When guitar players are looking to buy effects pedals, one of the questions that inevitably comes up is, “which effects do I need?”

The simple answer is that this is highly individual. Different guitarists need different effects for different purposes.

Here I’m going to introduce some of the more popular choices. But this doesn’t mean this is all there is. There are so many more effects pedals out there.

Either way, let’s get into it.

Tuner

Technically not an effect, but useful nonetheless, your pedalboard should be furnished with a quality tuner.

Tuners can often be used as mute buttons, which is great for live gigs, and of course, you can use them to tune your guitars too.

Now, some guitarists already have a lot of pedals and don’t necessarily want to thin out their signal further by adding a tuner pedal to their rig.

It’s recommended that you find a true bypass pedal to minimize the effect of adding another pedal to your signal chain.

There’s nothing wrong with using an external tuner too, of course, if that’s what you prefer.

Distortion/Overdrive/Fuzz

Even if your amp already has a great dirty channel, it can be nice to have a separate compact pedal, which you could use as a boost or as a means to tighten your tone.

If your amp doesn’t have a dirty channel, then it’s essential period.

Now, each pedal tends to have different tonal characteristics, so you should always choose something that sounds good to you.

Distortion is associated with heavier tones, which is not surprising, because distortion pedals basically overload your signal to create the crunch.

Overdrive pedals offer that “cranked up” tube amp sound.

Fuzz hard-clips your signal too – even more than a distortion pedal. And, that gives it a different tone.

But this doesn’t mean that all distortion, overdrive or fuzz pedals sound the same. Far from it.

So, again, if you’re serious about picking up a pedal to dirty up your tone, you’ll want to do your research.

Delay

With reverb being one of the most commonly included effects on an amplifier, there’s a good chance you don’t need a separate reverb pedal.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are some great sounding reverb pedals out there to tempt you.

But delay is one of those effects that’s seen on virtually every guitarist’s pedalboard, regardless of whether they think of themselves as a soundscaper in the vein of The Edge or Jonny Greenwood.

Slapback echo can be great, even for the most complex of solos. And, longer delays can be awesome for atmospheric parts. There are plenty of great settings in between too.

One of my guitar teachers didn’t leave home without a delay, even if he was just teaching lessons, so that should tell you something. To me, delay is essential.

Chorus

There are many types of modulation pedals, with one of the most popular being chorus.

When you think of the word “chorus”, what probably comes to mind is the part of a song everyone sings along to.

But the term is also used in choir settings, which is where the expression “singing in chorus” comes from.

From that description, you can get a sense of what the effect does. It basically layers slightly out of tune voices behind the original voice to give you more thickness and sparkle.

Chorus can be great on both clean and distorted tones, but I find it especially useful for clean tones to give it some extra warmth.

There are a lot of other great modulation pedals worth checking out too – although we won’t be covering them here – whether it’s phaser, flanger, tremolo, ring modulator or otherwise.

Wah

Certainly not essential, but useful nonetheless, a wah pedal can give you more tonal variety in your rhythm and lead playing.

Just as the name suggests, the pedal offers a frequency sweep “wah” that can be controlled with the expression pedal (by rocking it up and down).

Guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Kirk Hammett are well-known wah users.

For many funk guitarists, wah is usually a staple, though again not necessary. In general, wah has a wide range of applications across the many musical genres that exist.

Compressor

One more effect that can be incredibly useful is compression.

Basically, it tightens the dynamic spectrum, making the quieter notes louder and the louder notes quieter.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s important to know when and where to apply a compressor.

For instance, if you’re doing a lot of intricate picking on your clean channel, along with harmonics and maybe even tapping or hammer-ons, using a compressor can help every note come out crisp and clear.

There are certainly other applications for compression, whether it’s for lead work, specific genres or otherwise.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned before, there are many products for guitars, and I only covered a few of the more popular effects here.

Whether it’s modulation, pitch (vibrato, octaver, pitch shifters, etc.) level (volume, noise gate, limiter, etc.), depending on what tones you’re trying to achieve, there are pedals suited to every need.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, as the first pedal you buy might not be the perfect workhorse. If you keep at it, however, you will find what’s right for you.

David Andrew Wiebe

Founder & CEO at The Music Entrepreneur HQ
David Andrew Wiebe has built an extensive career in songwriting, live performance, recording, session playing, production work, investing, and music instruction. In addition to helping musicians unlock their full potential, he also continues to maintain a performance schedule with Long Jon Lev and Adrenalize. If you'd like to be notified whenever the blog is updated, click here to subscribe.
David Andrew Wiebe