How Do Guitar Pedals Work? – An Easy Guide

Most guitarists I know are gear nerds, one way or the other. They can be purists and only stick with classical stuff like tube amps and analog guitar pedals. Or be completely nuts about trying every pedal under the sun.
How guitar pedals work

No matter which category you fall into, being mindful about tone and gear is the common denominator here. This is part of the fun with playing guitar. And so pedals are for everyone to enjoy.

But it can also get confusing as hell sometimes, especially when you start out as a guitarist. What is what, how does it work, what does it do and how does it sound? Those are all valid questions, so let’s take a closer look at how do guitar pedals work.

The Early Days

Back in the 1930’s when guitars were first amplified there were no effects available whatsoever. Amplifiers made them sound louder to stand out in a big orchestra setting, but not much more.

Well, guitar geeks have always been around it seems, and it didn’t take very long before they started to try to manipulate the signal to the amplifier, and in the 1940’s the DeArmond Model 601 Tremolo Control was launched. However, this was a big and bulky thing to lug around and was sentenced to a life in a studio. Fact of the matter is, all the early guitar effects of the 1940’s and 50’s were used in studios only, and were hard to do live on stage.

That all changed in 1960’s when the transistors became widely available. And like clockwork Gibson released the first distortion pedal in 1962, called the Maestro Fuzz Tone. It wasn’t a big hit though, and only a few thousand of them were produced.

Sales were not good the first years of its existence, but after Keith Richards used one when he recorded Satisfaction in 1965 they all of a sudden became high in demand.

Another legendary effect pedal saw the light of day in 1967, and that was the Cry Baby Wah pedal. With the roaring 1960’s being the era of the fuzz and wah pedals, the guitar effects scene just continued to grow in the 1970’s and quickly became an industry on its own.

The rest is history as they say, and today guitar effects are a massive part of the guitar universe. They offer almost endless versatility and sonic possibilities for guitarists around the globe.

How Do Pedals Work

Simply put, pedals are external units placed on the floor that are connected between your guitar and your amplifier, and are meant to either produce an effect in the guitar signal, route the guitar signal to a determined signal path, or test the signal to give us information. This change in signal is activated by stomping on a switch.

Some effects pedals are designed to add modulation, reverberation, or even delay to the original signal. Other pedals create distortion or overdrive sounds by clipping the signal like a high gain amplifier. This is for your typical aggressive rock or metal sounds.

Inputs And Outputs

All pedals have at least one input and one output. Your guitar goes into the input, the effect of the pedal is activated by stomping on the on/off switch, and the effect of the pedal is carried through the signal via the output and into your amplifier.

Input & output

True Bypass vs. Buffered Bypass

Well, even though you’ve just stomped on the off switch, the pedal is not truly off. It’s just being bypassed. As long as any pedal remains in the signal chain it will be bypassed when off.

So a pedal can be either a true bypass or buffered bypass. But what does that mean? True bypass pedals don’t (or at least do very little to) change the signal when off. The signal is just transferred from input jack to output jack without interruption, and so effectively becomes a short extension.

Buffered bypass on the other hand still sends the signal through the circuitry of the pedal even when off, but you don’t hear the effect of the pedal. This will have an effect on the signal, as the buffer is always acting on your signal, even when the pedal is off. So the buffered bypass sucks then? Nope, not at all.

You can look at it this way. The longer the cable, the longer the signal has to travel before amplification, and the more it degrades. That’s capacitance at work. The more pedals you have in your effects chain, the more cable you need to connect them. The buffer strengthens and conditions the signal, restoring it as well as restoring tone. Of course, all buffered circuitry is not created equal and the quality of the circuit design is quite  important. And of course the components used.

One can say that with a short cable, or few pedals, true bypass is great. With a long cable and a small army of pedals on a board, a buffered bypass will help boost the signal.

Analog Vs. Digital

Old school versus new age. Analog pedals have been around since the early days, and are the true originals. In an analog pedal the signal path is continuous and maintains an analog audio signal throughout the entire circuit.

In a digital pedal the signal must first go into an A/D converter (analog to digital) and then, after being processed, through a D/A converter (digital to analog) to go out to your amp. One of the drawbacks is that converting to and from digital will never be 100% accurate.

Due to this fact, purists will argue that analog pedals are superior. I’m no purist by any means, and can’t really say I hear any difference at all. Besides, analog pedals have their limitations, and there are things only digital pedals will accomplish. And in that aspect digital pedals are really pushing the envelope of what’s possible.

Controls

Apart from being able to switch them on and off, pedals come with a number of other controls as well. Like gain, EQ, volume and so on. Some pedals have great range, with a great variety of sounds, so a bit of tweaking is usually required before finding the sound and setting you want. It’s always a good thing to spend a little extra time getting to know your new pedal.

Controls

Power Options

In order for the circuitry to work, we need of course electrical power. Most pedals are either plugged into a wall outlet using a power adapter, and a great deal of pedals (not all) can also run on a 9V battery.

Choosing batteries as a supply

As already mentioned, pedals connected in your signal chain are not actually turned off by stomping on the switch, they’re simply bypassed. This means that unless you unplug it, the thing will keep draining your battery. Not only can this cause inconveniences during a gig, but as they weaken over time so will the quality of sound.

Choosing a power adapter

A much better option to power your pedals are through an external unit, like a power adapter. Just a quick note; if one is not included with the pedal make sure you get the right one. Most pedals will run using 9V DC adapters, but there are pedals running on higher voltage or even AC adapters. Be mindful of this, as getting the correct one is important.

The Different Types Of Pedals

With so many pedals to choose from, it’s a good idea to have at least a vague notion of what they all do, and where in the signal chain they do most good.

Distortion and Dynamic Effects

Probably the most common pedals around, and the most likely first choice for many guitarists when deciding to buy a pedal.

Compressor

This dynamic effect does exactly what it implies, it compresses the sound. It means instead of extreme highs and lows that may come from hitting some notes harder or softer, all notes will come out sounding more even.

Simply put, compression brings quiet and loud notes closer. It also slightly distorts the signal and can also improve sustain, giving you a more even and professional sound.

Boost

This basic pedal increases your guitar signal before it reaches your amp, without making any changes to the sound. Great for that extra oomph when needed, and with a “boosted” signal you won’t need as much gain to get a distorted sound.

Overdrive

This would be the next step on the ladder for a more rock-heavy sound. Overdrive pedals aim to add saturation to the signal and are designed to simulate the effect of overdriving an amp. This creates a softer distortion.

Distortion

The next step is of course the distortion pedal. Now, there are many different varieties of  distortion pedals, but they all have one common goal. To push the sound of your guitar toward the heavy and extreme.

Distortion pedals do exactly that, they distort (or alter) the signal, and do it through hard clipping. This creates a sound that is compressed, aggressive, edgy and full of added harmonics. Distorted in other words. If you’re into hard rock and metal this is a must have. And if that’s your particular brand of fun you can also check out our list of the 5 Best Guitar Pickups For Metal

Fuzz

The most aggressive of them all! Think of insane distortion and then take it one step further. Extreme hard clipping of the tops and bottoms of the sound wave, ridiculous amounts of compression paired with heavy bass creates that thick sound caused by an amp with broken tubes. Think heavy rock music from the 70’s and you get the idea. Or check out the sound right here.

Modulation Pedals

These are great fun. Unlike previous pedals, these do nothing in terms of boosting the signal. Instead, they modulate pitch and frequency, creating effects like vibrato, chorus, phasing, flanging and more.

Chorus

A chorus produces a gorgeous thick sound, almost like two or more guitarists were playing the exact same thing. Either in unison  or slightly off, depending on what you think sounds cooler. It sounds like this.

Vibrato & Tremolo

These pedals produce a very short delay, which creates a shift in pitch. The vibrato/tremolo effect was made popular by the surf scene in the 1960’s, and  it sounds like this.

Flanger

These pedals work by delaying the sound very slightly, creating that sweeping sound. Almost like a jet plane whooshing by. They can also sound a little like chorus or vibrato. It sounds like this.

Phaser

Just like the flanger, the phaser pedal produces that sweeping sound, but with a softer and more subtle effect. It sounds like this.

Time Based Effects

These awesome effects are all about repeating the signal, making it sound bigger and creating the effects of anything from natural reverberation to echoes.

Reverb

Easily one of the oldest and most widely used effects ever. Pretty much anything sounds better with a bit of reverb, as it adds depth and space to any sound source. It comes stock on most guitar amps today, but pedals are still in high demand. How come? Probably for the same reason guitar players purchase distortion pedals even though their amps have gain knobs.

Reverb pedals repeat the signal very rapidly for a brief moment, creating the effect of acoustic reverberation where the sound seems to travel a bit further and bounce around a little. Like if you were playing in a bigger room or hall. It sounds like this

Delay

Delay pedals pretty much “record” the signal and play it back one or more times after a set time interval.

Delay pedals can either play back a signal with a very short delay, similar to echo, or with such a long delay that you can play a new melody over the top of the original one. This allows for a lot of fun experimentation, and sounds like this.

Looper

A delay pedal on steroids. It allows guitarists to play multiple phrases on top of each other. The way it works is you hit the pedal and play a riff, and the pedal will record it and play it back to you in a loop. If you press the pedal again you can play a solo piece over that loop, and do it maybe a third time to play the harmony to that solo. You can repeat this as much as you like, and play as many layers on top of one another as you like.

Other Pedals?

There are many other types of pedals out there that you can add to your arsenal, for instance EQ pedals, harmonizers and wah pedals. But that’s perhaps best left for another occasion to dive into. This time we only wanted to touch on the essentials.

Does The Order Of Guitar Pedals Matter?

Yes it does. When put in the wrong order, the quality of the sound could be ruined. As already mentioned, all pedals have an input and an output. So any pedal further down the signal chain will be acting upon the signal that passed through all the pedals before it.

For example, a distortion pedal with its hard clipped sound waves will sabotage the delay effect, if the delay effect comes first. Therefore it would be better to have the distortion earlier in the pedal chain, and the delay pedal after that.

As a rule of thumb, the following should be taken into account.

  • Compressors generally go at the front of the chain.
  • Next up would be all your noise making pedals, your overdrives, distortions and fuzz pedals.
  • After that comes the modulation pedals like chorus and flangers and the likes
  • Right after is the spot for your delay and reverb
  • And last, but not least, a boost pedal

Like I said, this is a rule of thumb and not a rule of law. Feel free to re-arrange this the way you see fit. If it sounds cool to you just go for it. And when it comes to wah pedals and EQ pedals and the likes, guitarists tend to vary their position in the chain. For more tips you can check out this great video.

Final Words

By now I hope your understanding of guitar pedals has received a well deserved boost, and that you are ready to try a few (or all) of them out. Because as with most guitar gear on the market, overwhelm can set in and quickly turn everything into a jungle of what’s what.

That’s why it’s always a good idea to visit your local guitar dealer and try these pedals out yourself. This way you can familiarize yourself with how they work and sound. And of course, arriving at the guitar shop with just a tad bit more knowledge is never a bad thing 😀.

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2 thoughts on “How Do Guitar Pedals Work? – An Easy Guide”

  1. Another potential downside to digital pedals is latency. If you’re the kind of player who likes to really load your pedalboard (might not be the best idea, just FYI), a large majority of them need to be analog, as too many digital pedals will compound latency to the point of it being unusable. A few should be fine for most people, though.

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