If you are a beginning guitarist, you might be feeling overwhelmed thinking about pedals. With so many options on the market where do you start?
We’ve broken down the top factors of what you need to build a board with indispensable pedals:
- Where to start
- How to arrange them
- How to buy them
- Top choices of pedals
Also, if you are looking to expand your career as a professional guitarist, having a pedalboard is necessary. It’s not an option.
This article will function as a guide to help you understand the basics of guitar effects and offer our top picks of essential pedals as well as what we think are some of the most important guitar pedals. Our other articles like Guide to the Best Gain-Based Pedals for Guitarists and Best Reverb Pedals For Guitarists also discuss different types of guitar pedals.
Table of contents
- Guitar Pedals 101
- Top picks for Essential Pedals
- Final Thoughts
Guitar Pedals 101
Exploring the sonic landscape: Pedal Effects Categories
There are different schools of thought in how to classify effects pedals, but here is a general breakdown:
- loop switcher
- Volume pedal
Utility pedals are non-effect pedals that help run your pedalboard and guitar rig. In order to perform to the best of your abilities, these pedals function as tools to help maintain the integrity of your sound, tone, and instrument. They are vital to a professional rig. Check out Weezer live going from a clean sound to a dirty sound on “Say it Ain’t So.”
Arguably for the most important guitar effect on the planet, gain-based pedals are used to increase or manipulate volume and/or add saturation (sound density) of your instrument signal, producing a “hairy”, “fuzzy”, “dirty”, “growling”, or “gritty” sound. All of your favorite guitarists mastered their sound by dialing in their favorite gain-based effect. Check out Jack White’s fuzz on the intro to “Over and Over”
- ring modulator
- tremolo & vibrato
Modulation effects create variations in pitch and frequency. They add color, depth, and/or thickness to your sound. Some modulation effects like flanger and phase help give a sense of motion to your tone. Metallica uses a chorus effect in the intro of their famous song “One.”
- harmonizer & pitch shift
Pitch effects raise or lower the pitch of your signal or add in additional pitch to the signal. They can be used the add a bassline or second guitar part when there is only a guitarist playing. In addition, you can design some cool, complex chords by just playing one note. Check Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine)’s solo on “Killing in the Name” (explicit language warning now!).
- wah-wah & envelope filters
Filter effects reduce or add specific frequency spectrums to your signal, from low to mid to high. Originally designed with intention of assisting engineers, creative musicians have come along to find artistic value in filtering. Check Jimi Hendrix’s use of a wah pedal in the introduction on “Voodoo Child.”
- reverb & delay
We don’t perceive the world in a muffled box. Ambience effects are designed to create a sense of space (like a hall) and/or time (like an echo) in your guitar signal. They are useful for extending, sustaining, or sweetening up your sound. Check out the master of delay, The Edge of U2 on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Some pedals and effects do not fall within the above categories. We will not dive too deeply into this topic, but it’s worth mentioning some examples: loopers, amp emulators, and multi-effect processors.
Beginners’ guide to choosing pedals
There are so many pedals! Feeling overwhelmed with choice? The following quick guide will give you a solid foundation on what to look for in your local music shop…or more crushingly, the Internet.
Nothing stops creativity like a big learning curve: user friendliness
Having a pedal that’s easy to use and dial in is crucial for someone just getting into guitar effects. It’s important to be able to get started quickly; to plug in and immediately make music. In order for that to happen, the pedal needs to be straightforward and intuitive.
Don’t break the bank: affordability
Beginning your journey into effects-land is wonderfully inspiring, but it can get expensive quickly. Cost is always a key of factor when choosing any gear, and effects pedals can add up. Pedals can range from $50 to $500 or more when you get into high-end or boutique markets. However, for a beginner, you can get started with pedals under $150 and be very satisfied. You find them new or used on websites like Amazon.com.
Tones to make them moan: tonal quality
Tone! That’s the name of the game. The pedal has to sound great. There are no exceptions.
What does it mean to have good tone? You plug in your guitar and the effect sounds great to your ears. To find your taste, listen to your favorite records and make note of the sounds that excite you. Good tone serves the music. You wouldn’t want a soft sweet guitar sound in a thrash metal song.
Built like a tank: reliability
Nothing’s worse than buying a new pedal and breaking it on your first gig!
Gear wears out. It happens. Reliable pedals are worry-free for artists. Guitar pedals should and will get beat up if used right, so they need to be able to take abuse and withstand road wear.
Look for a proven design. Time-tested, mother-approved.
Best practices for building a pedal board
NHeyow for the fun part! Building the board. Here’s a quick overview:
- You can google how to arrange pedals on a board and find conflicting schools of thought. Here is a common way to arrange your board:
- Guitar → Utility → Gain-based → filters → modulation → ambience → amp
- For example, specifically:
- Guitar → tuner → overdrive → wah → phaser → reverb → amp
- Explore on your own. Have fun!
What your friends don’t want to talk about: true bypass vs. buffered pedals.
- What is true bypass? With a true bypass pedal, when the effect is in bypass mode (off), the guitar signal is routed directly to the amp without any interference. In essence, it’s like plugging your guitar directly into the amp when the effect is disengaged.
- What is a buffered circuit? An active circuit found within certain pedals (e.g. Boss and Ibanez) or as a stand alone unit that is designed to help your guitar signal maintain clarity and less noise when there’s a long cabling situation.
- If you’re using old pedals with germanium transistors like a vintage fuzz face, you might run into issues mixing with modern buffered circuit pedals! This is an in-depth, very technical topic that we will explore at a later date.
Putting it all together: the physical pedalboard
If you’re a DIY sort of person, you can build your own pedal board. If you’re like me and don’t have the time or patience, luckily there are pre-made boards for purchase! A commonly used company for professionals is PedalTrain.
Cabling matters: choosing the right ones
- When purchasing cables for your pedalboard make sure to get ¼ inch, unbalanced, instrument cables. Also called TS cables. Some reliable brands include Santo Angelo, Mogami, Monster, and Live Wire.
- Cable length is important. As a rule of thumb you want as short of a cable as possible. Why? Because with greater length comes a greater chance you will lose clarity in your guitar signal (buffered pedals help with this). Twenty feet is generally great for performance and has become one of the standard lengths.
Powering your pedals: batteries vs. power supply
Flagship Brands to check out
These are the top brands that are known for delivering consistent, quality pedals and have set the standard for the industry:
- Line 6
- TC Electronic
A word on Boutique Brands
Like the craft beer world, boutique effects manufacturers have popped up all over the continent and continue to create innovative, high quality pedals. Just a few notable brands include:
- 6 Degrees FX
- Death By Audio
- Deep Space Devices
- Mastro Valvola
- Pelican NoiseWorks
- Walrus Audio
Top Picks for Essentials Pedals
- Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner Pedal with Bypass
- Fulltone OCD V2 Obsessive Compulsive Drive Pedal
- MXR Phase 90
- Dunlop Cry Baby Wah GCB-95
- MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay
- TC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini Reverb
Our list of pedals was thought out using the criteria in the beginner’s guide of choosing pedals. The pedals on this list are highly regarded and time-tested. They will yield great results to the beginning guitarist who wants to explore sounds beyond the naked instrument.
Nickname: Old reliable
If you are putting together your first pedal board, with so many clip-on tuners available on the market, you may wonder why would you need to take up pedal board real estate?
The Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner is the industry standard for on-stage tuners. We find this pedal to be far more consistent than clip-ons, especially in louder stage settings. This tuner is incredibly precise, fully chromatic, and usable for a wide range of instruments.
Additionally, never underestimate the need for a quick mute on stage!
Price: $99.99 new
- Easy-to-use LED display with brightness control (this comes in handy when performing outdoors)
- Stompbox mutes your signal when tuning
- Fully chromatic, can be used with bass and other instrumentsI
Nickname: daddy driver
Your overdrive pedal will be the centerpiece of your sound, so spend a couple extra bucks and get one that counts!
The Fulltone OCD V2 always delivers an incredible tone. Its transparent qualities allow your dynamics to shine while keeping the integrity of your guitar sound. It’s a favorite among professional guitarists.
- Switchable Enhanced Bypass (buffered) or True Bypass switching modes
- Switchable hi- and lo- peak gain settings
Nickname: swirly whirly
A real bang for your buck! This classic pedal gives you a surprisingly wide array of sounds with a simple interface.
The MXR Phase 90 is well-designed and versatile. Unlike many guitar effects, you can utilize the Phase 90 with other instruments. Plug in your keyboard or vocal mic and get swirly!
- Dude it’s one knob
- Knob varies speed from super subtle long sweeps to a bubbly, watery tone.
Nickname: Jimi’s secret weapon
This classic pedal has not lost its place on the working guitarist’s rig, so why not explore the fun(k)? Seriously, this pedal is as straightforward as they come. Plug in. Tap on. Wail on.
The Dunlop Cry Baby Wah can be found on your favorite Jimi Hendrix records. Originators also include Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, and your favorite 70s “mustache” films.
Also great for ankle exercise.
- Heavy-duty diecast construction (won’t break)
- It goes “wah wah wah”
Nickname: the xerox
Whether you are looking for slap-back or long vapor trails of sound, this no-frills pedal is a solid introduction to the possibilities of delay.
The MXR M169 Carbon Copy’s simple interface consists of three knobs:
Regen: short for “regeneration,” this knob controls the number of repeats. When the knob is turned clockwise, your note or chord will repeat to infinity and beyond! When the knob is turned counterclockwise, the pedal gives you that country “slap-back” tone.
Mix: blends your original sound with the effected sound.
Delay: controls the speed of the echo up to 600 milliseconds.
- 3-knob layout with Delay, Mix, and Regen
- 2 internal trim pots for user-adjustable width and rate control (you can open her up and tweak the sound even more, essentially)
- Analog innards so your unaffected sound won’t suffer
Nickname: little red
Natural reverb is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, effect in music. Think of a gigantic organ performing Bach in a European cathedral built a gazillion years ago.
When the TC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini is engaged, you become that cathedral. We love this pedal for its simplicity, but don’t be fooled. Thanks to TC Electronic’s patented “TonePrint” App, you can download pre-made reverb effects, or even create your own.
- Super compact (great for pedal board “real estate”)
- TC Electronic’s TonePrint technology
- Simple one-knob design
- True bypass (this means your tone will not be affected when pedal is not in use)
You can purchase these pedals new, and all together the damage comes to $636.17
Not too bad considering these little devices are essential for expanding your palette as a guitarist.
Amazon.com is a great source for new and used pedals alike, and browsing the used pedals shows me that you can easily save up to $200 total on these.
Don’t feel overwhelmed. We carefully choose products to give a great working beginning palette of sounds. Music is art, it’s subjective, and you may find that your personal sound only needs one or two pedals, or it need fifty (check out RHCP’s Josh Klinghoffer). We hope this article helps you get started in finding your sound!