The world of instrument effects can easily be overwhelming. This world is exciting, diverse, and endless...but where do you start? This is the question we often get from SoundLife students. Once someone starts to get comfortable on their instrument, it’s only natural to seek out ways to emulate the various sounds we hear on recordings. The most common of these sounds is what many refer to as “distortion,” but even that is often misunderstood. If you walk into a Guitar Center, things don’t always get any clearer either. More often than not, the “guide,” who is really a salesperson trying to get commission, will recommend something that is either not necessary, not appropriate, or not very good. Truth be told, the world of effects is so vast that it would be hard for anyone who isn’t totally dedicated to this world to know all there is to know.
With that said, we thought it would be nice to provide a beginner's guide to the wild world of effects pedals. Throughout this article, we’ll be referring to the guitar, but everything we talk about could just as easily be applied to any instrument.
Single Effect vs. Multi-Effects
There are two types of effect pedals: single effect and multi-effect. As the names imply, a single effect pedal produces one type of effect, while a multi-effect pedal can produce many. Typically single effect pedals have higher quality sounds because they are only focused on producing one result. Multi-effect pedals can produce tons of different types of effects and combinations of effects. In the past, professional musicians often looked down on multi-effect units, but in today's world with technology progressing at such a rapid pace, there are affordable multi-effect units that sound absolutely amazing.
These units take time to learn, and it’s important to understand each type of effect to really get the best out of them. For this reason, I always suggest that beginners learn the basics of each type of effect first. If you start with understanding your instrument, then your amplifier, and then each type of effect, you’ll quickly learn that you don’t need all that many pedals. A good overdrive and delay pedal can actually cover the requirements for many professional gigs, so this is where we recommend starting.
Types of Effects
There are four main types of effects: modulations, drives/distortions, reverbs, and delays. Most effects we hear in popular music fall into one of these four categories. For example, “chorus” is an effect that's commonly heard in 80s music. It falls in the category of “modulations” because of what it does. “Fuzz” is another effect, but it falls into the category of Drive/Distortions because of what it does. Below, we will break down each one of these categories and provide links to affordable high-quality options.
The result of pushing an amplifier's preamp to the point where it begins to clip and distort is called overdrive. The short word for overdrive is “drive.” When overdriving something too much, it distorts. Often people use the words overdrive, drive, gain, and distortion as if they are all the same thing, but for guitarists, they are very different things. Distortion refers to fairly extreme overdrive resulting in a buzzing fuzzy-type of sound, while overdrive refers to a crunchy type of sound. Think AC/DC for overdrive and Metallica for distortion. In this category, we also find compression and fuzz because they're doing a form of the same thing that we just described.
A delay pedal is a stompbox effect that records and plays back any music fed into it. Usually this playback happens in milliseconds. When playback is rapid, a delay pedal produces a “slapback” effect—an instant, snappy reverberation of what was played. With long, extended playback times, delay pedals produce cascading walls of sound—great for creating atmospheric landscapes. A delay pedal is one of the most essential tools in a guitar player's arsenal. It is also one of the least understood. If you are a student eyeing a delay pedal, be sure to talk with your instructor or head over to YouTube for a breakdown of the different types of delay effects.
Modulation, in stompbox terms, generally means adding inaudible electronic information to components in the signal path to create audible effects. With this definition, it’s to understand why so many different types of effects fall into this category. Common modulations are chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, wah-wah, and octaver.
Reverb occurs when a sound hits any hard surface and reflects back to the listener at varying times and amplitudes to create a complex echo, which carries information about that physical space. Reverb pedals or effects simulate or exaggerate natural reverberations. The best type of reverb is natural reverb from an amplifier. Class amps like the Fender Twin or Fender Deluxe Reverb have excellent reverb built in. Reverb pedals can be great tools, but with reverb, it really comes down to knowing what sound you are after.
Recommendations: Get it from the amp
What does this all mean?
While you may be more confused than ever after reading the above, you are now more “in the know” than most people who sell effect pedals, and you can sound pretty darn smart in a conversation with musos. But that’s not what you came for. You came for clarity, confidence, and some direction. Below is a simple three-step guide to getting started with Stompboxes. This should help make diving in painless and make the exploration nothing but fun.
Step 1: Know Your Amp
Ask your instructor or jump on YouTube, and make sure you know what each dial on your amplifier does. Understand what your amp is capable of and what its limitations are. You may have an effect you want right under your nose.
Step 2: Start with One
Begin with either one single-effect stompbox or a lower end multi-effects unit like the one recommended above. Do not go spending big money on anything just yet. Learn them inside and out. The first pedal we recommend is a good overdrive. Follow this up with a delay, and then follow that up with a Wah-Wah.
Step 3: Building Your Pedal Board
Once you have more than one pedal, it’s time to start thinking about a pedal board. We could, and likely will, do an entire article on building a pedal board, but to get started we recommend purchasing a PedalTrain Nano. This is an easy and affordable way to begin learning how your pedals work together and how effects, much like colors, mix.
What's your favorite effects pedal? Let us know in the comments if you have tips or suggestions to share.