Electric guitar effects pedals have been around for almost as long as electric guitars. The challenge for effects unit manufacturers, of course, was that as guitarists have their hands full while playing, a means of quickly accessing and controlling effects was needed without having to interrupt playing. The obvious answer was the foot pedal or stomp box as it has also become known. Effects units housed in a foot pedal proved to be the ideal solution and effects pedals are as relevant to today's electric guitarists as ever.
The main difference between effects pedals of those early days and now is the staggering choice of effects now available. Guitarists are literally spoilt for choice and beginners can find it overwhelming when choosing effects pedals. Before deciding on which effects pedal or pedals to buy, try to become familiar with the various effects that they produce as well as with some of the more important terms associated with them. There are many types of effects pedal produced by a large range of manufactures. However, they can be conveniently grouped into a more manageable list of types, each of which is concerned with certain aspects of sound.
Distortion is an effect that in most cases is something to be avoided. Controlled and intentional distortion, however, can produce electric guitar tones that are highly expressive and distinctive. The typical hard-rock lead guitar solo is a perfect demonstration of the musical use of distortion. Distortion pedals may be seen advertised with various names such as overdrive, gain, distortion or fuzz. More colourful and descriptive terms are also commonly seen such as screamer to give a more exciting and enticing edge to the name. For the heaviest distortion at all volume levels, look for fuzz boxes. For a milder and more controllable type of distortion, look for overdrive pedals.
Virtually all recorded electric guitar music features the echo-based effect of reverb to add space and depth to the sound. For recording purposes, reverb and other echo-based effects can be added later, but many guitarists like to be in control of the amount of reverb being produced while they play. Reverb pedals enable that. Other echo-based effects such as looping or digital delay tend to be more obvious and specialised. The effect known as chorus also creates an ambience of space but by different means. By very slight selective detuning, the effect mimics the slightly out-of-tune effect heard in any form of choral singing. To a limited extent, it can create the illusion of several guitars being played in unison. Use this effect to create a very full and rich sound.
Tone Control Effects
While tone is an important aspect of electric guitar playing, most tone adjustments are done from the simple tone controls on the guitar itself. Tone control effects pedals containing graphic equalisers are available but aren't so commonly used as a foot pedal. One tone control effect that stands out from all others, however, is the effect called wah-wah, named after the distinctive vocal-like sound produced by large sweeping changes of tone. Following its heavy use in sixties' pop and rock music, the effect declined in popularity. It is still used, however, and even seems to be regaining some of its former popularity. Use this effect very subtly as that's how it's almost always used in modern music.
Pitch controllers enable various radical effects to be applied. These include 'harmonising', in which the guitar's notes are reproduced at a different pitch and mixed in with the original; and transposing, which is achieved in the same way except that only the pitch-shifted version is heard. Despite the name, don't expect harmonisers to provide any real harmonic accompaniment. It's a striking harmonic effect but isn't true controllable harmony in the musical sense.
Dynamics in music refers to the differences in volume that naturally occur in musical phrases. Dynamics controllers are used to exploit or manage those differences. Booster effects pedals, for example, instantly boost the volume whenever required. Compressors, on the other hand, are designed to minimise the dynamics range by increasing the volume of softly played notes while decreasing the volume of loud notes for a more even volume level. Make use of dynamics pedals to emphasise lead guitar phrases.
Effects pedals such as flangers, phasers and ring modulators are often used for bizarre sound effects. Audio modulation effects are the result of an audio signal being made to interact with (modulate) another. The result is an audio signal that has been transformed, sometimes beyond recognition. Apart from their use in special effects soundtracks or experimental music, they are used in most other music only very discreetly if at all.
Fortunately, for all concerned in the early electronics-effects industry, transistors were replacing valves and enabling miniaturisation of effects circuits, which could finally be made small enough to fit inside a foot pedal. In modern times, miniaturisation has continued unabated with the introduction of microchip technology. These further reductions in circuit and component sizes haven't resulted in even smaller effects pedals, of course, but in pedals being crammed with multiple effects. Despite these advances, however, many guitarists prefer to keep their effects pedals separate and dedicated to a single type of effect. Effects pedals of exactly the required type can be chained together and placed only a footstep away from each other. Chaining them together means feeding the output of one pedal to the input of another pedal. Each effect in the chain can be activated or bypassed as required. Avoid having too many effects-pedals chained in this way as the overall tone quality can suffer as a result.
Price and Quality
With so many manufacturers bringing out effects pedals in competition with each other, there is a huge range of prices. There is also a large quality range. Some effects pedals may have an impressive range of effects at a very affordable price, but that's no guarantee that those effects will sound very impressive. The quality of an effect pedal's construction is also important. Make sure the pedal mechanism and foot switch can move smoothly and cleanly with a good firm response. In addition, check that the whole pedal is robust enough to withstand being inadverantly kicked and stood upon. For more savings, check out the bargains that are often available when buying a used effects pedal. There is a thriving market in used effects pedals, and great bargains come and go, especially online.
Most electric guitarists have their particular favourite effects pedals. Many see them as an extension of their guitar and learn to use them creatively and skilfully. Inexperienced players are often overwhelmed by the choice of effects available. Obviously, the only cure for inexperience is experience and many guitarists buy a few different pedals, try them out and learn by experience how using a particular effect can enhance or ruin the musical content of their playing. More extreme effects such as looping and flanging may provide hours of fun and amazement but, eventually, the novelty wears off. Listen to the advice of professionals, which is to always see effects pedals as tools for a particular job. Use them tastefully and sparingly.
Knowing which effects are appropriate for any given style is simply a matter of listening for which effects are commonly used in that style. A solo veteran blues guitarist, for example, will have no interest in creating alien spaceship noises with the latest flanger pedal. Rather, he'll be more interested in effects such as warm reverb to complement the warm, mellow ambience of the blues. Heavy-metal guitarists, by contrast, will be more drawn to distortion pedals. In other words, choose from effects pedals that produce appropriate effects.
Finding Effects Pedals on eBay
eBay is a well-known source of effects pedals for those who prefer to buy online. Effects pedals are available and can be found under eBay's Guitar category, which is a sub-category of Musical Instruments. To access this, click on the All Categories link on the eBay homepage. They can also be located by searching for "guitar effects pedals" from any page on their site. Having found them, the list can be filtered to return more relevant search results. For example, the results can be tailored to display effects pedals of a certain type, within a certain price range, new or used, auction or direct sale, and much more. There are usually very many guitar effects pedals available at any given time and an unfiltered list would be unmanageable. Use the filtering options to avoid that problem completely.
Experienced professionals are always quick to point out that no amount of clever effects can compensate for lack of talent. They are equally quick to point out, however, that combined with some natural talent, feeling and guitar-playing skills, effects pedals can be a very useful addition to any electric guitarist's equipment set-up. Wherever possible try out effects pedals and get to know the range of sounds they produce. Gaining more experience of hearing and trying effects pedals means better choices can be made when buying them.