What inspired you to pick up the guitar? A searing Hendrix solo? A bubbly reggae lick? A groovin' funk vamp?
Chances are, the riffs that first inspired you to learn guitar were heavily shaped by effects pedals. Once you start playing guitar, it won’t be long before you set your sights on a pedal collection of your own.
As you explore the world of guitar pedals, you’ll notice one thing: there’s a near-endless number of possibilities available to purchase. With thousands of pedals to choose from, figuring out where to start can be overwhelming.
There’s no one-size-fits-all combination that works for everyone with guitar pedals. They serve a wide variety of functions, and each guitarist’s pedalboard is unique to their needs and playing style.
That said, if you’re ready to start building your own pedal collection, our handy guide will help you sift through the madness with 10 versatile guitar pedal archetypes that are great for beginner guitarists.
1. Tube screamer
This timeless pedal has its roots in the origin of rock n’ roll. It’s modeled after the sound of pioneering guitarists who would push their amps to the limit by cranking up the volume knob until the clean sound of an electric guitar started clipping and became distorted.
Use a tube screamer pedal for:
- Light distortion
- Crunchy chords
- Blues and classic rock riffs
A tube screamer pedal mimics the effect of a tube amp that’s being pushed to its limits. It’ll give you the crunchy distorted sound that you hear in blues and classic rock.
At Pickup Music, we generally recommend that beginner guitarists build a solid foundation of guitar techniques before using guitar pedals because effects can cover up bad habits. That’s why we think this is a great first pedal for a beginner – it gives you access to the crunchy distorted guitar sound without adding so much fuzz to your guitar that it’ll cover up your mistakes.
2. Wah pedal
A wah pedal is another ideal guitar pedal for beginners because it’s just plain fun to play with. Besides, who doesn’t want to sound like Hendrix? Wah pedals, which are found in a wide range of styles from funk to metal, get their name from the crying “wah wah” sound they create when you use them.
Use a wah pedal for:
- Expressive single-note lines
- Bouncy chord sounds
- Rhythmic control
Without getting too technical, wah pedals work by sweeping the EQ (AKA equalizer, which represents the spectrum of sound ranging from bass to treble frequencies) of your guitar signal to let more bass or treble come through the amp as you rock your foot back and forth. The result is a bubbly and dynamic sound that bears similarities to a human voice. It’s a handy way to ramp up the rhythm in your playing since your foot can pedal along to the tempo.
With the most basic example being a simple echo (echo, echo, echo), the possibilities of a delay guitar pedal reach far and wide. This effect is found in almost every style of guitar playing – a prime example is the delay-soaked guitar at the beginning of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name".
Use a delay pedal for:
- A “wet” repeating sound
- Filling out the sound of a lone guitar
Simply put, a delay pedal takes the sound of your guitar and repeats it. A solid delay pedal will allow you to manipulate exactly how the sound of your guitar repeats with controls like:
- feedback (how many times the sound repeats)
- timing (how quickly the sound repeats, often measured in note lengths)
- level (how noticeable the effect is)
Similar to a wah pedal, delay pedals are great beginner pedals because they’re fun to experiment with whether or not you play with other musicians. At Pickup Music, we’re big believers in anything that gets you excited to pick up and play your guitar.
If you’re into heavier styles of music, this might be the first pedal you purchase. After all, you can’t cover much of Metallica with a crystal-clear guitar tone.
Use a distortion pedal for:
- Metal, prog, contemporary rock, trap, punk, etc.
- Playing screaming guitar solos
- Chunky, gritty chord sounds
There’s not much more to be said about distortion pedals other than that they’re like tube screamers on steroids. There’s often less clarity in the sound of a heavy distortion pedal compared to a gritty tube screamer.
There are a dizzying amount of distortion pedals to choose from – when looking for your own, we recommend starting with what your favorite guitarist uses and working backward from there. You should know that it’s common for guitarists to include multiple distortion pedals on their boards to achieve different effects – as if choosing one wasn’t difficult enough!
5 & 6. Phaser & Tremolo
Take your guitar signal. Now double it. Now run that doubled signal through a filter that messes with its EQ spectrum. This is the “explain like I’m five” version of how a phaser works. The result is a wavy effect that’ll add movement to your chords and licks.
Use a phaser pedal at different speeds for:
- Slow: Shimmery chorus guitar effect
- Medium: Adding movement to your lead lines
- Fast: Mimicking a “spinning speaker” Leslie pedal effect
Phasers are great because they can mimic other pedals as you adjust the speed of the phaser effect. A phaser isn’t necessarily a must-have in your first pedal board, but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of it.
A tremolo pedal gives you a similar result as a phaser. However, instead of messing with the phase of your guitar signal, a tremolo operates by raising and lowering the volume of your guitar at whichever speed you set. It’s a fun tool to have, but if you want the more versatile of the two, go for a phaser.
This Rolling Stones cover of a Bo Diddly song features some warbly tremolo in the guitar part:
Use a tuning pedal for:
- Ultra-accurate tuning
- Quick tuning on stage
Some guitarists think that tuning pedals aren’t necessary… until they try one out. Clip-on tuners come and go, but this humble utility pedal is a buy-it-for-life purchase.
You don’t necessarily need a tuner pedal until you start playing with other musicians, but you might as well get one now! If you’re using a tuning app on your phone, this pedal will save you time and make your life easier. With the click of a footswitch, you’ll get high-accuracy, easy-to-read tuning guidance.
Some tuning pedals even allow you to strum all of your guitar strings at once to get a simultaneous tuning readout of all strings. This comes in handy when you need to quickly figure out which string is out of tune.
A compressor pedal is an essential tool in any guitarist’s kit. In short, compression works by making your loud notes softer and your soft notes louder.
Once you compress or “squash” your signal, you can add gain to it to boost the overall, controlled sound. As a result, this effect is useful in a few different ways.
Use a compression pedal for:
- Helping notes sustain or ring out for a longer period of time
- Playing with an even volume
- Boosting the sound of your guitar
9. Clean boost
Sometimes confused with a compression pedal, a clean boost pedal does exactly what its name suggests. It makes your guitar louder. These pedals range from simplistic one-control wonders to sophisticated tone shapers that allow you to control your sound and add some dirt to your signal.
Use a clean boost pedal for:
- Increasing your volume for a guitar solo
- Altering the EQ of your guitar
- Adding some light crunch to your signal
Use a volume pedal for:
- Controlling how loud you are on stage
- Changing how your signal interacts with pedals that come after your volume pedal
- Quickly raising and lowering your volume to create a “swell” effect
If you want to know how the effects of the different pedals sound, check out the video below:
How to decide which guitar pedals to buy
Now that you’ve been introduced to 10 fundamental guitar pedal types, you have another hurdle to overcome: figuring out which specific pedal to buy.
You can test out different pedals at your local music shop, but there are a few drawbacks to doing this:
- Music stores (looking at you, Guitar Center) are often filled with noisy distractions
- You can’t turn your amp up too loud
- You can’t always test pedals on your own gear
It’s best to experiment with a pedal over the course of a few weeks to get a sense for how it sounds and interacts with your equipment.
For this reason, the following options are helpful when figuring out what to purchase:
- If you have friends who are guitarists, ask them if they have any spare pedals you can borrow to see how you like them before purchasing.
- Buy pedals secondhand (Reverb.com often has great deals on common pedals)
- Buy a pedal from Guitar Center and return it for a full refund if you don’t like it (be sure to keep the pedal in mint condition)
- Test virtual pedals in Garageband, and find out which effects pedals they’re modeled after
Just like learning to play guitar, learning how to use guitar pedals and find your perfect tone is a journey. Your pedal collection will evolve as your playing and tastes do. Trial and error is part of the process, so get out there, grab a tube screamer, and start having fun!
If you ever have questions about gear or are looking to level up your guitar playing. Our team of pro guitarists at Pickup Music are standing by to help!
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