A brief guide to guitar pedals for beginners

I wrote a few of these music basics guides to use in a promo zine I used to make with listings of the gigs I promoted. I thought I’d post them here, in case they’re of continued use to people.

Guitar pedals are a lot of fun, but there’s a mind-boggling selection when you’re just starting out.

Watching YouTube demonstrations of pedals can be a good way to find out what ones you like, but a lot of the presenters are big showoffs, so don’t be put off if you dislike the music they play, concentrate on listening to the difference between the sound when the pedal is off and on, and with different settings and whether you like the change.

If you want to try out pedals in a shop, but are feeling shy, you can bring headphones and ask to use a demo amp with a headphone socket.

Some classics:

Tuner pedal– get one with a light up display so you can see what you’re doing
Ibanex Tube Screamer- crunchy overdrive and gain (ie makes the sound harder and more powerful)

Pro Co RAT– the go-to dirty distortion pedal
Boss DS-1– The RAT’s slightly pricier rival

Electro-Harmonix Big Muff- the classic warm fuzz pedal

Electro-Harmonix Pog– play in harmony with yourself
Boss Loop Station- loop yourself playing
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail- heavenly reverb
Boss Space Echo- intergalactic tape loop emulation (it’s a modern digital version of a classic 60s psychedelic pedal)

All of these are from mid-priced solid brands that will be reliable and last a long time.

There are a lot of very cheap brands like Joyo and Mooer available online now. Some of their pedals are great, some are great but do something different to what you thought you ordered, and some are terrible. You don’t really know until you try them. Same with multi-effects- Jack of all trades, master of none.

TC Electric, Daneelctro and Behringer are good low-priced brands. Plastic pedals are however much less sturdy than metal ones.

There are also companies like Strymon and a whole host of tiny cottage industries producing beautiful expensive pedals.

Signal chain:

The order you arrange the pedals (the signal chain) also makes a huge difference to what kind of sound you get out. Each pedal changes something about the sound, which is then passed on to the input of the next one so different orders can create very different effects.

Pedals labelled “True Bypass” don’t affect the sound when they are turned off. Cheaper pedals without it still change the sound when they’re off.

Tuner pedal first: you don’t want the effects confusing it

Basic principle: Dirt Before Decay
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s just what often works best. Delay and reverb pedals can confuse or overpower other effects. Of course the fun is in trying different combos out and finding a surprise new arrangement and sound.

A classic signal chain is:

Tuner→ Volume/compressor→ Overdrive/Distortion→ Fuzz  → Flange/Chorus/Octave → Reverb/Delay (Loop pedal goes anywhere you want)

Example signal chain kindly provided by my friend Chris from Lazy Pilgrims:
Crowther Hotcake (overdrive)→ Barber Trifecta (fuzz)→ EHX Soul Food (overdrive/distortion)→ EHX POG 1 (octave)→ Korg Pitchblack (tuner)→ EHX Superego (synth sound)→ Danelectro Big Spender (rotary speaker)→ Way Huge Supa Puss (delay)→ Digitech Obscura (dark delay)  Biyang Flanger (cheap Chinese one)→ Strymon Blue Sky (reverb)→ TC Electronic Flashbackx4 (classic delay emulation) x

Power: 

The majority of pedals use 9v DC power, and many also take 9v batteries. Some want 12v. Check the voltage.

Power adaptors have a pin in the centre of the plug which can be wired up positive or negative. Nearly all pedals have a negative pin (and a sticker with the negative polarity symbol). Don’t mix up different polarity gear and plugs.

 

Daisy chaining and power blocks:

The simplest way to connect multiple pedals to one power supply is to get a cheap daisy chain cable. This isn’t ideal though as it can create annoying buzzes and static and be unreliable.

The better option is to get an isolated power supply like a Fuel Tank Jr. It’s a block with multiple 500mA 9v and 12v outlets, and each one is insulated and separate so it doesn’t interfere with the others. (Ignore any cheap online ones you see for £20 or so- they’re just loose cables inside a box! Stick with a reputable brand rather than risk your pedals)

Roland and Boss:

Roland and Boss pedals like you to use their own special filtered power cable. It has a little ferrite block halfway that blocks interference. You can use a cheaper power supply, but it’s much more likely to get annoying hums and static.

mAs:

Amperes aren’t so important if you’re directly powering each pedal, but if you daisy chain them together they become important. Each pedal needs so many milliamps which varies by pedal type from 20-300mA. The power supply will tell you on a label underneath how many mA it can give (usually 500mA/0.5A for a simple 9v supply). If the combined equipment draws too much for the power supply to cope with, everything is going to get overheated and dangerous. It’s fine to use a power supply that can give more total milliamps than the equipment needs.

VERY IMPORTANT: If you’re swapping power supplies between equipment like pedals, pads and synths it’s very important to check that the voltage (and whether it’s AC or DC), polarity and max mA draw ALL match up, or else you’re looking at equipment that either does nothing or dangerously overheats

Also if you buy anything with a power supply from abroad, check the voltage before use! Europe and Australasia use 220/240v, but North America and Japan use 110v.

If the power adaptor says 110-240v, 220v or 240v, you’re fine. If it says 120v only, you need to get a UK power supply for it first.

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