Guitar effects and when, how and why to use them


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What do you need to create your own signature guitar sound? The answer is, of course, nothing more than an axe, an amp, a dose of inspiration and some crazy fretboard skills. But many of the greatest guitar tones ever were, and are, bolstered with effects too. This week, then, we take a look at the different types of FX available to us guitarists, and explain when, how and why you should be using them…

If there’s anything people around the world share apart from biological imperatives, it’s humankind’s most common art form, cooking. With the benefit of skill, imagination and just a few quality ingredients, a good hand in the kitchen can concoct something completely new – a signature dish if you wish.

Take, for example, pesto, that classic Italian sauce.

Grab a few tasty ingredients, grind up a little of this, blend in a little of that, and with a few twists of the wrist you’ve whipped up a downright addictive delicacy. The basil is your base; a clove of garlic, a dash of olive oil, a tablespoon of pine nuts and a bit of cheese are the special effects that spice up its fundamental flavor. It’s a transformational process that creates something new, and to revert to a tired old cliché, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s pretty much how the sound of an electric guitar is shaped. Pesto is a composite of a few choice ingredients that lend the dish its flavor; our cherished tone is a composite of a choice guitar, amp and effects. With the right touch, one results in a mouthwatering sauce; the other in a lip-smacking piece of ear-candy.

And another old chestnut applies here too: less is often more.

Yes, with the right technology and a little know-how, it’s easy to bake your signature sonic pie. And cooking up a distinctive sound ranks up there with the most fun that can be legally had. However, there are a couple of pitfalls you need to steer clear of when experimenting with guitar effects, so without further ado, let’s get stomping on those boxes!

Pedalboards are like people - no two are exactly the same! As you can see from this selection shot, there's a vast amount of stompboxes to choose from, and how you set them up - and in what order - also have huge effects on your guitar tone. And that's before we even start discussing guitars and amps...

Pedalboards are like people – no two are exactly the same! As you can see from this selection shot, there’s a vast amount of stompboxes to choose from, and how you set them up – and in what order – also have huge effects on your guitar tone. And that’s before we even start discussing guitars and amps…

Broadly speaking, there are three types of FX: first, there’s the gain-type effect, such as distortion units, boosters, compressors and so on. They change the dynamics, or volume, of our guitar signals.

Then, there’s the group that change the sound by modulating or filtering frequencies or messing with the pitch. That would be chorus, flanger and phaser-type effects.

Finally, there’s the 3D contingent of space-time effects like reverb and echo, which are often collectively referred to as delays.

Now, that’s a simplified summary that cuts some corners, but it’ll do for our purposes here. Bear in mind that this is an art and a science, neither of which is dogmatic. Go where the muse takes you, because there’s no rights or wrongs here – just sounds you’ll personally like or dislike.

To further simplify things, we’ll look at these groups separately, particularly as it’s important to know where conventional wisdom says each belongs – and doesn’t belong – in your signal chain.

Of course, you can figure this out by trial and error, letting your ear be your guide. And you can always experiment. However, some golden rules have been established by broad consensus, more or less.

One applies to the fabled wah pedal. The vast majority of us will agree that it should be the first thing the guitar signal sees before it hits the front end of an amp, and that inserting a wah in an FX loop is not such a good idea unless you’re going for some pretty drastic filtering. That’s basically a given.

Ah, the classic wah pedal. This one's seen some serious stomping over the years! The wah is one of the very few FX units where most of us can agree on its best signal chain position - and if you disagree, well, you're just a bit of a Cry Baby!

Ah, the classic wah pedal. This one’s seen some serious stomping over the years! The wah is one of the very few FX units where most of us can agree on its best signal chain position – and if you disagree, well, you’re just a bit of a Cry Baby!

But let’s move on to greyer areas, namely the family of FX that tampers with the dynamics. Distortion units, boosters and compressors are much like the aforementioned wah pedal in that they do their job rather well plugged into the amp’s input jack.

A fuzz box adds a healthy helping of distortion to the signal. A booster pumps up it so it hits the amp’s input stage hard enough to saturate, breaking up the signal. A compressor irons out the dynamics in the signal, flattening peaks and troughs so that the volume level is more constant.

The general rule of thumb is that a distortion unit, booster or compressor fits in nicely between your guitar and amp.

Here’s a tip we’d like to share: if you ever get the opportunity to try a genuine treble booster, take it. It’s got to have an original germanium transistor, though. These living fossils sound great, and you can even get different versions tuned for different amps.

What we also love about these stompboxes is how responsive they are when you ride your guitar’s volume knob. A good treble booster turns the volume pot into a gain and voicing knob all in one. Back it off to tame the little brute, nudge it up to throw some dirt in the works, and crank it to unleash a screaming yet creamy monster of a sound!

Distortion doesn’t get much more musical than this.

It’s also well worth experimenting to find a great compressor pedal. Depending on the setting, a compressor can spice up a funky rhythm sound and add singing sustain to clean tones, enabling you to play clean leads with the kind of feel and response you get from distorted sounds.

That’s the secret to the soaring solos heard in many rock and pop songs. And when you try this, don’t be surprised if you hear a hint of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour in your tone – which is never a bad thing, especially when you consider the following short video we made to illustrate the point:

 

The second group, modulators such as chorus, flanger and the like, offers even more room for experimentation.

Of course, you can drop them in between your guitar and amp, but they usually work best inserted in the FX loop. Why? Well, with the latter option, your preamp gets a clean, clear signal without any phase shifting voodoo to muddy the waters. Usually, the purer the dry signal sent into the FX loop, the better the wet signal will sound when it’s piped back out of the FX loop. Simple.

A word of caution, though. One of the sins that makes many ’80s pop tracks sound so dated is the excessive use of chorus (not to mention those awful synths and e-drums – yuck!).

So it’s best to flirt with these effects and move on before they get tiresome. Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen have used flangers to great effect – pardon the pun! – but the list of metal or riff-heavy tunes that benefit from tons of modulated guitars is fairly short.

It’s usually more effective and interesting to kick these effects in to heighten the musical drama, say at the crescendo of a verse, during the climax of a solo, or to underscore a tectonic shift in the arrangement. Try using chorus, flanger, phaser and tremolo to accentuate select passages, as musical signposts and as interesting little punctuation marks.

So simple, so good, so pure rock ‘n’ roll! It’s still a big challenge to digitally recreate that classic spring reverb sound authentically, purely because of how complex and chaotic the inner workings of those original units are.

So simple, so good, so pure rock ‘n’ roll! It’s still a big challenge to digitally recreate that classic spring reverb sound authentically, purely because of how complex and chaotic the inner workings of those original units are.

Or you can just ignore all that and do what Andy Summers did during his days with the Police. Lots of those tracks are dripping with chorus. Either he forgot to switch the damn thing off or, more likely, left it on much of the time as a stylistic device, to create a signature sound. Ditto for the late, great bassist Jaco Pastorius, who took a similar approach on Joni Mitchell’s landmark Hejira album.

Or, unless you want to spend all night sounding like Keith Richards does on practically the entire Some Girls album, you should probably use your phaser a little more sporadically.

The same goes for tremolo, the hillbilly answer to vibrato, unless you’re in an Americana collective or a Pops Staples tribute band.

You have a choice to make here: is it going to be subtlety or overkill? Think of it as a bling thing, a choice between a simple band of silver on your finger or a huge gold necklace with links the size of a luxury liner’s anchor chain around your neck. Whatever works for you.

The last group of effects – the delays – does some pretty powerful stuff.

If you want to paint epic sonic images with bold brushstrokes, a delay unit is the tool for you. It’s fun, because fiddling with echoes is probably the closest any of us will ever come to messing with the space-time continuum.

It’s also effective, because great delay-laden lines have a way of worming themselves into our brains. Just ask U2’s accountant or Pink Floyd’s business manager. The clever use of echoes sure added a few zeros to the right end of the figures on their royalty checks.

Pride (In The Name Of Love) by U2, The Police’s Walking On The Moon and Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall probably would’ve been dull affairs without this magical ingredient. Its propulsive force drives these songs, and this force is strong enough to get even grannies’ fists pumping and middle-aged arena crowds jumping. It’s powerful stuff indeed.

Just like with the Hammond organ, the Fender Rhodes or the Clavinet, it’s the “electro-mechanical” components of old echo and reverb units that are responsible for those magic sounds…

Just like with the Hammond organ, the Fender Rhodes or the Clavinet, it’s the “electro-mechanical” components of old echo and reverb units that are responsible for those magic sounds…

The only way to get the hang of the various stereo, multi-tap and ping-pong delays is to experiment. If you run into trouble figuring out the delay time for a triplet or dotted pattern – that’s the timing that worked so wonderfully for the aforementioned songs – have a free app such as Delay Genie or Delay Calculator work it out for you. These tools will make the experimentation pleasurable rather than painful.

And if you do get frustrated, don’t give up.

With a little experience, a delay unit can be a fabulously creative tool and a tremendous source of inspiration. We can’t prove it, of course, but we’d be willing to wager that countless rock and pop classics were born of an idea that popped up while jamming away.

In any event, delay and reverb pedals are best plugged into the amp’s FX loop. And if the delay unit has a mix knob, you should definitely use the FX loop’s serial mode. This way, the dry signal gets patched through with the phase intact, and you can adjust the balance of dry and wet signals as you see fit.

Also, you need to watch your gain levels. Always match the input signal level to suit the effects unit. If the level is too high, you’ll hit that input too hard, which sounds rather nasty if yours is a digital device.

And if you want to use a volume pedal to control the overall level, be sure to place it all the way downstream, at the end of the chain. It should be the last device the signal sees before it’s patched into the power amp or the FX loop’s return jack.

Now it’s up to you to carve out your niche with your very own signature sound. Try anything and everything. Even if classic rock isn’t your genre, you can still borrow from the old masters.

We recommend checking out Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making Of The Dark Side Of The Moon. Many effects and loops were still conjured up by hand back then, and Alan Parsons, at the time the band’s audio engineer, explains some of his tricks in this fascinating documentary.

It’s quite inspiring to revisit a time when effects weren’t handed to players on a silver platter and it took some real ingenuity to create those soundscapes…

 

First published: November 14 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.

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Leave a comment

Ricardo on October 20, 2017 Reply

Hello there,

today I received my dream Amp (tubemeister 36). After I tried all the channels I brought my pedals in (EHX Big Muff, Boss Os-2). I jacked up every pedal alone. So my setup is: Guitar –> Big muff/boss –> TM36. I dialed the EQ to 12 o’clock each, gain super low and master 10 o’clock, it was a bit late. After i switched from Stand by to Play both pedals were suuuper distorted/overdriven it really didn’t sound right. I had to set my pedal pots to almost zero to get a decent sound. I tried it with every possible Powerlevel (36, 18 W etc.). I am relatively new to valve amps am i missing something?

My Guitars: PRS SE, Ibanez, Strat copy so not the worst i guess.
SPeaker: 212 Celestion Vintage.

The amp itself sounds as intended also when i have Bypass running. The only thing that bothers me atm is this little issue. Also i had my Line 6 as a reference and the pedals sounded more like they should.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 4, 2017 Reply

    Hi Ricardo, and thanks for writing!

    Hmm, it seems like there’s nothing wrong with the amps or the pedals, so yes, it’s just a case of how different amps respond differently to different pedals. Of course, pickup choice is also important (we’re sure the results were different between humbuckers and single coils, for example). And yes, the Line 6 will respond very differently to the TubeMeister. Tube amps, solid state amps and modeling amps all react very differently to FX pedals.

    This is both the advantage and the disadvantage of the tube amp and FX pedal world! Some sound amazing together, and some sadly don’t. For some good examples, just go on to YouTube and watch people trying out overdrive and distortion pedals into say Fender and Marshall amps. The results are so different! But both can be good, when used properly…

    What you need to do, like you already started to, is tweak the pedals to your new setup. Get the amp and guitar set to how you like them, then add in the pedals, and make them sound ‘right’ to you. Hopefully this’ll work out, but if it doesn’t, you could always consider a different choice of fuzz, etc. There are so many options out there 🙂

    We hope this helps a bit! And we hope it opens you up to the world of pedals, which is a world we love 🙂

    Team H&K

George on February 14, 2017 Reply

I’m now in the process of moving from my old rig (mesa lss) to the gm40 deluxe. I use a variety of pedals on a pedal train all switched via a boss es-8.
With my Eventide h9 in loop 8 as a stereo effect I place this “in the loop”, the es-8 allows you to position any of 8 pedals in any order or in/ out of the effects loop.

To do this I am connected via the 4 cable method.

Guitar in –> boss es-8 input 1

Gm40 effects return –> boss es-8 out 1/L

Gm40 effects send —> Boss es-8 return vol

Boss es-8 send volume -> xotic Sp compressor -> GM40 Input

I also use the es-8 out2/R to feed a second amp (Princeton 68 reverb) for a stereo/ wet dry set up.

I’m finding the gm40 has such great crunch, distortion channels that most of my pedals can go and I’m increasingly using the es-8 as a midi switcher to select options (channel, boost, noise gate, reverb) on the gm40.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 16, 2017 Reply

    Wow, that sounds like an awesome setup George! Super flexibility there – we’d love to see a pic of that board too 🙂 Thanks for the kind words about the GM40 too, and enjoy it…

Coen de Moor on February 11, 2017 Reply

I like a volumepedal before the delay/reverb section, and not after it. To me, that sounds more natural.

Also, you could use a volumpedal before your overdrive/distiortion/fuzz section. It then works as gain control rather than a volume control. Could be useful, depending on what you want.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 15, 2017 Reply

    You’re right Coen. In fact, with this kind of thing, there is no right and wrong – tone is subjective after all, so our advice is always just to put the pedals in the position you find sounds best. We actually like using gain swell features using the GrandMeister 36 and its MIDI functions, but the technique you recommend also has its uses!

stephen fell on December 12, 2016 Reply

I would like your opinion in the sound the legend Tom Sholtz from the 1980s created with his analogue master pieces which covered a wide range of effects in placed the correct order in stereo in one fx and our pre programmable & midi from clean and sweet to outright dirty and you will see at least one piece in most of the top rockers arsenal will have one in there rig, so in which order in the chain would you recommend using this fx along with a mel 9 wah, additional chorus, additional stereo echo and a efx looper using a stereo amp and 2 speakers

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 12, 2016 Reply

    Which FX are you talking about Stephen? YOu don’t mention the name of the first one, only what it can do! Let us know and we’ll have a think… 🙂

Warren Hill on August 11, 2016 Reply

I have a Tubemeister 36 and I play a Fender Strat Blacktop HH and still searching for a great crunch sound. I dialed in the eq, vol and gain for a nice clean sound that works well with my pedals. I also have a great lead sound for soloing and would like just a little less muddy sound but that may just be the humbuckers. And I just can’t seem to find the crunch sound that is not too muddy when the gain is up and not enough presence when the gain is down. Can you recommend a few combined balanced settings for the vol and gain knobs. Open to eq changes too. I like late 70’s and 80’s rock with some commercial hard rock and metal to date. I understand sound is subjective and appreciate the help. Thanks again for the help and love my T36!!!!!!!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 12, 2016 Reply

    Hey Warren, glad you’re liking your TM36! Hmm, interesting predicament. We don’t think those Blacktop humbuckers should be too muddy… Anyway, one surefire way to clean things up a bit is to turn down the gain. Crank the volume as necessary, and it’ll clean up your signal and you’ll be able to control the crunch way more with how you physically attack the strings. Like AC/DC, and they sounded pretty good 😉 We blogged about their tones and their lack of gain here, have a read: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/acdc-and-the-no-gain-no-pain-secret-for-great-guitar-tone/

    When it comes to classic rock sounds though, we’ve also done a couple of newer blogs where we share our TM settings for artists like Hendrix, Gilmour, AC/DC (again! We maybe like them a little too much 😉 ), Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Lukather. Now, those guys all have different sounds, but have a look at the settings we’ve done there and play around with them a bit – we used our TubeMeister Deluxe 20 to get those tones, but you’ll easily get close with the TM36 too. Here are the links:

    Hendrix, Gilmour, etc.: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/get-guitar-sound-jimi-hendrix-david-gilmour-nile-rodgers/

    AC/DC, SRV, Lukather: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/get-guitar-sound-acdc-stevie-ray-vaughan-steve-lukather/

    We hope this is helpful and you’ll end up with killer rhythm tones from this! Rock on, and if you have any other favorite players or sounds you’d like us to look at, let us know and we’ll add them to our shortlist for the next article 🙂

Tony on December 15, 2015 Reply

Nice reviews . Does the stompboxes sounds greater than a processer ? . Im in a confusion .. processer or stompboxes …
Im a beginner in this field . i have a mega distortion but im not satisfyed by that alone …. . If i buy a new processer can i add the mega dist with it ? Will it sounds good? with your experiances ????? sorry if i ask any stupid questions

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 18, 2015 Reply

    Thanks Tony! Hmm, this is a question of opinion – what sounds better to you might not sound better to us, and vice versa 😉 Sure, you can play both together! It also depends on your amp and guitar, and what kind of music you play. Some guys swear by analog stompboxes alone, but others are happy with processors.

    And don’t worry about asking these questions – that’s why we’re here 🙂

Mark on September 28, 2015 Reply

Well, I went ahead and acquired a bsm treble booster. It is true what they say; boosting the treble sounds like it is going to be a very bad idea but they are mis-named. Put at the front end before a compressor produces a musical singing overdrive from my already pretty hot TM18.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 30, 2015 Reply

    Yep, you’re right – and that sounds like an excellent haul, not to mention a tone that could be to die for 🙂 Perhaps it’s time FX makers started renaming things like treble boosters, clean boosters, etc. They’d sell more and the average player would have more of an idea of what the pedals actually do! (Of course, it’s supposed to have been different back in the old days, when they actually did boost treble on amps, but not any more!).

    Happy playing with your BSM – we’re more than a little jealous 😉

Mark on September 22, 2015 Reply

Thank you for your answer! Right now we added “Creep” from Radiohead to our repertoire. If I tried to reproduce the distorted sound of the chorus, would you rather use a pedal or just the Tubemeister? (I have a Yamaha Pacifica Strat with a bridge humbucker)

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 22, 2015 Reply

    Oof, that’s a tough one! We Googled this and apparently Radiohead are big pedal fans – something like the Rat Distortion or a ShredMaster would get that sound (clean channel of amp, then with distortion for the chorus). Apparently the effect in the verse is a tremolo – we found a good lesson on it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9HZ-FjEYdI

    You could try going from the clean TubeMeister to the boosted Lead channel, and this might also work really well! It’s also down to how you attack the strings with your picking hand too though, so the best solution: try it with your TubeMeister and if it doesn’t sound right, go try a couple of pedals and see what fits best! (Remember to try the pedals with a TM36 and your settings, not with a different amp!)

Mark on September 22, 2015 Reply

Hi,

Thanks for your informative post. I have a question regarding the distortion pedals: I have a Tubemeister 36. Would you say it makes sense to get distortion pedals or is it better to use e.g. the lead channel of the amp in high gain?

Also, If I use a distortion pedal, would you use it in the clean, crunch or lead channel?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 22, 2015 Reply

    Hi Mark. Good question, and the answer is… it depends 😉

    It depends on what kind of music you want to play, and what kind of sounds you want to make! There’s plenty of gain on the lead channel of the TubeMeisters, so you can do anything from rock to heavy metal with them. An overdrive pedal is great for breaking up an amp’s clean channel, and you would normally use a distortion pedal (yes, there is a difference between overdrive and distortion pedals!) on a clean channel too. You can also use overdrives on dirty channels to get even more distortion, but using distortion pedals on an already quite distorted amp is quite an unusual sound 😉 Some guys love it for crazy metal stuff, but it’s not for everybody!

    But if you just want great clean, crunch and lead sounds – and sometimes a nice boost on top – the TM36 with a footswitch will do an amazing job! After that, think of yourself as an artist, using pedals to add extra bits of color here and there 🙂

    We hope this helps a bit, but let us know if you have any more specific questions or pedals you’re thinking of – we’d be happy to talk about this all day 😉

Mark on September 4, 2015 Reply

I’m seriously thinking of investing in a treble booster but was not sure how my Tubemeister 18 would take to it (they are quite an investment, for such an old, simple device and not easy to get hold of in the uk). Do you guys recommend one that’s ‘tuned’, as you put it to the Tubemeister?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 11, 2015 Reply

    Hi Mark, good question! The thing about treble boosters is that they all take to different amps very differently. What we’d recommend you do is try and test a couple in a store with your amp to see which one sounds best to you. We’ve heard good things about the Brian May ones, but haven’t yet tried them personally. The old vintage treble boosters can be amazing, but obviously are rare, expensive, and can be a disappointment.

    One other thing we could recommend is contacting this guy: http://treblebooster.de/

    He’s been doing nothing but building treble boosters for 20 years, we know him personally, and he could talk to you forever about the best treble booster for your exact needs. Plus he’ll even build you a unique personal one, if that’s what you want. There are, naturally, cheaper options out there (we just Googled a bit and the Mooer looks like it could be worth a try – but again, we’ve not used it so can’t comment) but for treble boosters, this is the place to be!

    Hope this helps, and let us know how you go – we’d be interested to hear how your future treble booster experimenting pans out!

Mike Duncan on March 11, 2015 Reply

Dimension C Chorus, Digital Delay, Compressor, Rat. That’s it. Music Man 112RD Fifty. 30 years and I have my sound.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 13, 2015 Reply

    Simple and straightforward, with a dash of each ‘classic’ sound you’d ever need – sounds like a cool rig, Mike! What guitar(s) do you run with it?

Paul on November 16, 2014 Reply

Great article, on what can be a dark art. Personally just use a bit of chorus and phase in the loop and let my tubemeister take care of the gain with just a clean boost and/or wah for solos – best amp I’ve ever owned, love it!!!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 17, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for the kind words Paul, and you’re right – FX are a bit of a dark art! Some guitarists won’t touch them, and some swear by them. We’re somewhere in the middle, in that we love their possibilities, but we realise that FX don’t necessarily equal great tone. That comes from the fingers first and foremost. What we didn’t touch on in the post is built-in FX on amps, like you mention – perhaps that’s for another day, so thanks for the inspiration 😉

olaf on November 16, 2014 Reply

great things and helpfull….

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 16, 2014 Reply

    Thanks a lot Olaf!

robin vickers. on November 14, 2014 Reply

Differant peddles for differant styles of music. Av actualy used a Lesley. Rotary speaker . Yrs ago. Tryin to find the holy grail. Of sound.. and a think am happy ish with wot av got. x

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 16, 2014 Reply

    Yes, we all like things a little different. Music would be boring if we’re all the same, I suppose! But for many guitarists, it’s a lifelong journey to finding the best tone, and that means a constantly changing setup… Which can be fun, if expensive 😉

    PS. Jealous on the real Leslie thing!