Guitar Effects Explained (Part 1 - Overview)
The topic of guitar effects is a huge one. There are many types of guitar effects available for guitar players, and players always seem to be searching for a better model. In this two-part blog I will give an overview of what effects are and then explain what each type of effect does and how they are typically used. I will also include some audio samples.
Effects Are Everywhere
Some guitarists say they don’t use effects, but unless they are playing an acoustic guitar unplugged, they are using effects. An amplifier of any type (acoustic or electric) is really a guitar effect — it affects your tone. We usually don’t think of amps as being effects but they really are. Amplifiers can take you from clean to high gain overdriven tones. Many amplifiers also have additional effects built-in, such as reverb or tremolo (some even have digital effects). They may not be pedals, but they are effects. Having said that, the focus on this article will mainly be effects pedals.
There are basically three main types of effects units: single effects pedals, multi-effects units, and rack effects units. Excluding rack units, most effects pedals are also affectionately called “stomp boxes” by guitar players because they sit on the floor and you step on their switches to turn them on and off or change sounds. Rack units are usually high-end gear mainly used in studios, although many pros have been known to tour with huge racks of gear. Most guitar players, however, tend to stick with floor units.
With single effects units you have the advantage of being to able to choose each effect type individually, so you can choose the best effects unit in each category to suit your tastes. The disadvantage is you usually are stuck with only one setting for each effect when playing live. To change settings, you have to squat down and physically turn knobs — not too cool during a gig.
Multi-effects units have the advantage of being programmable (most units) so you can create patches that contain multiple effects chains and settings that can be called up via footswitches. Plus the units are usually fairly compact. You can usually get by with just a single multi-effects on many gigs. The disadvantage is (depending on the multi-effects unit) you don’t get to choose the individual effects unit (or quality) or sometimes the order of effects. You get what’s in the box.
Rack mounted effects units are usually very high quality (and expensive) and offer many patches and significant programmability. The disadvantage is they require a separate rack unit to hold them and then some form of additional foot controller (usually MIDI) to control them when using them live.
There are probably as many different ways to setup effects as there are guitarists, but let’s look at some common ones. Probably the most common method of using effect is simply using a group of single effects units, in a chain, that run into the input of an amp. Many amps now feature an effects loop that places the effects after the preamp stage so the effects color the amp tone instead of the amp coloring the effects tone. Each has its own advantages. Try both and see which you like best.
If you gig on a regular basis, plugging in and unplugging several effects gets to be a hassle. At this stage many players get a dedicated pedalboard to which effects can be attached using Velcro strips and left plugged in. You then simply need to plug your guitar into the pedalboard and the pedalboard into the amp.
Multi-effects units can be a great "grab and go" solution for many gigs. You only need to take one unit and plug it into your amp. Done. Or you can add a few single effects such as a wah, volume pedal, or favorite distortion pedal.
Some pros use a rackmount system (usually including rack units and shelves with stompboxes) which are often kept backstage. They then use foot controllers (often custom made or MIDI) to control the effects. This is powerful, but also very expensive, requires a lot of programming, and is a lot of gear to haul around.
Effects units can, and often are, used individually, but the real magic starts when you begin to combine effects. Possibilities are nearly endless and it is quite fun to try different combinations out. Almost any clean effect sounds good when mixed with some overdrive. A little reverb or delay can make most effects sound even better. Try unexpected combinations and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Using effects will open up a whole new world of tonal colors and can be very inspiring. Why not start exploring.
[Part 2 of this article covers individual effects types. Each effect type will be explained, with audio examples.]