Guitar tone is a very personal thing. Think of your favourite guitarist. Chances are there’s something unique about their sound that draws you to it. Because of the vast number of combinations of different guitars, strings, pickups, effects and amps available, the guitar is one of the most customisable instruments available to musicians. Many guitarists use effects pedals to help carve out their signature tone. But what do guitar pedals actually do? I’ve put together this two part guide to explain what some of the common types of guitar pedal do to your sound and hopefully demystify some of the jargon you’ll come across when buying them.
A booster pedal does exactly what the name suggests: boosts the signal that goes into it. This can be used to pep up low output pickups or add a different quality to your sound. Some boost pedals are designed to preserve the EQ of your tone while others will add treble, bass or mid boosts to the sound.
Take a look at the Stagg Blaxx Booster Pedal. Click here.
When a tube amplifier is pushed beyond its intended gain levels, the signal will begin to clip or ‘break up’, producing a warm, distorted sound. While this was originally considered undesirable, it became popular in the 1950s when guitarists such as Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf began to experiment with it. Since then it has become the foundation for hundreds of Rock guitar tones. An overdrive pedal is designed to increase the gain of a guitar signal to push an amplifier into breaking up more easily and at a lower volume.
Take a look at the Stagg Blaxx Overdrive Pedal. Click here.
Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, overdrive and distortion pedals are in fact different. Whereas an overdrive produces warm, natural sounding ‘soft’ clipping, distortion is far more aggressive, producing ‘hard’ clipping and shaping the EQ of your tone through a series of transistors and clipping diodes. The myriad of models on the market will take you from leather trousers Classic Rock through to Mosh Pit Metal.
Take a look at the Stagg Blaxx Distortion Pedal. Click here.
Fuzzes were the first ‘dirt’ effects to be built using germanium transistors to create the clipping, at a time when few options were available to add grit to a guitarist’s tone. Fuzz tones are different to those of distortion and overdrive and they are very versatile, ranging from fat and woolly, to sputtering, glitchy and synth-like. Some designs will even self-oscillate and produce wild screaming and wailing. Modern units often use silicon transistors instead of germanium but the latter remains a popular choice in boutique effects, prized for its smoother, rounder tone.
Boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals will almost always have some variation on these basic three knobs:
-Level/Output – Controls the volume of the signal.
-Gain/Drive/Distortion (Dist.)- Controls the gain of the signal.
-Tone/EQ- Controls the tone. Often this will allow more high end through at one end and roll it off at the other end. Some units, particularly distortions may include separate low, mid and high controls or even a separate switch to engage an EQ boost (high or low frequency boost for example).
Wah-wah and Auto-Wah (Envelope Follower)
The Wah pedal is arguably the most iconic guitar effect of all time. Technically speaking, a Wah is a bandpass filter that creates a peak in the frequency response that the player can sweep up and down using their foot, producing the archetypal vocal sound of this effect. Famous users include Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Steve Vai and Eric Clapton. Quite a heritage!
An Auto-Wah processes the signal in a similar way to a Wah-Wah foot pedal, but instead of being controlled by the player’s foot, it uses the intensity of the incoming signal (envelope) to move the peak up and down the frequency spectrum. Therefore, the harder you pick, the more the filter ‘opens up’. The effect was particularly popular on disco and funk records in the 70s and was used by bass guitar and keyboard players as well as 6 string guitarists.
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