Guitar Pedal Buying Guide - Best Buy Canada

August 28, 2012

Things to Consider When Shopping for a Guitar Pedal

Guitar pedals are used to alter and customize the sound of your instrument, and to make new and different noises. Whether you want to sound like one of your guitar heroes, or prefer to develop your own unique groove, there's a pedal that can help you get there.

When you learn to play guitar, your lessons are usually filled with the basics — guitar chords, strumming, and picking are high on the list, but when you’re ready to imitate your idols or want to create your own sounds, a guitar pedal from Line 6, Dunlop or Ernie Ball is the way to go. Read on to learn more about what a guitar pedal can do for you.

All guitar pedals fall into one of several design categories:

Stomp Box

A typical stomp box offers one effect. To get more than one effect you will need to buy multiple pedals or one multi-effect pedal. A stomp box is usually a 3″ or 4″ square box with a large steel button on the top. By stepping on this button you can turn the effect on or off.

Foot Treadle

A foot treadle looks like a car gas pedal. By moving your foot down or up you can create a change in your guitar sound. This movement along with the pedal design gives you continuous control over the effect.

Effect Pedals

These pedals tend to be larger floor units with big buttons that players can easily push with their feet. Sometimes more than one effect is included.

Remember that different pedals possess different characteristic tones, so make sure to test-drive a few before you buy.

Overdrive/Distortion Pedals

Commonly used on rhythm guitar parts, distortion boosts, or used to thicken the incoming guitar signal to produce a heavier and meatier sound. Once considered undesirable, guitar players have now come to embrace these pedals as a way to increase the amount of sustain for each note.

  1. Distortion: One of the most popular pedals in modern guitar styles and often used in punk and heavy metal, you can produce sounds that range from smooth and melodic to harsh and jagged. Most distortion pedals feature similar intensity and tone controls but don't share the exact same sounds. It's a good idea to try out several models.
  2. Overdrive: Although the sounds produced by overdrive pedals are not as aggressive as those produced by distortion pedals, overdrive can help warm and broaden a rhythm guitar or fatten up the signal for solos. Heard most often in blues, country and alternative rock, overdrive sounds like a tube amplifier breaking up.
  3. Fuzz: Think back to the sounds of the late '60s and you'll find the fuzz effect in many recordings. The Rolling Stones used it in "Satisfaction" and Jimi Hendrix used it in "Star Spangled Banner." A fuzz pedal emulates the sound of distortion in its early stages. The effect adds a thickness to the sound that makes it well suited to intros or guitar solos.

Wah Pedals

The classic wah-wah sound has been used by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. It shifts and filters the tones from the incoming guitar signal and can be used to emphasize certain frequency ranges.

  1. Wah: The wah pedal is a foot treadle that looks similar to the gas pedal found in your car. As you rock your foot forward on the pedal the sound becomes more trebly, and as you rock back the trebles are muted. You can change the wah's tone constantly while you play, making this pedal a very dynamic option in your sound effect arsenal.
  2. Auto-Wah: The sound effect is basically the same as a wah peddle but without the actual foot treadle. Instead, the effect is controlled by the volume of the input signal. The challenge is learning to adjust your playing technique to make and control a consistent sound. Most auto-wahs let you adjust the attack time and the depth of cycle.

Delay Pedals

For all delay effects the incoming guitar signal is split into two identical signals. One of those signals plays in real time while the other is held back for a brief moment. The signals are then mixed back together to produce a delay output. Depending on the setting, the effect can be subtle or substantial.

  1. Echo: Also referred to as long delay, this pedal creates the same effect as when you yell in an empty room and your voice appears to bounce back to you. If you set the delay long enough, you can play against the notes you already played in harmony. Echo controls let you determine the level, the period between playbacks and the delay.
  2. Looper: A looper works like other delay pedals but the repeat time of the echoed signal can be much longer and can repeat for extended periods of time. Some loopers even have an option to save loops for playback later, allowing you to build up songs. Looping has a fairly steep learning curve for the beginner.

Modulation Filter Pedals

An easy way to distinguish modulation from other effects is to think of it as less natural-sounding than delay pedals. Some parts of the signal, specifically frequencies and amplitudes, are altered while other parts aren't. Here are a few considerations.

  1. Chorus: This is the most widely used modulation effect and is also one of the most, if not the most, subtle. It takes the incoming guitar signal and plays it back with the original, adding a thickness and lushness to the sound as if more than one guitar is playing. Although it can be used for solos, chorus is more often used for rhythm.
  2. Flange: Similar to the chorus effect, the signal is split in two. A short delay is added to the second signal and then mixed back in with the original. This delay has several repeats, and the time of the repeats are lengthened and shortened at a steady adjustable rate. The end result is a sound that is thicker than the chorus effect. The Queen song "Keep yourself Alive" is a great example of this effect.
  3. Phase: On the modulation filter spectrum, a phase effect sits between the extremes of the flange and the glossiness of the chorus. A phaser shifts your guitar slightly in time to create swishing or swooping sounds, but it can also produce jet engine-like sounds more suited to loud and aggressive music (think Van Halen).
  4. Vibrato: The entire signal's frequency is modulated to create a slightly out-of-tune sound. It subtly raises and lowers the pitch of the note or notes being played. To generate the effect you normally shake your fret hand or use the vibrato bar on your guitar.
  5. Tremolo: Tremolo only modulates the volume portion of the guitar signal to rapidly raise or lower the volume level — loud then soft, loud then soft. Often used in the '50s for rockabilly, surf and other music, it creates a kind of spacey sound. A more recent example is Pink Floyd's “Money.”

Reverb Pedals

A close relative of the delay pedal family, reverb is considered the most natural of effects and makes it sound as if you're playing in a large room or hall.

  1. Signal: Whether you are playing, singing or just talking, every noise is naturally reflected by walls, ceilings, floors and furniture. When your guitar outputs a reverb signal into a space it is reflected again many times over to a point where the ears can no longer recognize the echo — this is reverb.
  2. Purpose: Reverb reproduces part of the incoming guitar signal to make your guitar sound thicker or richer by simulating natural reflections of the room where you are playing. Reverb can copy the reverberation sounds for small or large rooms, and other sustained reverberation sounds. Most dedicated reverb units give you several options.
  3. Sound: There are many good examples of reverb in everyday life. Imagine how your voice sounds in a concrete stairway or when you sing in the bathroom. Reverb thickens your sound and softens it at the same time to make it seem like you're playing in a large hall. Heavy reverb has a tendency to sound bad, so this effect should be used wisely.

Graphic Equalizer Pedals

Commonly used on rhythm guitar parts, distortion boosts, or used to thicken the incoming guitar signal to produce a heavier and meatier sound. Once considered undesirable, guitar players have now come to embrace these pedals as a way to increase the amount of sustain for each note.

  1. Purpose: A graphic equalizer (EQ) is the most common EQ used by guitar players. By sliding levers up or down you can increase or reduce specific frequencies. These levers, referred to as bands, normally cover a range from 20Hz (hertz) to 20kHz (kilohertz), which is approximately the range heard by the human ear.
  2. Sound: EQ makes a dramatic difference in the sound quality of a guitar, so you'll need to experiment to discover what sound works best for you. Metal players for instance achieve their sound by eliminating or reducing all the middle frequencies. Some players also use graphic EQ to reduce feedback caused by certain frequencies and venue locations.
  3. Band Size: The more bands there are, the more accurate your adjustments can be. Graphic EQs are available in several sizes ranging from 5 bands all the way up to 31. Because units with more bands tend to go up in price and can cause more noise in your sound, look for one that only has the frequencies you will use.

Compression Pedals

They may not make the most interesting or fun noises compared to the rest of the guitar pedals, but compression pedals can certainly improve the quality of your final signal and sound.

  1. Purpose: Compressors are used most often in pro audio recording and production, and for performing live. Their main job is to deliver an even volume output: they make the soft parts louder and the loud parts softer.
  2. Sound: The pedal compresses the incoming guitar signal to produce a more balanced dynamic range of sound. Especially helpful when playing a low-volume passage, it keeps the quieter sounds from getting lost in the rest of the music. At the same time, it also keeps louder passages from drowning out everything else.
  3. Sustain: A compression pedal can also increase sustain by increasing the signal as the note fades, but without distortion. When you play, you hear the notes last for a longer period of time. Typically, compressors let you control what's called the threshold (upper and lower limits) and the knee, which is the speed at which the signal is raised or lowered.
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Take the Next Step

When you want to change the sound of your playing, a guitar pedal can make all the difference. Check out a wide selection of compression, distortion, reverb, delay, and wah pedals from great brands such as Line 6, Dunlop, and Ernie Ball. In-store or online, Best Buy can help you find the one that’s right for you.

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