Putting a rig together is great fun, but it helps if you have a purpose in mind. Our guitar pedal buying guide below has the lowdown on the main types of pedals followed by advice on picking the right guitar pedals for various genres, including blues, rock and metal.
Of course, it's only a guide so do what you feel needs to be done to get the sound that's in your head!
Guitar Pedal Buying Guide: Pedal Types
- Boost and Overdrive Pedals
- Distortion Pedals
- Fuzz Pedals
- Reverb Pedals
- Delay Pedals
- Modulation Pedals
Boost and Overdrive
Boost and overdrive pedals increase the amplitude of your guitar signal. Clean boosts tend to provide up to around 20dB of gain, which is usually enough to increase the volume without adding any distortion to your sound, particularly at lower gain settings on the pedal.
Boost pedals are ideal to use as lead boosts for solos, and at higher settings can gently push a valve amp already on the edge of breakup into natural overdrive. You can even use one to boost the signal at the end of a long pedal chain before it hits the amp.
Overdrive pedals tend to use a combination of volume and gain controls to boost the signal as well as to dirty it up using soft-clipping. Like a boost pedal, the volume control on an overdrive pedals increases the signal's amplitude, while the gain control routes the signal to diodes or transistors which soft-clip the signal.
This process of soft-clipping works in the same way as the valves of a tube amp when they begin to saturate, producing that lovely gritty, organic sound we know and love.
Most overdrives do a good job of preserving the original tone of your guitar and amp - the most famous example being the Klon Centaur.
Distortion is one of the most popular guitar pedal effects. It's designed to mimic a screaming tube amp, rather than encourage a tube amp to reach natural distortion like an overdrive pedal. Distortion pedals span a huge range of sounds, from classic rock through to modern metal.
They generally hard-clip the signal, which produces a more aggressive sound than overdrive, and one of the key selling points of many distortion pedals is that you can find various "flavours" based on popular amps. Can't afford that rare and expensive 100-watt head? Get a good quality distortion pedal that's designed to emulate the sounds of the amp you want and you're good to go!
Fuzz is the primitive ancestor of distortion. It became popular in the 1960s after musicians including Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix began using some of the first versions on their recordings.
Like distortion, fuzz uses transistors and diodes to hard-clip the signal, but often more extreme clipping is used to produce a square wave, which produces that classic buzzy tone. The original fuzz pedal circuits were pretty simple, although designs have become more complex over the years.
You may think fuzz pedals can only be used in a limited number of genres, but they have proved to be incredibly versatile and have been put to good use in everything from R&B to Doom Metal.
Reverb effects are extremely popular with guitarists as they add a sense of space to an otherwise dry guitar signal.
'Spring' and 'plate' reverbs were developed to emulate the effect of sound reflecting off of multiple surfaces in a room. Spring reverb was developed by Hammond in the 1940s for its electronic organs but became popular with guitarists in the early 1960s with the release of Fender's Reverb Unit - the sound of Surf. Plate reverb came along in 1957. Developed by EMT, it relied on the vibrations of a huge steel plate.
Luckily, these days reverb effects can be squeezed into a guitar pedal. Some focus on a particular type, while others are multi-mode. Typical reverb sounds you might find in a pedal are spring, plate, hall, chamber and cathedral. But you might also find more ambient sounds, such as modulated reverbs, that drag the effect into the 21st century.
Reverb is a diverse and flexible tool and deserves a space on every guitarist's pedalboard.
Like reverb, delay adds space to your guitar sound, but in a different way. Rather than modelling the reflections of your sound, it duplicates your signal and plays it back, sometimes adding in decay and modulation along the way.
Delay is the perfect effect if you want your solo to sound big, spacey and epic - think Pink Floyd - but subtler settings can help to highlight certain phrases or give the song a particular feel (consider how The Edge uses multiple delays together for unique and complex rhythms).
Analogue delays have shorter repeat times of around 300ms, but digital versions are capable of much longer repeat times of several seconds in length, which allows you to experiment with ambient, ethereal soundscapes. Combine with a reverb for the ultimate combination of space shaping.
Under 'modulation' we can include effects such as chorus, phasers and tremolos.
Chorus is intended to replicate the sound of several guitars (or voices) by delaying the original signal and passing it through an LFO (low frequency oscillator). Depending on your settings, you can take chorus from a subtle shimmer to a full-on wobble.
A phaser varies the volumes of two identical signals, which creates a phasey, swooping effect as the levels change. Its least useful and least subtle setting can make your guitar sound like a jet fighter passing at low altitude, but alternative settings can lend welcome movement and depth to your guitar sound.
Tremolo modulates the amplitude of the signal. It's sometimes confused with vibrato, which modulates the pitch of the signal to produce a similar (but different!) effect. Like spring reverb, it's a favourite of Surf musicians, but has many other applications too - think "How Soon Is Now" by The Smiths.
Guitar Pedal Buying Guide: Genre By Genre:
Aaah, the blues. From the original bluesmen, through the 1960s British blues boom, to the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan's sizzling Texas blues, this is a surprisingly diverse genre.
To pull off authentic blues, you’ll need a mild overdrive pedal to push your amp into on-the-edge breakup.
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Stick a compressor in the chain to wring out all the nuances of your performance: up the attack a touch for more of that sizzle and spank, and set it to deliver additional sustain for those weeping top string bends.
Reverb is optional here. It can add ambience and depth to your sound, however in a band environment you may find it unnecessary. If you do use the effect, choose a pedal which has a suitably vintage vibe rather than a pristine modern sounding one.
For all those fast chicken pickin' passages, a compressor is your best friend. Set the attack so that it brings out all that genre-defining twang, and ensure that it levels out your sound so that the quieter notes still stand out nicely in a band situation.
Use an overdrive for added grit and girth. It doesn’t need to be on all the time...maybe save it for lead runs.
A slapback delay will underline your picking perfectly and add dimension. Make sure you don’t set the level too high though!
If you play jazz, the most important thing is to have a decent amp and guitar combination: a hollow or semi-hollow guitar will help with those smooth, airy tones.
But if you want to up your game, try adding a compressor pedal. It can help add sustain to your sound, and if your playing is super-dynamic it will help lift those quiet parts up a notch or two.
Wah is the quintessential funk sound – think 'Theme from Shaft' by Isaac Brown.
By controlling the filter effect with your foot, you can achieve dynamic, spiky 'wacca wacca' sounds or soulful vocal tones for the ultimate funky rhythm.
A phaser is optional, but it can add more movement and 1970s-style swirl to your sound.
Distortion or Overdrive
Yes, you can do rock with just the basics, but this is a diverse genre where anything is possible, so feel free to layer up your sound.
Don’t underestimate a compressor here too. It can add sustain, girth, attack and perceived volume to your sound. The latter is especially important if you’re fighting with an animal behind the drums!
Reverb will add room ambience and underline your playing. Experiment with settings to see what works for you.
From here, the possibilities are almost endless. Classic rock and hard rock might push you towards adding a fuzz and wah (think Hendrix, Cream, Stevie Ray Vaughan), while heavier styles such as grunge may call for modulation effects.
And delay is a necessity if you’re playing solos! It’s equally useful as a subtle slapback to thicken your sound, as a modulated tape-style delay to add texture, or as precise patterns as perfected by the Edge from U2. Depending on what you’re going for, either an analogue or digital delay should be on your wishlist.
Overdrive won’t cut it here: you’ll need to get yourself a full-on distortion pedal. Pick one which can deliver the gain and tonal focus required for your specific sub-genre.
A fuzz can help you bring the pain and add girth at the bottom end. Something based on LED clipping will give you a super-aggressive modern flavour, while a fuzz based on op-amp or silicon would suit more classic sub-genres better.
A compressor can really help to emphasise low-end chug as much as it can add body and attack to high-gain tapping and bends.
If you don’t own an amp with a versatile EQ section, like a Mesa-Boogie, consider adding an EQ pedal to your board. It will really help shape your sound, from scooped Metallica-style riffage to more modern styles. You can even kick it in for solos!
Like rock, metal uses delay in diverse ways, so experiment and see what works for you. Suffice to say, it will fill out your sound and underline your playing if set properly. Digital delays come into their own for metal, keeping your sound crisp and defined and providing plenty of settings.
So there you have it - our round up of the best guitar pedals for each genre. We are always adding new pedals to our range, so be sure to visit us again - or sign up for free to become a Member and receive the latest updates plus some great perks.
Originally published 30th January 2020. Updated 6th September 2020