Aside from the pickups (and there are significant differences), electric guitars have little inherent sound. Yet the variety of tones that a guitarist can generate from a slab of wood and electronics is staggering. From the early 1930s, when the first electric guitar was plugged into an amplifier to help it compete with the big band ensembles, to the sounds of today, much of the development has come from the use of guitar pedals. And even here, we can witness a huge diversity, from the high-flying tones of Jimi Hendrix, to the distorted blues sounds of Eric Clapton, all the way to traditional jazz tones of Al Di Meola.
Guitar pedals can be broadly grouped into two categories—analog and digital. The first pedals were all analog, and many people still consider these to be superior to the subsequent development of the digital pedal. Emphasizing these differences are the comparative costs, with discrete analog circuitry generally costing more, but not always. Additionally, guitar pedals can be broken down further into types: distortion, delay, multi-effect, etc. So, for convenience purposes, this overview will follow these distinctions. Let’s begin with some digital pedals.
The Behringer SUPER FUZZ SF300 recreates the distortion of the 1960s–'70s via three modes: classic fuzz, grunge and gain boost. Further sound shaping can be applied using the built-in, two-band EQ.
The DD400 from the same company is a 24-bit stereo delay/echo with delay time up to 1.3 seconds and a tap tempo feature. The pedal can deliver everything from the quick “slap” echo of classic rockabilly, to the long dreamy echoes found in New Age music.
Longer delay times of up to 6.4 seconds are available from the Boss DD-7 digital delay, which also features Modulation Delay for chorus-flavored sounds, and Analog Delay, which simulates an analog (“warm”) sound. Tap tempo is available on the unit itself, or controlled using an optional FS-5U footswitch. Connecting an optional FV-500L expression pedal allows for further hands-free control of the delay parameters. Using the stereo outputs, spatial audio sweeps can be created via true stereo panning or be used to create separate dry and wet signal paths. Finally, the pedal provides for up to 40 seconds of sound-on-sound loop recording.
The Boss RC-3 Loop Station takes the latter concept up a notch. As the name implies, the pedal records loops, be it a single phrase, or one on top of another. This allows for building complex arrangements, creating custom practice tracks, or with its USB connection, to import external loops or full tracks, again for practice or to try out different ideas. Three hours of recording is available, along with several variations of a simple drum track, stereo input and output for use with keyboards or DJ rigs, and to top it off, the unit quantizes irregular playing and loops in a seamless fashion.
For those that don’t want a mess of pedals at their feet but still want a variety of effects, the Behringer BEFX600 could fit the bill. The 24-bit stereo pedal provides a choice of 6 effects, including a flanger, chorus, phaser, delay, tremolo and pitch shifter. Only one effect can be chosen at a time, but each has two parameters for editing the sound, plus a level control.
Moving on to analog pedals, we have the famous RAT 2 from Pro Co. A classic distortion pedal built around a very simple circuit that uses a single op-amp, the effect is generated by using a variable gain circuit with diodes shorting the output to ground to produce hard clipping of the input waveform. The distortion stage is followed by a passive tone filter and volume control. The pedal excels at arena style rock rhythms or blistering leads and features a true bypass switch to ensure no sound coloration or degradation of signal when the effect is bypassed.
The Boss DS-1 distortion pedal is based on a similar design as the previous item, although the two sound very different. The filter section (tone) features a scooped midrange using a -6dB/octave high-pass and a similar low-pass filter, with a tone control mixing the two signals.
For more distortion variety, the Boss MT-2 is the ticket. A unique dual-gain circuitry provides long sustains and “heavy” mids and lows that mimic the sound of overdriven amplifiers. A three-band EQ with semi-parametric mid control offers a wide range of saturated distortion textures.
Another classic pedal is the TRM-1 Tremulator from Demeter Amplification. Designed to emulate the classic Fender tremolo effect but with less noise and hum and a greater range of speeds and depths, the pedal features "lopsided" amplitude modulation with a rounded-off triangular modulant waveform. A trim pot sets the bias for the optical unit.
At the high end price point sits the Chandler Limited Little Devil Colored Boost. The pedal will gently color a Fender amplifier or drive an old Marshall into screaming oblivion. A Class-A amplifier design and a six-preset feedback/bias control offer different styles of harmonic distortion and clipping. Soft clipping, hard clipping, clipping on the top, bottom, or both sides of a sine wave with significant frequency changes are applied with each click of the feedback/bias control. The pedal is capable of up to 39 dB of gain.
All of the above pedals need a 9V battery to operate (the Little Devil requires two), or they can also operate on optional external power supplies. Since pedals start to exhibit sound degradation as the batteries drain, it’s recommended you keep several fresh batteries around for that eventuality. As to the question of regular or rechargeable batteries, conventional wisdom states that for heavy gigging, non-rechargeable batteries are better because of the issues of battery drain. For home use, rechargeable batteries are acceptable.
The other source of guitar tone is the amplifier/speaker combination. Early experimentation with tonal variation simply consisted of overdriving the tube input stage of the amplifier to produce a thicker or outright distorted sound. Today, there are numerous options that include effects, various amplifier models that change how the amplifier sounds, and more.
The CUBE-40XL from Roland channels 40 watts of power through a 10-inch custom speaker, suitable for both stage and studio work. Solid yet portable, the combo provides three discrete channels, JC Clean, Lead and Solo (accessible via an optional FS series footswitch), along with memory capability. Ten COSM amp models are onboard as well as a COSM vintage Spring Reverb, plus an 80-second Phrase Looper.
The CUBE-80XL from Roland channels 80 watts of power through a 12" custom speaker. The combo also provides three discrete channels, JC Clean, Lead and Solo (accessible via an optional FS series footswitch), along with memory capability. Eleven COSM amp models are onboard as well as eight effects including the COSM vintage Spring Reverb, 3-band EQ, plus the 80-second Phrase Looper.
For those wanting more power and more of everything, the Line 6 Spider IV 120 delivers 120 watts into a pair of 10” Celestion speakers. Sixteen amplifier models are included as well as more than three-hundred presets, almost two-hundred tones based on popular guitar songs, twenty built-in programmable effects with custom memory locations, a built-in tuner and a 14-second looper. Aside from regular guitar inputs, the combo includes an input for connecting an instrument, a headphone/direct out, a CD/MP3 player input and the ability to connect FBV II series foot pedals. A downloadable editor librarian is available for editing presets, creating backups and sharing tones via email.
This article has barely scratched the surface of amazing possibilities that exist for creating unique and individualist guitar tones at every price point. There really is something for everyone. It should also be noted that all of the items mentioned will work equally well for non-solid-body guitars that have some form of pickup, and some pedals will add character to electric basses. And, of course, synthesizers can also benefit from some tone twisting. Experimentation is the key here.
For more information and to view B&H's selection of effects pedals and amplifiers, please visit the B&H website, or contact a Sales Associate via live chat, over the phone or in the B&H SuperStore.