal but are cherished nonetheless for the tone they produce.
What is fuzz? Guitar fuzz is beyond hard-clipping distortion to the point where the guitar signal become square-like and difficult to control. Significant odd-order harmonics are produced and the compression is so much that any dynamic will be effected by fuzz.
Fuzz is an interesting effect. It’s fundamentally a compression pedal that acts to distort a signal so much that it becomes square-like. This hard compression is similar to limiting and the resulting output signal is similar to what a synth pedal could output.
Fuzz is often described as “fuzzy”, “wooly”, “creamy” and “violin-like”.
The Way Huge WHE406 Conquistador Fuzzstortion (link to check the price on Amazon) is one example of a fuzz pedal. This is another simple pedal with controls for volume, fuzz and tone.
Related article: Guitar Pedals: Boost Vs. Overdrive Vs. Distortion Vs. Fuzz
Delay pedals give us the time-based effect known as delay and can add a sense of depth to our sound along with plenty of other cool effects.
What is delay? Delay, in terms of guitar audio signal processing, is a time-based effect where an input signal is recorded, for a relatively short amount of time, and is played back after a set period of time after the initial recording.
The delay effect, in a way, mimics how sound reacts with diffuse fields or environments with reflective surfaces. Sound waves naturally bounce off surfaces and we generally hear sound directly from the source along with the delayed reflections of the source.
Therefore, delay pedals give us a sense of realism and space.
However, delay can also be used to obtain special effects when the delay time is set to unnatural periods of time or the feedback is set to cause unnatural repeating. Parameters can also be modified while playing to yield wild results.
As I’ve mentioned, delay circuits work by recording short snippets of the guitar signal and play them back at various time intervals, amplitudes and number of repeats. In that way, delay pedals can be thought of as a short-term loop pedals.
There are a few different types of delay, achieved by pedals, that we should be aware of:
- Tape delay: tape delay pedals emulate the sound of delay caused by mechanically shifting magnetic tape. Tape delay is often used for slapback delay.
- Analog (bucket brigade) delay: a delay circuit that utilizes bucket brigade chipsets, which degrade each passing delay.
- Digital delay: digital delay pedals converts the dry signal to digital, processes the delay, and outputs the delays converted back as analog. This results in a very clean delay effect with little to no degradation (unless the digital pedal is designed to emulate older delays).
- Shimmer delay (aka octave delay): these pedals combine delay with pitch-shifting so that the delays are pitched differently than the dry signal.
- Reverse delay: these pedals record short sections of the guitar signal and play it back in reverse with delay.
The Boss Digital Delay DD-8 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a more recent version of the company’s successful Digital Delay line of pedals. As the name suggests, this pedal does digital delay, though it does have a mode for analog delay.
The DD-8 comes in a small package but it boasts significant functionality. It has stereo (or mono) inputs and outputs; 10 different delay modes (including analog); looper pedal functionality; carry-over functionality on bypass; along with effects level, feedback and time control knobs.
It even has an expression/tap tempo input for further control with an external expression pedal or stompbox controller.
Reverb pedals can put our guitar in a cave and produce reverberation effects that really add dimension and space to our sound.
What is reverb? Reverberation happens when a sound wave hits a surface (or multiple surfaces) and reflects back to the listener at varying times and amplitudes. This creates a complex echo that holds information about the physical space.
Reverb pedals, like the aforementioned delay pedals, produce a time-based effect that helps give a sense of realism to our playing by introducing the idea of space to our sound.
Many reverb pedals have stereo outputs to further the sense of space into the stereo field.
There are a few different types of reverb, achieved by pedals, that we should be aware of:
- Room/ Chamber/ Hall: room, chamber and hall reverb pedals emulate the reverbs of rooms, chambers and concert halls, respectively. As you can guess, the reverb sounds larger in halls than in chambers and larger in chambers than in rooms.
- Plate: plate reverb pedals emulate the sound of plate reverb, a type of reverb that relies on the vibration of a sheet of metal and a pickup that captures said vibration.
- Spring: spring reverb pedals emulate the sound of spring reverb, a type of reverb that relies on the vibration of a long metal spring within a spring reverb unit and a pickup that captures said vibration.
The Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Stereo Reverb (link to check the price on Amazon) is a superb reverb pedal from the legendary pedal manufacturer Electro-Harmonix. It can produce room, hall, plate, spring and other reverb types.
This digital pedal has stereo inputs and outputs; 8 programmable reverb styles with the ability to load and save presets; pre-delay control via the tap button; along with the typical controls we’d find on a top-of-the-line reverb unit.
Leslie/rotary pedals aim to recreate the vibe and sound of the legendary Leslie rotating speaker.
What is the Leslie/rotating effect? The Leslie effect was initially produced by the famous Leslie speaker, a unit with a rotating speaker. As the speaker rotates, three separate effects are produced in the [stationary] listener’s ears. Those effects are tremolo, the Doppler effect (vibrato) and Phasing.
So then, a Leslie/rotary pedal is essentially a 3-in-1 modulation pedal, combining the effects of a tremolo, vibrato and phaser pedal. The result, as one would expect, is that of a Leslie speaker without a Leslie speaker!
The Hammond Leslie Cream Simulator (link to check the price at Sweetwater) is a digital Leslie pedal from Hammond that effectively recreates the distinctive rotary sound of a Leslie speaker. This pedal is a superb choice when looking to capture the vibe of a Leslie with a Leslie!
The Strymon Lex Rotary (link to check the price on Amazon) is another excellent pedal that recreates the distinctive sound of a rotating leslie speaker.
Strymon is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Chorus pedals are modulation pedals that produce the chorus effect by duplicating the input signal and detuning each copy by varying amounts.
What is chorus? Chorus is an effect that produces copies of a signal (the original signal and each of its copies has its own “voice”) and detunes each voice to produce a widening and thickening of the sound. Each voice interacts with the other voices to produce slight modulation and an overall larger-than-life sound.
The chorus effect essentially adds multiple voices, detunes each by a set amount and applied a vibrato effect to alter the pitch of each voice over time. Each voice acts independently of the others.
The rate setting of a chorus pedal determines the speed of the “vibrato” effect in each of the voices. Depth, on the other hand, controls the amount of pitch variation applied to each voice.
The Boss CE-2W Waza Craft (link to check the price on Amazon) is a simple chorus pedal with a mono input and stereo output.
This pedal has two potentiometers: one to control the rate of the modulation (how fast each voice is continuously detuned relative to the original voice) and depth (how much each voice is detuned relative to the original voice).
The switch offers three modes including the standard CE-2 chorus mode (S), along with the CE-1 Chorus and the CE-1 Vibrato.
Vibrato pedals are modulation pedals that produce the pitch-varying vibrato effect.
What is vibrato? Vibrato is a fast but slight up-and-down, variation in pitch. Vibrato is used in signing and in instruments to add character and improve tone.
Vibrato can be achieved naturally by string bending but the vibrato effects of a pedal can do so much more to add interest to the sound.
Note that, although confusing, the “tremolo bar” of a guitar actually acts as a vibrato. We’ll discuss tremolo in the next section. I prefer the term “whammy bar” since it acts on the pitch and not the amplitude of the guitar.
The Boss Waza Craft VB-2w (link to check the price on Amazon) is another celebrated pedal from Boss in, perhaps, the best pedal format on the market.
The VB-2w features a “Depth” input that allows the depth of the vibrato effect to be controlled by a connected expression pedal. In Boss’s classic format, we have 4 knobs: rate, depth and rise time all get their own knob and the fourth knob toggles between 3 modes of engagement.
The EarthQuaker Devices Aqueduct (link to check the price on Amazon) is a boutique pedal from a top boutique pedal manufacturer. This pedal can easily handle the basics of vibrato and has extra modes for more intricate vibrato action.
EarthQuaker is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Tremolo pedals are modulation pedals that produce the amplitude-varying tremolo effect.
What is tremolo? Tremolo is a fast variation in amplitude. Tremolo is similar to vibrato, except that it acts on amplitude/level rather than pitch.
Tremolo can really add interest to a sound, ranging from slow increases and decreases in volume to speedy in-and-out cuts in volume.
The Chase Bliss Gravitas (link to check the price on Amazon) is an analog tremolo pedal with pretty much everything you could ask for in a top-of-the-line tremolo pedal (which is why it looks so intimidating).
Chase Bliss even put in a nice class A boost circuit to give that extra analog warmth to the tone.
The Keeley DynaTrem (link to check the price on Amazon) is a very cool pedal in its dynamic functionality. This “dynamic tremolo” reacts to the dynamics of your playing. In other words, the harder you play, the more it responds.
To make this pedal even more versatile, there are plenty of amplitude-control waveshapes to choose from. Additionally, we can choose to control the depth dynamically or the rate dynamically and we can even add reverb to the sound!
Chase Bliss Audio and Keeley Electronics are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Phaser pedals are modulation pedals that produce the frequency/EQ-varying phaser effect.
What is phaser? Phaser is a modulation audio effect whereby a series of peaks and troughs are produced across the frequency spectrum of the signal’s EQ. These peaks and troughs vary over time, typically controlled by an LFO (low frequency oscillator), to create a sweeping effect known as phaser.
Phasers sound pretty psychedelic and are a popular modulation effect for instruments, including, of course, guitar.
The MXR M101 Phase 90 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a classic phaser pedal. The beauty of this tiny orange box is in its simplicity.
One input; one output; one knob, and plenty of character. If you’re looking for a solid, simple, affordable phaser, the Phase 90 is for you!
The Walrus Audio Lillian (link to check the price on Amazon) has a few controls since it’s a multi-stage analog phaser.
Users can control the rate, width and feedback of the phaser; the blend of dry, phase-shifted, and vibrato-effected sound (d-p-v), and the number of voice via the 6/4 toggle switch. All these controls allows a wide variety of phasing in the Lillian pedal.
Walrus Audio is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Flanger pedals are modulation pedals that produce the comb-filtering flanger effect.
What is flanger? Flanger is a modulation audio effect whereby a signal is duplicated and the phase of one copy is continuouly being shifted. This changing phase causes a sweeping comb filter effect where peaks and notches are produced in the frequency spectrum or the signal’s EQ.
Flangers tend to sound like more “natural” versions of phasers. They’re often regarded as “jet whoosh” as they make a similar effect to a plane flying overhead.
The Boss BF-3 (link to check the price on Amazon) is yet another great Boss pedal. This pedal is actually designed with separate circuitry for guitar and bass guitar. There are separate inputs for each instrument. The BF-3 has a stereo ouput (if need be).
The knobs of the BF-3 allow us to control resonance (automatically or manually); the depth of the flanger; the rate of the flanger, and the pedal’s mode.
The A/DA PBF Flanger (link to check the price at Reverb) is another superb flanger. It is compatible with expression pedals (via the “control” input) which can control the sweep manually.
We can change between even and odd-order harmonics for additional versatility. Control knobs also allow for more tinkering with this jack-of-all-trades flanger pedal.
Pitch-shifting pedals alter the pitch of the input signal.
What is pitch-shifting? Pitch-shifting, as the name suggests, is any audio effect that shifts the pitch of the input signal.
These pedals are pretty self explanatory.
Combining the pitch-shifted/effected sound with the dry signal can yield harmonization, which we’ll get to in the next section.
There are several pedals dedicated to pitch-shifting while other utilize pitch-shifting circuits in their design to further their versatility. A common example is the shimmer-type delay pedal.
The DigiTech Whammy 5 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a modern version of perhaps the most famous pitch-shifting pedal ever.
The pitch-shifting range (or harmonization range) is first selected via the knob. LED indicators tell us which mode we’re in. The pitch shifting is then controlled by the Whammy’s built-in expression pedal.
The Whammy 5 even has a toggle switch to change between the classic circuit of Whammy’s past of the “chords” circuit that tracks better when playing chords.
I’ve personally owned a DigiTech Whammy 5 since 2016 and it’s one of my favourite pedals ever.
Octave & Harmonizer Pedals
Octave and harmonizer pedals are pretty much the same as pitch-shifting pedals but their main purpose is to harmonize with the dry/input note to create diads or chords.
What are octaves? An octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with double its fundamental frequency. Octave pedals will copy the input signal and pitch the copy/copies up or down octave(s).
What is harmonization? Harmonization is defined as the chordal accompaniment to a melody. As an effect, harmonization will produce an interval (or multiple intervals) of the inputted note along with the dry signal. Harmonizers can be tuned to certain keys or certain intervals.
With harmonization and octave pedals, the dry note is duplicated one or more times and shifted in pitch. The output is then a combination of the input dry signal and/or a combination of the pitch-shifted voices.
The Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork (link to check the price on Amazon) is a harmonizer/pitch-shifter pedal with tons of functionality in a relatively small package.
First, it does have an expression pedal input for use with an expression pedal. That being said, it does not necessarily need one.
The Pitch Fork has two knobs: one to control the blend of the dry and “pitch” signal and the other to choose the interval to be harmonized.
There is a 3-way toggle switch to choose whether the harmonized note is above or below the dry signal or if the resulting two tones are to be “split” (one voice harmonized down and the other harmonized up, relative to the dry signal).
The Electro-Harmonix POG2 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a popular octave pedal. In fact, it’s a polyphonic octave generator by name.
This pedal is capable of producing 4 additional voices along with the dry signal: 2 octaves below, 1 octave below, 1 octave above and 2 octaves above. The pedal features its own high-pass filter and envelope shaper to affect the wet signals or the wet and dry signals together.
The TC Electronic Quintessence (link to check the price on Amazon) is an excellent harmonizer pedal designed with musicality in mind.
This pedal will effectively harmonize any mode of any major scale (except locrian, but who uses locrian, anyway?) and can be customized to harmonize any other scale you’d want.
It has a stereo input and output (if need be) and a toggle to switch between momentary and latch functionality in its on/off switch. The pedal can harmonize above or below the dry note(s) or produce chords based on the root notes of the scale.
Envelope Filter Pedals
Envelope filter pedals, often referred to as auto-wah pedals, act as wah-like filters that act on the attack of the signal.
What in envelope filtering? Envelope filtering is the filtering triggered by the envelope or transients of a signal. These filters, therefore, act according to the dynamic rise and fall of a note (or chord) from the guitar.
The sound of an envelope filter is often described as wah-like or like a duck’s quack. There are various filter types (high-pass, band-pass or low-pass) that can be triggered when a guitar or bass note is struck.
An envelope filter will then sweep the peak response of a frequency filter up or down, creating a spectral glide similar to the wah effect. The biggest difference is that it’s the dynamics or the input signal that trigger the frequency modulation/filtering rather than an expression pedal.
The Fender Pour Over (link to check the price on Amazon) is an awesome envelope filter from the almighty Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.
This pedal has all the controls (and sound) we’d want from an envelope filter including frequency and Q controls; various filter types and toggling between upward and downward filtering. It also has a distortion circuit built in!
The Electro-Harmonix Micro Q-Tron (link to check the price on Amazon) is a simple but effective envelope filter. It features high-pass, band-pass and low-pass filter options along with an adjustable Q. This pedal is great at what it does!
Ring Modulation Pedals
Ring modulation pedals are, as the name suggests, modulation pedals. They contain ring modulation circuits that can affect the sound in, arguably, musical and non-musical ways.
What is ring modulation? Ring modulation is an amplitude modulation effect where two signals (an input signal and a carrier signal) are summed together to create two brand new frequencies which are the sum and difference of the input and carrier signals. The carrier wave is typically a sine wave selected by the effects unit while the input signal is from the guitar.
So with a ring modulation pedal, we have our input signal (the complex waveform of from the guitar) and we have a carrier signal (often a sine or square wave produced within the pedal).
The carrier signal acts to modulate the amplitude of the input signal. This results in a modulated signal made up of the sidebands from the sum and difference frequencies (similar to how amplitude modulation works).
Ring modulation works with amplitude modulation. It can be thought of as a tremolo at a very fast rate. In fact, the “tremolo” rate gets into the audible frequency range and begins altering the frequency/note value of the input note/frequency (rather than the noticeable tremolo amplitude effect).
The Fairfield Circuits Randy’s Revenge (link to check the price at Reverb) is a great ring modulator with sine and square voltage controlled oscillators. The sine and square waves are toggled via the top switch.
The Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing (link to check the price at Reverb) is a popular ring modulator pedal. Its VCO waveform is continuously variable between a sqaure wave, through a sine wave, to a triangle wave.
The pedal allows for presets and even has a pitch-shifting circuit!
It has a stereo output and an expression input.
Synth pedals turn your guitar sound into the sound of a synthesizer!
What is audio synthesis? Audio synthesis is loosely defined as the audio signals generated by electronic musical instruments called synthesizers. Guitar synth pedals turn guitar audio signals into “synthesizer”-like sound waves.
The vast majority of synth pedals do not actually alter the waveform of the guitar signal itself as is the case with pretty much all other pedals. Rather, a synth pedal will typically detect the pitch of the guitars signal and use that pitch to tune and engage its built-in synthesizer oscillator(s).
So a synth pedal, generally speaking, will use the guitar signal only as a control signal rather than actually affecting the guitar signal and tone itself.
Therefore, synth pedals are actual synthesizers. Only instead of the typical keyboard input format, they use guitar signals.
The Boss SY-1 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a superb synth pedal for guitar. It has a whopping 121 different synth sound, selectable via the 11 by 11 2-knob matrix.
On to of that, the pedal has a send and return circuit and an expression/control pedal input.
The Boss SY-300 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a much larger format pedal with plenty of synth presets and adjustable filters, amps, and LFOs.
This pedal is very powerful and only requires a simple 1/4″ input from the guitar (rather than MIDI or hexaphonic pickup).
The Boss SY-1000 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a beast of a synth pedal.
It has incredible functionality. Far too much to list in this article!
Note that there are plenty of synth pedals on the market from manufacturers other than Boss. I focused on Boss here to show the great variation in their synth pedal design.
Looper pedals record audio from the guitar (or other instrument) and play it back on repeat.
What is looping? Looping is the process of recording a period of audio and having it repeat. Once a loop is established, it is common to stack other audio recordings on top of the loop (or take other audio recordings out of the loop).
Looper pedals are awesome units to have in a rig. They range from simple to complex with a variety of functions. We will often be capable of adding additional loops on top of an original loop and be able to remove loops as we see fit.
Some looper pedals have multi-effects that can be applied to the loops once recorded.
Other looper pedals can hold pre-recorder loops in memory for easier access.
Personally, I’ve used loops live to create larger soundscapes and in practice to learn theory (running scales against looping chords).
The TC Electronic Ditto (link to check the price on Amazon) is a simple true bypass looper pedal with start/stop, adding/subtracting, and loop volume control.
The Boss RC-300 Loop Station (link to check the price on Amazon) is a much more in-depth looper pedal with a great amount of functionality and looping opportunities.
Controller pedals are not as much an effect as they are a control for other effects, hence their name.
What are controller pedals? Controller pedals will effectively control either an amplifier of software on a computer. These pedals do not necessarily have effect circuits of their own but rather act to control signal flow in other pieces of the rig.
There are plenty of controller pedals that simply switch between an amp’s clean and distortion channels. In a way, these controller pedals are also line-switcher pedals.
Other controller pedals will connect to computer and are used as hardware devices to control the software of the computer. These software programs are typically amplifier/effects simulators.
The Boss GA-FC Amplifier Foot Controller (link to check the price on Amazon) is a controller pedal designed specifically to control Roland and Boss amps from the floor. It has 2 expression pedal inputs to control either the volume or amount of a given effect.
The Guitar Rig Kontrol 3 (no longer in production) is an example of a software controller pedal. In this case, the Kontrol 3 acts to control the Native Instruments Guitar Rig software (link to check it out at Native Instruments).
Multi-effects pedal units will combine several effects into a single unit. They’re typically packed with readily available presets and are much more cost-effective than singular pedals.
Often times multi-effects pedals will be digital with banks of presets and various controls. These multi-effects units will generally have an LED display and plenty of cool effects.
Other multi-effects can be analog with multiple different circuits to achieve the desired effects.
The Line 6 HX (link to check the price on Amazon) has 100+ HX effects and can run 9 simultaneously. It can connect to a computer via USB to work with software.
The Headrush Pedalboard (link to check the price on Amazon) is an involved digital multi-effects pedal complete with an expression pedal. It has an LED screen to display the pedals “in use” along with stats on individual effects. It can connect to computers via a USB connection.
The Jam Pedals Pink Flow (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of a multi-effects pedal that does not connect directly to a computer nor does it act as a controller for software.
Rather, this pedal from Greece-based Jam Pedals combines other Jam Pedal circuits into one large pedal that features compressor, overdrive, fuzz/distortion, chorus/vibrato, phaser, and tap-tempo delay.
Line 6 is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Jam Pedals is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Pedal electronics can get pretty wild. We’ve covered the core effects types but the strangeness of a guitar pedal is limited only by the builder’s creativity.
Let’s have a look at a few “outsider” pedals that do not necessarily fit any of the categories mentioned above.
- Electro-Harmonix 44 Magnum
- EarthQuaker Devices Rainbow Machine
- Red Panda Tensor
- Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal
- Anasounds Spinner
- Coppersound Telegraph
- Rainger FX Minibar
Electro-Harmonix 44 Magnum
Rather than a preamp or a boost, the Electro-Harmonix 44 Magnum (link to check the price on Amazon) acts a power amplifer. Rather than having a large guitar amp head, we can have a small pedal on our pedal boards. That’s pretty cool!
EarthQuaker Devices Rainbow Machine
The EarthQuaker Devices Rainbow Machine (link to check the price on Amazon) is defined as polyphonic pitch mesmerizer.
At its core, this digital pedal is a pitch-shifter. However, its also a modulator in its own right with plenty of controls and “magic” going on under the hood. This one’s tough to explain.
Red Panda Tensor
The Red Panda Tensor (link to check the price on Amazon) is sometimes described as a tape delay pedal or as a time-stretching pedal.
Red Panda’s Tensor is capable of reverse and tape stop effects; pitch-shifting, time stretching, and hold functions that can be combined. Perhaps its coolest function is time streching: It can slow down, speed up and rewind, and even stretch or compress time without pitch change.
The pedal is also a looper with up to 4.8 seconds or recording time.
Red Panda is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal
The Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal (link to check the price on Amazon) extends the idea of the piano’s sustain pedal to the guitar. It can be used to sustain guitar notes long after the guitar string has stopped vibrating or the guitarist has moved on to a different note.
The Anasounds Spinner (link to check the price at Anasounds) is a cool concept. It is a tremolo pedal with a rate dependent on the rotations per minute of the spinning “blade”.
The Coppersound Telegraph (link to check the price at Coppersound) is essentially a killswitch controlled by a telegraph. It can be set up to mute sound when pushed down or allow dound to pass when pushed down.
Rainger FX Minibar
The Rainger FX Minibar (link to check the price at Rainger FX) is a “liquid analyzer”. Essentially, it produces varying amounts of distortion based on the liquid the user pours into its container.
What pedals should every guitarist have? Every guitarist is different and would benefit from different pedals (if at all). There is not particular “must-have” pedals for guitarists. That being said, common pedals to consider include tuners; boosts/preamps; overdrive or distortions; choruses; delays; reverbs and wah pedals.
What should my first guitar pedal be? The first guitar pedal you should acquire is ultimately up to your discretion and the results you’d like to achieve. A tuner pedal, though not exciting, is a great first pedal. Distortion is a good choice if your amp’s distortion isn’t up to your liking. A nice multi-effects pedal could be another great choice and should give you a taste of all other pedal types!