State of the stomp: A guitar pedal primer
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The beginner's guide to guitar pedals

State of the stomp: A guitar pedal primer

Words— Sébastien Vézina

Although they’ve been enjoying an almost exponential increase in popularity these past few years, guitar effect pedals have been around for a very, very long time. Electric guitar itself took the music world by storm almost a hundred years ago and it wasn’t long after the introduction of the first amplifiers that people started looking for ways to make them sound different and more interesting.

 

 

 

 

Guitar effects had crude beginnings for the most part but in the late 40s, the transistor was invented and soon made available for consumer products, revolutionizing entire industries, including guitar effects. Today, there are so many offerings available on the market, especially from smaller boutique companies, that it can get confusing. Let’s dip a toe in the water and check out the most common families of guitar effects and some of their most well-known iterations.

 

 

 

Gain pedals

 

Boost, overdrive, distortion, dirt, crunch, fuzz. All very subjective words to basically describe one’s own experience with using such an effect. Regardless, I think everyone can agree that the idea is to make your guitar louder - so much so in most cases that it “spills out” of however loud it can get, creating harmonic distortion. Harmonic distortion was basically the foundation upon which rock music evolved, from the light crunchy blues of the 50s to the 18-string fueled djent-y madness of recent years.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Jimi Hendrix™ Fuzz Face® Distortion Jh F1

 

One of the most popular gain pedals in stomp history is the Fuzz Face, released by London company, Arbiter Electronics in 1966. This particular gain pedal was eventually discovered by Jimmy Hendrix who had a very particular relationship with it. That relationship propelled the Fuzz Face to the top and made it one of the most well-known effects, even today.

 

 

 

Reverb

 

Have you ever shouted in a large empty room? That’s what reverb is. Put simply, it’s the result of many (many!) successive echoes of a sound very close together. Since you obviously can’t cram a large empty space in a small box, most reverb pedals are digital —meaning that the reverb effect is emulated using a software program running on a processing chip. Amplifiers sometimes come with an "analog" reverb tank using large springs that somewhat replicate that effect. 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Strymon BlueSky

 

Japan’s Boss basically invented the digital reverb pedal with the RV-2 in 1987. They’ve since released revised versions with much better fidelity and more features. On the more boutique side of things, companies like Strymon are well known for their amazing digital reverb pedals: the BlueSky and its bigger sibling - the Big Sky. 

 

 

 

Delay

 

The idea of a delay is to take a short recording of whatever the effect is fed, keep it memorized for a little bit and then play it back mixed with the dry signal. This can result in beautiful echoes and twinkles seen more prominently in post-rock/ambient guitar music. The first delay pedals were completely analog using electronic black magic, most modern offerings, however, are based on digital platforms as the technology has become more accessible.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man

 

Electro-Harmonix’s Deluxe Memory Man is a tried and true classic when it comes to delay pedals, originating in the 1970’s and still holding strong as the most popular choice.

 

 

 

Modulations
(tremolo, vibrato, chorus, phaser, flanger)

 

The word "modulation" means to act on or modify a certain parameter over time following a rate and an amplitude. Think of modulation as if you were turning a volume button, for example, up and down repeatedly—you would be modulating the volume. Applying modulations on different properties of sound can have different effects. Pitch, for example, is called vibrato and volume modulation is called tremolo.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Boss CE-2W Chorus

 

Boss made one of the first chorus pedals, the CE-1 in 1976. Walrus Audio, a boutique company from Oklahoma, took the world of boutique pedals by storm by releasing their Julia chorus pedals in 2016.

 

 

 

Dynamics

 

In the world of recording engineers, dynamic range describes the difference in amplitudes in a piece of audio resulting from things such as a musician’s playing, sometimes quieter and sometimes louder. A recording can benefit from having those differences evened out a bit using a technique called compression which in itself is a complex topic I won’t get into at the moment. Another prominent type of dynamic effect is limiting; similar to compression but aims specifically at keeping the volume under a certain threshold.

 

 

 

Mxr® Dyna Comp®Deluxe Compressor

 

Compressors come in many different kinds, but the most popular compressor of all time is the MXR Dyna Comp - used by some very notable guitar players such as Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

 

 

 

Filters

 

Filtering is the act of reducing or even removing altogether some frequencies out of a piece of audio. It’s basically what you do when you play with the infamous “equalizer” on your stereo. Filter pedals are used to do the same but in a creative way. A very popular filter effect is the wah pedal—named after the sound it makes—go ahead and say it out loud. Do it. Wah.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Dunlop Cry Baby Wah

 

Wah was popularized by Dunlop and its CryBaby wah-wah pedal in 1966. Dunlop also released signature versions of its CryBaby with many popular guitar players, such as Buddy Guy, Guns n Roses’ Slash and Metallica’s Kirk Hammet.

 

 

 

What else?

 

We’ve merely brushed the surface of the incredible world of guitar effects. Collecting pedals is a hobby in and of itself—a hobby in which one needs to tread carefully or else be hit with bad GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Like many consumer products, guitar pedals were traditionally built by larger companies. With the continued growth of the Internet, information on how to build these little boxes of joy has become easily accessible, giving birth to a very active DIY/hobbyist builder scene and a plethora of smaller boutique companies.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Ground Control Audio Tsukuyomi Midrange Booster

 

So guitar isn't your thing? "Guitar" pedals don’t discriminate, plug in your synth, bass, violin, microphone, anything that will fit! Go crazy and throw yourself into the crazy world of music effects.

 

Sébastien is the founder behind Montréal boutique pedal company Ground Control Audio

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