The world of guitar effects pedals can be pretty confusing, with all the different types and variants available. In this article, I’ll be distilling down all the different effects pedals on the market into 7 different types and explaining what each family of effects does and how to decide which pedals you actually need.
At a Glance
There are 7 main types of electric guitar pedals: drive, filter and dynamic effects, modulation effects, pitch-altering effects, time-based effects, utility pedals and acoustic simulators. Most guitars players consider drive and time-based effects to be the most essential pedal types.
Within each effect-type, there are multiple different pedals. Here is a diagram to show all the main effects and which family they fit into. I’ve used a colour-coding scale to identify which are considered the most essential.
- Green = most popular pedals (consider these first)
- Pink = specific effects (not essential for most players but some may be needed to create specific tones)
- Volume = lower priority (usually not essential for players building a small pedalboard)
There are three types of drive pedal.
Drive pedals are often the first effect purchased by most players because they are so versatile. They allow you to switch from clean to driven tones instantly, or can be used to provide a higher quality gain tone compared to the tone on a lot of amplifiers.
There are usually three controls on a drive pedal: level (also known as volume), drive (also known as gain) and tone (which adjusts how bright or warm the tone is).
Each of the three drive pedals produces a different effect.
Overdrive pedals sound the most natural compared to distortion and fuzz pedals and are designed to sound like a valve amp which is pushed to break-up. Distortion pedals sound more aggressive and saturated whilst fuzz pedals have a glitchy tone which is quite unique.
Check out this video to hear distortion, overdrive and fuzz back-to-back.
You can actually use two or three of these drive pedals at the same time to create some unique effects, this is known as “gain stacking”. If it’s something you’re interested in, check out my article on using fuzz, distortion and overdrive together for some more information.
These tend to sound the least “driven” and are common in a range of genres from blues to rock and even metal. They can be used add some crunch to a clean amp or add more drive to an already overdriven amp tone. Many players use overdrive pedals to “boost” the tone for lead playing.
Distortion pedals are commonly associated with metal and hard rock. They create a very compressed and saturated tone which offers excellent sustain and creates a kind of “wall-of-sound”. Distortion pedals do this by using “hard clipping” compared to overdrive pedals which use “soft-clipping”. Hard clipping pedals sound more aggressive.
Fuzz pedals have a very unique tone which is actually used to simulate the tone of a faulty amplifier which sounds almost glitchy. These pedals are used by a range of famous guitarists such as David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Top Drive Pedal Picks
Here are some of the top drive pedals with links to Amazon (images also link to Amazon).
Time-Based Effects Pedals
The time-based, also known as “ambient” effect category is made up of reverb and delay pedals. They both create an echo effect but sound quite different from one another. Reverb occurs naturally when sound waxes hit a surface whilst delay sound like a note is being repeatedly played back.
Think about the sound you’d get if you were to shout in a huge empty hall. That’s reverb. Reverb pedals add depth and life to your guitar’s tone and are used in pretty much every genre of music and pretty much every song. If your amplifier does not have built-in reverb, then a reverb pedal will be one of the best pedals to buy first.
There are 5 main types of reverb:
- Room: subtle type
- Hall: more obvious type
- Chamber: sounds clearer and less “airy”
- Plate: smooth and long lasting reverb
- Spring: wobbly-type of reverb
Most effects pedals will include 4-5 of these types of reverb. Most amplifiers only have a single reverb setting, so even if your amp has built-in reverb, it could still be worth investing in a dedicated reverb pedal.
Here is a video demonstrating a reverb pedal in action.
Delay pedals are very versatile and are used in pretty much every music genre. They create the effect of a single note or chord being played back repeatedly. You can use the control on the pedal to create different sounds. For example, you can set the number of repeats and the length on the lowest setting to add ambiance, or you can create a dramatic delay effect where the note repeats for a much longer time.
Here is a demonstration of a delay pedal.
I’ve written a full article comparing reverb and delay pedals here if you want to learn more.
Top Reverb and Delay Pedal Picks
Here are some of the reverb and delay pedals with links to Amazon (images also link to Amazon).
Filter and Dynamic Pedals
This family of pedals is pretty large. All the different pedals in this category have very different functions but are grouped because they all impact how the tone is shaped.
Compressor pedals have two main effects: increasing sustain and smoothening out the tone. They work by reducing the volume of notes that are above a certain threshold. They smoothen out the tone by decreasing the volume of strings that are plucked more aggressively, which creates a more professional sound.
Here is a video to demonstrate.
Compressor pedals are useful in pretty much every music style and are one of the most popular pedal types on the market because they can instantly improve pretty much any tone but without changing it much. I’ve also got a full guide on compressor pedals here if you want to learn more.
Boost pedals increase the signal from your guitar and are popular when switching from rhythm to lead playing. You can get “dirty boosts” which add gain and volume or “clean boosts”. Many boost pedals enhance the treble and upper-mids to allow the tone to “cut through” more.
Again this is another popular pedal type and one that is often purchased early on, as it can be used in any music style and allows you to easily kick your signal up a notch for solos. However, some players also use overdrive and distortion pedals for this boost function instead of using a dedicated boost pedals.
EQ pedals are used to adjust the balance of bass, middle and treble frequencies to shape the tone. They are usually placed after drive pedals in the chain and allow you to tweak the tone until it’s perfect. Some players may also consider an EQ pedal as “utility” pedal.
I would say this pedal isn’t super essential because you can use your amplifier to adjust the EQ and your other pedals to shape the tone with their dedicated “tone” controls. However, some players find the EQ pedal to be an essential part of their rig.
Wah pedals create a type of filter effect which rapidly change the EQ by using a foot pedal. When you press down on the pedal, it cuts the bass and enhances the treble, and when you rock back off it, it cuts the treble and enhances the bass. Rocking backwards and forwards on a wah pedal allows you to glide between the frequencies creating a unique sound.
Wah pedals create a very specific sound and were popularised by Jimi Hendrix. They are considered essential if you want to emulate this tone, but for most players, the pedal will rarely be needed. Here is a video to demonstrate the wah pedal in action.
Filter pedals work in a similar way to a wah pedal except they do not use a foot pedal to operate, but are switch-operated. Again this creates a unique “sweeping” effect which is probably not essential for the vast majority of players but will be perfect for some. Here is a video to demonstrate.
Top Dynamic and Filter Effect Picks
Here are some of the top dynamic and filter effect pedals with links to Amazon (images also link to Amazon).
Modulation Effects Pedals
The modulation category of guitar effects pedals is made up of:
Modulation effects usually have a speed and depth control. You can purchase these effects in individual pedals or in a multi-effects unit which usually includes at least 3 effects. I wouldn’t describe any modulation effects as “essential”, however they may be necessary if you’re trying to achieve a specific sound that you’ve heard from your favourite band.
Phaser pedals were notably used by Eddie Van Halen to create a wavy tone. Examples of songs which used this effect include: Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are”, Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark At The Moon”.
Flanger pedals create a “whooshing effect”. Examples of songs which use this effect include: Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio”, Led Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and Heart’s “Barracuda”.
Here is a video where you can listen to phaser and flanger pedals.
Chorus pedal makes it sound like more than one guitar is being played at the same time. Examples of songs which used this effect include: Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”, Metallica’s “Welcome Home”, and The Police’s “Walking On The Moon”.
Here is a video example of a chorus pedal in action.
Tremolo pedals create changes in volume. Examples of songs which used a tremolo pedal include: Radiohead’s “Creep”, Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”.
Vibrato pedals create changes in pitch. Examples of songs which used a vibrato pedal include: The Smashing Pumpkins “Rhinoceros” and Radiohead’s “Thinking About You”.
Here is a video demonstrating tremolo and vibrato pedals.
A univibe pedal is a type of modulation effect pedal which sounds similar to a cross between a phaser and chorus pedal. An example of a song which used a univibe pedal is “Alive” by Pearl Jam.
Top Modulation Effect Picks
Here are some of the top modulation effect pedals with links to Amazon (images also link to Amazon).
Pitch-Altering Effects Pedals
Pitch altering effects pedals include the following:
Pitch-shifter pedals make it so that a different note is amplifier compared to the one you played. You can adjust the balance of how much the original note is heard in comparison to the shifted note. This allows you to achieve a harmonising effect.
Check out this video to hear a pitch-shifter in action.
Octave pedals shift the pitch up or down an octave. Many octave pedals allow you to either blend the original signal with the octave-shifted signal, which has the effect of “fattening” up the tone. They also will usually allow you to remove the original signal completely.
Top Pitch-Altering Pedal Picks
Here are some of the pitch-shifting and octave pedals with links to Amazon (images also link to Amazon).
Utility pedals have specific functions which do not involve changing the tone of the guitar. They include:
- Volume: these act like foot-pedals where you can press down to increase the overall volume (and gain when placed early in the chain).
- Tuner: these allow you to tune your guitar easily, and allow you to silence the signal complete (useful when on stage).
- Noise gate: these reduce feedback and humming in the signal.
- Buffer: these preserve the tone of the guitar throughout the signal chain to avoid you losing treble frequencies.
- Looper: these allow you to loop your playing so you can play something new over the top of it.
Some players will consider all these pedals essential, however, I’d say you’re best of getting these once you’ve got a few other pedals which impact the tone and your happy with it. This group of pedals is really useful but not the most exciting!
Tuner pedals are a bit of a luxury, but very useful if you will be gigging. Noise gate pedals are only necessary if there is a lot of feedback you need to reduce, but try to address the root of the issue before reaching for one immediately. Buffer pedals are very helpful if you have a longer signal chain with many pedals and long cables. Looper pedals are great if you are going busking and for practicing at home, but are definitely not essential for most players.
I’ve written some more articles on some of these pedals if you want more detail on how to use them and the different types available:
Top Utility Pedal Picks
Here are some of the top utility pedals with links to Amazon (images also link to Amazon).
Noise Gate Pedal
Acoustic Simulator Pedals
The final type of pedal is the acoustic simulator. Acoustic simulator pedals use specialised EQs to help replicate the tone of an acoustic guitar. I’ve written a full guide to making your electric guitar sound like an acoustic guitar where I talk about acoustic similar pedals in a lot more detail.
Most players will never need this type of pedal in their collection, but others wouldn’t be without one!
Organising your new pedalboard? Check out my ultimate guide to designing a pedalboard including all the equipment you need and a step by step formula to getting set up in a pain-free way.