UG Picks: Five Effects Pedals That Every Guitarist Should Own

A quick and easy guide on must-have pedals for every guitarist.

Ultimate Guitar

In the previous article we focused on best beginner guitars for under $200. But for newbies, as well as more experienced players, the world of guitar pedals can be a minefield. There are thousands of foot-switches and stomp-boxes on the market that can distort, modify or modulate your guitar tone in some way and working out what you want in your guitar rig can be an overwhelming experience.

With this list, I've broken it down to the basics; five pedals that I think every guitarist should have in their rig that will work to enhance your guitar tone. If you're wanting to expand your guitar rig with some effects, but don't know where to start, you could do a lot worse than to look through these.

Rather than recommend specific pedals here, I've instead given a run down of what the effect does more generally, and how it can help your tone. While I've listed some of my favorite pedals for each effect that I highly recommend trying out, your best bet when it comes to finding the pedal for you is to experiment.

Take a look at what your guitar influences are using, what your friends are using. Find a good local guitar shop, and spend a few hours trying the different pedals on offer. A good instrument retailer should understand the importance of finding the right tone, and will be more than happy to let you wile away an afternoon demoing their stomp box selection.

So without further ado, here are my top five pedal choices.


Distortion has been long established as one of the most important sounds in rock music. Birthed when bluesmen and rock and rollers began deliberately increasing the gain on their amplifiers beyond the intended levels in the 1950s, the effect would become commonplace in rock by the 1960s, when Jim Marshall began modifying the electric circuits on his namesake amplifiers to create the "brighter, louder" distortion sound that we all know today.

So common is distortion in rock music that pretty much every guitar amplifier manufactured these days will have the effect built in to it. Indeed, if you already have a distortion unit integrated into your amp, you might wonder why you'd need a standalone pedal for it in the first place.

The reasons for adding an additional distortion unit to your rig are twofold. Firstly, unless you've got the capital to spent big bucks on a high end tube amp, the chances are that your gain tones are going to be somewhat lacking. A pedal is going to give you better quality distortion sounds than your amp can manage and is probably going to be more versatile as well.

Even if you're happy with the dirty tones that you're getting out of your amplifier, having an additional pedal in your arsenal is going to give you more options sonically, which is great for creating a fuller guitar sound when on stage. Arm yourself with a transparent overdrive pedal (a pedal which doesn't shift the natural balance and equalization on your amplifier) and you've got a great booster if you want to push your amplifier's natural tones over the edge.

Recommended pedals:

The Ibanez Tube Screamer is rightly regarded as classic, although its characteristic boost in the midrange doesn't make it very transparent. If you're looking to use something that will work with your amp's EQ settings, then check out a Paul Cochrane Timmy Overdrive.

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To many guitarists, the mention of delay pedals seems to evoke either images of Dave Gilmour guitar soloing or the characteristic, effect drenched riffs of U2's The Edge. While those uses of the effect are awesome, you might question what delay can for you if you're not in a classic prog quartet or an Irish stadium rock band.

The thing with delay is that it is also useful for subtly adding texture to your guitar playing. While the most famous instances of the effect's usage have typically been overt (the aforementioned U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name", Eddie Van Halen's "Cathedral"), pull the delay time knob right down and you'll find that your guitar playing suddenly has a fuller, more three-dimensional quality.

This of course, is awesome for playing live, where your goal is to try and immerse the audience in your music as much as possible. Chances are that most of the people in the crowd won't even notice that you're using the effect. What they will notice though, is the richness of your tone, and how huge your band's music seems to sound as a consequence. Of course, if you want to drop a blistering, endlessly delaying Gilmour style guitar solo into your set, it's great for that as well.

Recommended pedals:

Boss's Digital Delay DD-3 is a great pedal that won't break the bank. If you're looking for something a bit more high end, MXR's analogue Carbon Copy is a modern classic.

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Aside from distortion, this one is probably the most famous guitar effect in history. Initially created by accident during an attempted redesign of the Vox Super Beatle amplifier in 1966, the pedal went on to become the effect de riguer for lead guitarists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Testament to its enduring status in rock music, you've only got to look at the roll call of guitar luminaries who are noted wah users; Jimmy Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Slash, Tom Morello, Kirk Hammett... the list goes on and on.

There's a reason that the use of wah pedals are so ubiquitous amongst legendary guitar players. When used correctly the effect of the wah is to add an almost vocal-like quality to guitar sounds. This expressiveness is particularly effective for elevating your lead playing. Well utilized wah during a solo or lead guitar section can transform that section from and exercise in guitar wankery to standout moment of your set that is emotive and resonant for your audience. It worked Hendrix, Slash and Hammett, and it's probably good enough for you.

Recommended pedal:

These days, there are more wah pedals out there than you can shake a stick at. While there are many great variations and signature models out there, you could do a lot worse than going with a classic Dunlop Cry Baby.

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Chorus is one of those effects that people seem to either love or loathe. I think that part of the reason it gets a bad rep is because it makes things sound really naff if overused. Mention chorus to a number of guitarists and it will conjure images of saccharine, over produced eighties pop-rock; the sort of thing that seems completely at odds to good ole down-and-dirty rock and roll. Yet, I'd recommend the pedal to any guitarist, so long as they know how to use it.

The key to getting the most out of your chorus pedal is not overdoing it. Use it too much, and you're in for an all-out-cheese fest. If applied with restraint, though, chorus can have much the same effect as delay; adding a three-dimensionality to your sound that enriches your guitar tone.

In particular, I find that the subtle application of chorus is great way to give some depth to your clean sounds when playing live. When properly implemented, it is an excellent tool for preventing quieter sections from sounding hollow or flat. Don't believe me? Take a listen to the intro from Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and hear the effect that properly applied chorus can have.

Recommended pedal:

The Electro-Harmonix Neo Clone is an easy to use pedal that delivers a great sound.

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Chromatic Tuner

OK, this one isn't actually an effects pedal. In fact it doesn't really do anything other than help you to tune your guitar. Because it's function is largely practical, I think that the humble tuning pedal often gets overlooked. But, I'm including it here because it is one of the most important tools for a guitarist to have in their live rig. If you don't have one, it's going to have a serious impact on your live performance.

The reason to have this pedal in your rig is simple; when you play live, your guitar needs to be in tune. Regardless of how good you are, if your guitar is out of tune, what you're playing will sound like sh-t. However, listening to a guitarist spend several minutes between songs turning up his or her instrument is no fun for anyone in the audience. Several times, I've found myself watching local bands quickly derailing the momentum of what was an otherwise promising set by taking an age to try and tune their instruments by ear on stage.

In a worst case scenario, I once watched a guitarist attempting to tune his guitar on stage using the microphone from a pocket tuner. Between amp feedback and audience noise this was an exercise in futility and an incredibly boring experience for the crowd in attendance. By the end of his several minute tuning debacle, a sizable portion of the audience had lost interest in the music and decamped to the bar. Infuriatingly, when the band finally started their next number, the guitar was still out of tune.

Chromatic tuning pedals make tuning quick, easy and discreet when you're playing a show. They mute your instrument so that the crowd isn't subjected to the sound of endlessly twanging string as you tune (this also means that they double as a makeshift kill switch, which is great for achieving maximum impact during guitar-less breakdowns or stops) and allow for a far greater degree of accuracy than tuning by ear. It might not be as exciting as a wah or a delay pedal, but you need one of these in your rig.

Recommended pedal:

There are plenty of tuning pedals out there, but you can always go with the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner which is an incredibly reliable piece of kit.

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So, those are our picks. But, as always, I should stress that this list is just an opinion (although having said that, I do think that it should be made mandatory for every guitarist who performs live to own a chromatic tuner pedal).

Share your experience with other readers in the comments, and let us know what your top picks are when it comes to guitar pedals.

By Alec (C) 2014

62 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good article! I'm currently working on my effects and that's exactly what I needed. I'm a little dissapointed that you didn't discuss the differences between distortion and overdrive though.
    No it isn't. Compiling a list of effects pedals on a guitar website is a pretty acceptable thing. In fact, this is one of the better UG articles of late. Everyone else seems to enjoy it, too.
    dear newbies, there are very few distortion pedals that sound as good as an amp's lead channel, and they all cost roughly the same as an amp themselves. use a tubescreamer or a boss sd-1 as a boost (no gain) into your amo's lead channel to give it some more juice and tighten it up.
    I'd argue that amps are a bit more expensive.
    Way Cool JR.
    Not to mention using a Tube Screamer or SD1 as a boost only works good on tube amps (which he failed to mention). But using them as a distortion can actually work really well on an SS or modeler amp. That is basically what they were designed for in the first place, to emulate an overdriven tube amp. Using them as a boost on a tube amp is just a cool bonus.
    I used to be quite into distortion pedals myself, and the problem is they are also basically dependent on how good the amp is. A great distortion pedal is going to be seriously held back by a bad amp. Therefore it's generally a good idea to focus on your amp for your "primary" distortion, but pedals are great for having more sound options. E.g. personally I use my amp for thick metal distortion since that's what I use 3/4 of the time, but also got a pedal for a slightly more "vintage" warmer distortion.
    Depends entirely on the use. This is like saying "don't use clean channel, it sounds like butts".
    If I remember correctly, Maxon, who originally made the Tube Screamers for Ibanez, offers the pedal under their own brand. (They're a bit cheaper as well, at least where I live) Supposedy, they come a bit closer to the older TS models. Any thoughts? Also, digital delay or analog delay?
    Maxon is usually more expensive then ibaneZ around here. The ibanez ts5 is very close to the ts7, ts9 and 808. The maxon is a little closer to the original, but the ehx green river or whatever it's called is more accurate than both. It's also cheaper than the maxon or ibanez. Analog delay vs digital depends on application. Analog delays are usually less pristine and have less features, but the usually darker repeats tend to mix well with the original signal in a way that digital delays rarely do. Check out the tc flashback and mxr carbon copy got a decent modrange pedal. The tc is digital, the mxr analog. Check out the strymon pedals if you want to see top notch digital that can emulate analog and has a tonne of features. Check out the ehx memory man for high quality analog delay
    The Maxon is actually nothing like the the original. AnalogMan and others have said its circuit is most like the TS-10, which is the redheaded step child of the old tube screamers (but its the one SRV and John Mayer use(d) so shrug).
    Thanks a lot! I'm just asking around about delays and stuff, since I can't seem to get an ambient guitar tone out of my Digitech RP500. (You know, lots of reverb, delay, octave fx, expression pedals and whatnot) Setting up a rig though, with all those pedals, is way out of my budget right now.
    I was actually hoping this list would just say: "You need a tuner, that's it." I'm a pretty big effect-freak but you don't need any if you got a good amp with a good clean and dirt channel (if you need dirt) and your playing and songwriting are good enough you can do anything with a guitar that's properly tuned.
    Way Cool JR.
    There is some music that sounds great without any effects, just plugged straight to the amp. But if you play a lot of covers that were originally written with effects, and don't use any, it sounds like complete crap without them. So a properly tuned guitar with a great amp plugged straight in is far from being the end all be all for everything, not by a long shot. If you wright your music that way, and cover music that was written that way, then great. Otherwise effects are the spice of life when it comes to guitar driven music.
    Use a Multipedal: saves a lot of money for the same fun. It got everything on this list and even more. But you must choose wisely: Not every multipedal makes a good effect to your sound. Another great effect pedal is the Octaviser. I can play with this effect all day long!
    Hence My Name
    Yeah, multi-fx pedal is good for experimenting with sounds. I have the Zoom G3X and it provides me with 100s of effects, a 40 second looper, built in audio interface, expression pedal, tuner, and some what more can you ask for?
    Danjo's Guitar
    I dunno man, I feel like multi-effect pedals are great for that beginning period of playing guitar where your idea of a guitar solo is just throwing a delay, phaser, flanger, and whatever other nonsense on and playing something that would sound awful without all the effects. Once you get past that whirlwind of bullshit I think working with individual pedals gets you a better sound, partly because of quality, but also because you take more time to get acquainted with the nuances of the effect/pedal.
    Dr Sin
    Chorus? Really? Have managed to go years without one so far! I'd have put a fuzz on here. Big Muff probably. Or compressor...
    I've found them to be a ton of fun when playing noisy, feedback-laden parts. They can add a unique depth which fleshes out the sound.
    No dude, digital delays are really fun to mess with. You should give them a try; you can get an used Digitech Digidelay for about 20 or 30 quid and try it, you won't be disappointed.
    The thing of it is, I do have a digital and an analog, and the analog sounds so much better.
    Way Cool JR.
    It doesn't sound better, you just prefer it over digital. I like both equally, they both have their uses. I love a lot of '70s and '80s Rock & Metal. The analog IMO sounds best for the '70s, and the digital sounds IMO far better for most of the '80s sounds. But if I had to chose one over the other, I would more than likely go with the digital.
    I always thought comparing analog to digital was similar to comparing tube to solid state, or old school versus new school. The digital pedal will have more feature and you can get greater amounts of the specific effect. The analogue may not have the bells and whistles, but what you do get has a warmer, more vintage sound. Am I way off on this? I'm teachable. Be somewhat polite and I appreciate people who take a little time to teach me something. I am always trying to learn, and I will never know everything, whether I think I do or not
    and if i have multieffect pedal? (KORG AX1500G) with maybe all of these kinds of effect/modulates etc. ? Did it enough or have to buy some expansions maybe foot switch/pedal what sounds better than my multi?
    Everything sounds better than your multi! Believe me, I used to have the same and I threw it away for effects pedals (TS9, Carbon Copy, Boss RV-5, cry baby joe bonamassa, hot british disto by Radial, fuzz, etc.) and since then, my tone is 10000 times better and sounds real, not digital shit.
    I play bass, so you might question my input on effects. I have a lot of effects though. I use them very sparingly, but often, adding a very little adds a whole lot My experience with inexpensive multi effects pedals? Some of the pluses: You can get many different types of effects for a cheap price; they are fun to play with, and they can give a beginner a chance to discover and learn about various effects. If someone is a crappy player, they can overuse the multi effects pedal to the point where they think they sound good If I am eating Filet Mignon, I like to use a tiny bit of steak sauce to enhance the great flavor. If I had to eat a rotting rat, I would use the same steak sauce excessively to cover the bad flavor. Multi effects pedals can cover the taste of the rotting rat. That's my little illustration. Also, no matter the effect, chorus, flange, delay, fuzz, etc, the single effect pedals version of the effect is much better than from a cheap multi. Once again, the multi effect pedal is good for someone just getting into electric guitar, and in many cases is much better than having nothing. You get what you pay for. Well, sometimes you don't even get THAT much. My philosophy using many different effects on bass--less is more.
    And what if i buy not a cheap but an expensive multi-effect pedal like boss ME80 or a newer one. Anyway thanks for the answer. I use a Washburn N2 Nuno signature guitar, and think to switch a more serious pedal for an awesome sounding. Wanna create a unic sound actually. My next pedal may will be a digitech whammy
    Personally, I prefer a blues driver for distortion. It just sounds more natural. I use a TC Electronics Flashback for delay, because it's so versatile. As far a tuners go, I use the TC electronics Polytune2, because it has a strobe tuner. I would have stuck reverb on the list too,specifically the Arena Reverb.
    I find it weird the TC Flashback Delay is not among delay recommendations, it's a comparable price to the MXR Carbon Copy and it's A LOT more versatile, while sounding awesome. And looking at the fact I see it mentioned whenever delays are discussed on any forums ever these days, I think it's no less popular. Overall pretty nice article, although I'm not too drawn to wah and chorus myself, and I'd add reverb to the list.
    Totally surprised you guys didn't recommend the Dimebag Signature wah. It's a little pricey but you can dial in every little thing from the EQ, to the sweep range, and even fuzz if you need to punch through the mix.
    Rebel Scum
    I think thats because when you think of wah that isn't what first comes to mind. Dunlop Crybaby and the Vox Wah's are more well known.
    For my personal setup 1.OD mxr distortion III reduced gain, just to juice up an already overdriven amp 2.Boost : SolidGold FX Nitro Boost. for solos ! 3.Fuzz! : SolidGold FX Formula69. Stoner rock anyone ? 4.Delay : Fender delay, cause hey you know, for 20 bucks... 5.Wah : Vox V845.
    ...and allow for a far greater degree of accuracy than tuning by ear. It might not be as exciting as a wah or a delay pedal, but you need one of these in your rig.
    I'm afraid this is simply not true. While I agree the pedal has its uses, the frequencies we want to hear are not absolutes. Our tonal distances are relative distances, that is why a the 5th from an A is not the same as a major 3rd from a C. They are both E, but they do not sound the same. Any musician using fixed-note instrument has this, from pianists to guitarists. If you want a visual representation of this, try comparing the actual distance of an A to an E on the A-string, and the same A(5th fret) to an E(12th) on the low E-string. They are not the same, and this is why we can only compromise, where violinists do not have to(though admittedly a bare few of them can actually hear whether they play in tune or not).
    If you're playing by yourself that's all fine and dandy but if you're in a band you need a tuner. NO doubt about it.
    Yeah, and I don't think he was against that. He just said that the part about tuner being more accurate than ear is wrong. When you tune with a tuner, it will actually sound a bit out of tune to our ears because 12 tone equal temperament is a compromise. The distance between the two notes in a major third should be a bit smaller than what the tuner says. So if you wanted your C major chord to sound "perfect", you would need to tune your E note down a bit. I never use a tuner if I'm playing alone (unless I'm recording). My ear is better at telling if my guitar is in tune. And if I hear it's out of tune, I can just figure out by ear which strings are out of tune. It doesn't matter if I'm tuned to A=440 or A=442 or whatever. What matters is if my strings are in tune with each other. But that just doesn't work live. When you play live, a tuner is pretty much a must have. As said in the article, nobody wants to hear you tune your guitar in between the songs. And also, you need to be in the same tuning as the other instruments. So even if your guitar is in tune, it doesn't mean you are in tune with the other instruments. If everybody's using a tuner, you can make sure everybody is in tune with each other.
    Can you explain a bit further?Yes,music is created by the distance of the notes and not the note themselves.But your note has to be in tune for that to work.
    That is just the thing, unless you have perfect pitch, your starting note does not have to be in tune. Because said 'tune' itself is just a note. For example, if you were to tune from a root-note. If you do not have perfect pitch your ears will accept any 'suggested' (as in what the music directs your ears to) root note as an actual root note. My own, for example, always try to make me tune the guitar just a little bit higher between the E and the F when I tune without a specific 'right' note. I never use machines myself, and only on occasion do I use one to get the A string right, since it isn't good for the instrument to tuned too low or high. If you were to test this out on a guitar, try tuning your low E first, then your D string. Now try the d-note on your low E string, you can even check it with the machine, the longer the distance your cover over the string, the further off it will be. But that note is actually true in distance to your original note, not a 'do-over' that a machine will present you. This is one of the many things a guitar has over a piano, as the instrument allows you to tune your guitar for a certain piece, in that certain key. It will never be perfect everywhere, but it does allow you to compromise towards that balance that makes it 'appear' to be in tune. A piano is tuned in 5ths, so where one may start on a C, they would as it were 'start over' at the G, up and so on. A machine has set frequencies that is 'knows' are certain notes. But those frequencies will always be off by a bit, or to someone with trained ears, a lot. Which is what makes many pianos as well as machine-tuned instruments, grueling to listen to, for me. One must not forget that what we have now as an accept 440hz A, is slowly but surely climbing to 442hz. And it used to be less than 440 at some point as well. The lute for example, which used gut-strings, used to be tuned simply by using the highest one, and take it as high as it could go.
    The only issue you failed to address is the rest of your band making you sound like shit because they used a tuner
    What you say here is totally true, I would even add that some guitars (and strings) don't react the same way when tuned a certain way. So yeah, you sometimes have to tune with your ear, which I do really often. The thing is, if you don't have the absolute ear, you'll only manage to tune strings between themselves, and that's why you need a tuning pedal, to get a strong "base".
    "Now try the d-note on your low E string, you can even check it with the machine, the longer the distance your cover over the string, the further off it will be. But that note is actually true in distance to your original note, not a 'do-over' that a machine will present you." That's a pretty misleading thing to say. Often times, if the 10th fret of the low E string doesn't sound the same as the open D string it is simply due to poor intonation.
    Digitech Drop, especially if you are a newer player with lots of different influences. It helps you test out tunings without dedicating one guitar to a certain tuning. The DSP latency is non existent on newer pitch shifters.
    Something that's become indispensable on my board would my Sonic Stomp. I know some people want nothing to do with it but I can't help but have it run anytime the amps on and wish I found out about it waaay back when i even got interested in the sea of amps and effects
    Wah: I use a Dunlop Crybaby but its like a DC109 or something, It's got a Spring in it and is always 'On' but doesn't do anything to your tone until you start pressing it. I love it. Works Way better than the Originals, and doesnt have a button you have to click to turn on/off. A cheaper version would be something like the Behringer Hellraiser (or something like that) Solid pedal, both come with a couple knobs to dial in the tone / clean/dryness
    I am new (beginner guitarist)and I'm getting ready to buy my first effect pedals. With all the different pedals out there I can't tell you how confused I was, even to the point of not sure what pedal did what. This was the most informative article I have come across. Thank you for clearing up most of my questions. You Rock!