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The different types of guitar pedals and what they do

There are few things that get guitar players more excited than guitar pedals. These beloved stompboxes are, after all, the source of endless sonic opportunities which can ignite your creative spark like nothing else.

For all the positives in regards to guitar pedals, the downside (is it really a downside?) is that the there are so many options that you can get lost and intimidated very easily.

Our goal today is to equip you with the basic knowledge of different types of guitar pedals so you can easily navigate through the superabundant market offerings to find the right piece of gear for your needs.

types of guitar effects pedals

With the ever-faster rate of technological advance, it is very easy to lose the grip over the new products. That is why we made sure to scour the web and find types of pedals that may be new to everyone, even the most seasoned of all the seasoned veterans.

So, without further ado let’s delve right in!

1. Distortion pedals

The first category of pedals we are going to cover is distortion pedals. Most of us were attracted to the guitar for the same reason; it was the sheer sense of power that comes from the sound that the thing makes. One of the most recognizable sounds associated with the electric guitar is the distortion itself.

Distortion can be both used to point to a specific type of pedal as well as an umbrella term to refer to 3 similar, yet very different types of guitar sounds.

1.1. Distortion

Let’s start with the most obvious of distorted trio, the standard distortion. This legendary piece of gear makes your guitar sound much more aggressive, crunchy, and has ridiculous amounts of sustain. This effect is the bedrock of all the hard-rocking genres out there. From Black Sabbath to Pantera, every one of the artists in that music spectrum relied on this legendary sound.

As the name of the effect suggests, this pedal distorts your sound and drastically changes the original sound of both your guitar and amplifier.

Some of the best-known distortion pedals are Boss DS-1 and MT-2 Metal Zone.

1.2. Overdrive

The overdrive pedal’s secret sauce is the fact that it preserves your original guitar and amp tone and gives it extra punch and distortion, but is a bit softer than a traditional distortion pedal.

The way the overdrive pedal achieves that “natural” distorted sound is that it pushes your amp in a subtle way which adds the beefiness and bite to your existing guitar and amp sound.

The usage of these pedals is almost as present as the instrument they serve. You can find a blues player sporting these babies, as well as a raging metalhead.

Some of the best-known overdrive pedals are Ibanez Tube Screamer and Friedman BE-OD.

1.3. Fuzz

The fuzz is the most extreme of the distorted trio. If you hear a guitar sound that sounds as if it’s pushing your amp to the breaking point – that’s the fuzz pedal.

In the case of this guitar effect, you are left with very little of your original guitar and amp tone. The fuzz pedal twists it to the point of it being so noisy and bass-heavy that its buzzy sound almost makes the guitar sound like a completely different instrument.

This stompbox can really spark your creativity and open up some unexplored sonic avenues that you haven’t dabbled in before.

The quintessential fuzz pedal is the legendary Electro-Harmonix Big Muff.

2. Dynamics-based pedals

The dynamic-based pedals do what it says on the tin, pretty much. They toy around with the dynamics of your guitar’s sound output. All soundwaves (guitar sound included) consist of peaks and valleys, or in other words – loud parts and quiet parts. Manipulation of the sound in that dimension is what you get with these types of stompers.

2.1. Compressor

To the untrained eye (yes, eye, not the ear) this may seem like one of the most boring pedals in the world of guitar stompboxes. Well, in a way that is true. However, to every ear (trained or untrained) the compressor pedal is pretty much what creates that grade A, professional guitar sound.

A compressor normalizes your guitar sound. It turns down the loud parts of your signal so the sound is more even throughout. It also gives you the option of turning up the sound so you can make up for the perceived drop in volume.

These babies are equally used in live and studio situations and are beloved by the guitar playing kind for their ability to add sustain to notes.

An example of an industry-standard compressor pedal would be the MXR Dyna Comp.

2.2. Noise gate

The general downside of guitar pedals is that they are infamous for adding unwanted noise to your guitar sound. Even the true bypass types are going to give you some noise. Whether it’s buzz or hum, it really becomes unbearable when you are not playing. In other words, the noise will be heard the most when all should be quiet.

Now, that is exactly where noise gates come in. The best way to get rid of that bee’s nest type of sound is to use the noise gate to cut off all the sound going into your amp when you are not playing.

So, now that you understand the noise part, you probably want to know where does the “gate” part come in? Well, one of the crucial knobs on these pedals is the threshold. You would use the threshold to define the volume point at which the gate closes.

In other words, every sound under a certain threshold is not going to be heard. Since the unwanted noises are quieter than the desired part of your signal, the noise gates really do a fantastic job of cleaning up all the undesired artifacts.

A popular example of a noise gate pedal is the Silencer by Electro-Harmonix.

2.3. Тremolo

This effect sound like someone turning your volume knob up and down like it’s going out of style. The effected signal is paired with the original signal and blended in so it sounds majestically wobbly.

These pedals feature knobs that allow you to determine how quick the volume changes are. Also, you can change how drastic they are.

This one is definitely the right choice if you are feeling frisky and want to try out some new things.

A cool example of the tremolo pedal would be the Fulltone ST-1 Supa-Trem.

3. Time-based pedals

The time-based pedals generally work by duplicating the original guitar sound and then playing both of those together with a slight shift in timing.

These are some of the most used pedals in the world of guitar playing. If you want to create glorious soundscapes with lush ambient overtones, look no further!

3.1. Delay

Not to sound like a broken record, but this pedal also pretty much does what it says on the tin. It delays the sound to varying degrees which you can control. They work by playing both the original sound as well as the delayed sound together.

You can create subtly delayed sounds and add them to your clean guitar tones, or your lead guitar tones. You can also do some drastic delaying and achieve some mind-bogglingly awesome ambient effects.

An example of a great delay pedal would be the MXR M169 Carbon Copy.

3.2. Chorus

As this is a time-based effect, you will definitely see the similarities between this one and the other effects pedals in this category. However, the end result you get with this one is very different from the delay pedal.

Chorusing works by multiplying your signal numerous times with each signal being just a teeny tiny bit out of time. This very subtle difference of time creates some pleasant tuning discrepancies which result in a thick and rich guitar sound.

The wobble effect this pedal produces also allows you to create some wild avantgarde ambient sounds if you set it up drastically.

3.3. Flanger

You know when your guitar sounds as if an airplane was flying past? Well, that’s your flanger effect. It is somewhat similar to the chorus effect, but it creates more of a sense of traveling through time with the pitch going up and down.

A great example of this type of guitar pedal is the DigiTech Turbo Flange.

3.4. Phaser

This one is pretty similar to its siblings – the flanger and chorus pedals. It also creates a sense of movement throughout your guitar signal by creating peaks that travel down the frequency spectrum as you play.

The coolest thing about the phaser pedal is that you can manipulate the height of the peaks by using the given control knobs.

A good example of this type of guitar pedal is the legendary MXR M101 Phase 90.

3.5. Reverb

The thing is, you will get this effect with a lot of amplifiers on the market today. However, it has been shown that they are not always great, so you might end up craving a lush reverb sound that only a specific guitar pedal can give you.

The reverb effect is the king of atmospheric sounds. It basically adds echo to your guitar tone. By controlling the knobs you can make it very subtle, or you can crank it all the way up and make it sound as If you are playing in a cave.

Although not very complimentary with the distorted guitar sounds, this is the main staple of pretty much all clean guitar playing you have ever heard.

Want a nice reverb pedal? Try Boss RV-6.

4. Spectral pedals

4.1. Wah-wah

Now, you are probably looking at this name and thinking – “This looks more like a name Elon Musk would give to his daughter, than a guitar pedal name.” Right? That’s just me? Ok, never mind.

If you are not sure what this effect actually is, just try saying “wah-wah”. There you go! If you want some real-world examples of this glorious effect, just listen to Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Jimi Hendrix and you will instantly fall in love – guaranteed.

When you say “wah”, you notice how your mouth makes the sound differently. Well, that occurs due to the change in frequencies. You are literally equalizing the sound. That is exactly how the wah-wah pedal works.

It is incredibly useful for soloing and the amount and the timing of the effect are controlled via the pedal.

As far as naming the particular wah pedals goes, there can be only one – the mighty Jim Dunlop Cry Baby!

4.2. Octaver

These babies basically take what you are playing, move it to a different octave and then play, both, the original signal and the effected signal together.

So, for example, it sounds as if you are playing the open E string and the 12th fret of the E string at the same time.

Although an incredible effect (especially if you are the sole guitar player in a band), it only sounds good for single notes. It just does not sound good with chords.

Want a cool octaver pedal? Try Boss OC-3 Super Octave!

5. Utility pedals

The last category would be the pedals that you don’t use to create effects, but rather to keep things in check and use them as reliable workhorses.

5.1. Tuner

This one is just a no-brainer. Tuning is, after all, one of the most important aspects of the experience of playing guitar and listening to music in general.

The best thing about these pedals is that you can tune your guitar in silence in between the songs while you are playing live.

Recommended guitar tuner pedal: TC Electronic Polytune 3.

5.2. Looper

These are getting more and more popular every day. It is a very prevalent guitar pedal in the modern-day musical landscape and for a good reason.

With a looper pedal, you can record a guitar line and then immediately play it as a backing track in real-time. Depending on the pedal, you can record multiple layers on top of each other.

In the end, you could have a chord progression, bass line, and percussive pattern all laid down so you can solo over it with confidence.

Recommended looper pedal: Electro-Harmonix Nano Looper 360.

We have really tried to do our best to make this wide plethora of guitar effects pedals as simple as possible. Think of this as a guide to different pedals that are out there. It is now time for you to walk the walk and hear these out, try them, and maybe even buy them so you can start creating your own unique sounds!