The Ultimate Guitar Pedals Buying Guide for Beginners

Hey, guitarists! Are you still be stuck into which Guitar pedal should you buy as your first guitar pedal? Don’t worry, you will have a clear understanding of it after you have read this friendly guitar pedal guide for beginners. We will introduce the main four types of guitar pedals and orther effects pedals from the hottest one. At the meantime, you will have a knowledge of its origin & development and feel the unique effect of every pedal by listening to the songs below.

 

Distortion

When we are talking about the effects unit, which effect will come to our mind first? Yes, it is Distortion effects definitely, the most common and the most concerning effects unit for guitarists.

 Distortion effects have a soft, hoarse,imperfect tone as clipping the head and foot of the voice signal’s sine wave and adding overtone, it is first applied in the 1940s, guitarist push power to the gain, amplifier too high by accidentally, however they find the tone sounds very nice. Yeah, it is that song "Bob Wills Boogie". After that people began to imitate this imperfect tone, someone starts to destroy the amps’ cone on purpose to get it. While The kinks were recording the song "You Really Got Me", they tear off the paper cone of the amps to get those "warm", "gritty", and "fuzzy" effects. At that time, here comes with Fuzz effect. 

 

1. Fuzz

 Fuzz sounds just like the name, it creates a fuzzy effect and its tone is very loose and broad, it seems your amplifier is reaching the breaking point. Jimi Hendrix, the synonymous word of Fuzz, his music applied this effect widely, like "Foxey Lady" and "Purple Haze". What’s more, you can find these typical fuzz effects on the interlude 2:20 of "One of These Nights" by Eagles.

 If you still can not figure out the difference between Fuzz and Oversize effect, then the song "Sunshine of your love" by Cream can help you have a clear definition for the insane Fuzz effect.

 

Donner Fuzz Pedal

Donner Stylish Fuzz Guitar Effect Pedal

 

As the time goes by, we make a progress on the Fuzz circuit, Overdrive was born from this background.

 

2. Overdrive 

Overdrive is used to stimulate the natural distortion tone when you are turning up the amplifier to the breaking point, it sounds more compact and gentle. If you listen carefully, you will find the decrease of the breaking amp effect on overdrive. For example, you can check the outro of "Another Brick in the wall part.2" by Pink Floyd, you can feel warm, and more comfortable than Fuzz. 

Or the "Guitar Hero"- Joe Satriani’s "Ten Words", chorus effect combines with Overdrive effect, it is real music give you a warm hit on your deepest soul. It seems the overdrive pedal is popular among pro guitarists, like Steve Vai’s famous song- "For the love of the god", which is another representative of the overdrive effect.

Most of the typical overdrive effects have two gain stages, one is Level(Control the level of the distorted signal), another is Drive(Adjusts the amount of distortion). And it usually has a tone control for controlling the amount of high-frequency contour, adds bite to the sound, or makes it mellower.

Most of the Distortion pedals applied this knob arrangement from the legendary TS-style vintage tube overdrive pedal, so does Donner, Donner Morpher Drive pedal features an easy-to-use three-knob tone control: LEVEL (output volume), TONE (brightness), and GAIN (overdrive amount) for using in different scenarios. Each knob gives you a wide control range.

 

Donner overdrive pedal

 Donner Morpher Overdrive Pedal

As time goes by, in the 1980s, with the appearance of heavy metal music, people have a higher requirement for distortion and tight timbre. The effect pedals equipped with diodes or some form of transistor are emerging on the effect market, which can do a perfect clipping for the sound signal, they are- Distortion pedals.

 

3. Distortion

Distortion pedal is one of the Distortion effects units, just like the California City of California. Its main feature is with more aggressive effect, more abundant overtones, in a word, it is a not loose fuzz, a not warm overdrive. For instance, in "Panama" by Van Helen, you will be hit by the distortion effect from the powerful chords in the intro.

To sum up, it is easier to distinguish these three distortion effects by the audio signal. Distortion pedals produce perfectly flattened peaks or "hard" clipping, Overdrive pedals produce "soft" tube-like distortion by compressing the sine wave without completely flattening it, and how about the Fuzz pedals? it is nearly a "square wave".

 Sound frequency wave

(Picture from Wikipedia)

Degree of distortion: Overdrive< Distortion< Fuzz

In modern music, it is hard to distinguish the Overdrive effect and Distortion effect except for the Fuzz with the symbolic breaking amp effect, this is the result of the commercialization of the effect units. It is not a bad thing that the way of processing audio signal become jack-of-all-trades to meet the need of players at an effect unit, but it also causes the similarity of sound.

What’s more, people often arrange the overdrive pedal and distortion pedal together to get a more dirty tone. You can not almost find the plain distortion effect only from one song, even you won’t get Fuzz by using Fuzz face, it is also related to your guitar and amplifier.

Thus, only can we say that song is more approach to distortion or overdrive effect for most of music now, e.g., If you check the song- I Cant Believe by Made of Hate, the lead guitar sounds more approximate Overdrive. However, in the song- Bullet in Your Head from the same death metal band, the guitar solo before the singer is more Distortion.   

In a word, it is not necessary to distinguish these distortion effects too clearly, we just need to arrange the pedals to get the distortion we want or the song you want to cover.

 

Time-based

Time-based effects usually include the Delay and Reverb effect, also called "echo", as the name indicates, it delays the sound signal, reverb and echo the origin signal then play in turn. Imagine you shouted out on the mountain, and then you are surrounded by the echoes from all directions.

 

1. Delay 

We can say that Delay pedals are about mountains, seas and forests, it replies to your guitar’s call in a very natural way. You can find this spacious effect provided naturally from all kinds of music, for example, in Michael Jackson’s song- "Human nature", the muted notes come with the human voiced, it’s the application of the delay effect. And "Another Brick in the wall part.1" by Pink Floyd", you can see all the clear guitar voices and grace notes are accompanied by the echoes.

Delay effect pedal is applied in broken chords of verse in "Every Breath You Take" by The Police and the overdriven guitar (2:20) from "With or Without You" by U2.

There are three main knobs related to the delay effect:

E.level: output level of the delay sound.

F.back : how many times the delay sound is to be repeated.

D.time: adjust the delay time from X0.25 to X1.

 

 Donner Delay Pedal

 

Donner Yellow Fall Delay Guitar Effect Pedal

 

2. Reverb

If we said that Delay is about the mountains and rivers, then Reverb is about all creatures around the world. Reverb is to stimulate the natural echoes mixed with the original voice but without echoes effect, feels like you are standing in front of a huge stone cathedral, ice cave of polar regions.

In order to emulate this natural reverberation, there are two commons types of reverb, springs and plates. This reverb effect is first applied by the springs of the amp, it can make your guitar sounds better even you are shit on playing.

Let’s take a look at the song "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" by John Mayer, which uses the springs reverb effect from the amplifier. The first three seconds are the typical spring reverb effect of the amp, though it sounds not perfect but with its own reverb feature. Besides, reverb is the essential effect for the power metal. You can check the metal opera "Farewell" by Avantasia, its recording version has a better reverb effect that can covey the solemn vibe of European mythology, which can’t be copied on live. You can also check the "The Scarecrow" by the same metal opera supergroup to feel the reverb effect from percussion.

There are mainly three controls for the reverb pedals:

Decay: Set the duration of the reverberation.

E.level: Control the effect level.

Tone: Control the effect tone.

 

 Donner reverb pedals 

Donner Digital Reverb Guitar Effect Pedal

Modulation

The essence of the modulation effect is to modify your original sound signal by adding another sound signal and then remixing them.

 

1. Chorus 

Chorus pedals are the attempt to mimic the sound of an orchestra band, it copy the original sound signal into more soundtracks. It sounds like many soundtracks are been playing together but with a little time off and differences in timbre and pitch. But the chorus effect only can make your guitar sounds richer and more layered, the typical song of the chorus effect is "Come as You Are" by Nirvana, they use the chorus effect to lead the human sound, which is very Nirvana!

If you listen carefully, you’ll find that electric guitar resonates very strongly and have a feeling this is the combination with the contrabass. Yeah, this hazy feeling is chorus! And then we have to mention "Dreams " by The Cranberries, especially the broken chords on 3:17, which is the key point of the song and gives you a sense of bathing in the soft autumn sunshine.

It is OK that you can’t figure out the differences for chorus, cause many effect pedals manufacturers produce a lot of effects for chorus and combined with other effects. But the core of the chorus effect is about two controls, Rate and Depth. 

Rate: Adjusts the chorus speed.

Depth: Adjusts the chorus sound depth.

 

Donner chorus pedal

Donner Tutti Love Chorus Guitar Effect Pedal

2. Tremolo

Tremolo effect is one of the earliest effects, it is firstly applied in the amplifier as the built-in effect. Tremolo is produced by altering the amplitude variation of the guitar signal, you can try to roll up and down your guitar volume, this periodic volume change effect is what we call Tremolo. The guitar intro and interlude of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day is one of the songs with Tremolo.

The typical knobs arrangement for the Tremolo pedal is the same as chorus effect, Rate, and Depth.

What? Is the Tremolo effect the same as Chorus? We can use two pictures to solve your confusion. Hold on, let’s take a closer look at them, the variation of Chorus is about the sound frequency and location, while Tremolo is about the sound volume. Compared to Chorus, Tremolo’s variation is more rapid, stronger. Check the below pictures, the former is Chorus and the latter is Tremolo.

Chorus frequencyTremolo Frequency 

3. Flanger

Flanger has the whooshing sound just like the jet plane, and he is the brother of Chorus. If we said that chorus is equipped with contrabass, then Flanger is an airplane put into the amplifier.

Flanger effects are widely applied in hard rock and metal music, the guitar intro begins at 0:31 of "Dirty water dog " by Van Halen, which is the typical clean Flanger effect. And the "Ain't Talkin’Bout Love" by the same singer, maybe you can not notice an obvious Flange effect at first, but you can feel it till 2:05.

For most of Flanger effect pedals, they mainly have these two knobs.

Rate: Adjusts the Flanger speed.

Depth: Adjusts the Flanger sound depth.

It sounds very cool when the melody is equipped with two jet engines, right? But Flanger is easy to be confused with the following one effect.

 

4. Phase

Phase effect is also one of the earliest effects, it is used to modulate the sound of turning the amp, in fact, it sounds more like a warmer Flanger.

The guitar sound is not only formed by the sine wave, it is composed of different sounds signals named Harmonics. While Flanger changes a lot of phase of Harmonics, Phase only changes one of them and keep more original guitar timbre. So Phase effect is softer and less aggressive, we can say these jet engines are ungraded with silencers.

For example, in the guitar solo of interlude from "Time" by Pink-froyd, which also uses distortion, you can not hear the engines or sweeping sounds, but at 4:50, you will catch the shadow of Phase. "Eruption" by Van Halen", the prototype of many guitar riffs, which uses the phase effect on the whole song.

Phase pedals usually have three controls:

1.Rate: Adjusts the speed.

2.Depth: Adjusts the amount of phase effect mixed with the dry signal.

3.Resonance: Adjusts the regeneration of the phased signal

 

Filter

Wah-wah effect is the typical example of Filter, almost all the guitarists had heard that name. You may can not distinguish the Chorus and Distortion at that moment, but you must can find out the Wah-wah effect at once when you meet.

Wah-wah effect is the result of boosting the frequency of the original guitar signal. So if you want to create a "Wah-wah" sound, firstly, you need a foot treadle. Then we can choose the different frequencies by pressing up and down the foot pedal to get the wah-wah guitar signal. Usually, there are different modes of the wah-wah pedals for us to choose, which will change the type of filter and alter the range and way of boosting frequencies, and then we get different wah-wah effects.

 

1. Wah-wah 

A normal wah-wah effect, a typical example is the distortion guitar on "Vodoo Child" by Jimi Hendrix, the wah-wah sound before 0:30 is very obvious.

Donner wah-wah pedal

Donner Wah Volume Effect Guitar Pedal

 

2. Talk box 

Talk box is a pedal used to emulate the human voice, it uses a special filter to get that weird sound and "talking" effect. But few of us can recognize this effect, believe that we all know "Its my life" by Bon Jovi, have you notice the talk box effect on the interlude after 2:10?

 

3. Auto-wah(Envelope Filter)

 As the name, this pedal can adjust the wah-wah effect automatically, the famous one for the Wah-wah pedal is CryBaby, but it may not fit our budget as beginners. Compared to Wah-wah, Auto-wah alters the response of input signal volume, it boosts or cuts off the specific frequencies by adjusting the peaking filter. In a word, Auto-wah is used as the input signal to control the depth of wah sound, which is more about your pick hitting on strings.

 

Donner Auto-wah Pedal

Donner Dynamic Wah Guitar Effect Pedal

 

4. EQ(Equalizer) 

Someone said EQ pedals should be one of our top 3 pedals because it helps ear train and demonstrates that CUTTING is at least as important as BOOSTING to get the tone you want. In a word, the Equalizer pedal is used to get the timbre you want by boosting or cutting the specific frequencies regions. Nowadays, most professional graphic equalizer pedals provide five to ten frequency bands, which provides you an accurate visual overview of the current frequency curve.

 

Donner EQ Pedal

 Donner EQ Seeker

 

Dynamics

 

1. Compressor

One professional guitarist should put one good compressor pedal on the first of the signal flow. Compressor is used to adjust the volume of your playing by compressing the sound signal, it can prevent your strumming too strong or too weak and make your every hit sounds the same. There are two most important features for compressor pedals, one is Attack, another is Sustain.

Attack: To adjust the intensity of the attack in the picking

Sustain: To adjust the sustain time 

For example, you can check the guitar riff (1:46 and 3:06) on the song "Thriller " by Michael Jackson, every note has a very obvious onset.

 

Others effects

 

1. Loopers

Have you watched the amazing playing by the one-man-band with only one instrument on YouTube? Like "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran, If you want to start a band by yourself, then you need a looper pedal. 

Looper pedals are developing very quickly in recent years, now we have one to more record tracks, minutes to hours loopers pedals. In simple terms, when we step up the pedal, then we can record our rhythms and riffs as one track, which will record your playing and play it back to you. So we can play solo, then we can play the lead guitar with the rhythms together, is that very cool? Of cause, we can add a drum track and more sounds track to reach a completed band effect.

Donner looper

 

Donner Triple Looper Guitar Pedal


 

Donner circle looper

Donner Circle Looper Guitar Effect Pedal

 

2. Multi-effects

As the name indicates, Multi-effects pedals include more than one effect. It is a good option for those beginners who have a tight budget, and they can have a simple understanding of the basic effects by a multi-effects pedal.

 

 Donner multi-effects pedal

Donner Multi Guitar Effect Pedal

3. Tuner

That pedal is the easiest one for us to understand, tuner pedal is a good option for us to tone our guitar, whatever in the home or on stage. You only need to step on the pedal and then you can tune your guitar silently and accurately.

 

 Donner tuner pedal

Donner DT-1 Guitar Pedal

 

What Guitar Pedals Should I Buy First As a Beginner?

There is not a only rule for the guitar pedals buying sequence, all you need to do is to find out which tone you like and want to imitate. There are a lot of effects pedals available on the market, only one manufacturer can invent more than 100 different models for effects pedals, but the basic types of pedals are those I have listed above. Remember that effect pedals can make your performance sounds better but also can make your mistakes more obvious, setting up our signal chain with effects pedals is important, so does playing practice.