Guitar Effects: Chorus, Flanger or Phaser?

In our previous instalment, we took a look at the best-loved distortion effects going: distortion, fuzz and overdrive. But, since you can get way more out of an electric guitar than just chewed-up, dirty sound, here we’ll take a look at the three most popular modulation effects: the chorus, flanger and phaser. Combine one, two, or all of these mod effects with a distortion pedal to really set the sound alight, or just use them on their own; combined with each other or blended with time-based effects to weave dreamy tapestries of sound.

Flanger, phaser and chorus effects all take the dry signal of your guitar or bass and blend it with a ‘wet’ affected signal. Here, we won’t go into massive detail about these effects work but offer an introduction and overview to these modulation must-haves, let you know where you’ve probably already heard them without even knowing it, and set you up with a list of some of the best known chorus, phaser and flanger pedals going.

Chorus: Make One Guitar Sound Like Two

In general, the word chorus describes the sound of a choir – so many voices singing in unison, which goes some way to describe what a chorus pedal does. The effect was originally developed to make one guitar sound like two guitars, so the signal of the guitar or bass etc. is copied, and then that copy is delayed by just a few or tens of milliseconds and, depending on the settings, the pitch of the repeated signal can be warped a little bit. The effect adds a sparkling lushness to the sound of a guitar, giving it what some people describe as a watery quality.

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If you’re looking for a lively chorus, then the ultra-famous Small Clone pedal from Electro Harmonix is probably worth trying out. The classic sound of this analogue stompbox was made famous by big names like Nirvana (just listen to the iconic recurring riff of ‘Come As You Are’ to get an idea of its organic sound), and while the eighties are considered the golden age of the chorus, where it dominated guitar music, since the nineties it’s been the trend to use chorus to add a little nuance rather than shape the entire sonic character.

‘Walking On The Moon’ by The Police was a big hit in the seventies, which clearly used a load of chorus. The distinct sound of the track can be convincingly mimicked by the CE-5 Chorus Ensemble from Boss, which can also be dialled in to shape a wide array of chorus sounds. Plenty of jazz guitarists also take advantage of that chorus-based sparkle. John Scofield, for example, takes the chorus to the extreme, so if you’re looking for something like that, then you might want to have a look at the Digitech Multi Chorus, which is able to layer up to sixteen chorus voices, making it more-than-ripe for experimentation. Both the Boss CE-5 and the Digitech Multi Chorus also work in stereo, so they can be hooked up to two amplifiers at once to create a broad and immersive wall of sound.

Flanger: From a Chorus to a Whooooosh!

In the late sixties, the flanger effect was heard for the first time. In the early days, the effect was created by recording the same sound to two different tape reels, before manually – so with your fingers – pushing on the raised edge, or flange of one of the tapes to slow it down, warping the sound as it plays back alongside the original. The method was referred to as tape flanging, which later became just flanging. And when circuit-based pedals emerged that were able to copy the signal and feed it through a filter, the world met the flanger. If you dial all the settings of a flanger pedal right back down, then you’d get a very similar sound to a chorus. Push things to the extreme and you get an effect that almost ‘breathes’ in and out, resulting in a signature flange-style ‘woooosh’ sound.

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Classic tracks like ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ by Queen and ‘Barracuda’ by Heart offer great examples of what a flanger can do. The rhythm work that supports the solo of ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’ by Lenny Kravitz is another good example. As well as the Small Clone chorus pedal, Electro Harmonix is also responsible for one of the most popular flangers going, of which the Deluxe Electric Mistress is the most recent incarnation, which still delivers a traditional, old-school flanger effect.

Boss actually offers many-a-guitarist’s go-to when it comes to most modulation effects (and others), so their BF-3 Flanger is another great option, and is directly related to the classic BF-2 and BF-2B flangers – both bygone legends. Besides the well-known clean flangers, this area of modulation has been taking a new direction in recent years. The AF2 Airplane Flanger pedal from Ibanez demonstrates this beautifully. This Paul Gilbert signature pedal carves out a clear division between the subtle and the extreme, giving you some standard-issue flanging in Mode 1, and essentially equipping your sound with a jet engine and a set of wings in Mode 2.

Phaser: Full-Fat, Thick & Creamy Phase

As the name already suggests, a phaser periodically cancels out the original sound while the copied sound is filtered so that it moves through different frequencies to produce a thick and creamy, wave-like effect. Just like a flanger is the next step up in intensity from the chorus, the phaser is like the next step up in intensity from the flanger. And, depending on the kind of sound you’re after, chorus, flanger and phaser can all serve as an alternative to one another.

Blog - Phaser

Phaser modulation actually has roots that stretch back as far as the sixties, but didn’t really gain much notoriety until the decades that followed. Eddie van Halen was one of the most famous guitarists to use a phaser. You can clearly hear the sound of the Phase 90 from MXR all over the recording of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’. And, if you want to get anywhere near the guitar sound on ‘Little Wing’ by Jimi Hendrix, you’ll have to use a phaser.

The analogue Phasor 201 from DOD can get you close to that Hendrix-style phaser sound and anyone working on their R&B-style rhythm technique will also get a lot out of the 201. But if you’re a fan of the more orchestral sound of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, then you’ll need a PH3 Phase Shifter from none-other-than… Boss! This digital phaser is capable of giving full life to the extraterrestrial sound of the modern classic, ‘Paranoid Android’.

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