Newbie Series Part 6 : Effects Explained

The subject of guitar effects is far too complex to cover in a single post, so this article will serve as a very basic primer for new players. 

Effects come in a huge variety of different formats: individual pedals, multi-effects units, software based, amplifier based etc etc.  But how do you know which option is right for you as a beginner player?  Perhaps all you need is simply a couple of pedals in front of your amp, or maybe you need the choice and added features of a multi-effects unit, or perhaps you would benefit from the advantages of software based modelling.

Beginner Guide to Guitar EffectsAs a new player I would absolutely suggest picking up a budget multi-effects unit – either standalone or computer based. These will allow you to sample all of the different effects and give you a great understanding of how they all function and fit together.  The best way to learn is through testing – do it inexpensively with a multi-fx unit rather than with thousands of dollars worth of individual pedals!

Types of Effects

Let’s first take a quick look at some of the more popular types of effects to see what they do…

Chorus: The chorus effect is used to create very full, somewhat dreamy sounds.  It does this by creating a slightly detuned and delayed signal and playing it back with the original sound.

Compressor: A compressor basically averages out the signal produced by your guitar  It does this by boosting the quiet notes and reducing the louder ones.  This adds a more consistent, flowing feel to your sound.

Delay: When sound is reflected from a distant surface, a delayed version of the original signal is heard a short time later. Delay units electronically recreate this natural effect, by either analogue or digital means.

Distortion: Distortion pedals make your guitar sound….distorted..duh! Generally, this has come to mean everything from smooth tube overdrive to all manner of nasty, dirty, “my amp is exploding” tones.

Flanger: A flanger is another popular effect which adds a real ‘spacey’ kind of vibe to your sound.  It does this by creating a moving comb-filter effect that results in a sound with a series of ‘whooshes’.

Fuzz: Fuzz pedals emulate the sound of distortion from back when it was just beginning to be used. In the early days of distortion players would purposely blow out their speakers or even poke holes in them to achieve the effect.  Commonly associated with Jimi Hendrix, for example on songs such as Purple Haze.

Harmonizer: This is also known as a pitch-shifter. This effect has two main uses. It can enrich the sound of a guitar, using a harmonizer to add overtones which are in harmony with the original signal (sounds similar to chorus). The harmonizer can also generate a harmony note.

Octaver: This analogue effect (an early forerunner of the harmonizer) adds a single note either an interval of an octave above, or an octave below the original signal.

Overdrive: A more subtle type of distortion. Think of a blues guitar tone rather than a metal guitar tone.

Phaser: The sweeping, swooshing sound produced by a phaser is similar to a flanger but more subtle.

Reverb: Reverb is the effect of sound bouncing around a room or space. It’s the reason that you spend so much more time singing in the shower than you do in the lounge.  By applying reverb to your tone you will sound as if you are playing in a much larger room.

Tremolo: This is a rapid, continuous up/down change in volume. It comes built-in to many guitar amps and is used commonly in country and surf music.

Wah: This is a foot operated pedal which can be used to create a talking effect with your guitar. With the pedal flat a very high treble sound is produced and as it is raised the tone will become more bassy.

Multi Effects Units

As a beginner you’re probably anxious to try out all of the different effects above and then some. A very costly endeavour to undertake, and where to start!? If you’re taking your first tentative steps into the world of guitar effects then a much more money efficient option is a multi-fx unit.  These will generally contain the majority of the effects listed above, enabling you to sample each one and find out which you like the best. As a bonus, multi-fx units will often contain other useful features such as a built-in metronome and tuner.  You can absolutely use one of these units in place of an amp while you learn the ropes, all you need is a pair of headphones.

Guide to Guitar and Bass EffectsIn some of the examples listed below I’ve included versions of the units with and without expression pedals.  The addition of an expression pedal will allow you to control parameters such as volume, wah or whammy effects with your foot.

Popular Multi Effects Under $100

Popular Multi Effects Under $200

Computer Based Effects

An excellent alternative option to floor based effects is a computer based unit.  These are generally hardware interfaces that connect your computer via USB, with the processing being handled by your computer through specially designed software.

Computer Based Guitar EffectsThe main disadvantage to using these types of unit is that you must always be at your computer for them to function. However the much larger interfaces provided by the software are far easier to use and more in-depth than the fiddly menus on a standalone effects unit. You also have the big advantage of everything being in one place. For example…

  • Want to jam along to your favorite song?  Fire up iTunes or YouTube!
  • Need a backing track in E Minor?  Load up a backing track website!
  • Unsure how to sound like Hendrix?  Download a Hendrix patch!
  • Need to record a new riff?  You’re already hooked up and ready to go!

Good examples include the Studio Series from Line 6, Amplitube from IK Multimedia, GuitarRig by Native Instruments and ReValver from Peavey.

Many of these products will only include the software, which means that you will also need to buy an additional interface to connect your guitar to the computer.  For this reason I highly recommend the Line 6 POD GX to new players, as it comes with everything you need right out of the box, i.e interface, cables and software. I have personally used one of these in one form or another for more than a decade now as my practice tool of choice – a great product for less than $100.

Smartphone/Tablet Based Effects

As above, but swap the computer for your phone! If you own a compatible phone or tablet there are many interfaces which will allow you to use your device as a full blown digital audio workstation.

Play Guitar on Your Phone or TabletPopular Examples

  • Apogee Jam Studio – link
  • IK Multimedia Amplitube iRig – link
  • IK Multimedia iRig HD – link
  • Line 6 Sonic Port – link

Hopefully that wasn’t too complicated!  Next up in this series..accessories!

Part One : Tips Before You Buy
Part Two : Beginner Electric Guitars
Part Three : Beginner Acoustic Guitars
Part Four : Beginner Bass Guitars
Part Five : Amps
Part Six : Effects
Part Seven : Accessories
Part Eight : Lessons

8 replies
    • Neal
      Neal says:

      You can yes, whether or not you should is up to you and the type of sound you're after. You will find specific multi-fx units for bass. For example I listed the Digitech RP series multi-fx above, but their bass range is called the BP series, e.g. the BP50.

    • Thomas
      Thomas says:

      yeah dude look up cliff burton he did it all with frickin distortion to wah-wah to a combo of those hes was amazing

  1. Ross Byron
    Ross Byron says:

    Very helpful I must say been playing acoustic for a long time with diffrent tuning recently bought a boss me 50 multi effects pedal and this article allowed me to navigate the sound i was looking for for the content of my songs

  2. Tera Gerner
    Tera Gerner says:

    Wow, what a thorough guide! Awesome, and so very resourceful. Thanks for the excellent work, I am gonna link up to your guide from my guitar effects pedals blog


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