Beginner's 101: Guitar & Bass Effects

Beginner's 101: Guitar & Bass Effects

Guitar & Bass Effects : A Guide

How to shop for the right effects pedals and multi-effects processors

Effects pedals and processors open up a whole new world of sonic possibilities for guitarists and bassists alike. From the subtle to the outrageous, guitar and bass stompboxes and effects multiprocessors allow you to replicate the sounds you’ve heard on your favourite records; as well as those spinning in your head.

In this guide, we will walk you through the many types of effects available, honing in on some one of a kind stompboxes.

Every guitar player loves pedals - we all have at least a handful in our personal collection and we can’t stop ourselves from trying the latest pedals. But when you’re just starting out, you probably know when you need something, but you’re not exactly sure what it is. You may not know what flanging or phasing does to your signal and the difference it makes as opposed to a chorus effect.


What are Effects?

Effects are electronic devices and circuits that process the electronic signal input from an instrument or mic. It is also referred to as FX.

The point of effects is to make your guitar or bass sound better in various musical contexts, create new and different sounds, or simply have fun making strange noises. Many effects processors can give you hours of joy exploring their capabilities.


EQ (Equalizer)

EQ or equalization effects work by boosting or cutting specified frequency bands within the sound signal. From treble or high-end sounds such as the sizzling sounds of a riveted cymbal to low-end sources such as the thump of a bass drum or bass guitar. EQ effects don’t change the pitch but alter the timbre or quality of sound. Depending on the application, EQ control can be tedious or simple.

Most guitars and basses have one or more tone knobs, which offer a simple form of EQ control. The usage of these tone knobs adds or cuts the treble frequencies of the instrument’s signal. Most guitar and bass amps have some tone control available, usually in the form of a 3-band EQ section which allows you to control bass, mid and treble frequencies with independent knobs. These knobs boost or cut frequencies when you turn them up or down.

Refining the Sound

To better control and fine tune your sound, you may want to use a parametric or graphic EQ. A parametric EQ allows you to adjust the width of the frequency band that’s being altered and the shape of the curve - how abruptly the boosted or cut area changes to the unmodified area. A graphic EQ divides the frequency ranges into a number of narrow bands which can each be boosted or lowered by sliders, thus giving you a visual or ‘graphic’ representation of how the EQ is being affected. The more bands there are, the more precise your adjustments can be.

EQ can make a tremendous difference in the sound of your instrument; this becomes especially important when playing in a band setting. Your guitar might sound great when you’re playing alone, but within the sound mix of a full band it may need some tweaking. Depending on which instruments are involved, you will need to adjust EQ to help your guitar fit into the overall sound the rest of the band. Using an EQ effects processor can help you dial that sound in easily and precisely than depending on just your guitar and amp’s EQ controls.


Wah Pedal 

Another effect that depends on EQ modulation is the wah pedal. As you rock forward on the pedal, the sound becomes increasingly trebly. As you rock back, the treble range is muted. In the middle position, a wah produces a nasal, mid-range heavy tone that’s useful and intriguing in its own right. With the freedom to change the wah’s tone constantly while you’re playing, it creates a dynamic and expressive effect that can become an integral part of the way you play. Jimi Hendrix was one of the first guitarists to exploit the wah’s capabilities.

There is a broad range of wah-wah pedals available, each with its own distinct flavour. A variation of the wah pedal is the auto wah.

Overdrive and Distortion Effects  

Originally, a guitar signal distortion happens when tube amps are turned up too loud. While distortion was first considered undesirable, players soon can to recognise that a distorted signal increases the amount of sustain they can get out of each note. This essential discovery created a fundamental shift in guitar solo styles to include extended notes, such as those produced by wind instruments or organs. When used on rhythm guitar parts, distortion thickens the signal and allows for a much heavier and chunkier sound.

Tube amp distortion is created when tubes are overdriven when receiving more juice than they can handle, thus causing the signal to break up. Tube-driven amplifiers are still in demand by seasoned players because of the warm, musical tones they create and some distortion-type effects use actual tubes to replicate that sound. But most distortion effects are produced either through analog solid-state circuitry or digitally.   

- Overdrive 

Overdrives were a result from the natural breakup that occurs when a tube amp receives an excessively hot signal from a guitar. This pushed the tubes to deliver a subtle and warm breakup. Generally, an overdrive is more subdued, natural form of distortion. While you don’t have to use an overdrive effect with a tube amp to get a great sound, the combination of the two can produce a rich, pleasing tone that many guitarists prefer. The first overdrive effects were designed to push more signals into the tube amp, giving it a throaty, mid-range tone which was used by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Many of today’s pedal makers have created circuitry to add that desired tone when used with a solid state amp. Since overdrive is a signal boost, adjustments from your volume knob will create a variety of different sounds.

- Distortion 

Due to a distortion's critical function in modern guitar styles; by far the lion's share of stompboxes are distortion units. Most of these feature intensity and tone controls but often vary wildly in terms of the sounds they create. You'll be amazed at the different types of distortions that can be produced, from rich, creamy, smooth, and melodic sustain to harsh, jagged, and piercing breakup tones. Many distortion units produce a broad range of textures. 

Often the names and appearances of these pedals will give you a clue as to what types of sounds they produce. Otherwise, it's a good idea to look at interviews and endorsements to learn which distortion stompboxes your guitar heroes are using.

- Fuzz 

A fuzz pedal is essentially an extreme distortion effect. Because fuzz radically alters the signal, it is often used sparingly for contrast, rather than as a meat-and-potatoes sound. Since it thickens up the tone so dramatically, fuzz can be fun for intros and solo guitar parts when no other instruments are playing. Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a classic example of fuzz-infused guitar.

- Boosters 

Unlike fuzz and distortion pedals, booster effects typically are engineered to boost the signal reaching the amp without adding coloration. Some booster pedals slightly fatten the tone of the guitar by overdriving the preamp stage of the amplifier. They can be very useful in getting your amp to break up and produce musical-sounding distortion at lower volume levels as well as adding clarity to your solo riffs. A booster pedal can become an essential part of your rig when you have more than four effects in your signal chain or 18 feet or more of cabling between your instrument and amp. 


Some booster pedals add a buffering circuit that helps restore your instrument’s original output level and treble range when it has been reduced by your cable length and effects chain.

Pitch-Shift Effects 

Pitch-shift effects are a lot of fun and it adds depth and flavour to a guitar player’s sound. The effect works by taking the fundamental note being played on the guitar and adding another note either above or below the original. Simply adding more notes will often produce odd, off-key notes if you’re not careful. Most modern pitch-shifting effects use advanced technology to make sure the added notes work harmoniously with the original.


Harmonisers are often used to generate vocal harmonies, but can also do wonders for bass and guitar sounds. Some vocal harmonisers use the signal from your guitar to create two or three-part vocal harmonies. Most harmonising effects lets you specify precisely how much higher or lower you want the accompanying note to be. Modern artists such as Steve Vai and Robert Fripp have created interesting music using a purely pitch-shifted signal with none of the original signals.

Many modern harmonising effects simplify setup by allowing you to specify the key you're playing in and the interval to the harmony notes. Many also allow you to mix two or more harmonies simultaneously. Used judiciously, harmonisers can dramatically fatten up your sound.


Octave Generator 

An octave generator is a simplified form of pitch shifting. This effect will allow you to add an octave—usually below—the fundamental note. Units that add a lower octave exclusively are referred to as sub-octave generators. They can add a lot of depth to the guitarist’s sound. Many bass players also use sub-octave generators to significantly fatten up their sound.



The Whammy 

The Whammy pedal is truly one-of-a-kind. It gets its name from the slang term for a tremolo arm on a guitar, which allows a player to control the pitch of the strings while playing. In much the same way, The Whammy pedal allows a player to perform radical pitch-shifting in real time by rocking the foot treadle back and forth, sweeping between the intervals set on the pedal. This pedal is a lot of fun and allows guitarists to create the dive-bomb sounds that are associated with Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and Joe Satriani.


Modulation Effects 

Modulation effects duplicate the waveform of the fundamental signal and alters it, then it blends the altered signal and the original signal to create the effected sound. This may sound complicated, but whether you realise it or not, many of your favourite guitar sounds probably use a modulation effect in some way.  

- Phaser 

Phasers, also called phase shifters, duplicate the original waveform of a guitar’s output, and shift one wave out of phase with the other. They blend both waves together by usually applying an oscillating circuit, resulting in the waves moving in and out of phase with each other creating spacey, “whooshing” effects. “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces was an early example of phase shifting in a recording. Eddie Van Halen and Queen’s Brian May often used phase effects in the 1970s and ‘80s.  

- Flanger 

Flanger effects simulates the studio trick of repeatedly putting your thumb on a tape recorder’s reel for a second and then letting the reel (and music’s pitch) catch back up while a dry (unaffected) signal plays alongside. Flangers usually have a depth setting, which controls the intensity of the effect, and a rate control that adjusts the speed of the cycles. 

Flanging can be a subtle effect, thickening the sound and imparting a spacey feeling. Or it can be extremely dramatic when cranked up, to the point of making the original signal unrecognisable. This broad range makes a flanger a fun stomp box to experiment with. Jimmy Page used a flanger to good effect on Led Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Kashmir, ” as did Jimi Hendrix on “Bold as Love.”

- Chorus 

A chorus effect alters the duplicated waveform in a more subtle and nuanced way. The altered waveform will sound much like the original, but just different enough to sound like multiple voices playing the same note or notes. As it is usually applied, chorus sounds like the same signal running through two amps with a slight delay between them. In fact, Pat Metheny's famous chorus sound was produced in exactly this manner, using no actual chorus effect at all. 

Chorus is a great way to thicken up the sound of a bass (especially in a 3-piece band), rhythm guitar, or solo guitar. It is often used with distorted sounds but is a fantastic way to create clean full-sounding sounds as well. Stereo output (from two separate speakers) enhances the chorus a great deal. Many acoustic guitar amps include a clean-sounding chorus effect adding depth and character to the amplified signal. Chorus pedals can be very helpful in fattening up the tone of acoustic-electric guitars whose piezo pickups tend to sound a bit thin. 

- Tremolo 

A tremolo effect alters the volume of a signal at a preset interval, within a preset range. Some amps have this effect built in, and in some cases it’s called vibrato (a misnomer that caught on long ago and has stuck around to this day). Tremolo sounds much like hitting a note and then turning your volume knob up and down rapidly. Most tremolo effects have two controls: speed and depth. Adjusting speed changes how rapidly your volume fluctuates. Adjusting the depth controls the range of volume from loud to soft as the tremolo fluctuates.

Tremolo can be a subtle effect, as heard in Born on the Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones, or more distinct as heard in Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells and Bones by Radiohead. Tremolo has been around since the earliest days of the rock era, and was popular with rockabilly and surf guitarists.



Time-Based Effects 

By and large, time-based effects split the guitar output into two identical signals and momentarily hold one back while allowing the other to play in real time. The two signals are mixed back into one at the output. Usually you can control the length of the delay and the amount of the signal that is affected versus the part that stays "dry" (unaffected). This latter control—found on most effects—is usually called the level control. 


- Delay 

One of the earliest studio effects created by taking advantage the distance between the record and playback heads on tape recorders, delay duplicates the original signal and repeats it after the original sound is played. This can be repeated over and over for an echo effect, or be a single repeat that produces the slap-back sound popular in rockabilly. The time between repetitions can be very short, measured in milliseconds. Or it can be longer and more dramatic. Delays can also add a rhythmic element to your playing. There are many different kinds of delay effects available, and most offer a number of different types in the same unit. 

- Reverb 

Reverb is a more subtle form of delay that replicates the natural echo effect of various spaces such as small, medium, or large rooms or concert halls. Many amplifiers have built-in reverb effects, but a lot of guitar players like having a separate reverb pedal for an increased range of programmable options. Some modern reverb stompboxes emulate the sound of vintage reverb devices that used reverberating springs or plates to achieve their effects. Reverb is great tool to add colour to a very clean tone, but can quickly make a heavily distorted tone sound muddy.  

- Echo 

Echo (also sometimes called long delay) is a natural effect as well, but it is only encountered in large open spaces such as canyons or stadiums. It sounds like when you emit a loud, sharp yelp and a second later you hear the yelp come bouncing faintly back to you from wall afar. This is a particularly fun effect to play around with. If you set the delay of the echo long enough, you can play the notes you just played and harmonise while the rate sets up a kind of beat. 

Echo controls usually let you determine the level, the period between playbacks, and the decay—the rate at which succeeding notes become quieter and quieter until they fade out altogether. The period (or time) parameter is often controlled by a single button you push repeatedly in time with the music. This is called tap delay and keeps your echo effect from clashing with the music's time signature.



A looper allows you to record a musical passage or phrase then play that passage back repeatedly. You can then record more loops and layer them, one on top of the other. Most recording and playback functions are foot controlled, and once you’ve created suitable backing tracks, you can then play over the repeated passages in real time, creating exciting one-man-band sounds which was never possible before. Many of the more advanced models include built-in rhythms, custom effects, inputs for vocal mics and other instruments, plus MIDI and USB capabilities so that you can use the looper as part of your digital song-creation and recording processes. 

While a good looper provides phenomenal musical potential, especially for solo performance and most are simple to use, looping can be challenging for the novice to master. Experienced musicians will have an easier time creating with them, either in realtime performance or songwriting. 

Volume Pedal 

A volume pedal does the same thing as a volume knob on a guitar, but it allows you to control the volume with your foot. It is not a boost, it just allows you to sweep between zero output and the full output capacity of your instrument. Many guitarists use a volume pedal, also sometimes referred to as an expression pedal, to create pedal steel-like swells, where a note or chord is played, then the volume is slowly and smoothly raised. Volume pedals can also be used as a boost effect, by simply playing at less than full volume, then stepping on the pedal to go to full volume momentarily when you need the extra boost. Volume pedals can make a standard electric guitar sound like a pedal-steel when used with a well-practiced foot technique.They can also be an important pedal to have in your toolbox when playing in a band with multiple instruments.



A compressor affects the dynamics of your guitar or bass signal. By making very quiet signals louder and loud signals quieter, it compresses the dynamic range of the signal. This can be helpful when keeping your quieter passages from getting lost in the rest of the music, and your louder passages from drowning everything else out. 

Compressor pedals add a softening effect as well, by reducing the front edge of notes and amplifying their tails. These increases sustain by bumping up the signal as the note fades out. Most compressors allow you to control both the thresholds (upper and lower limits) and the knee (the speed with which the signal is raised or lowered). The big appeal for guitarists is the compressor's ability to simulate the natural compression that tube amps generate when driven at medium to high levels. A good compressor can help thicken up the sound of your guitar and add extra punch to your performance.


A limiter is basically an upper end of a compressor. It allows you to control the maximum loudness of a signal by cutting it back when it crosses a preset threshold. This allows you to avoid abrupt, loud signals or damaged equipment and ears.


Noise Gates 

A noise gate is a handy device that gets rid of hums and hisses that may become apparent when you're plugged in but not playing your instrument. Basically a limiter in reverse, the noise gate simply cuts out sounds below a preset level. As long as you're making music your sound is full on; but as soon as you stop playing, all the noise generated by your effects chain, vintage amp, and/or house wiring is silenced.


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  • Clement Hua
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