Guitar Effects Primer

Posted on Posted in Guitar, Guitar Lessons

When playing guitar, you’ll come across using guitar effects from time to time. Initially, these different sounds seduce guitar players:

“Listen to that sound!”

“That’s so cool!”

“I’m going to use this for every song!”

As the years roll by however, it is more common for guitarists to be more selective with the tones they use. This seduction wears off as guitarists begin to see the need to develop more of a balanced sound. In turn, they see effects to help shape a sound; not merely for novelty.

I categorize guitar effects into six common categories:

1.) Reverb

2.) Overdrive and Distortion

3.) Delay

4.) Modulation

5.) Volume and Wah-wah pedals

6.) Electronics to make these effects blend as well as to make them “true-bypass”

These are the most important as well as the most used effects. As guitarists, we need to think of each effect complimenting the music, not cluttering it. Therefore, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on these common effects.

1.) Reverb:

Essentially, reverb is a room simulator. It makes the guitar sound as if it’s in the room. While it’s true that some rooms provide natural reverb, it’s not always the case. With outdoor festivals and dry rooms, it is indispensable to have reverb on an amp or effects unit. I use TC Electronic’s Nova Reverb NR-1 pedal (affiliate link) and I’m totally satisfied with the tone and features. Further when examining reverb units, there are some terms that come about:

Diffusion: The ability to spread the echo out. Increasing diffusion thickens the reverb; it sounds more washed out. Reducing it makes reverb thinner. Simply, think thin vs thick reverb.

Decay: The length of the reverb. Typically guitarists use longer decay for larger rooms or when soloing. Long decay settings don’t work as well in tighter spaces and ensemble playing.

Pre-Delay: It takes a few milliseconds before the sound hits surfaces of the room and produces the reflective sounds. Thus, pre-delay is the short delay placed between the guitar signal and the reverb.

Reverb EQ: The equalization of the reverb.

By the way, TC Electronic’s Nova Reverb has a neat feature called, “dynamic ducking”. Basically, you can choose to have the reverb on only when playing notes. You can also set the reverb to turn off when playing notes and turn on when you stop your phrase. The latter allows you to play with more reverb without clouding up the notes.

Basic Reverb Types:

Hall: Simulates reverb produced by large halls. Reverb travels longer.

Room: Simulates natural sound of an acoustic space. More emphasis is placed on smaller rooms, hence the reverb travels quicker.

Spring: Shoots sound into metal springs. In turn, it reverberates. It’s more of a twangy bounce.

Plate: Shoots sound into large metal sheet and reverberates. Similar to hall reverbs, only flatter and lighter.

I’d recommend trying these different types and settings to find the sound that works best.

2.) Overdrive and Distortion:

The working guitarist should have distortion pedals handy. I use a Robert Keeley modded Ibanez TS-9 Tubescreamer for my overdrive and a Boss DS-1 for heavier distortion. I use the TS-9 more for rhythm and the DS-1 for leads and soloing (I’ll use these together). I should mention that many guitarists come out of the gate blaring a great amount of distortion into their amp. This essentially hides the natural sound of the guitar in the mix. In turn, the clarity of the guitar suffers. Simply remember that less is more.

3.) Delay:

Delay will repeat the notes you play. The effect will take the signal coming from your guitar and store it. This allows the notes you play to repeat. Also, the effect can be used to fatten your tone. Further, the three basic settings include:

Delay time: The length between the repetitions in milliseconds.

Feedback: The number of repetitions.

Mix level: The mix between the dry signal vs the delay signal.

There are two different schools of thought when using delay. The first is that the delay time should be set to the tempo of the tune. Though many guitarists use delay this way, it’s not always necessary. The second way lies more with fattening the tone or specifying an exact length of delay for creative purposes. I’d recommend to work with both ways.

Also, delay pedals usually have a tap tempo function. This should include an option to choose the delay time based on a subdivision, such as a dotted quarter note. This allows you to tap to the tempo of the song with your foot, thus making it possible to play to the tempo of the tune.

To dive deep in the world of delay, I’d research:

Analog, Digital, Tape, Slapback and Multitap Delay.

4.) Modulation:

Modulation effects can be categorized in different categories:

Chorus: When individual sounds close to the same pitch and timbre mesh together. Depending on how much effect you use, it essentially can make the guitar sound as if it’s under water. Think Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”.

Flanger: Two identical signals mix together. One of them is slightly delayed. It makes the guitar sound like a jet.

Phaser: The original signal is paired with another signal slightly out of phase. Both signals reach their high and low point at different times. It crates a whooshing and sweeping sound similar to a flanger. A flanger is actually a specific type of phaser.

Tremolo: Just like it sounds, it adds a tremolo effect once you hit a note. A vibrato unit usually has two controls: speed (how fast or slow) and depth (how much).

5.) Volume and Wah-wah pedals:

Volume pedals come in handy for adjusting volume on stage. The idea is that since both hands are usually busy playing, the volume pedal adds ease since you can use your foot to adjust volume.

Wah-wah pedals alter the tone of your signal, which produces a very distinctive effect. It’s used a lot in funk and in rock music. Typically guitarists will use the wah-wah in a specific position, emphasizing a distinct frequency. Other times, guitarists will use it more for a rhythmic effect, often associated with funk music. Here, they’ll rock the pedal back and forth, producing a “wacka-wacka” sound (think Shaft theme).

Some pedals, such as the Morley Wah Volume, combine both volume and wah-wah effects. It’s a single pedal that includes a button to switch between the volume or the wah effect.

A word on optical vs the traditional vintage wah (Crybaby). Occasionally with the vintage wah-wah’s, the pots will become worn out and scratchy. You’ll hear the scratchy sound when using it. It’s always helpful to carry electrical contact cleaner to fix this issue. With optical wah-wah’s, this isn’t an issue.

6.) Effects Enhancers:

When using effects, it’s important to retain the tone of your guitar. Many effects can still take away tone from the amp and your guitar signal. Many companies now make effects “True-Bypass”, meaning that when the effect is off, the circuitry allows the natural signal of the guitar to flow through the amplifier and past the effects. Though some work well, it’s always a good idea to use an effects loop to maintain good tone.

I use Lehle’s D-Loop Stereo Effects Looper (affiliate link) to loop my effects pedals. This pedal is by far the best pedal I’ve found for making it as if my guitar is plugged straight through my amp. Plus, the buffer feature is really nice since it can add up to a 12 dB increase in your signal; great for boosting lead solos!

Also, it’s important to have a good way to mix how much effects you want in your guitar signal (wet: how much effect vs dry: how much original signal). I use the Xotic Effects X-Blender Guitar Effect Pedal (affiliate link).

Lastly, guitarists can spend a whole lifetime studying each and every aspect of effects. I recommend to take your time and focus on the sound first, and technical aspects second.

Further Reading: Guitars: A Guide to Guitar Effects | Harmony Central | Guitar Effect Glossary

Related Posts: Advice for Guitarists Playing in an Ensemble

About Nick Grinlinton

Nick Grinlinton has written 113 entries on this blog.

Nick Grinlinton is a guitarist, composer and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a two-time ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award finalist and has composed and played music for Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee". A speedy runner, Nick currently focuses on racing distances from the mile all the way to the marathon. As he continues to train daily, he is currently examining what effect music has towards running. To learn more and to contact Nick, visit his website.

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