Posted by: kubiakl | April 13, 2009

Pedal Roundup

Compressor, fuzz, delay, overdrive, flanger, chorus, reverb, wah, echo…


Pedals are one of the most fun and frustrating parts of shaping your guitar tone.  There are more options out there than any one person could ever hope to own, with new ones coming out all the time.  Some classics always come up – the Ibanez TS9 Tubescreamer, Dunlop Fuzz Face, Boss DS1, Big Muff Pi (no, I’m not kidding), MXR Dyna Comp, Holy Grail Reverb, and the Crybaby wah are fairly common.  But what do these things mean?

Pedals are categorized by what they do to the sound.  There are distortion effects, filtering effects, volume effects, time effects, modulation effects, and pitch effects.

Distortion effects should be pretty obvious.  Everyone who has ever listened to any rock song has heard some version of distortion.  What most of the uninitiated don’t realize is that “distortion” is kind of a cover all – there are distortion, fuzz, and overdrive types of effects.  There is a technical explanation for the differences, but that doesn’t really matter.  What matters is the difference in sound.

Distortion pedals (like the Boss DS-1 and the Big Muff Pi) give a metallic sound closely related to hard rock.  Fuzz pedals (like the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face) sound a little warmer with a large bottom end, almost psychedelic.  Overdrive pedals (like the Ibanez Tubescreamer and the Visual Sounds Route 66) are made to sound like a tube amp being pushed to it’s limits, a bluesier type of sound.  Of course none of these categories are hard and fast, and pedals can be mixed and matched.  I read somewhere that Billy Gibbons uses 6 Bionic Expandora pedals in a chain to create his tone.

Filtering effects change the tone.  Equalizers are for attenuating or boosting certain frequencies to shape the sound.  Wah pedals are basically floor mounted tone pots similar to the ones on the guitar – as the player pushes the pedal up and down it filters out bass or treble frequencies to create a “wah-wah” sound.

Volume effects are pretty self explanatory.  Volume pedals are just another way to control the volume in a tone chain, and tremelo pedals vary the volume to create a watery tone.  Compressors act to even out the volume of a note as it is plucked and dies down, which increases sustain.

Time effects are fairly common in all styles of music.  Delay and echo pedals create a spacey sound, while reverb emulates the bounce back of sound waves from a room – a little more natural sounding than echo, less spacey.  Looping is considered a time effect and allows a player to record a short riff, then let the looping device continue the riff while they play something over it.  It’s become invaluable for solo artists.

Modulation effects change the frequencies of the sound.  Chorus gives a very lush, wet tone by splitting a guitar signal into two parts.  One is modulated, the other is the orginal sound.  The parts are then mixed back together.  Flangers sound very psychedelic, phasers create a whooshing sound, and vibrato changes the frequencies in the same way that tremelo changes the volume.

Pitch effects (like the whammy pedal and octave pedals) change the pitch of the notes played.  Hendrix used an octave pedal along with his Fuzz Face to create some of his legendary sounds.

And breathe.  There are other effects, but those are the most commonly used.  Some pedals are multi-effects, and usually contain a selection of all of the above.  These are digital and emulate the analog circuits, but can be useful to people who need a lot of different sounds.  If you are new to pedals, it may be a good idea to start off with a multi-effect pedal so you can find out what you like before starting your pedal addiction.

And don’t be mistaken – it is an addiction.  Some guitarists collect pedals like baseball cards.  There are so many out there that it’s tempting to try everything available.  Many famous guitarists have pedalboards with a higher population than my hometown.  I try to keep it simple, but that’s what fits my sound.  For those who need a wider palette of tones a pedal collection is necessary.

My setup looks like this:  Guitar (Fender American Standard Strat or Epiphone Dot) -> Guyatone Micro Overdrive -> Tube Works Tube Driver -> Fender Blues Jr.

The Guyatone Micro OD is set to give me just a little bit of bluesy grit to my clean tone while the Tube Driver has a fuzzier, “wider” drive to it.  It’s a “set it and forget it” mentality – I don’t spend a whole song tap dancing on different pedals.  I used to use a Crybaby wah and some digital delay as well but got rid of them at some point to simplify.  To be honest, if I lived in a house instead of an apartment I would probably get rid of the overdrive pedals and just use the tube amp distortion… but I have to be considerate of my neighbors.  The OD pedals allow me to get a decent bluesy tone at low enough volumes that I’ve never had a noise complaint.

So now that I’ve shown you mine, let me see yours.  What does your signal chain look like?

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