Guitar Effects Pedals for Beginners

As everyone knows, when you bake a cake you need some basic ingredients.  Well, if electric guitars are the flour, and guitar amps are the butter, then the sugary frosting that adds extra flavor and color are the effects pedals.  Often times, guitar effects pedals are the final sonic ingredients that allows guitar players to dial in their tone and find that perfect sound.  If you’re looking to learn about guitar effects pedals for beginners, then you’ve come to the right place!

guitar effects pedals for beginners

If you’ve read my article on guitar amps, then you’re probably are familiar with the basic differences between solid-state/digital modeling amps and analog tube/valve amps.  As a reminder, solid-state/digital modeling amps usually come loaded with built-in effects, similar to those found in effects pedals.  So players using those styles of amps generally don’t have too much use for them except if their amp is missing a specific effect that they desire.  So the larger audience of guitarists who are keenly interested in guitar effects pedals are those who play analog tube/valve amps that do not have all of their desired effects already built-in.

Does this mean that if you choose to buy an analog tube amp that you might end up wanting to also buy an effects pedal or two down the road?  Depending on your musical tastes, the answer is usually ‘yes’.  But don’t let that scare you because guitar effects pedals are super fun, not that expensive and they make your great sounding tube amp sound even better.  Virtually all professional guitarists use tube amps.  And virtually all of them have an assortment of effects to call upon when the time is right.

So now you may be asking yourself a series of questions, like:

  • What exactly are guitar effects pedals and how do I use them?
  • What different kinds of pedals are there and how do they affect my sound?
  • How do I know which effects pedals I need for my kind of music?
  • How do I know in what order to connect my pedals?
  • How do I choose between the endless possibilities of brands and models?

Like I’ve said in my previous articles on other essential guitar gear, I’ve spent countless hours playing and researching different guitar effects pedals.  And I am happy to share my extensive knowledge with you so you can choose wisely in creating the sound you’re looking for without busting too big of a hole in your wallet.  And now I’ll address each of the questions listed above one at a time and I’ll try to keep things simple.

Guitar Effects Pedals for Beginners – What Are Pedals and How Do I Use Them?

Guitar effects pedals are small electronic devices that plug-in between your guitar and the amplifier.  So instead of a single instrument cable going right from your guitar straight into your amp, multiple instrument cables are used.  The first cable connects from your guitar to the first effects pedal.  Then small patch cables are used between pedals and then another normal instrument cable connects from the last pedal directly to the amp.

Most guitar effects pedals have a robust built-in foot-switch that engages them in the electronic pedal chain that you’ve created.  Another name for guitar effects pedals are “stomp boxes” because a guitarist literally steps on or stomps on the button to engage or dis-engage the effect while they’re playing guitar.  In the picture shown below, the coiled cable coming from the guitar would plug into the white pedal in the upper right corner of the pedal board to complete the signal chain.

Guitar Effects Pedal Chain

Will you need to have eight pedals to find your sound as shown in the picture above?  The short answer is ‘no’.  And many guitarists only need one, two or three pedals to get started and find the tones they’re looking for.  Back to the baking analogy for a moment, if you also like to add sprinkles and other decorations on your cake to make it fancier or just because it’s fun, then you can add as many pedals as you can afford.  Like I said, these little boxes are fun and often serve as points of inspiration to keep you continuously excited about expanding your guitar horizons.

Guitar Effects Pedals for Beginners – Types of Pedals and Effects on Your Sound

If you thought that the number and types of guitars and amps available on the market was a lot, then be prepared when you enter the wacky world of guitar effects pedals.  Fortunately, while there are both “big brand” and “boutique” designers of guitar effects pedals out there, certain makes and models have risen to the top and have found continued success with guitarists over the years.  Those pedals are the ones I’ll try to stay focused on for purpose of this article.  The table below represents the basics types of guitar effects pedals, how they influence your sound and which types of music generally benefit from their inclusion.

Pedal TypeEffects on SoundPopular Genres / Examples
OverdriveOverdrive, fuzz and distortion pedals all simulate the sound of the guitar signal being driven too hard for the amplifier, causing it to break up, but in a musical way that sounds cool.Blues, Rock, Country, etc. Overdrive pedals are very versatile for a broad range of music and are usually among the very first pedals that a new guitarist will use.
FuzzFuzz pedals generally apply more effect than an overdrive pedal in terms of how much the signal is driven into the amp.Classic, Alt, Indie Rock. Some well-known examples include Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” and just about everything by The Black Keys.
DistortionDistortion pedals apply the most pronounced effect on the guitar signal.Hard Rockers and virtually all Heavy Metal guitarists rely on distortion pedals.
ReverbShort for reverberation, reverb pedals simulate the natural echo sounds that are automatically produced if you play in a large venue, like a church or concert hall.A touch of reverb can make almost any guitar tone sound fuller and more natural. Many quality tube amps come with reverb built-in, so if your does then you can skip this one.
CompressorThis effect normalizes the volume of sounds produces by clipping the louder notes and increasing the volume of quieter notes. This effect usually also has features to increase the sustain or length of time that a note can be heard through the amp.Compressor pedals are used by lots of guitarists, and are used in different forms in virtually all recording situations. They are also really popular among Country musicians. A Fender Telecaster into a compressor then a clean tube amp is country music paradise!
DelayThese pedals come in both analog and digital varieties but their purpose is generally the same: to produce discrete repetitions of your sound. Similar to reverb, delay effects add layers of echo, spatial and/or rhythmic sounds to your playing.Delay is used broadly in all kinds of music. Classic examples include Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Bad”.
WahThe wah or wah-wah pedal is named directly for the sound that it produces by filtering the frequencies heard and generating great voice-like and muted-trumpet tones. Instead of a simple on/off button, wah pedals have a large foot pedal that a guitarist pushes or pulls to varying degrees to control the amount that the effect is deployed.Rock and funk music is known for using the wah pedal, among many others. Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is maybe the most definitive song that simply wouldn’t sound the same without it. But plenty of other guitar greats including Jimmy Page, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Eric Clapton and Kenny Wayne Shepherd have used the wah pedal to great effect.
ChorusIf you like the simulated sound of many guitars being played at once, then a chorus pedal might be for you.Classic and modern pop. The Police song “Every Breath You Take” has a nice chorus effect.
Phaser /
Phasers and flangers are similar effects that produce swirly or whooshy sounds by splitting the signal and changing one of the signal paths. Phasers use phase delay on one of the split signals while flangers use time delay.Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. Van Halen’s epic “Eruption” is loaded with phaser effects while the song “Barracuda” by Heart uses a flanger on the famous guitar riff.
TunerTuners have no direct effect on your sound. Well, I guess you could say that staying in tune has a positive effect on your sound!All guitarists need to stay in tune, and pedal tuners allow you to do so while the guitar is muted, which is very handy when you’re on stage or jamming with friends.
LooperThese handy pedals have no direct effect on your sound, but their usefulness is their ability to start and stop recording whatever you play by simply stomping on the foot-switch button, then playback the sound continuously in a loop for as long as you like.Loopers are great for practicing your timing, such as strumming some chords to make a rhythm backing track and then practicing your solos over the resulting loop. It’s like having a friend over to play with you whenever you want.
Noise GateAll pedals can add unwanted noise to your sound, and this can be in the form of hissing or other unpleasant feedback. If you accumulate enough pedals in your chain or use pedals known to be noisy, such as fuzz pedals, then a noise gate might be worth your time and money.As their name suggests, they automatically mute any sounds below a certain decibel level, and if set properly can filter out the unwanted hiss and let all of your sweet tones ring through unaffected.

Guitar Effects Pedals for Beginners – Buffered Vs. True Bypass

One more technical bit that you’ll frequently read about as you browse the effects pedals online or in stores is the type of bypass that a pedal uses.  The two basic options are called buffered bypass and true bypass.  Is one technically better than the other?  Not really.  Can you screw up your signal chain if you don’t have the “right” one?  Unless you’re a complete tone snob, then I say, not really.  Ultimately, what’s right for you depends on a few factors.  Let me quickly explain what I’m talking about.

Because the electrical signal generated by the guitar’s pickups is relatively weak, it is impacted by the number and length of cables connecting it to the amplifier.  If you run a handful of pedals and patch cables between your guitar and the amp, then some of the high frequency tones are at risk of getting lost as the signal passes from device to device and cable to cable.  So the goal is to prevent that from happening.  And a buffer essentially helps to amplify and drive the signal to the amp without losing any of the tone.

It is important to note that whenever a particular pedal is turned on, it is generally buffering your guitar’s signal.  This buffer plays the role of driving whatever cables, effects or amplifier that follows downstream.  So really the difference lies in what the pedal is doing when it is turned off, or not engaged.

So it comes down to this:

  • Buffered bypass pedals continue to buffer the signal whether they’re turned on or off
  • True bypass pedals remove the pedal circuit completely when turned off so no buffering takes place until they’re turned on

At this point, it might seem logical to conclude that all pedals should have buffered bypass to prevent any signal loss between stages of the electrical chain.  And many people would agree with you and not worry about this issue any further.  However, some guitarists who are more particular about their tonal quality are worried that the “extra” buffering applied by pedals not in use are ever-so-slightly contaminating the signal and not allowing pure tonal clarity to pass through.

Taken to the extreme, if all of your pedals are of the true bypass variety, then you run the risk of losing the very tone you’re seeking to maintain in the first place.  So most practical guitarists have concluded that it makes good sense to have at least one or two pedals in your chain come with buffered bypass.  These pedals can sufficiently amplify the signal through the rest of your pedal chain, and if you want the rest to be true bypass, then go for it.  As usual, tonal happiness is usually found between either end of the extreme.

Which Guitar Effects Pedals Do I Need for My Kind of Music?

Don’t be intimidated by the fact that I just listed 12 different types of pedals.  Do you need one from each category?  Definitely not.  But if you wanted to take your first step into the world of effects pedals, where should you start?  Like I’ve mentioned in numerous other articles on Learn Love Guitar you should be guided by the type of music you love and your favorite artists or bands.  For the vast majority of pedal newbies, I recommend your first pedal to be one that creates overdrive/fuzz/distortion tones.  This is because most tube amps need to be pushed pretty hard in order to generate their own natural driven tones and you don’t always have the privacy to play that loudly.  A dirt box is the perfect place to get the signal gain you want without busting your ear drums.

In fact, when a lot of guitarists are ready for their second pedal, they often stay in the same family.  For example, if your first pedal was an overdrive and you love it to play hard rock like AC/DC, you may want to add a distortion pedal when you’re ready to bang your head with some heavy metal.  Once you’ve gotten your gain on, the next pedals after that are wide open for your choosing.

If you are more of a bedroom or basement player and the acoustics of your room don’t provide any sense of grandeur and your amp doesn’t include it, I’d recommend a reverb pedal.  They really add another dimension to your sound with their spatial effects.  Just about every song that is recorded by professional musicians includes some amount of reverb.  In my opinion, too much reverb can be a bad thing, but just the right amount adds tremendous weight and depth to your sound.

If you’re playing with your buddies in a garage or elsewhere, then I’d recommend a chromatic tuner pedal, because you will start to annoy your friends by tuning out loud with your iPhone in your hand.  If you’re usually playing guitar on your own and you have a separate tuner available to you, then you can probably skip this one.

If you love country music, then I’d recommend a compressor pedal sooner than later in your effects journey.  They help to deliver the crisp sustaining tones for which country music is so well known.  But know that use of compressors goes way beyond country.  The ability of a compressor pedal to level the sounds of the notes being played and increase the notes sustain make if kind of a secret weapon among beginning and intermediate guitarists.  Basically, compressor pedals automatically make you sound like a better guitar player and they make the most out of less-than-professional-grade guitars and amps.

If you’re really into more modern musical stylings or like experimenting in general then a delay or chorus pedal might just do the trick.  They can have slight, moderate or drastic effects on your sound depending on how you dial in all of the settings.

If you’re the studious type, and you really want to focus on your technique, timing and skill as a guitarist, then a looper pedal will be extremely valuable to you.  It helps you understand how rhythm and lead guitar playing work together to become more than the sum of their parts.  Looper pedals allow you to record a short string of chords and/or single notes, and play them back over and over while you play your guitar “on top” of the sounds you just recorded.

And if Eddie Van Halen happens to be your guitar hero, then you probably need to move the purchase of a phaser and/or flanger pedal higher up on your list because he used these effects brilliantly and extensively throughout his career.

Eddie Van Halen Playing Guitar

As I’ve said before, when it comes to guitar effects pedals, the musical world is your oyster and these little gems are intended to increase your fun, passion and inspiration for learning and loving to play guitar.

Guitar Effects Pedals for Beginners – Does the Order of Pedals Effect My Sound?

The short answer to this question is ‘yes’.  But explaining exactly why the order matters, and the effects it has on your sound if you move things around, would take me too long and I don’t feel that it’s required knowledge for you at this point.  Instead, I recommend that you trust the countless number of guitarists that have come before you and you follow the general “rules” that have been established up to this point.  Now that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t experiment, after all that’s part of the fun of pedals in the first place, but I’m just not going to bore you with the technical details right here.

Are you likely to have all twelve types of pedals shown in the diagram below?  No.  And you certainly don’t need to, now or likely ever.  But if you simply focus on the types of pedals that you do own, and you arrange them according to the diagram, then you’ll end up with a solid foundation from which you can further experiment with all of the cool dials on your pedals to catch the elusive perfect tone that all guitarists are in search of.

Guitar Effects Pedal Chain Order Sequence

  1. Tuner
  2. Wah
  3. Compressor
  4. Overdrive
  5. Fuzz
  6. Distortion
  7. Chorus
  8. Phaser/Flanger
  9. Noise Gate
  10. Delay
  11. Reverb
  12. Looper

If your guitar amp has a built-in FX loop, then you would want to connect the delay, reverb and looper pedals through that loop separately, but everything else stays the same.

How Do I Choose from the Endless Pedal Brands and Models?

Easy-peasy.  Check out my gear page for effects pedals where I reveal my top picks in each category.  And also check out my article on guitar accessories to figure out what cables you will need to hook up all of your fun little toys!