Guitar Effects Explained (Part 2 - Effects)
In Part 1 of this blog I gave an overview what effects are. I will now explain some of the more common individual effects and provide some audio examples. [Note: the included images are just typical examples of effects pedals in each category. Most audio examples were recorded using Guitar Rig, not the units shown.]
First off I need to mention that there is a category of effects I will call “overdrive” effects where descriptive labels often overlap so it can be confusing. They are essentially effects that simulate amplifier tubes being overdriven to create distortion. These type of effects are can be called: distortion or overdrive or fuzz or metal. And the label is usually based on the amount of gain they produce.
The distortion effect was first created back in the 1950's by overdriving the tubes of a guitar amplifier, usually by turning an amp all the way up. This caused the guitar signal to distort or "break up." While this effect was originally considered bad by amp manufactures, early rock players found it exciting since it provided a new tone for the electric guitar's sonic palette. A tone that had an edge and power that fit perfectly with the new type of rock playing that appeared in the 1960's. As amplifier manufacturers embraced distortion, they began adding more gain to their amps, which resulted in more distortion and lead to styles such as metal and shredding. Pedals have been created to simulate all these types of distortion.
When describing guitar pedals, the term "Distortion" usually describes an analog or solid state type of distortion which is a harsher type of distortion than tube distortion but still more amp-like than fuzz pedals.
Distortion pedals are normally used to simulate overdriven tube amplifiers. They can also be use with tube amplifiers to produce higher gain tones. Distortion effects are common in almost every style of popular music.
These pedals attempt to accurately reproduce tube-type distortion. Some even use real preamp tubes in their circuitry. These pedals are often used in conjunction with a tube amp to push the amp into higher gain tones for solos, or with clean tube amps for a crunchy rhythm tone.
When describing guitar pedals, the term "Overdrive" usually describes an a smooth tube-like distortion.
Overdrive pedals are normally used to simulate overdriven tube amplifiers. They can also be use with tube amplifiers to produce higher gain tones or lead tones.
The first type of distortion pedals were fuzz boxes. They produced a distorted tone that allowed guitar players to play singing leads. Like the name says, the tone was more "fuzz" than tube distortion, sounding like a damaged speaker cone. Still, fuzz pedals can be heard on countless recordings from the 60's (think of the opening guitar riff in the Rolling Stone's I Can't Get No Satisfaction or just about any of Jimi Hendrix's riffs.) Fuzz pedals remain popular today.
When describing guitar pedals, the term "Fuzz" usually describes a harsh, buzzy type of distortion invented in the 1960's to distort clean amps.
Fuzz pedals are normally used to create a fuzzy lead guitar tone, or classic 60's riffs, or a sputtering rhythm tone.
The chorus effect is created by delaying a signal and slightly detuning it, then mixing it with the original signal to create a thicker, more spacious sound. Chorus ruled the pedalboards back in the 1980’s thanks to New Wave music and bands like The Police.
Chorus is usually used with clean tones, but can be added to distortion for a thicker distortion with a unique tone. Try it with muted arpeggios for a cool effect.
The original flanger effect was produced back in the 1960’s by recording to two tape deck simultaneously and mixing the result. As they were recording, an audio engineer would lightly touching the flange of one the reels of tape. When it played back, it created a swooshing effect similar to what you hear when a jet airplane takes off. Stomp boxes use a delay effect to create a similar sound.
The flanger is most often used sparingly to add a swooshing effect for a brief time. It is also used during single note solos with distortion.
A phaser uses a filter to sweep the frequency range of the audio input and mixes that with the original audio signal. When the signals are mixed the portions that are out of phase (or out of alignment with each other) cancel out and produce a swirling, shoowsy sound. This effect was very popular in the 1970’s and heard on countless recordings of the era in nearly every musical style.
Phasers can add some nice motion to clean strumming. A phaser can also be mix with wah when you want to get funky. When used with distortion, you get a nice Robin Trower/Jimi Hendrix/Pink Floyd mood going. Phasers are also great for single note soloing in a rock setting.
The tremolo effect is a fluctuation in the guitar signal’s volume. By lowering and then raising the volume of the guitar you get a very cool effect. As you adjust the rate of the volume change you get faster fluctuations in volume. Tremolo is one of the early effects found on some guitar amplifiers, though it was often mislabelled "vibrato." Vibrato is a variation in pitch, not volume.
Often use in roots style music for slow moody single note runs, or with distortion for chords. You can also turn the rate up to get a cool choppy sound that works great with held out chords.
Rotary Speaker Simulator
The rotary speaker effect is based on an actual rotating speaker system invented by Donald Leslie called the Leslie speaker. It was often paired with a Hammond organ, but in the 60’s guitar players also began using it for the unique tone and effect it gave the guitar. The original Leslie speaker cabinet used a two speaker system with a rotating horn and bass woofer drum. This created a cool, swirling effect where the music seemed to move around the room. Obviously, guitar pedals can only simulate this rotatary effect, which can be enhanced with a stereo amp setup. Of course you could use an actual Leslie speaker (or one of the newer competitors), but costs are high and it requires lugging around an extra speaker cabinet.
Mainly used with single note arpeggios or occasionally on lead guitar. Think of the guitar break in Badge by Cream or While My Guitar Gently Weeps by the Beatles.
Also called a “wah-wah pedal”, the wah was one of the earliest effects designed for guitar players and has remained popular ever since. Basically, a wah uses a pedal and filter to sweep the tonal range from bass to treble, creating a vocal like “wah” sound. Some players also use them as a tone control leaving the pedal set at different settings to get different tones.
Wahs are often used to add a vocal sound to single notes. They also can be used to create funky rhythm parts, especially when used with muted strings. They work equally well with clean or distorted tones. Practically all of the rock guitar heroes (and many keyboard players as well) of the 1960’s and 70’s used them.
Echo is a naturally occurring effect. Since the first days of recording, men have attempted to create an artificial method of duplicating this effect. The first attempt were echo chambers (or rooms) that created a “natural” echo. These rooms still exist at some recording studios. Tape echo effects came next, offering portability and variable rates of echo. These units were often noisy, but are still favored for their warm echo tone. Analog delays solved the problems inherent with tape (bad tubes, noisy tape, and misaligned or worn out tape heads) but had limitations in the length of their delay. Finally, digital delays appeared in the 1980s and offered more delay time and added features, but also came with a more sterile sounding tone. Many digital delays now simulate tape, analog, and digital delays
The uses for delays are almost unlimited. You can add a bit of echo to your solo or create rhythmic delays with just a few notes. The Edge from U2 created a whole style of playing based on delay effects. Delay pedals also created a “spin off” pedal called the “Looper” which uses delays to create repeating loops of audio that can be layered.
There are many variations on these basic effects. But this should get you started.