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GUITAR

EFFECTS FOR

DUMMIES

Guitar Effects for Dummies

Introduction Gain based Effects

  • - Overdrive/Distortion/Fuzz

  • - Compression

  • - Wah/Envelope Filter

  • - Tremolo

  • - EQ

Time based Effects

  • - Delay

  • - Reverb

  • - Phaser/Flanger

Pitch based Effects

  • - Chorus

  • - Rotary/Vibrato

  • - Pitch Shift/Harmonizer/Octave

Principles for Signal Chain order Appendix

  • - Tuner, Volume, and boost pedals

  • - Buffered vs True Bypass

Introduction

When I first started playing electric guitar seriously, I played around with the few toys I

could afford, mostly modelers and multi effect pedals. As I tried to create my own sounds, I quickly discovered that I had no idea how anything worked or even what it did. As I started to collect individual pedals, I became even more confused by all the options out there. I started reading about different effects on the internet, but found explanations that were too vague or too

technical. So now that I’ve learned a thing or

two, I wanted to share my knowledge with those who are seeking answers. My goal is to explain

the major categories of effects, the principles of how they work and practical tips for making them sound good, as well as give you some pointers for what order to put them in.

Enjoy!

Gain Based Effects

Gain based effects alter the volume of the input waveform to change the character of the output signal.

Overdrive/Distortion/Fuzz

Principle:

Overdrive and distortion pedals

Gain Based Effects Gain based effects alter the volume of the input waveform to change the

When the wave form exceeds the saturation point, the shape is changed.

increase the gain on the input signal until it clips. The picture below is a sine
increase the gain on the input signal until it clips.
The picture below is a sine wave; the dotted line
represents the saturation point in the overdrive
pedal.
The more you increase the gain, the more the
wave is clipped and the more pronounced the
effect is.

This signal would sound the same as the original,

or “clean.” But when the input signal is pushed

past the saturation point, it starts to clip.

Practice: While overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals work on the same principles, each has a distinct sound. Overdrive pedals are typically described with words like smooth (or creamy). Distortion produces a grittier, harsher sound. Fuzz is aptly named because it makes the guitar sound very fuzzy.

The basic controls for overdrive/distortion pedals usually include Gain (or Drive) and Level (or

Volume). Gain determines the amount of effect. Level determines the output volume to compensate for the inherent volume increase.

One thing to remember about overdrive and distortion is that there is a certain amount of compression that results from the effect. Whatever effects you put in front of these pedals will be affected accordingly.

Compression

Principle: Compression is used to even out the volume of the input signal without overdriving it.

Instead of clipping the wave, the compressor lowers the volume of the signal above a certain point. The compressor is set to a certain ratio, for illustration 3:1. Every 3 dB above the threshold level the input signal goes, the output

goes up 1 dB.

If the ratio is set to infinity, the

volume will not increase beyond the threshold

level (hard limiting).

Practice: Most compressors will have an adjustable threshold so you can determine at which point the compressor kicks in. The attack control determines how quickly the compression will take effect. A slow attack will allow the output volume to exceed the threshold level for a time before it is compressed to the threshold level. This can allow for a more natural picking sound at the beginning of each note. The release control determines how quickly the compressor will stop compressing the sound once it drops below the threshold. A higher threshold level with slower attack will provide a more natural sound, especially when strumming, while a lower threshold with a quicker attack will provide more sustain for each note, particularly when playing single notes.

Wah/Envelope Filter

Principle: The Wah pedal is a tone control pedal that sweeps the tonal frequencies from low to high depending on foot position. It is roughly analogous to turning the tone pot on your guitar from 0 to 10 and back. When in the heel-down position, the wah pedal will turn down all the high

frequencies coming into the pedal and will only pass through the lower frequencies, producing a very muddy sound. When in the toe-down position, the wah pedal cuts out the lower frequencies and sends out only the higher frequencies, producing a very thin, brittle sound. When sweeping from heel to toe, the guitar

sounds like a person saying “wah”, hence the

name. An envelope filter, instead of being controlled by foot position, is controlled by input volume. When strumming lightly, the pedal will cut out the high frequencies, sounding like the heel-down position. When strumming louder, the pedal will cut out the lows and sound like the toe-down position on the wah. The sensitivity of the trigger can be adjusted to allow better control of the effect.

Practice: Different wah pedals have different tonal characteristics. Some sweep from very muddy/midrange to very harsh/high frequency. Others sweep across a smaller range and have a less pronounced effect. Some pedals allow you to control the sweep range, but most only have

the foot-rocker control. The on/off switch is usually activated by stepping firmly on the toe end of the foot-rocker.

Tremolo/Panning

Principle: Tremolo describes a constant oscillating in volume. The pedal functions to turn the volume up and down repeatedly in regular intervals. Panning sweeps the signal from one output to the other. If either output were listened to independently, it would sound like a tremolo, but the second output would be turning up as the first is turning down.

Practice: Tremolo pedals allow you to control the depth, rate, and shape of the volume change. The depth knob determines how quiet the output signal will get. A lower depth level will create a more subtle, less pronounced effect while turning the depth all the way up will drop the volume at its lowest point to zero. The rate determines how fast the volume will drop from maximum to minimum and back. The shape control allows you to determine if the oscillation will be gradual or sudden. A sine wave will create a more

gradual sound. A triangle wave will be choppier, while a square wave cuts from maximum to minimum, much like if someone were hitting the mute button on and off very quickly.

gradual sound. A triangle wave will be choppier, while a square wave cuts from maximum to

Some tremolos allow you to determine whether the peak will be in the center, toward the front, or toward the back of the wave. Another way to put it is that you can control whether the fall will be shorter than, longer than, or the same length as the rise in volume.

gradual sound. A triangle wave will be choppier, while a square wave cuts from maximum to

Note: The “whammy bar” on your guitar bridge is often called a “tremolo bar.” This is a misnomer, since the whammy bar changes the pitch of the guitar (vibrato) instead of the volume.

Equalizing

Principle: Equalizing (EQ) pedals do not affect the gain as a whole, but alter the level of certain frequencies within the sonic spectrum. Most stomp box EQs separate the sonic spectrum into 6 to 10 frequency ranges, each controlled by a slider. Adjusting the slider will control the amount of that frequency sent to the output.

Practice: EQs can be used to shape a guitar tone for a variety of purposes. Some guitarists use EQ to even out the frequencies so every note will

sound at the same level. Others use it to actively shape the tone. One example of this is the

“power V” where the highest and lowest

frequencies are raised and the middle frequencies are dropped succesively.

gradual sound. A triangle wave will be choppier, while a square wave cuts from maximum to

This produces a thick, beefy sound most associated with hard rock and metal. You may also use the EQ to boost certain frequencies to cut through the mix, especially during solos.

Time Based Effects

Time based effects alter the original signal by laying a delayed signal on top of the original signal to alter the output signal.

Delay

Principle: Delay pedals output the original signal unaltered, then repeat the input signal at a delayed time. The interaction of input signal and delay signal creates depth and texture and can markedly change the feel of a guitar part. Originally, the delay effect was achieved by using a multi track tape recorder and moving one of the recording heads so it would record the input signal at a delayed time. Delay pedals achieve the effect through transistors and circuitry.

Practice: The basic controls on any delay pedal are effect level, feedback, and delay time. Effect level determines the volume of the repeats. Feedback determines the number of repeats, and delay time determines how long the repeats are delayed.

Delay can be used to add body to an otherwise dry guitar signal by setting the effect level lower and the feedback level longer. The delay time can be set at a length appropriate to the song.

For a more textured sound (similar to the Edge from U2 for example), set the effect level so it is about even with the clean signal and the feedback low, typically 1 or 2 repeats. Then set the delay time for a dotted eighth note (3

sixteenth notes). The repeat will play between “1 and” and “2.” If you play eighth notes, the first

note will repeat after the second and before the 3 rd . As you continue to play eighth notes, the output will play 16 th notes with a staggered feel. Another effect is to set the delay for a quarter note with the effect level and feedback the same as above. This will provide a thicker sound when you play the same note or a quarter note length pattern, and you can build harmonies by playing an arpeggio at quarter note intervals. (Think Brian May on Brighton Rock by Queen). Some delay pedals offer different variations on the basic delay effect. Analog delay produces low fidelity repeats similar to the original tape delay, while digital delay pedals are able to

produce repeats that are almost identical to the original signal. Other effects are able to shift the pitch of the repeats or reverse the original signal. Stereo delay allows the repeats to “ping-pong” between two different amps or even send different delay signals to different amps.

Reverb

Principle: In any enclosed space, sound reverberates off hard surfaces and bounces back to the origin of the source and is further dispersed by reflecting off other surfaces and walls before returning to the origin. This is especially prominent in churches and cathedrals. Early reverb units used metal plates or springs to reverberate the signal, producing a distinct sound that is still sought today.

Practice: Reverb pedal controls include Level (Mix) and Decay (or time). The level knob determines the mix between the dry and wet signals. The decay knob determines the depth of the effect or the length of time it takes for the wet signal to fade away. The higher either of the knobs is turned, the less clear the signal

becomes. This can be used to wash out the dry signal or to fill in under it.

Phaser/Flanger

Principle: Phasers and Flangers layer a delayed copy of the original signal on top of the original. The signal is delayed only a few milliseconds.

produce repeats that are almost identical to the original signal. Other effects are able to shift

When the wave peaks are close to each other, they will build on each other. When the wave peaks are opposite of each other, they will cancel each other out.

produce repeats that are almost identical to the original signal. Other effects are able to shift

Because different notes have different wavelengths, the phase cancellation will occur at different times for different frequencies. This results in a sweeping sound. Phasers have a swirling sound reminiscent of a subtle wah pedal, while flangers produce a whooshing sound often likened to a jet plane.

Practice: Phasers and Flangers have as few as 1 knob and as many as 4. 1 knob phasers control only the rate of the effect. A slower setting washes out the tone of the guitar while a fast setting produces a swirling sound reminiscent of a rotary speaker. Many pedals have knobs to control the depth of the effect, the mix between dry and wet signal, and the output volume. Some phasers have a step function. The step function, instead of sweeping across the phase range, jumps from one part of the range to the next. This sounds like an arpeggiator as it emphasizes different notes as it steps from high to low and back.

Pitch Based Effects

Pitch based effects change the pitch of the original signal, though some of them are similar to time based effects.

Chorus

Principle: The chorus pedal was created to make one guitar sound like several. If the input signal were laid on top of itself, it would only increase in volume. If it were laid on top with a slight delay, the output would be phased. So the input signal

is detuned a small amount, then layered on top of the original to sound like a different guitar playing the same notes. The amount of detune varies in a cyclical manner.

Practice: Chorus pedals allow you to control the effect level as well as the number of added signals and the depth of the detune and the rate of the detune cycle.

Rotary/Vibrato

Principle: A Rotary pedal simulates the sound of a leslie speaker. A leslie speaker has a horn speaker, which produces higher frequencies, and a cone speaker, which produces lower frequencies. These speakers spin independently of each other. As they spin, the perceived pitch drops as the speaker rotates away from the audience and raises as the speaker rotates toward the audience. The effect is similar to a police siren (the Doppler effect). This effect is most associated with a Hammond B3 organ. A vibrato pedal is very similar. Like the vibrato used in singing, a vibrato pedal raises and lowers the pitch quickly. It is a simpler version of the rotary effect.

Practice: Rotary pedal controls are similar to the controls on a leslie speaker. You are able to control the speed of rotation and the mix between the dry and wet signals. The rise time knob controls how fast the speakers ramp up to speed. Vibrato knobs control the depth and speed of the effect.

Pitch Shift/Harmonizer

Principle: A pitch shift pedal takes the original pitch and shifts it a set interval when the pedal is activated. When raising the pitch of a recorded guitar, one usually increases the speed of the recording and the pitch will raise accordingly. Since this cannot be achieved in real time, the effect often sounds very “digital” or synthetic. The harmonizer shifts the pitch a determined amount while sending through the original signal so the altered pitch creates a harmony to the original.

Practice: Pitch shift pedals shift the input anywhere from one step to two octaves. Some pedals use a stomp pedal to turn on the effect while others use a foot rocker to allow more control over the effect. Employing the 2 octave

shift can be used to simulate pinch harmonics or “squealies.” Harmonizers allow the control of the effect mix level and selection of the key so every

note will be in the key the song is in.

Some

harmonizers allow you to shift the harmony from one note to another to simulate a pedal steel

bend. Using an octave up harmony will make your guitar sound like a 12 string. Octave pedals mix the clean signal with altered signals one and two octaves below the original to give the guitar a thick, beefy sound. This effect is especially useful for playing without a bass in the band.

Pedal Chain Principles

The first rule to pedal chain order is that there are no rules. While certain pedal orders are more logical and conventional, unconventional pairings can create unique sounds. In this section, I will try to lay out principles that will allow each pedal to best do what it was made to do.

Principle #1: Always consider what each effect will do to the input signal. This becomes more important the further in the chain the pedal is.

Principle #2: Keep the chain as short as you can. The more connections you make from guitar to cable to pedal to amp, the more noise will be introduced into the signal. You can alleviate this with signal routing alternatives.

Principle #3: Gain based effects go before time based effects. If this order is reversed, the time based effects will be altered by the gain. If you put compression on a delayed signal, the softer

delays will be made level with the original. If you put distortion after delay, the softer delays will be less distorted than the dry signal. Distortion colors the input signal in such a way that putting a chorus or phaser before it would produce a very muddy ugly tone, especially when playing more than one note at a time. The one main exception to this principle is tremolo, which is often put last so the output will be clean. If the tremolo is set to bring the volume all the way down, then a phaser or chorus, for example, is put later in the chain, the effect will color the line noise so that a swirling sound would be heard while the guitar is muted.

Principle #4: When using the effect loop on your amp, put gain effects before the preamp and time effects in the effect loop after the preamp. Think of the preamp as a distortion/overdrive effect. If you have the means, you may choose to put your time based effects after the amp, especially delay, so they will be processing the final guitar tone, although you may choose to let the warmth of the amp mask the digital sound many time based effects create.

Principle #5: Tone begins in your fingers. Effects respond differently to notes played differently. You can control various elements of each effect by changing the dynamic and timing of each note you play.

Note: Many people waste a lot of time and money collecting the gear their hero uses in an effort to sound just like them, only to discover that, with identical rigs, they still sound nothing like them. This is largely because the notes sound different from the outset. Your hero holds his pick, applies pressure to the strings, and attacks the strings in a certain way. If you can discover some of those tricks, you will sound more like your hero regardless of what guitar, pedals and amp you use. But the best option is to find your own sound.

Pedal Chain Example

Below I will lay out an example of how a pedal

chain should be set up.

I will try to explain why I

have set it up this way and what some viable alternatives are (I will place a * by any pedal that will show up in another place). Again, remember that there is no wrong order. If you do something different and it works for you, great! Just make sure you know why you do it that way.

1. Tuner The tuner does not color or change your guitar sound at all (ideally), but functions best with a clean signal. Effect pedals may interfere with the tuner’s ability to accurately read the pitch of each string, so the tuner should go before all other pedals. Many pedals have a tuner out jack that allows you to remove the tuner from the signal path, thus eliminating the extra noise that would result from one more pedal in the chain.

2. Volume* Putting the volume pedal next in the chain helps control the dynamics going into the gain based pedals. This way you can get a

cleaner sound from overdrive/distortion pedals or get a different response from the compression.

  • 3. EQ* As the first pedal to color the tone, the

EQ sets the stage for how all the other pedals will respond to your guitar. Especially when you use the EQ to emphasize all the frequencies evenly, your sound will be more even through the rest of your signal chain.

  • 4. Compression Just as EQ evens out the

frequency range of the guitar, compression evens out the dynamic range. This completes the foundation of your guitar tone. Compression keeps the guitar from peaking and spiking in ways that would cause later effects to respond in an uncontrolled manner. The further you put compression in the chain, the more line noise and effect remnants are emphasized.

  • 5. Wah* The wah is the first pedal to color the

tone in a more active, dynamic way. If the wah were followed by the EQ, it would lose some of its effectiveness.

6. Overdrive/Distortion With the guitar’s clean tone where you want it, the overdrive gives it the distinct flavor that will define it through the rest of the signal chain. Overdrive/distortion is the most sensitive effect to playing dynamics and reacts poorly to the complex signals that it would receive from other pedals, especially time based pedals. Take note of what happens when you play one string on your guitar vs two strings with the overdrive/distortion turned on. The effect is often more marked when you play two close frequencies.

EQ* - Some players don’t like some of the frequencies that are accentuated or created by overdrive pedals, so they will place another EQ pedal after the overdrive for more control.

Wah* - When the wah is placed before the overdrive, the highs and lows are accentuated. If the wah is placed after the overdrive, it is much more controlled and subtle.

Volume* - Putting the volume pedal after the gain pedals helps the guitar tone to retain its

foundational tone as the volume pedal is employed. The input to the compression, EQ, wah, and overdrive remains the same, so the guitar will sound the same at lower volumes as it does at full volume.

  • 7. Chorus Putting pitch based effects before

the time based effects allows the time based pedals do more of the heavy lifting, which keeps the pitch based effects cleaner. Chorus goes first so that it clones a simpler sound than it

would receive later in the chain.

  • 8. Pitch Shift/Harmonizer/Octave many of

these pedals are hard to place because they are

rarely used together. While the gain based effects lay the foundation, time based effects are

usually desired on the “top layer” of the sound.

So we put the pitch based effects in the middle to let the time based effects do their job best.

  • 9. Phaser - The phaser effect is often used to

wash out the sound of other effects. Putting pitch based effects after the phaser would minimize its impact.

  • 10. Rotary/Vibrato Since the rotary simulates a

rotary speaker, it is put later in the chain. Again,

it is not used in conjunction with too many other pitch and time based effects, so its place in the chain is more subjective.

  • 11. Tremolo Since tremolo drops the guitar

volume or even mutes it, it is best not to have too many effects behind it that may color the lower level signal too much.

  • 12. Delay The delay pedal is best at repeating

the final sound of the guitar so that earlier effects aren’t forced to do twice or three times the work.

Putting delay at the end ensures that the repeats all sound the same as the original.

  • 13. Reverb Reverb gives space to the guitar

sound and fills in any empty places. If used at all with tremolo or delay, it will still allow those pedals to retain their character, especially if it is set to a lower effect level. Think of it as the garnish on top of the final sound.

Volume* - Some players place the volume at the end so they can control the level of the final sound without altering it at all; or they may use multiple volume pedals in any of the places listed.

Appendix

Tuner, Volume, and Boost Pedals

You may be wondering why I didn’t mention

tuner, volume and boost pedals in the first section. My reasons are twofold; 1- What these pedals do and how they work are very self explanatory. 2- These pedals do not change the tone of the guitar (ideally, though they both may

have a mild negative effect on the guitar’s

original tone.) Volume and boost pedals could be included in the gain based category.

True Bypass vs Buffered

When looking at pedals, you will often see effects that are billed as “true bypass.” This means that when the pedal is turned off, the signal is routed directly to the output jack, bypassing the effect

circuitry completely. Buffered pedals do not bypass the circuits when turned off, but instead

set the effect to “zero.” The advantage of true

bypass is that it yields a cleaner sound. Buffered pedals often color the guitar tone even when turned off. The advantage of buffered pedals is

that they help boost the signal in long pedal chains.