Guitar effects pedals can be a fantastic addition to anyone’s guitar rig. Let’s discuss what they are and how they work in this article.
What is a guitar effects pedal, and how do pedals work? A guitar pedal is an effects unit designed to be controlled by a guitarist’s feet. These pedals affect the incoming guitar signal in a wide range of ways in order to produce a specified effect. Pedals work with analog and/or digital circuits to change/route the waveform of the guitar signal.
In this article, we’ll touch on each type of guitar pedal and look into how pedals function as parts of our pedalboards and guitar rigs.
What Is A Guitar Effects Pedal?
A guitar effects pedal is an audio effects unit that either produces an effect in the guitar signal, routes the guitar signal to a determined signal path, or tests the signal to give us information.
Pedals are built into enclosed units with analog and/or digital circuitry that affects the signal.
Pedals are typically placed on the floor (or on a pedalboard that sits on the floor) and are usually controlled with a guitarist’s feet so that he or she can keep both hands on the guitar. Of course, the pedals can be controlled by hand as well, though it may make it difficult to play guitar at the same time.
Guitar pedals range wildly in the effects they produce. However, they all have at least one input and output, typically have an on/off control, and can be placed on the floor to be controlled with our feet.
Let’s have a look at a few examples to help with the explanation.
The MXR Phase 90 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a straightforward guitar pedal that provides a phaser effect. There is a single knob to adjust the speed of the phaser and an on/off stomp switch. We can also see a single input and a single output. Nice and simple!
The MXR Phase 90 is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Phaser Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
The Line 6 HX (link to check the price on Amazon) is a multi-effects pedal. It’s much more complex than the Phase 90 but is still a guitar pedal. It has stereo inputs and outputs along with a MIDI input/output. It features over 100 effects and can run 9 different effects simultaneously.
The TC Electronic PolyTune 3 (link to check the price on Amazon) does not actually provide an effect. Rather, it’s a polyphonic tuner that helps us tune our guitar by telling us whether each string is flat, sharp or in tune.
The TC Electronic PolyTune 3 is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 5 Best Tuner Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
MXR, Line 6 and TC Electronic are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
The Full List Of Effects Pedal Types
There are plenty of different guitar pedal types on the market.
Usually, a pedal will fit into one or more of the following categories (I’ll add links to jump to articles that discuss select types in more detail):
- Utility Pedals
- Synth Pedals
- Pitch-Shifting Pedals
- Octave & Harmonizer Pedals
- Dynamics Pedals
- Compressor Pedals
- Limiter Pedals
- Expander Pedals
- Noise Gate Pedals
- EQ/Filter Pedals
- Gain-Based Effects Pedals
- Modulation Pedals
- Time-Based Effects Pedals
- Looper Pedals
- Multi-Effects Pedals
- Other Pedals
To learn more about each type of guitar effects pedal, check out my article Full List & Description Of Guitar Pedal Types.
How Do Pedals Work?
The way in which a pedal works depends largely on the effect(s) it is designed to produce.
For example, a phaser pedal will be designed to affect the signal differently than, say, a reverb pedal. It will, therefore, work differently.
However, inner circuit effects aside, there are a few points to understand if we are to comprehend how guitar pedals work in a general sense.
In this section, we’ll look at the following list to help us understand how pedals work:
- Inputs And Outputs
- True-Bypass Vs. Buffered Bypass
- Analog Vs. Digital
- Power Options
- A Note On Signal Flow
Inputs And Outputs
All pedals have at least one input and one output.
Pedals work by taking the guitar (or another instrument) signal at the input, applying the effect, and outputting an affected signal.
The unit, then, fits into a signal chain and has both an input and an output.
Some pedals will have various inputs to achieve stereo (left and right channel); to allow for multiple mono inputs, or in the case that there’s a MIDI input along with the typical 1/4″ jack.
Related article: How Do Patch Cables Carry Audio? (Guitar, Bass, Synth, Etc.).
Some pedals will have multiple outputs. This is the case with stereo pedals, which have left and right channel outputs. It can also be the case when the pedal is designed with a direct output (dry) along with an affected output (wet).
The main idea is that pedals have both inputs and output and act as an effect unit within a larger signal chain (typically between a guitar and amplifier).
Pedals will nearly always have an on/off switch. These switches are generally designed to be stomped on to engage or disengage the effect.
That way, the pedal’s effect is not constantly affecting the guitar tone. It’s important to be able to turn an effect on and off if we’re interested in more dynamic playing.
True Bypass Vs. Buffered Bypass
Speaking of turning pedals on and off, we should discuss true bypass and buffered bypass.
We’ve discussed the “on/off” switch, which is standard in pedals. However, pedals aren’t even really “off” unless they’re removed from the signal line or removed from power. Rather, pedals, when in the signal chain, are either on or are bypassed.
Now, there are two types of bypass: true and buffered.
When in “off” position, true bypass pedals effectively connect the input directly to the output and act simply as a short extension to the guitar cable.
True bypass pedals do little, if anything, to alter the innate tone of the guitar signal when in bypass mode. However, adding to the cable length can cause issues due to the noise and capacitative low-pass filtering inherent in longer patch cables.
When in “off” position, buffered bypass pedals still send the signal through most of the pedals’ circuitry. However, the effect is not triggered.
Buffered bypass pedals do alter the tone of the signal even when bypassed. However, the pedal will also, to a certain degree, act as a signal buffer and help reduce capacitative low-pass filtering and impedance mismatching throughout the signal chain.
So there are benefits to both bypass types. One is not necessarily better.
As an extra note, true bypass pedals will pass a signal if they are truly off and disconnected from power. Buffered pedals will not!
The main point of this section is to share how each pedal bypass type works.
To learn more about true bypass and buffered bypass, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Does ‘True Bypass’ Mean In A Guitar Pedal?
• Are Buffer Pedals Necessary & Where Do They Go In A Chain?
Analog Vs. Digital
Pedals, like all other audio units, are either analog or digital.
Analog pedals maintain an analog audio signal throughout their entire circuit. Analog audio comes in, analog audio is processed by analog circuits, and analog audio is outputted. Simple enough.
Digital pedals use both analog and digital audio. Analog audio comes in and is converted to digital audio via an analog-to-digital converter (ADC); the digital signal is processed via digital signal processing (DSP); the effected signal is converted back to analog with a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), and the effected analog version of the signal is outputted.
Purists would argue that analog is better because it’s pure electrical signals the entire way through. Converting to and from digital, regardless of how high the resolution (sample rate and bit-depth) is, will never be 100% accurate.
That being said, digital circuits can be much cleaner than analog.
Personally, I prefer the “dirtiness” of an analog pedal in today’s digital age of recording. Everything is so pristine in the digital world that it’s nice to have “imperfect” analog circuits produce effects to help strike a balance.
Most pedals will have controls via knobs/potentiometers, toggle switches, expression pedals, buttons and more.
These controls will adjust the parameters of the effect by altering the circuit or DSP of the pedal.
Of course, the parameters depend largely on the type of effect.
For example, a delay pedal could have controls for its wet/dry mix, feedback/repeats and delay time. On the other hand, a tremolo pedal will generally have controls for the depth of its amplitude variation and the speed at which it varies.
Many pedals have multiple methods of obtaining the power necessary to drive their circuit.
Most pedals will plug directly into a wall outlet via a power adapter. These adapters are often 9V but can be more or less depending on the pedal.
There are also plenty of pedals that can be powered by batteries. 9V batteries are most common, but some pedals, like the Line 6 DL4, take other types of batteries (the DL4 takes 4 D batteries).
Remember in our section on true and buffered bypass? Pedals, when plugged in, are never truly “off” but are rather set to bypass the signal when disengaged. This requires power.
So, when using batteries, unplug the pedals (particularly the input) when you’re done using them to conserve battery.
In my opinion, it’s best to get a dedicated power supply with isolated power outputs for your pedal needs. That way, we can remove the batteries (to avoid leakage) and keep the pedals plugged in between use. This is a game-changer once you amass a decent pedal collection and regularly use the pedals on your board.
A Note On Signal Flow
Let’s begin this section by remembering what was written in the inputs and outputs section: all pedals have at least one input and one output.
The pedal takes the input signal, processes it and adds the desired effect, and outputs the processed signal.
So then, the order of pedals would be important in the overall signal flow. Any pedal down the chain will be acting upon the signal that passed through all the pedals before it.
For example, Let’s say we had a reverb pedal before a fuzz pedal in our chain. The reverb would act on the dry guitar signal to create this sense of space and size. The fuzz pedal would then be acting upon this set reverberant signal, distorting it a great deal.
The result could be cool but would most likely be disastrous to any tone or clarity in the guitar sound (especially if the effects pedals were really toned in).
It would make more sense, in this example, to put the fuzz first and get a nice dry distorted tone that could then be fed into the reverb pedal to create more space in the guitar sound.
The key to remember here is that any pedal will take whatever signal is at its input and process that signal.
The “ideal” order of pedals for optimal signal flow is the same order I put the full list of effects pedal types earlier in this article.
I have a few articles that will help you to understand how to order your pedals. They are:
• How To Order Guitar/Bass Pedals (Ultimate Signal Flow Guide)
• Ultimate Guide To Setting Up A Guitar Effects Pedalboard
• How Many Guitar Effect Pedals Is Too Many?
Do guitar effects pedals work with instruments other than guitar and bass? Yes, effects pedals can process the sound of any instrument or source so long as we can feed an appropriate signal level into the pedal via the [typically] 1/4″ TS jack. This means that microphones, synths, and even headphone, line or attenuated speaker outputs can be routed to an effects pedal.
What pedals should every guitarist have? Every guitarist is different and would benefit from different pedals (if at all). There are no 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.
Choosing the right effects pedals for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I’ve created My New Microphone’s Comprehensive Effects Pedal Buyer’s Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next pedal/stompbox purchase.
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.