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How Guitar Pedals Work


Make It Yours: Developing a Signature Sound
If you want your own signature sound, a personal pedal board is the way to go.
If you want your own signature sound, a personal pedal board is the way to go.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Some players, like Eric Clapton, rely on amplifiers and guitar pickups to achieve a signature sound. Others use a variety of off-the-shelf effects. Still others have effects built to their own specifications. (Neil Young's red box and "whizzer" come to mind.) Your personal budget, the style of music you play and your own personality will determine which types of pedal effects work for you.

Once you've invested in a few effects, you'll probably want to investigate a single power supply to operate all your effects. Some devices supply power for up to eight different effects. Other manufacturers sell pedal boards designed to power, transport and protect pedal effects.

You'll also want to chain your pedals together to create effects layers and enable you to switch between pedals during live performance. There are a few rules of thumb when chaining pedal effects:

  • Preamps and compressors generally go at the front of the chain. The exception to that rule is envelope filter (auto-wah) pedals, which need a variable signal to operate properly. If you're using an auto-wah, put it before your compressor.
  • Next, add your noise-making pedals: overdrive, distortion and fuzz.
  • Modulation effects (chorus, reverb, flange) work best "downstream" in the chain. They require even levels to operate properly, and they can also be quite noisy, so it's best to put them after pedals like distortion, which amplify the signal.
  • At the end of the signal chain, add your EQ and Noise Gate. If you're using a reverb pedal, experiment with placing it before and after your noise gate.
  • As with any rules, sometimes you get the best results when you break them. Shuffle the pedals in your effects chain and see what sounds best to you.

Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" wouldn't be the same tune without his Uni-Vibe pedal. From Korg's KP3 Effects Sampler to Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer, there's a whole universe of mind-blowing pedal effects to inspire your sound and your songwriting. Find lots more information, including schematics and mod-it-yourself links, on the next page.