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Effects Pedals - Do You Really Need Them?

Having a big pedalboard, and experimenting with effects pedals is extremely enjoyable for most guitar players. There is almost infinite choice for every possible effect you can imagine, with the wackiest effects emulating legendary Vocaloid Hatsune Miku and even so much as a fart pedal - an effect that changes your notes into a wave of flatulence!


However, there is something visceral about having your guitar plugged directly into a screaming amplifier, with nothing coloring the signal. How do you find the sweet spot? Do you really need effects pedals, or is it marketing hype? In this blog post, we will try to learn these things together. 



Main Types of Effects

Effects can be split up into the following categories, but keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and it can be argued that some effects fit into multiple categories.


Distortion/Overdrive

Distortion and overdrive effects allow you to achieve a ‘dirty’ or ‘angry’ sound with your guitar. Some iterations of this type of effect have a very unique sound and have been copied multiple times throughout history (something we will discuss later!) - this could be due to how the distorted sound is achieved (how the signal is affected) or if there are any noticeable EQ changes when using said effect. 


A distortion pedal differs from an overdrive pedal because the former is in itself an imprint of a distorted sound - a prepackaged tone is another way to look at it. The latter, however, pushes an amplifier in such a way that it forces it to create its own distortion.


Here is my favorite pedal in this family:



Dynamics

A dynamic effect could include a compressor, limiter or noise gate. A compressor helps to make the quieter notes louder, and the louder notes quieter - the result is a much more even sound when used as intended. It can also help saturate the sound, and even push a signal hard enough to create an overdrive like effect.


Limiters are very similar to compressors, but are typically used for a whole mix rather than one instrument , and prevent any sound after a certain limit has been reached - it is uncommon to find a limiter pedal, at least compared to a compressor. 


A noise gate acts like a bodyguard, it will eliminate the unwanted noise from your signal. Dialing in this effect gives you the option of choosing how sensitive you want the effect to be and how quickly it gets rid of it. The most common use for this is to calm down unwanted hiss from a really high-gain, distorted guitar tone. 


I haven’t used many dynamic effects myself, but I have used this one in the past and it performed very well:



EQ

Not all EQs were made equal, though they all do pretty much the same thing. The function is to allow the user to adjust certain frequencies, and how useful this is depends on where in the signal chain the effect is being used. I believe it is one of the most underrated effects pedals, they can be used in many different ways. The most common is to fine tune adjustments to the tone so it sits perfectly in the mix of instruments you are playing with, or to a backing track etc.


Some EQ pedals have one control, others can have 12 or more. The more options you have on the pedal, the more control over your tone you can have although you can quickly get overwhelmed. Some EQ pedals are even modeled after the EQ section of a specific amplifier - Mesa Boogie is well known for this!


You can’t be this pedal for a classic, dependable EQ:



Modulation 

Modulation refers to a change in the signal of a note or chord, but not drastically altering the pitch - the core of the note remains the same. You may come across effects such as Chorus, Phaser, Flanger and a few others. Technically, they all do a similar thing but slightly differently, so there is often much confusion between them all. 


Eddie Van Halen was famous for using a phaser pedal in the intro to ‘Ain't Talkin’ About Love’ - one of his biggest hits. Some like to be very subtle in their use of modulating effects, others like to be really extreme (such as John Scofield). 


My all time favorite modulation pedal is actually more of a multi-FX (it contains a selection of everything), but the modulation is sublime:



Ambience

In musical terms, ambience refers to effects that give the impression of space. Reverb and delay are the two big players, and there are many different types of each. Reverberation is a naturally occurring phenomenon, where you hear the sound you project returning after hitting many different surfaces - this is why some of the types of reverb are called ‘hall’ or ‘cave’.


Delay is a little more straightforward for the most part. This is focused on one signal, rather than an endless number. When used in a guitar solo, for example, you might clearly hear the repeated notes.


My favorite reverb and delay sounds can also be found in the pedal I linked above.


Pitch

A pitch based effect differs from modulation. Whilst the former could make some very small changes to a note, pitch based effects can drastically alter the note entirely. Some pedals can emulate a change in the tuning of your guitar, but my favorite one can shoot a note up an octave, or even higher - beyond that which the guitar is capable of. 


The most popular pedal in this category is linked below, and is one of the most fun sounds you can experiment with.



Filter

A filter is very similar to an EQ, though the effect is focused on a very specific frequency instead of a broad range. A wah pedal is the most famous sound, but I prefer an envelope filter instead. This is where the dynamics of your playing open and close ‘virtual mouth’ of the pedal rather than the position of your foot. Don’t forget, an auto wah is controlled by time based parameters instead of dynamics.


This pedal is perhaps the most well-known envelope filter:



My Personal Approach

My personal philosophy is to refrain from buying pedals or specific effects until you have a specific need for it. You don’t really need 10 different drive options, or a selection of reverbs - that is unless one of them has a specific function that you require (my favorite drive pedal linked above has a boost function built in via another foot switch, so I don’t need another pedal!). 


There is an inherent danger with a large pedalboard that only comes to light when something goes wrong. If there is a horrible buzz, or no signal at all, you must pull apart the entire thing and isolate components to find the problem - this can take an absolute age and would be impossible if it happened during a show. 


I think it is better to work, and achieve the maximum potential, with what you already have.


The Problem with the Industry

My number one gripe with the industry is that there are so many copies of the same circuit - this can be found within every type of effect. The Ibanez TS808, also known as the Tubescreamer, is perhaps the most copied of all - I can count 10 or more off the top of my head. The JHS Bonsai pedal even has nine modes, each of which is an emulation of a different copy of the original TS808 - madness!


There is an air of superiority amongst traditional pedal users against those who favor multi-FX units, or those who can only afford cheaper versions of pedals. This extends further, to the extent of turning noses at a pedal because it doesn’t use the period correct transistor that was made in small batches in Russia 50 years ago. If you are happy with your own sound, fantastic! Leave other people's choices out of it.



Final Thoughts

Everyone should experiment with effects at some point, but shouldn’t feel that they are required to invest heavily in something that they could have possibly done without. 


As all of the research concludes, and I have stated before, the biggest factor in a guitar sound is the speaker. If you are playing a show, there is a 0% chance that a member of the public could tell if your fuzz pedal uses the right diode, and if they mention it then it will always be a guess based on a hunch and not fact. 


As always, learn to use what you have and just enjoy the music!


Alex

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