Best Guitar Pedals
|2||Morley Steve Vai Bad Horsie 2|
|4||Zvex Super Hard On|
|6||DigiTech Whammy 5th Generation|
|8||Boss Dimension C|
|11||Pigtronix Mothership 2|
|12||TC Electronic Ditto|
The electric guitar is an instrument that offers so much versatility and expressiveness. Using the magnetic pickups to capture the signal, there are plenty of ways one can process it to get the desired tone for pretty much any musical style. Using pedals and many other digital or analog signal processing units, guitar players can shape their tones any way they want. The development of these compact floor devices that we know as pedals pretty much changed the world of guitar-oriented music, and even modern music in general.
More Popular Guitar Pedals
But before we get into the issue, it’s always a good idea to get more familiar with some of the famous pedal manufacturers today. Here are some of the brands that are known for their quality products, and that even professional players prefer.
- TC Electronics
- Seymour Duncan
- Tech 21
- Line 6
- Keeley Electronics
- Analog Man
- Walrus Audio
- Chase Bliss Audio
- EarthQuaker Devices
Of course, this is just off the top of our heads, including big corporations, subsidiary companies, and small independent manufacturers. There are plenty of other brands out there, including some defunct ones that keep the legendary status, with some of their old products reaching head-spinning prices on the market.
As we said, it’s hard to make a precise top list of the best guitar effects pedals. First, we have many different categories to covers, and secondly, different pedal models have different uses depending on the setting.
In this guide, we’ll sort pedals by their respective categories and functions, explain what they do and how they work, and mention some of the best ones that you can find on the market. We’ll also do our best to mention some of the old effects pedals that are no longer in production but that are highly valued by today’s collectors.
So let’s get into it – these are all of the pedal categories by function, along with the examples of what are considered to be the best pedals in these particular categories.
How to use a guitar pedal
Even with many technological advancements and software development, guitar pedals are still one of the most common ways of adding effects to the guitar and bass tone. These compact devices are designed to be on the floor in front of the performer and can be turned on or off using the player’s feet.
Although these are pretty straightforward devices, they can be somewhat confusing for the beginners. But we’ll use the opportunity to explain how they actually work and how they’re supposed to be used.
Every guitar pedal has its input and output. You plug in your guitar cable into the instrument and then connect it to the input jack of the pedal. In almost all of the cases, the input is on the right side. The output jack is located on the left side, and you connect it either with the next pedal or directly with the amp. If you’re connecting multiple pedals in a row, then you’ll need those short cables, often referred to as “patch cables.”
Next up, pedals always have the main switch that turns the effect on and off. In some cases, you can have two or more switches, depending on the effect and the type of pedal. The main switch can either be an entire movable part of the pedal (like with Boss pedals) or can be an individual button (like with MXR pedals). By pressing on it, you engage the effect, and by pressing it again, you disengage it. Additional footswitches usually turn on another mode of operation.
In order to set up your desired tone, you also need parameter controls. This is why pedals have potentiometers, just like the ones you find on your guitars. In some cases, there are additional switches that toggle between two or more different modes of operation.
But in order for pedals to work, you need a power source. Most of the pedals are powered either by 9-volt DC adapters or 9-volt batteries. There are also pedals that operate with higher voltages, like 12 or even 18 volts. What’s more, pedals cannot even let any sound through, even when they’re turned off, if there’s no power source attached to it.
Adapters are attached regularly just like on any other device that’s powered by a DC adapter. As for the battery compartment locations, this depends on the design. For some, you need to unscrew the pedal’s bottom panel. In some cases, they’re located under the footswitch, the movable part of the pedal.
Of you have a few or more pedals, you can either use an adapter with a daisy chain or a specialized power unit with multiple outputs. In case you’re using these power units, also known as “power bricks,” you’ll also need additional power cables for your pedals.
Main types of pedals
These are the main types of pedals that you’ll need to know: tuner, filter, wah, compressor, equalizer (or EQ), distortion, pitch shifter, chorus, flanger, phaser, delay, reverb, and volume. The most often used pedals are distortions. But you’ll often see any of these in an average setup. For instance, choruses double your sound, delays add a series of delayed signals to your tone to create an echo effect, and compressors deal with the dynamics of your playing.
Pedalboards are surfaces on which you configure and connect all the pedals. You can then take this pedalboard anywhere with you and connect it straight into a guitar amp. They’re used both by professionals and amateurs. In a lot of cases, pedalboards come with an integrated power source and a power cable. However, some of them are just specialized empty surfaces on which you configure all the components the way you intended to.
The order of pedals
One of the biggest concerns for beginner players is how they’re supposed to order their pedal in the signal chain. Going from the guitar to the amp, the order goes roughly the same as we mentioned above. From the guitar to the amp, it goes: tuners, wahs/filters, compression, equalizer, distortion, pitch shifting, chorus/flanger/phaser, delay, reverb, volume. Of course, you’re free to experiment, but this kind of setup will give you the cleanest tone possible.
While not effects, tuners can often be found in the form of regular compact pedals. In most of the cases, we have an array of LED lights along with a small display. The said display shows the note that you’re playing, while the array of LEDs tells you whether the note is flat or sharp. The moment you turn the pedal on, the signal is muted and the tuner is activated. This way, you’re able to tune your guitar without bothering your bandmates and the audience. Many of the tuner pedals feature buffered bypass, which can, in some cases, help you balance out your tone in the entire signal chain.
One of the most common tuner pedals is Boss’ TU-3 Chromatic Tuner. Other great examples also include TC Electronic PolyTune 3, Ernie Ball VPJR, Peterson StroboStomp HD, and Behringer’s TU300.
Filters and wah-wahs
As their name would suggest, filter pedals serve the purpose of filtering out certain frequency spectrums from your tone. In practical terms, they do advance equalizing modification and allow guitar players to create some synth-like tones. Filters – which also referred to as envelope filters – are not that widespread among guitar players as they create some very unique-sounding effects. Although no longer in production, a great example comes with Line 6 and their FM4. DigiTech Envelope Filter 440 is another good filter that allows you to create some unusual effects with fairly simple controls.
The famous wah-wah pedals are technically filter pedals. However, they have a variable EQ boost which is controlled using the rocking part. It lets you change the peak frequency and boost different parts of the audible spectrum. As a result, you can get that voice-like “sweep” tone. The effect is usually turned on with the toe-clicking action, although some models, like some Morley’s products, include a separate switch or just operate using optical switchless design. Most of the wah pedals have an additional depth control. The most famous wah today is the legendary Dunlop’s Cry Baby GCB95. We would also mention Dunlop MC404 CAE, Morley 20/20, Fulltone Clyde Deluxe, and Vox V-847-A as important examples. As for rare vintage wahs, Tycobrahe Parapedal is an extremely rare and highly valued one among collectors, with Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi being its most famous user.
While we’re at it, automatic wah pedals are also pretty common. They do automatic “sweeping” on their own according to the player’s dynamics or according to set time intervals. Boss has the famous AW-3 which they’ve been producing for quite some time now. It can also be paired with an expression pedal and used as a regular wah.
Every guitar amp has its integrated equalizer. Your guitar technically has an equalizer as well but in the form of a tone pot. However, tone pots are extremely simplified EQs that can just roll off the high-end frequencies. The standard 3-band or 2-band EQs on your amp sometimes might not be enough to give you more detailed tone-shaping.
This is where equalizer pedals kick in. They usually have 5 to 10 sliders, each tweaking a certain frequency range. The more frequency ranges it controls, the more options you have in your tone-shaping process. You’ll also find an additional output volume slider or a knob on them. EQ pedals serve the purpose of changing your tone for a particular song or a specific part of a song.
As for great EQ pedals, we would highlight Boss GE-7, Danelectro DJ-14C Fish & Chips, and MXR M108S.
Boost, or clean boost pedals, are fairly straightforward devices. They just boost the clean signal of your guitar without making any distortion. That’s it. However, the circuitry should be spot on, thus helping you create these simple boosts without any unwanted side-effects.
They often find use paired with tube amplifiers. The idea here is to boost the signal just enough to get the tube amp to do its natural clipping, thus creating distortion. Boost pedals can do wonders when used with clean channels of vintage or vintage-inspired tube amps.
Back in the old days, treble boosters were pretty popular, one example being the Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster. Today, there are great full-range boosts like TC Electronic Spark, Zvex Super Hard On, and Electro-Harmonix LPB-1.
Now, compressor pedals are probably some of the most underrated products of the guitar world, along with volume pedals (to which we’ll get to later). Dynamic range compression finds use in almost any kind of music these days, both for instrumental and vocal parts. Compressor pedals might be a bit tricky for beginners, as many of them are not sure of what the effect actually does.
But the principle is rather simple – compressors turn up all those quiet parts and turn down all the louder parts. Of course, there are a few parameters that you’re supposed to set on these pedals, like the threshold, which determines the signal strength at which compression will kick in. We also have the ratio that says how much gain reduction or increase you’ll get after it passes the set threshold.
Increased sustain can occur as somewhat of a byproduct of compression. By increasing the volume of quiet parts, some notes can last just a little longer.
Boss is known for some great compressor pedals. These days, they manufacture CS-3, which is the continuation of the well-known CS-2 and the old CS-1 from the early 1980s. But we would also like to mention Wampler Ego, Xotic SP, TC Electronic Hyper Gravity, and Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe.
Pitch-altering pedals: harmonizers, octavers, pitch shifters
This is where the fun stuff begins. We can categorize all the pedals that alter the pitch in three groups: octavers, pitch shifters, and harmonizers. The best-known example of a pitch shifter pedal is the legendary DigiTech Whammy, which you can hear in some songs featuring Tom Morello on the guitar. These days, DigiTech manufactures and sells the 5th generation of this model, but the basic principles from the older versions are still there. Whammy pedals can also work as harmonizers to some extent, but we’ll get to that.
Octavers are pretty simple, as they add one or two octaves below the notes that you’re playing. They just copy the signal, drop it down, and add it into the mix. However, they are usually recommended to be used with single notes rather than chords, as your overall output might sound a little messy if you play two or more notes at the same time with the octave engaged.
Harmonizers can be a little tricky and would require some music theory knowledge if you intend on using their full potential. First, they can add fixed intervals, as is the case with some setting on the DigiTech Whammy. But there are some “smart” harmonizers out there that can add intervals diatonically, according to the set key and scale. Eventide’s PitchFactor is a great example of such a pedal.
And here’s the main part of almost every signal chain. The distortion is created by boosting the clean signal, using operational amplifiers, and purposeful clipping it, using transistors or diodes. There are three types of distortion pedals in the guitar world – overdrive, classic distortion, and fuzz. The difference between these three comes to the type of clipping applied to the boosted signal. Overdrives have soft clipping, classic distortions have hard clipping, while fuzz pedals do extreme clipping.
There are so many different distortion pedal models that it gets really hard to keep track of them. Boss DS-1 is a fairly known one, as well as pedals like Ibanez Tube Screamer (and its many versions), Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, Marshall JH-1, and plenty of others. Then there’s stuff like Klon Centaur, that was produced in the ’90s and has achieved the legendary status, with some original pieces reaching unexpected prices among collectors.
Modulation effect: chorus, phaser, flanger
Modulation is any effect that adds a slightly delayed copy of the original and then tweaks it in some way. For instance, chorus pedals delay the copied signal and then twist its pitch up and down, ultimately creating the impression of two guitars playing at the same time.
Phasers split your signal into two paths, shift the phase of one of them, and put them both back together. The resulting tone sounds as if you’re constantly moving away and back to the sound source.
A flanger effect is somewhat similar to phasing, although it has significantly more “spaciousness” to the tone. The effect comes from the 1960s studios as a result of two identical tracks played at the same time where one of them was slightly delayed.
While echo or delay pedals also copy the signal and delay it, it’s essentially an atmospheric effect. And these are longer delay times, going from 50 milliseconds and up, whereas modulations have extremely short hold-ups, up to 20 milliseconds.
Echo pedals have the feedback control, which determines how many times the copied signal will be repeated. There’s also delay time parameter, usually anything from 50 milliseconds and up to two or more seconds. In the end, the blend or mix control determines the ratio between the original and processed signal. Most of the delay pedals also include an “infinite” repeat feature.
There’s a lot of great stuff to be found out there, anything from those simple delays like MXR Carbon Copy, up to fairly complex stuff like Empress Echosystem or Boss DD-500.
Reverb is also a time-based atmospheric effect, although it processes the signal differently. It repeats the signal many times in the given period and blends it with the original, creating an impression of what you would hear when playing in a hall, a cathedral, or a cave. Such an effect can saturate the tone well and keep it from sounding too “dry.” It also adds a little bit of spaciousness.
While there are plenty of different reverbs, there’s a very specific one we would mention, called Strymon BigSky. It offers plenty of parameter controls and even different reverberation types.
While some delays can repeat brief passages into “infinity,” looper pedals are very complex pieces that allow guitar players to record certain parts, repeat them, and even let them layer more recordings on top of each other. Ed Sheeran is a very well-known user of loopers, although he has a custom-made system that does some advanced processing.
Looper pedals can be anything from simple compact stomp boxes, like TC Electronic Ditto, to very complex pieces with multiple footswitches, like Boss RC-505 or Headrush Looperboard. But the main principle always remains the same – you press a footswitch, record your part, then add another synced track on top of it, and so on. In the end, you’re left with a fully “recorded” backing track over which you can play lead sections or sing.
Boss has a fairly compact yet versatile piece called SY-1. It processes the one “conventionally,” without the use of additional MIDI pickups. But in most cases, synth pedals are more complex units that require the use of specialized MIDI pickups that convert your analog signal to digital information. This allows individual string processing, and even some very advanced features, like allowing you to play drum samples on your guitar. A unit like Roland’s GR-55 paired with MIDI pickups is capable of all this.
Although pretty unexciting, volume pedals are an essential component of every serious pedalboard. All they do is control the output volume of your entire rig. They’re usually placed at the very end or near the end of a signal chain, although there are some cases when they can be at the beginning. However, these two placements cause different effects: a volume pedal at the beginning essentially does the same thing as your guitar volume pot, while the end or near-end placement makes it work like the main volume knob on an amp or a mixing channel strip. There are high impedance and low impedance volume pedals, and it’s recommended that you use low impedance ones at the end of the signal chain.
Aside from the rocking part, volume pedals also include a minimum volume control that sets the volume of the pedal’s open position. Some volume pedals can also be used as expression pedals, but we’ll get to that soon.
When it comes to volume pedals, it’s important to buy a quality-made piece. The point is to set the desired volume and keep it in that particular position. If the pedal is flimsy and the rocking part keeps falling, there’s no point in using it. Great examples of well-made volume pedals are Boss’ FV-500L, Ernie Ball MVP, Yamaha FC7, and Dunlop DVP4 Volume X.
On their own, expression pedals do nothing. They don’t even go directly into the signal chain, meaning that you’ll never see one in between two pedals. Their purpose is to control certain parameters of effects pedals that have an expression pedal connectivity feature. A great example would be Boss AW-3 automatic wah, which has an additional jack where you can plug in an external expression pedal. Many filters, flangers, choruses, and even some delays also have this same feature.
You can look at expression pedals as multi-purpose potentiometers. The same rule that we mentioned with volume pedals applies to expression pedals – you don’t want a poorly-built flimsy piece that would not stand in one set position. This is why Line 6 EX-1 is a good choice, as well as Mission Engineering Inc EP-1.
There’s also an interesting piece like Electro-Harmonix’s Next Step that does not have any moving parts. Instead, you control parameters by rocking the entire pedal.
Comparable to expression pedals, sequencers also do nothing on their own. However, they might be a little difficult to understand. Again, you need an effect that can support the expression pedal or sequencer connectivity. A great example of such a pedal is the 8 Step Program by Electro-Harmonix. As the name suggests, it features 8 programmable “steps.” Each of these steps has its parameter control slider, and their running speed is controlled using the tap switch and a few different modes.
Again, it might be a little too complicated for some users, but sequencers can do wonders when paired with right pedals.
Tap switches are probably the simples pedals. Once again, we have a pedal that does nothing on its own but is intended as an external switch. There are even some distortions that can be paired with tap switches, like Boss’ DS-2 Turbo Distortion. Using an external switch, you can shift between its two distortion modes.
However, you’ll most often find it used with time-based effects, most notably delays. By tapping the connected external switch in a given tempo, you set the desired time between two repeats of an echo/delay pedal.
These are not that common in regular pedalboards, but there are still some good examples like MXR M199, Boss FS-5U, or Ernie Ball 6168.
In case you don’t feel like dealing with a complicated setup full of pedals, patch cables, power cables, and other accessories, you can always go with multi-effects pedals. While it’s open for discussion whether these multi-purpose pedals will sound or better than regular pedalboards, digital technology is slowly advancing, creating some of the most realistic amp and effect replicas.
And there’s a lot of stuff, anything from beginner-oriented basic setups, up to very complex floor-based amp modelers, although we’re not certain whether we can call them “pedals” at all. Line 6 Helix, Boss GT-1000, and Fractal AX8 are just some of the most advanced examples that you can find today. If you’re looking for a budget piece, then Mooer GE200 can be a better pick. And if you want to go super simple and super cheap, then get a Zoom MS-50G, NUX MG-100, or even Behringer’s FX600.
When choosing the right pedal setup, you’ll need to start from the end – the first thing you’ll need to know is what kind of tone you’re aiming for. Other things to consider also include functionality and versatility that you want to see in your setup. It’s only then when you figure out what kind of setup will serve you well that you’ll be able to find the best pedals for your needs.
In the end, there’s one important thing you need to know – effects pedals are your servants, not your masters. They’re here to help you express yourself by shaping the tone that way you want to. While an experimental approach is welcome, you’re always supposed to serve the song and that you’re performing.