While the main weapon of a guitarist is his guitar—his trusty axe—he may need some extra artillery to control or enhance his sound, especially when playing in a band setup. This is where an effects unit comes in handy.
An effects unit is an electronic device that changes how a musical instrument or other audio source sounds. One type of effects unit is an effects pedal, also known as a stompbox. A stompbox is a little box-type machine that is connected to a guitar using a wire, placed on the floor, and is triggered on and off using the guitarist’s foot. There are a lot of stompboxes out there, but here are some of the basic and most commonly used effects pedals
A distortion pedal does what you’d expect it to do: it distorts your guitar’s sound. It allows you to give off that dirty, crunchy sound you hear when you’re
listening to a typical rock track. While distortion is often used interchangeably
with “overdrive,” it’s safe to say that distortion produces a more aggressive effect, making your guitar riffs heavier, dirtier and noisier. This makes a
distortion pedal a must-have in the arsenal of the hard rock and heavy metal guitarist. Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Green Day’s “American Idiot,” and Blink 182’s “All the Small Things” are some popular
examples of tracks that make use of the distortion effect. Distortion is also integral to other genres, such as electric blues and jazz.
For beginners—and even some intermediate players—the difference
between distortion and overdrive is pretty vague. Here’s an easy way to
differentiate the two terms: Overdrive is the technique, while distortion is the
effect. Distortion is the result of overdriving or overriding the power of an
So, what is an overdrive pedal? Although an overdrive pedal also creates
distortion, it’s not the type of distortion that you would want if you’re going
to play songs that are similar to that of Metallica or Slipknot. The distortion
produced by an overdrive pedal is a bit subtler and is more suited for blues
rock. The objective of the overdrive pedal is to simply overpower the amp,
while the distortion pedal is meant to create a heavy, distorted sound.
To give you an example of what overdriven guitars sound like, you can listen
to some AC/DC songs, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Rolling Stones.
Here’s a quick history lesson: Flanging originated in the sixties. Back
then, a flanging effect was generated by playing back a recorded sound
simultaneously on two tape recorders and recording the result of this
simultaneous playback on a third tape recorder. Since the two tape recorders
are slightly out of sync, this creates some sort of delay or echo effect. By
pressing on the “flange” or rim of one of the tape reels to slow down the
playback, the time difference between the two sounds become more
prominent and would create a sound effect similar to that of a zooming jet
A flanger effects pedal for your guitar allows you to make use of that “jet
plane” sound. Most flanger pedals have at least a depth knob and a rate
knob. Depth refers to the intensity of the effect, while rate is the speed of the
Tracks from pop and new wave bands in the 80s, such as The Cure, are
good examples of what a flanger sounds like without the use of distortion.
Examples of flanging with distortion include Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me.
The chorus effects pedal takes the audio signal from your guitar and
duplicates it, so that it sounds as if someone else is playing the exact same thing that you’re playing.
The “duplicate” signal or signals are delayed or pitch-modulated copies of the
original one. The overall effect is similar to that of a flanger, but this effect
gives off longer delays, without feedback. The result is a thicker, lusher sound
that often seems dreamy or ambient.
Come As You Are by Nirvana, Don’t Dream it’s Over by Crowded House, More
Than a Feeling by Boston, and the intro of Pantera’s Cemetery Gates are
popular songs that illustrate what the chorus effect sounds like.
A delay is a repeat of the audio signal—basically an echo of the sound you
create on your guitar. If you play a note or a chord, the delay effect pedal
sends an audio signal to the amplifier to play that note or chord again.
Delay pedals have knobs that let you tweak the amount of time between
the actual strumming or picking of the chord and the playing of the
delayed chord. You can also adjust the amount of notes being played
as an echo. This is called the “decay” of the note. If you set a short decay
for the note, the delayed note will sound like an echo in a small room. If
you extend that length and give your note a long decay, you can create a
layer of notes. This means that you can play different notes while your first
note is still repeating. A good example of the delay effect is the intro of
Urbandub’s A New Tattoo.
The delay effect is distinct in the intro of Blurry by Puddle of Mudd, the
verses of Youth of the Nation by P.O.D., and pretty much any U2 song.
DIGITAL REVERB PEDAL
Reverberation adds ambience and depth to your sound. It is primarily
intended to give your guitar a richer and fuller tone. With the digital reverb
pedal, you can make it sound as if you’re playing in a bigger room than the
one you’re actually in.
There’s still an ongoing debate among guitarists as to whether using reverb
is good or bad. Here are some things to consider: On its own, you may find
that your guitar sounds great with reverb, but sometimes it’s a different story
when you’re already playing in a band setup. It may not always be best to
use a lot of reverb when you’re playing along with other instruments, as your
guitar’s sound may end up sounding muddy. Another thing to note is the
venue in which you’re playing. The natural reverberation of sound in the place
may not complement your use of the reverb pedal. This is why it is always best
to do a sound check before performing.
A lot of rockabilly, reggae and country tracks make use of reverb. A number of
tracks from Elvis and The Stray Cats can be used to illustrate this effect.
Jimi Hendrix and Dimebag Darrell of Pantera used wah-wah pedals to make
their solos more stylized. This is a good tool for solo-laden songs, particularly
those for funk, blues and heavy metal. A wah-wah pedal alters the tone of
your guitar. While electric guitars have a tone knob, it is difficult to control
because you’d have to stop strumming to twist it with your right hand. With
the wah-wah pedal, you can control the tone of your guitar with your foot.
As the name implies, the wah-wah pedal gives you a “WUAAAH” sound as you
play a note or a chord. You will be able to hear the full “WUAAAH” sound when
you rock the pedal using your heel and toe. This is because stepping on the
heel part of the pedal produces a “WUUUU” sound, whereas when you step
on the toe part, it produces an “AAAAAH” sound.
The wah-wah pedal is slightly bigger than most stompboxes, as it is made
to match the shape of your foot. The stompboxes I previously mentioned
are triggered on and off by a single stomp on a button. In the case of the
wah-wah pedal, you have to step on the pedal and keep it there to produce
the wah effect. The effect will only be produced for as long as your foot is on
the pedal. When you release the pedal, the wah effect will be lifted from your
sound. This means that if you tap your foot rhythmically on the wah-wah
pedal, you will be able to produce a rhythmic wah effect.
You can use just one stompbox or you can combine several of them,
depending on the sound you want to achieve. To combine stompboxes, you
wire them together to create an effects chain and place them in a pedalboard.
First published in Gadgets Magazine, February 2013
Words by Racine Castro