SixStringFX is the number 1 place to view the best guitar pedals the industry has to offer, which I give my honest thoughts on through thorough but concise reviews.
This page provides readers with a solid background about what a guitar pedal is, how they came to be, the different types available, and some general information that I think it worth mentioning. I don't expect seasoned guitarists to have much need to read here, so I'd suggest checking out the categories above to quickly get stuck into the reviews and comparisons.
A Quick History Lesson on Guitar Effects and Pedals
From as early as the 1950s, altering the sound of the electric guitar was at the top of the agenda for a small but growing selection of innovative musicians, engineers and inventors alike. As soon as electricity united with the guitar, predictably the human desire to innovate and tinker soon followed. Some years later the results were revolutionary, guitar effects arguably helped to define entire genre's of music.
While there were plenty of whacky ideas and extremely impractical creations in the early years (some involving liquid believe it or not), it wasn’t until amplifiers with built-in effects hit the market (albeit in small numbers), could guitar pedals like the ones we own now ever be considered a viable idea.
Probably the most popular effect that people had and still to this day have a thirst for is of course distortion, there’s no better way to represent angst and rebellion in the confines of music than turning it up to 11 and letting power chords scream out of the speakers, piercing ears of all those in the near vicinity.
Interestingly, distortion was an effect that came about accidentally, or rather as a side effect from when the volume of an amplifier was too high for its speaker/s to handle, hence it became distorted. Naturally it didn’t take long for the adventurous types to begin exploiting this to achieve the heavy sounds not too distant from the ones we know and love today.
The form factor of the pedal was introduced in the early 1960s, with the Maestro Fuzz first making an appearance to the public. A few years later, thanks to the Rolling Stones, this particular Fuzz pedal shot to the top of many guitarists’ wish lists when it was used in the hit song ‘Satisfaction’. This was on the of moments in history that gave pedals the exposure they needed to finally come out from the shadows.
The rest is pretty much history, as increasingly more guitar idols created signature sounds with the help of a stompbox for live performances. While there was a short period where rackmounts were more in favour, Curt Kobain assisted in revitalising the guitar pedal as a mainstream piece of gear.
Fast forward to today and it's hard to imagine anything other than what we have now, guitar effects provide us with a powerful ability to create a variety of sounds than can convey different moods, personality and attitude with just the tap of a foot.
The Different Form Factors of Effects Units
Achieving different guitar effects is not limited to just using pedals, there are quite a few ways to modify your sound with various devices, a few which I have already written about.
Guitar Pedals and Stompboxes
The most recognizable of all effects units, usually coming in a fairly compact size, though they can also be pretty beefy if there are lots of settings. The most common units have 1-3 different buttons to be stood on to turn on and off a certain effect, or one large treadle which nicely fits your foot, which can also be sensitive to pressure (think of a car's gas and break pedals).
The best guitar pedals usually will outperform the rest of the following methods.
Amplifier with Built-in Effects
Many amplifiers offer some basic controls to adjust the intensity of at least one effect, usually distortion and/or reverb. This can be handy although it's restricted and cannot offer the player as many options to fine tune his or her sound.
The advantage they offer is very obvious for live performers and even bedroom rock stars, less cables, less fiddling and more playing. For the true guitarist though, this is just a minor inconvenience in the quest for the perfect sound.
As previously said, there was a period where rackmounts were in fashion, though pedals made a comeback and have been going strong ever since. You'd be hard pressed to find many newly manufactured machines, though plenty of second hand options are available on eBay.
A rackmount usually offers a variety of effects in one larger unit that would in most cases be placed on top of an amplifier or speaker. They are not quite obselete, however their decrease in popularity is perhaps due to the perception that single effect guitar pedals in most instances can outperform the same effect found in a rackmount. Whether this is true is of course can only be judged on a case by case basis.
The Different Available Effects Found with Guitar Pedals
Listing all the types of effects you can apply to your guitar through various methods here would be a bit pointless (there must be hundreds!), instead I'll focus on pedals as that is my interest.
The most used effect with a guitar, usually the one every new player wants to try out straight away and it's not hard to see why. Rock music is distortion. Well not quite, but rock music without distortion is like beer without the alcohol.
There's subtle differences between distortion and the next two effects on the list, though players and even some manufacturer's use these names interchangeably.
They all work by clipping the audio signal of your guitar, which consequently mutates the shape of the waveform, and at the same time provide overtones. The distortion effect is achieved by taking the signals from your guitar and fully flattening the peaks.
What it sounds like: Very heavy, common in metal rock.
Overdrive is technically similar to distortion, however importantly for players is that the sound is somewhat different. Overdrive is essentially the distortion in it's early phases, as the level of overdrive increases, there comes a point where it turns into distortion. Confusing I know!
The main thing you need to know if that overdrive maintains more clarity to your sound by preserving more of the mid-range, instead of fully distorting, it provides edge and umph to the tone. Aggressive, but tame in comparison to distortion.
What it sounds like: A less wild form of distortion, you can find it in the majority of rock sub-genres.
Fuzz isn't as hard to define as the previous two and it does have a more easily recognized sound. Ultimately it does what it's name infers, makes your sound fuzzy.
The fuzz effect is not so suited to playing open chords, or compositions containing lots of ringing out notes, but when you're playing a riff or lick, it adds buckets of power and expression. Think of all the rock iconic riffs throughout the past few decades, a good percentage of them use a fuzz effect.
What it sounds like: Fuzzy, no other word to better describe it. Think Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix or the already mentioned Rolling Stones track.
Distortion, Overdrive and Fuzz Comparison
Translating sounds into words is difficult to say the least, especially in this comparison, so check out this great video I found that shows the 3 effects being used. If you're not tone deaf you'll hear the clear differences that are hard to pinpoint in written form, but your ears understand. If you can't hear a difference then you're going to save yourself some money as pedals probably aren't that important to you.
Finally a much simpler one to explain, though it is often muddled with the delay effect. Essentially adding reverb to your guitar is to add depth. A modern reverb pedal works by digitally simulating reverberations (repetitions and reflections), then magically combines them all together into one ear-pleasing sound.
Reverb is a necessity for many if not all serious players, and no pedal board would be complete without at least one of these effects units. A modest amount of reverb can brighten up your playing, cranking it up a bit more and you are heading into a different territory, this could either be genius creativity or an awfully big mistake depending on the genre and what you're playing.
What does it sounds like: Imagine playing in a room with good acoustics, the output is similar to that but it can be adjusted to your liking. Less subtle reverb is a common trait of surf guitar and good ol' southern Rockabilly sound.
Delay emulates an echo sound, and it differs from reverb most noticeably because it...delays the duplicated sounds and repeats them. A pedal of this type allows you to adjust the duration between each echo, and also how long it takes to fade away. Good right?....right?...right?..right?.right?
The more expensive units for delay can sometimes include a built in looping function, though not usually providing the level of depth that a dedicated looper pedal can offer.
The chorus effect works by duplicating your sound and then layering it over the top of your original input, but slightly out of sync so it can all be heard. A small amount of modulation is added depending on your pedal setting, though increasing this too much usually results in less than satisfying results, as though you are playing out of tune during the 'wobbles'.
Chorus is one of those effects that when it suits the occasion it's incredibly pleasing on the ears, any other time it sounds completely out of place. Certainly not a go-to pedal that can be used every day, but one that serves a purpose and has provided an iconic element to a number of songs.
What does it sounds like: The chorus to Nirvana's 'Come as You Are' instantly came to my mind as an occasion where it's a good excuse to use this effect, as well as 'There She Goes' by The Lars and more recently that annoying Daft Punk song 'Get Lucky'. The chorus effect used in these three examples totally make the songs spring to live and make them remembered.
It's easy to guess what a compressor pedal does, and you would guess correctly, though what does compressing sound actually mean? Trying to describe is is actually pretty difficult as I'm finding out.
The compressor effect is extremely common in sound mixing and recording, it can be used to remove the nasty surprises of volume spiking. The pedal can do a bit more than this though
This type of guitar pedal works by analyzing the volume of your guitar as you play and then, in a way normalizes the sound. When you play something loudly it will bring the level down to the setting you have specified, and when you play quieter the pedal will increase the volume to meet that setting too.
You also typically can adjust the 'attack' and 'sustain' amounts. Describing sustain is pretty simple, turning up the effect makes your notes last longer. Adjusting the level of attack will make the sound created when you first make contact with the strings either more or less emphasized, in the latter case the end of the notes you play are made prominent, and you can adjust this balance to your liking.
What does it sounds like: Funk and country music both would sound strange without the use of a compressor effect, but all sorts of music benefits from it in less perceptible ways. A compressor pedal with average settings will the the sound of your guitar more even and tighter.
Technically quite similar to a chorus pedal in the way it works but not so much in the way it sounds when you take it to extreme levels. A flanger pedal uses your guitar input and manufactures a sweeping like sound, achieving this by ever so slightly delaying your input, then alternating the delay over time as you keep rocking out.
What does it sounds like: Essentially not too different from the sound of a passing jet. Metal and the more heavy side of rock is where the flanger will feel most at home, outside of this its uses are somewhat limited unless used to make a chorus sound. A great example of the flanger effect can be found in the later half of the Lenny Kravitz hit, 'Are You Gonna Go My Way'
A Wah pedal is probably one of the most fun to use out of all these effects. It works in a different way, relying on you to move your foot up and down on a foot treadle as you are playing, to alter the frequency of the incoming sound waves. A wah pedal produces interesting results that can provide you with hours of entertainment, but its uses are somewhat limited.
Also to note, it does take some time to become good with a wah unit, being rhythmic with your foot while playing at the same time is quite tricky in itself and first time buyers shouldn't expect to master it instantaneously.
What does it sounds like: Listen to the first 30 seconds of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Hendrix, that's wah I'm talkin' about.
Tremolo pedals are not the same as tremolo bars, but the end results is similar. This particular type of effects unit functions by rapidly (or slowly) altering the volume of your guitar from high to low, which as expected can be adjusted by you directly on the pedal.
What does it sounds like: Versatile enough that you can find examples of it in any genre, though whether a pedal is used or just a tremolo arm on a guitar it can not always be clear. Check out the classic 'Gimme Shelter' by the Stones for some nice usage.
The looper pedal. Perhaps the most popular type of unit, currently very in fashion thanks to a slew of talented performers making full use of them and sharing their talent with the world online.
Unlike the rest of the guitar pedals listed here, the loop pedal does not actually alter your sound (although some can), instead it allows you to record small sections of your playing and put it on loop, with the most modern units allowing multiple layers of looped audio.
The possibilities are endless, though of course it takes practice and some creativity to invent something exceptional, but the joy of looping has understandably become quite a sensation in recent years.
What does it sounds like: Whatever your mind allows! The more advance users will combine multiple pedals or find a looper unit that provides effects as well as the record and play functionality.
Last but not least, a multi-effects pedal serves as an all in one solution, usually encompassing some or even all of the above mentioned effects.
Purists may look unkindly upon multi-effects units as it wouldn't look as hardcore stuck on their homemade pedalboard, but for the rest of us they can come in extremely handy.
A multi-effects pedal could be seen as the modern day replacement for the large rackmounts popular a few decades ago. Sound quality and performance can vary greatly depending on the price, though it can prove to be quite economical if the effects it provides are up to owners standards and removes the need to buy any more pedals.
What does it sounds like: Practically anything you want.
Start Browsing the Best Guitar Pedals Now
I hope this has helped you get a clearer idea of what each of these units can do and what they are suitable for, and you're now ready to start looking at the best guitar pedals to see which is the perfect fit for you.
Head to your required sound in the navigation bar at the top and take a look at the buying guides, recommendations and individual reviews I've created for all the previously mentioned pedal types. There's tons of more helpful information for you to soak up to make choosing easier.