Sometimes it can be daunting to look at a seasoned guitarist’s pedal board and think “Gee, I don’t even know where to start”. With hundreds of guitar pedals to choose from, it’s quite easy to waste your money on unnecessary pedals.
Before I go any further discussing guitar pedals, let me share with you a piece of wisdom that one of my guitar mentors told me. I had barely started playing when I bought a shiny new pedal. He looked at me and said “Just remember, pedals don’t replace practice”.
What I heard him saying to me was this – sure, pedals are fun and can produce a load of new and interesting sounds, but pedals don’t make a guitarist good. Practice makes a guitarist good.
So with that out of the way, I want to share with you 10 essential guitar pedals that have become an important part of almost every electric guitarist’s board. These are 10 categories of pedals, mind you…I’ll give suggestions for specific pedals under each category.
1. Guitar Tuner Pedals
There’s no doubt that a tuner pedal is probably one of the most important pedals you can own. Not only does it give you a single cutoff point for your signal chain, it allows you to tune your guitar without pulling out a separate guitar tuner.
Now I own plenty of stand-alone guitar tuners and I even have a great guitar tuner app on my phone, but none of these replace having an actual tuner pedal on my pedal board.
Most Popular Tuner Pedals:
- Standard: Boss TU-3 Pedal – my personal favorite and widely used.
- Recommended: TC Electronic Polytune 2 – tune all your strings at once, not just one at a time.
- Budget Option: Korg Pitchblack Chromatic – a quality option that’s cheaper than the above two.
2. Volume Guitar Pedals
Most guitarists prefer to have complete control of their signal, including volume coming in and out.
Volume pedals provide a simple way to control your volume not only to cut off your signal but also for certain sound effects that you can create. Some volume pedal manufacturers even include additional features.
For instance, one volume pedal might allow multiple inputs for different guitars, another might have an output specifically for a tuner and one of the more popular volume pedals actually works as a stereo pan (see below).
Most Popular Volume Pedals:
- Recommended: Ernie Ball 6165 Volume Pedal – acts as a volume pedal and stereo pan.
- Standard: Dunlop GCB-80 – a simple volume pedal, but pretty much the standard.
- Alternative: Morley Volume Plus – the advantage here is optical circuitry that won’t wear out like pots.
3. Wah Guitar Pedals
Made popular by guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Cantrell, use of the Wah pedal seems to go in and out of style for guitarists.
But prudent use of the Wah Pedal can add a lot to your sound. It can provide a wide range of tonal expressions from a sweeping “waaah” to a funky “quack” tone. There are quite a few digital pedals that offer a newer range of capabilities but I’m still a fan of the traditional wah pedal personally.
Most Popular Wah Pedals:
- Standard: Dunlop Crybaby – the original and arguably most popular wah pedal on the market
- High Quality: VOX V846HW – a high-quality, high-priced wah pedal option
- Budget: Behringer Hellbabe – Behringer makes good pedals at a cheaper price.
4. Overdrive Guitar Pedals
It used to be that electric guitarists had to crank their amplifiers in order to get that grunge sound they wanted. Now, we can just use an overdrive pedal.
An overdrive pedal essentially mimics the sound of an amplifier cranked to 11. It’s helpful, especially since dramatically stepping up the volume of your amplifier while at home usually isn’t an option.
Overdrive is often used to play blues but it also has many applications in a lead guitar tone.
Most Popular Overdrive Pedals:
- Recommended: Boss BD-2 Blues Driver – great tone combined with great pricing
- Standard: Ibanez TS-808 – one of the best-selling overdrive pedals of all time
- Budget: Boss SD-1 – a more budget-friendly version of Boss’ overdrive pedal
5. Distortion Guitar Pedals
Some might argue that there’s not much difference between a distortion pedal and an overdrive pedal, but I see plenty of difference. While an overdrive is designed to simply boost the signal without boosting volume, a distortion pedal is designed to purposefully clip the waveform of a guitar signal.
Sometimes the two will be pushed into a single pedal, but not always.
Whereas overdrive has more of a blues application, distortion can be heard in more rock and heavy metal applications. There are literally hundreds of distortion pedals so it’s hard to pick out the best, but here’s my attempt.
Most Popular Distortion Pedals
- Standard: Boss DS1 Distortion – after 30 years, still one of the top distortion pedals
- High-Quality: Wampler Triple Wreck – one of the best distortion pedals on the market…but quite pricey.
- Budget: Behringer Distortion Pedal – another cheaper Behringer option
6. Chorus Guitar Pedals
Chorus pedals are similar to wah pedals – if used improperly people will hate you for it. They are a great addition to any pedal board but must be used appropriately.
Chorus pedals can add a depth and fullness to your sound that you can’t quite achieve with a reverb sound. If done right, it can be light there are 3 guitarists playing the same part, instead of just you. That “wall of guitar” can have a powerful affect unless it is overdone.
I’ve heard it said that a chorus pedal makes a guitar sound more three-dimensional. I think that makes sense. Here are my favorites.
Most Popular Chorus Pedals:
- High Quality: TC Electronic Corona – an excellent chorus pedal that delivers great tone.
- Recommended: Boss CH-1 – Boss just makes great pedals that have become a standard.
- Budget: Electro Harmonix Neo Clone – great sound without a huge price tag.
7. Delay or Reverb Guitar Pedals
Delay and reverb pedals can become a guitarists best friend. Whereas a delay pedal will repeat the notes or sounds being played at a preset interval, a reverb pedal mimics the guitar being played in different acoustical settings (big room, small room, concert hall, etc.).
These pedals can be used to either support your sound (so you don’t sound so “flat”) or as a creative tool in itself. The Edge is a perfect example of how to creatively use a delay pedal.
As far as pedals go, a delay/reverb pedal is pretty much a must-have.
Most Popular Delay and Reverb Pedals:
- Standard: Boss DD-7 – providing digital delay at a reasonable price.
- High Quality: TC Electronics Flashback X4 – part delay, part looper pedal.
- Budget: Behringer Reverb Machine – one of the few delay/reverb pedals under $50.
8. Looper Guitar Pedals
I’ve already spent some time discussing looper pedals in the Guitar Adventures Looper Pedal Guide but suffice to say, I’m a huge fan.
Looper pedals share the same characteristics of a delay pedal, which is often while you’ll see the two paired together. In my opinion, however, I like these to be two separate pedals. I want one for delay and one for looping since I use them in two different circumstances.
Looper pedals basically allow you to create layers of repeating sounds that you have recorded. They’re great for practice but have plenty of practical, on-stage applications as well.
Most Popular Looper Pedals
- Standard: DigiTech JML2 JamMan – Digitech was one of the first to create looper pedals and continue to make the best
- High Quality: BOSS RC-30 – a tad more expensive, this red Boss pedal is a very popular option.
- Budget: TC Electronic Guitar Ditto – one of the cheapest looper pedals is still a good one!
9. Compressor/EQ Guitar Pedals
If you’re an dynamic guitar player – meaning you move freely between loud and soft playing – a compressor is a must.
Although it works different, a compressor is like an automatic volume control: it equalizes your loud and soft playing so that they have the same volume. Your volume doesn’t actually change, the effect just narrows your dynamic range. You can control how much it narrows (or “compresses”) this range with most every pedal, though.
Compressors are probably one of the most under-appreciated pedals but can have a huge affect on your overall sound. Remember that part of the song where you play soft and are always frustrated that you think nobody can hear you? A compressor pedal fixes that.
Most Popular Compressor Pedals
- High Quality: Wampler Ego Compressor – one of the best-sounding compressors on the market
- Standard: Boss CS-3 – another great example of why Boss owns the pedal market.
- Budget: Joyo JF-10 Compressor – what it lacks in sound it makes up for in such a low price.
10. Other Specialty Guitar Pedals
Of course there are so many different other pedals that I could go into detail here: fuzz pedals, modulation pedals, flanger pedals, phaser pedals, etc., etc.
Then there are the digital “Do It All” pedals like the Boss GT-10, but for the purpose of this article I just wanted to highlight analog options that most electric guitarists prefer.
Test out what kind of sound you want to have and then build your pedal board around that signature sound.
And remember…pedals don’t replace practice!
Any other pedals you think I missed here? Please leave a comment below!