Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right Guitar Effects?
This buyers guide will tell you everything you need to know so you can choose the best guitar effect for you needs, budget and style.
The different types of guitar effects pedals
Effects pedals make it possible to shape your guitar's sound to suit the music and style you're playing. If you're new to the world of guitar effects, then you can use this introduction as your guide. If you'd like to more about specific models, we invite you to check out our YouTube product reviews, when you can learn about specific pedals in depth.
Guitar effects can be roughly divided into four types; we'll give a short explanation of each type here.
1. Distortion pedals (Overdrive/Distortion/Fuzz)
2. Modulation pedals (The sound is modulated via the pedal, e.g. Chorus and Flanger)
3. Time-based effects pedals (Reverb, Delay)
4. Compressor, Envelope and Boost pedals
Finally you've got multi-effects pedals, which don't fall into these categories because they're a combination of them all!
It would be virtually impossible to imagine modern music without guitar overdrive sounds. A lightly to moderately distorted guitar sound is referred to as an 'overdriven sound', and extreme distortion is simply referred to as. Overdrive pedals such as the iconic Ibanez Tubescreamer and the Visual Sound Route 808 can be used either to produce distortion directly through the pedal, or to give your tube amp that extra boost it needs to produce an overdrive sound. Distortion pedals like the Boss MT-2 Metal Zone are a bit simpler and are built to produce heavy overdrive. With Fuzz pedals, the distortion isn't based on an overdrive tube amp, but rather distortion created by defective electronics. Just another example of an undesired effect turning into unexpected musical possibilities! Despite the fact that the manufacturer refers to it as a distortion pedal, the Big Muff Pi by Electro Harmonix is one of the most famous fuzz pedals out there.
Modulation pedals make it possible to shape/modulate your guitar sound. Below, you'll find an overview of the most popular type of modulation pedals and their characteristic sound, so you can get a good idea of how the pedal functions.
Tremolo, Vibrato and Rotary effects
Tremolo, Vibrato and Rotary effects are the primaeval guitar effects. Even before effects pedal existed, some amplifiers were already equipped with tremolo or vibrato effects. A tremolo effect creates variation in the volume, and it allows you to adjust both the volume and the speed at which the volume fluctuates. In addition to fluctuating the volume, Vibrato effects also add some light variation to the pitch. Rotary effects originally came from the famous Leslie speakers, known from the Hammond B3 organs. The sound of a Leslie speaker is thrown through a rotating drum to create an extremely unique and characteristic wave sound. Luckily, today's guitarists don't have to depend on large, heavy Leslie speakers to get this effect, and can instead use pedals like the Boss RT-20 Rotary Ensemble and the Strymon Lex Rotary.
Flanger, Phaser and Chorus effects
Flanger, Phaser and Chorus pedals all work by copying the original signal and playing it with a slight delay and modelling effect, simultaneously with the original sound. The effect is the most outspoken with Flanger pedals; a good example of the effect is in the intro to 'Baracuda' by Heart. Chorus pedals reproduce a slightly out-of-tune copy of the signal, making the guitar sound fuller. Phase pedals such as the MXR Phase 90 adjust the copied signal in yet another way. In short, they create a negative copy of the original sound waves. If the copy were played simultaneously with the original signal, the frequencies would cancel each other out, but because the copy is slightly delayed, you get a cool undulating effect. 'Unchained' by Van Halen is a good example of what a phase pedal sounds like.
Pitch Shift/Octave dividers
Pitch Shift and Octave dividers change the pitch of your guitar sound. Octave dividers make your signal one or more octaves higher or lower, which you can then combine with your dry guitar signal to get a broad, heavy sound. A good example of an Octave divider (octaver) can be heard in Metallica's version of 'Whiskey in the Jar'. You can also use pitch shifters to create harmonies. It does help to have some basic music knowledge for this, since you need to indicate the scale and type of scale (major, minor, etc.) and then indicate how many steps higher or lower the guitar signal should be reproduced. One of the most well-known pitch shift pedals is the Digitech Whammy pedal, made famous by artists like Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine.
Time-based pedals like Reverb and Delay are also commonly referred to as echo pedals. Reverb pedals add a slowly descending reverb to your guitar sound, which can vary from subtle to the kind of echo that makes you think of a grand cathedral. Plate and spring reverb are named after the way the reverb was originally created (such as with a plate, a spring, or even a feather!). Large spring reverb units used to be really popular for their characteristic sound and were used a lot in country music and old-fashioned rock 'n roll and rockabilly styles. Luckily, nowadays you can get conveniently sized pedals like the Boss FRV-1 Fender Reverb and the Electro Harmonix Nano Holy Grail to get these effects!
Delay pedals make a copy of your guitar signal and reproduce it with a slight delay. The first delay units used audio cassette tapes to get this effect, with smaller analogue delays coming out later. Analogue delays are designed to add light distortion to every echo, and are yet another great example how something that was once seen as an annoying side-effect grew into a popular, sought after effect. Digital delays are the most flexible, as they give you the ability to adjust exactly how often an echo will be repeated, when the echo will stop (in milliseconds), and whether the echo signal should be dry or modulated. Delays can be set up in many different ways to produce everything from a simple echo to completely unique guitar sounds, such as what The Edge from U2 often does.
Compressors/sustainers, Envelope filters and Boost pedals
Compressor, Envelope and Boost pedals all influence the volume of the guitar signal. Boost pedals strengthen the volume by a few decibels without further distorting the sound, and they're often used to help lead guitar parts stand out in a band. Compressors are sued to obtain a balanced guitar sound. They compress the guitar signal and help soft sounds sound louder, and vice versa. Because the soft sounds are boosted, it also takes longer for these waves to die out. As such, compressor pedals also create longer sustain. Finally, Envelope filters filter certain frequencies out of your guitar sound. Wah Wah pedals are envelope filters that allow you to choose which frequencies are filtered via a footswitch. You can get that characteristic wacka wacka sound, for instance, by moving the pedal back and forth rhythmically. Autowahs achieve the same effect, but the filter frequencies are automatically switched.
The name tells you pretty much everything you need to know about multi-effect pedals. They combine multiple effects into one unit. Digital multi-effect units have gained great popularity in recent years, and they've also seen a lot of advancements where their sound is concerned. Even purists who used to write off digital units as 'fun toys' have to admit that the current generation of digital multi-effect units, like the Digitech RP-1000, provide an outstanding alternative to large effect pedal collections. Digital multi-effect units take up a lot less space, and most of them even have an amp simulator built in. You can get multi-effect pedals at Bax-shop for as little as £45. Luckily for the hardcore analogue purists, there are also fully analogue multi-effects available, such as the T-Rex SoulMate, which combines four of the most popular T-rex pedals in one fantastic unit.