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.
As 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.
In 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.
Best Multi Effects Pedal Under $100
On a budget, my top picks would be one of either the Zoom G1ON or Zoom G1XON which are around $50 and $70 respectively. These affordable multi-effects pedals have the exact same features, with the obvious exception of the G1XON having a built-in expression pedal to allow you to control effects such as wah, whammy and volume. Of course not everyone will need the expression pedal, but if you think you might like to use effects such as wah, then for an extra $20 the G1Xon is a no-brainer.
Each unit features 100 effects and amp models, 5 of which can be used simultaneously. They have a built-in drum machine (metronome) featuring almost 70 different patterns for you to practice along with at your own speed. An accurate tuner ensures you are always playing at perfect pitch. Another awesome feature is the built-in looper, which allows you to record up to 30 seconds of high quality audio. A headphone jack allows for quiet practice. Unbelievably at this price, both units also include a well-lit LCD screen for easy navigation of the menu system. An auxilliary input on the back allows you to connect a music source, to allow you to jam to your favorite songs.
Check out this excellent overview and demo video from our friends over at GuitarWorld magazine.
These two really have everything you’ll ever need in one tidy little package – and all for less than the price of most single effects pedals!
Best Multi Effects Pedal Under $200
You might be starting to think that Zoom sponsored this article, but it isn’t true guv! They just happen to make some of the best ‘bang-for-your-buck’ products at the moment. If you have a little more cash to spend then my top two recommendations are the brand new Zoom G3N and Zoom G3XN. As with the G1on above, both of these pedals are identical, save for the fact that the G3XN has an expression pedal. The build quality is much higher than on the G1on and they have plenty of extra bells and whistles to help justify the higher price tag.
Both units include 70 different high quality effects, 5 amp and 5 cab emulators, and the ability to chain 7 of them together in any order. Other key features include a built-in tuner, drum machine, looper with up to 80 seconds of recording. Three large LCD displays with corresponding footswitches and knobs makes it easy to view and edit multiple effects at a glance.
Check out a demonstration video of both units here.
Like the G1on above, the units can be powered via 4 AA batteries, but a 9V power supply is also included.
A key selling point of both of these multi-effects systems is that they can be plugged into your computer via USB to act as a recording interface! So once you get a little more advanced, either or these can be used to easily record your first masterpiece. As a bonus they come bundled with download licenses for Cubase LE, a very popular piece of recording software.
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.
The 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.
Hopefully that wasn’t too complicated! Next up in this series..accessories!
Still have questions? Feel free to send me an email and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!
Part One : Tips Before You Buy
Part Two : Beginner Electric Guitars
Part Three : Beginner Acoustic Guitars
Part Four : Beginner Bass Guitars
Part Five : Beginner Classical Guitars
Part Six : Amps
Part Seven : Effects
Part Eight : Accessories
Part Nine : Lessons