Check out any culinary style around the world and one thing that is common to almost all of them is the use of seasoning. Without seasoning, almost no dish is complete. Do not worry. You haven’t stumbled upon a cooking website. This is still all about guitar gear but the point I am trying to make is that just as the seasoning is extremely important to complete a dish, guitar pedals are important to give your sound the finishing touch. These small boxes that you can stomp on represent a world that is addictive and will take you on the ultimate journey of finding your tone. It can also be overwhelming to the uninitiated. So, let us look at some of the common types of guitar pedals so that you can embark on this leg of your journey as a guitar player in an informed manner.
Gain: This is perhaps the most common jumping-off point for most guitarists when it comes to guitar pedals. My first ever guitar pedal was the Boss DS1 distortion pedal. This group of pedals consists of distortion, overdrive, fuzz, crunch, etc. They basically push the audio signal coming from your guitar to a point where it starts sounding dirty and grainy. For most audio applications, this is undesirable but when it comes to the electric guitar, it just sounds amazing. Every great electric guitarist has used or uses some form of gain and this is where you can start as well.
Compressors: These are the underrated stars of the pedal world. They give your sound that necessary oomph by making the very quiet parts louder and the very loud parts quieter. This , in turn, imparts a uniformity to your tone while also giving it more sustain. All of these are desirable qualities and really important if you want to create the maximum impact with your sound. The first time I used a compressor, I felt like it was barely doing anything but once I combined it with other pedals, its effect became more pronounced and a compressor pedal has always been a part of my pedalboard ever since.
Wah: This was the first pedal that gave my guitar tone this otherworldly sound. I came to know about wah pedals when I fell in love with Jimmy Hendrix’s tone and I looked into what made him sound so uniquely special. haven’t looked back ever since. This is an exotic type of effect that has to be listened to and used to understand just how deliciously beautiful it is. Trust me, if you are a guitarist, you need a wah pedal.
Delay: If you plug an electric guitar into an amp and simply play it clean, it will sound dull and uninteresting. This is because the guitar sound by itself lacks depth and a delay pedal is the best way to add that depth and character to that sound. There are hundreds of delay pedals out there that add additional layers to your sound. The simplest way of explaining it is by thinking of it as an artificial echo for your guitar tone. By turning the knobs on your delay pedal, you can create everything from subtle shimmers to deep and mesmerizing soundscapes.
Reverb: This might seem very similar to a delay pedal but its effect is a lot more subtle but just as important. The combination of a good reverb and delay pedal can almost sound magical. The trick though is not to overdo it. Many amps have really good reverb effects built into them but you should still get a reverb pedal because it is just so much fun.
The pedals that we have seen so far are what can be considered as the bread and butter of the pedalboard. They will be found in some form or the other on pedalboards around the world and they were the first five pedals that I dabbled in myself. Let us now make a brief foray into the world of some of the more specialist pedals. They may not be used in every song but these are the pedals that can give each of your songs its own unique signature sound.
Chorus and Flanger: They are two different effects. I have combined them together as they work on similar principles. They give your guitar tone a sense of space by making it sound like the sound is moving about. They do this is in different ways and the sounds you get as a result of using them can be varied but they can be thought of as different leaves from the same branch.
Other modulation pedals: This is where the true exploration begins. I have been trying out modulation pedals for more than a decade now and I feel like I have only seen the tip of the iceberg that is the world of modulation pedals. It has everything from subtle effects to some really whacky ones. Some of the common modulation pedals are phasers, tremolo, octavers and vibrato. If you want to give your guitar tone a unique twist then this is where you have to come.
Tuners and volume pedals: These might not seem like necessary pedals but trust me, they will make your life so much easier. Just go for it and thank me later.
Power supply: Perhaps, the most important part of your pedalboard is the power supply. Yes! I can see the irony too. The most important part of the pedalboard is the one part that has no effect on your sound. Or at least, that is how it should be. The last thing you want is noise in your signal chain and the biggest source of noise is the power supply. Save up to get a true isolated power supply. That is the signal biggest investment you can make towards finding your own signature sound.
Pedal order: I want to make it very clear that this is not a rule or something you will have to follow. This is a good starting point. I would encourage you to mix and match pedals as much as possible as some of the best guitar tones have been achieved by bucking this general norm.
Tuner – Wah – Compressor – Gain pedals – Noise Gate – Modulation pedals – Delay – Reverb
Finally, don’t become a pedal snob:
The thing about pedals is that there is no right or wrong. People tend to fuss over a lot of things such as which cable to use or which order to arrange the pedals in. However, while there are some general guidelines regarding these, these things don’t matter as much as it is often made out to be. What matters is your skill and if you have that, you will make the most of whatever gear you have. On the other hand, you could have the largest collection of pedals in the world and you can still end up sounding crappy. The point I am trying to make is that don’t get sucked into the false assumption that you need expensive pedals or a large number of pedals or a particular pedal to sound good. Many people end up wasting a lot of valuable time and money researching and collecting pedals instead of actually playing them and that is a waste. I was also guilty of this in the past and I regret all the lost time every single day. Pedals are there to assist you, not enable you.
I hope this helps you in embarking on the never-ending journey of finding and tweaking your own sound. Just make sure that you do not use pedals as a crutch to make excuses for not making progress as a guitarist. Instead, use them as the wonderful tools they are to take your guitar playing to the next level. Always remember that no guitar pedal can ever substitute for hard work and dedication.