Beginners Guide to Guitar Effects: Understanding the Basics

Every guitar player loves pedals. We all have at least a handful in our collection and will always try a new one we come across. When you're starting out, you probably know when you need something, but you aren't exactly sure what it is. You may not even know what flanging or phasing actually does to your signal and how that's different from a chorus effect. We're offering below some great effect choices that will add some character without overtaking your sound, so you can really distill out what each of these effects do. While distortion and overdrive have their place (and are usually the effects beginners jump to initially), the following picks offer some other alternatives that will feed your creativity and help get you started.

Boost

A boost pedal is one of the most useful pedals one can have. Simply put, it boosts the signal that goes into it. It can perk up a low output guitar, or bring out more character or a different quality to your amp. This is especially useful for solos where overdrive or distortion would overwhelm the tone you've got. Boost adds more “you” to the sound. Look out for what tone the boost adds, like treble or mids before purchasing. Some boosts claim to be transparent, maintaining the same EQ of your original tone, while others spike a certain part of your EQ intentionally.

Beginner Pick: Electro-Harmonix LPB-1

Delay

Delay is essentially echo, but it can be so much more when used well. The two most important knobs are “time” and “repeats”. Time will increase the length between repeats, and repeats will adjust how many echoes are heard. While it is tempting to max the repeats and enter space rock land, less can be more. Used gently you can get reverb or slap-back rockabilly sounds. With careful knob setting you can even create harmonies and loops like The Edge.

Beginner Pick: MXR Carbon Copy

Octave

The octave pedal raises or lowers your pitch an octave. This makes a huge sonic impact as soon as it is heard. This pedal will make your guitar sound huge, broad and bass-rich or fierce and piercing - even both. It's best to look for a pedal with a “mix” knob, so that your original tone is not completely lost. One step and you can change the direction of the riff or the entire song. This effect was used extensively by Jimi Hendrix in combination with a fuzz tone, while more modern users include Tom Morello and Jack White.

Beginner Pick: Henretta Purple Octopus

Tremolo

If you are looking for a simple and old school way to spice up your guitar sound, tremolo is a great option. Tremolo lowers the amplitude of your signal at a regular rate. It's like having a machine move your volume knob back and forth rhythmically, and it's one of the first effects that were built into early amplifiers. While simple in concept , tremolo adds a great movement to you tone, in either a subtle or intense way. The choice is yours. On low settings, a pleasant motion effect can add some ear candy to your tone. Set on high, a “stutter” or “chop” effect can add emphasis to a song or riff. Some pedals will even split the repeats in stereo, which adds a genuine vortex to your tone.

Beginner Pick: Voodoo Lab Tremolo

Compressor

A difficult effect to explain, the compressor’s value is in it subtle and careful use. A compressor acts like bumpers on your signal's amplitude, preventing the volume from spiking too loud while also preventing the volume from decaying too quickly. Because of this, it increases sustain - which is great for solos - while evening out playing dynamics. Country and funk players use compression heavily to achieve spanky and crisp punctuation within their playing. Compressors will add noise to the signal, so many higher end boxes will have a noise gate feature. Other than making cleans sparkle, you can also front-load your distortion or overdrive to get great clear sustain.

Beginner Pick: MXR Dyna Comp

Fuzz

Unlike distortion or overdrive, fuzz is meant to not sound like an amp at all. It is meant to add harmonic content and transistor-like goodness to your tone. Fuzz boxes were used extensively in the 1960s to create an over the top distortion sound. Many times fuzzes will completely change the sound of your amp, so be careful and really focus on buying one that has the sonic makeup you are looking for. Hendrix, Cream-era Clapton, and Dan Auerbach are well known fuzz users.

Beginner Pick: Electro-Harmonix Nano Big Muff

Chorus

Chorus is an effect that doubles and detunes your signal. It can add an otherworldly effect to your tone, as well as add emphasis to your playing. Chorus adds shimmer and depth to your signal. While it shines in making clean playing more lush, many players, Zakk Wylde included, use chorus to add a doubling effect to their solos, which really will bring it to the forefront of a song. When used carefully, you can even approximate the sound of a 12-string guitar.

Beginner Pick: Boss CH-1 Super Chorus

Reverb

Reverb is one of the most fundamental effects for electric guitar, which is why it is already built into most amps. Reverb adds natural sounding depth to your sound. Used extensively in the recording world, electric guitars do not sound “right” without it. Just a little makes the guitar have more of a natural sound and decay, but you can go to the extremes and get cavernous depth to your sound. Plate and spring are the most common types, but with so many makers coming up with new sonic “spaces” to play in, finding your reverb sound is a priority.

Beginner Pick: Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail

Phaser

The phaser is an interesting pedal that has a surprising mix of uses across genres. What a phaser does is add an out of phase version of your signal with your original signal. This gives your sound a swirling effect that has many sonic possibilities. Eddie Van Halen famously used a phaser set a a low rate to add some “movement” to his solos. In funk, phasers are fundamental in creating the bright and terse rhythm sounds.

Beginner Pick: MXR Phase 90

Vibrato

One of the oldest guitar effects, vibrato changes the pitch of the signal at a constant shifting rate. Vibrato adds motion to your tone, but without the “choppy” feel of a tremolo. Vibrato adds a more fluid movement. The slightly detuned, slightly chorus-ey modulation emphasizes bends and makes chords more interesting to the listener. Jimi Hendrix was a visionary user of the Uni-Vibe, which at its core is a vibrato pedal.

Beginner Pick: TC Electronic Shaker Mini

EQ

While it might seem unnecessary, an EQ pedal is a very handy effect to have. Many amps have very specific voicing that can only be adjusted so far with their tone stack. Also, many small amps have limited on board tone-shaping options. For example, the popular Fender Champ 600 or the Blackstar HT-1, which only have one knob for tone shaping. With an EQ in your chain, you can fine-tune the amp to your liking, or you can perfectly dial in a distortion or fuzz that normally won't cooperate.

Beginner Pick: MXR 6-Band EQ

Flanger

Flanger pedals are based on a studio sound made when two tapes were mixed together and one was delayed. What this does is add shifting harmonic content to your signal, as well as modulation. Flanging is a very distinct effect that adds a unique whoosh or airplane-like sound. Used with restraint, the flanger adds an interesting dimension to your sound, almost synthesizer-like sound. Used at extreme settings, flangers will over take the tone and bring a solo to completely different sonic level.

Beginner Pick: Modtone Mini Flanger

These are the most-used "building block" effects, and in combination, there are an infinite number of sounds you can make. The best thing to do is spend some time and analyze the sounds of your favorite songs and players. Once you have figured out that sound, head to your local store and give them a try. Then come back to Reverb to find a great deal! What were some first pedals that you found yourself loving when you got them?


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