How to Choose Your First Guitar Effects Pedals
By Jason Filloramo

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The fantastic world of guitar effects pedals can seem daunting to break into. With thousands of models available at prices ranging from $10 - $2000, deciding which pedals to buy first is no easy task. In this series, you’ll learn how to choose the right pedals for your play style and budget, as well as what accessories you’ll need to get started.

Types of Pedals

So what is an effects pedal, and why do some people have so many of them? In short, guitar pedals use digital or analog circuitry to change the audio signal of your guitar. This gives players access to a variety of sonic textures, all easily controllable with the twist of a knob or the flick of a switch. Buying pedals can become an addicting habit for some – it’s quite inspiring to experiment with new sounds and textures!

Deciding which pedal to buy first depends on the style of music you play, the tone you want, and the current capabilities of your guitar and amplifier. For instance, many amps have built-in overdrive, reverb, and/or tremolo. While trying a pedal in person is always the best way to get a feel for it, understanding the different families of effects will help you decide which will be most useful for you. Below is a general overview of the most common effects available on the market today, along with a recommended pedal for each type.

1.) Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz: Perhaps the most well-known family of effects, these pedals add gain, “dirt,” and “crunch” to your sound. Overdrives model the sound of hot tubes in an amplifier and tend to change the original sound the least. Distortions often have additional options to boost, equalize, or scoop certain frequencies in your sound, and tend to color the original sound more heavily. Fuzz pedals use special silicon or germanium circuits to emulate the raspy sound of reed instruments and add some serious edge to your playing.

Recommended Overdrive: Fulltone OCD, Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer

Recommended Distortion: Boss DS1

Recommended Fuzz: Way Huge Swollen Pickle

2.) Modulation: The modulation family of pedals alter the sound waves produced by the guitar to make them more complex and dynamic. Chorus pedals add warmth and depth to your sound and can give the impression that multiple guitars are playing at once. Phasers and Flangers create sweeping sounds by displacing the audio signal to alter the frequency spectrum. Tremolo creates the illusion of a rotary speaker by altering your volume signal at a controllable rate and depth. Vibrato acts similarly to tremolo, but varies pitch instead of volume.

Recommended Modulation: Mooer Mod Factory (all in one), Boss CH1, TR2, BF3, PH3

3.) Delay and Reverb: In the simplest sense, delays and reverbs make your guitar echo. Delays work by repeating the audio signal with a variable speed, mix, and number of repeats. Some have a tap feature allowing you to sync up the tempo of the repeats. Reverbs model the way sound behaves in different spaces and make your guitar sound “bigger” and more resonant.

Recommended Delays: MXR Carbon Copy, Boss DD7

Recommended Reverbs: TC Electronic Hall of Fame, Electro Harmonix Holy Grail

4.) Octave and Harmonizer Pedals: These pedals allow you to add a wide range of frequencies above or below your guitar. It can turn your guitar into a bass, your bass into a guitar, or let you play both at once!

Recommended Octave: Boss OC3, EHX Micro Pog

Recommended Harmonizers: Digitech Whammy, EHX Pitchfork

5.) Compressors and Boosts: Compressors add sustain and make your guitar stand out in the mix by evening out the signal. Boosts simply increase the output level with a variable decibel increase. Both are great for when you are taking solos but you don’t want to change your tone too much.

Recommended Compressors: Keeley 4-Knob Compressor, Wampler Ego Compressor

Recommended Boosts: Xotic EP Booster, BBE Boosta Grande

6.) Wah and Volume: Made famous by classic recordings in the 60s such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” wah pedals use a foot-controlled filter to create their eponymous “wah-wah” effect. Volume pedals use a similar foot-controlled action to create swells or change the volume of your guitar on the fly.

Recommended Wahs: Dunlop Cry Baby, Vox Classic Wah

Recommended Volume: Ernie Ball VPJR

7.) Loopers: Allow you to jam with yourself or create complex layered soundscapes. You can use these with a variety of instruments as it will loop any audio signal.

Recommended Loopers: Boss RC3, TC Electronic Ditto

8.) Multi-FX: If you are unsure which effects you will need or like, some pedals and digital amps are available with wide range of effects built in. These multi-effects tend to be “jacks of all trades, masters of none” in that they are quite versatile, but can lack the depth and customization of single effects units.

Recommended Multi-FX: Eventide H9, Boss GT100

Recommended Modeling Amps: Roland Cube, Vox VT20x

9.) Accessories: All effects pedals (except passive volume pedals) require an external power supply or battery to operate. In general, if a pedal requires a voltage greater than 9V or more than 300mA, it will come with its own power supply. However, most do not include power supplies. If you plan on eventually purchasing multiple pedals, the TrueTone OneSpot and the Voodoo Labs Pedal Power are great for powering up to eight pedals. Once you have acquired a few pedals, having a case from PedalTrain is a great way to keep your rig organized and portable.

While this article has only grazed the tip of the pedal iceberg, it will hopefully give you a jumping off point to dive into the rabbit hole of guitar effects.