Buying Guide:Guitar and Bass Effects
Music123 Guitar and Bass Effects Buying Guide
Table of Contents
What are guitar and bass effects?
Where to start
Pitch shift effects
Digital vs. analog effects
Generally, any device that modifies the signal of an electronic instrument to change the final sound is called an effect. Effects (also called FX) can run the gamut from limiter or expander settings so subtle you can barely detect them to sci-fi modulation effects so intense that the original sound is unrecognizable.
The point of effects is to make your guitar or bass sound better in its musical context or to make it sound new and different or even just to have fun making strange noises. (Many effects processors can give you hours of juvenile joy just messing around with them.)
Line 6 PODXT
The most noticeable and commonly seen effects are those little 3" or 4" square boxes you often see on the floor in front of guitar or bass players. These are called stomp boxes due to a large steel button the player steps on to turn the effect on or off. There are also floor boxes which feature foot treadles for continuous control of one or more effects.
Larger floor units with big buttons for players to push with their feet and multiple types of effects are common as well. All of these types of effects can be referred to as effects pedals. Rackmount effects are meant to be mounted by their front panels into a standard equipment rack. These often come with an associated foot controller. Finally, many modern amplifiers feature built-in effects with controls on the amp's primary control panel or optional floor controllers. There are plenty of other special types of effects that have been used over the years, but the vast majority are simply modifications of one of the categories below.
While learning to play one's instrument is, of course, far more important than modifying its sound, messing around with effects early on can be a fun way to engage with the instrument and start learning its tonal range without a lot of hard practice. There's a huge variety of stomp boxes out there, many with very low price tags that make great gifts and can add a new dimension of fun for beginning players.
Alternatively, there is a broadening selection of very low-priced multi-effects pedals that give you a lot more to mess around with and get your feet wet with a lot of different effects types. A practice amp with built-in effects is also a great way to get started. Most modern multi-effects units and amps feature presets created by experienced engineers to sound good at the touch of a button. If you're a typical player, you'll adopt and abandon dozens of different effects boxes over your playing career.
If you've already been playing for a while, look to artist interviews (such as those online here at Music123) to find out what your favorite artists use to produce their signature tones. Also, if you hang around late at club shows or show up early, most players are willing to talk about their rigs.
Finally, and most importantly, check out the sound bytes we've posted for most of the effects on our website. These will give you an idea of what each of these effects can do when used by a pro. Referring to our sound bytes while reading this guide will give you a more concrete sense of what various effects sound like.
By and large, delay effects split the signal into two identical signals and momentarily hold back one while allowing the other to play in real time. The 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.
Reverb is the most natural of effects. You can experience reverb by singing in the bathroom or a concrete stairway. This type of sound is easy to duplicate by putting transducers on either side of a spring and running a guitar or bass signal through it. Spring reverbs have been included on many guitar amps since the early 1960s.
Reverb thickens up your sound, softens the edges, and makes it sound like you're playing in a large hall (or a bathroom or stairway). Though there is scarcely a record made that doesn't use any reverb, you should use it judiciously. Heavy reverb almost always sounds bad. If you buy a dedicated reverb unit, it will give you several varieties of reverbs to choose from.
Echo (also called long delay) is a natural effect as well, but it can only be encountered in large spaces such as canyons or maybe a large, empty stadium. You emit a loud, sharp yelp and a second later you hear the yelp come bouncing faintly back to you from a far wall. This is a particularly fun effect to play around with by yourself. If you set the delay long enough, you can play against the notes you just played and harmonize with yourself 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 get quieter and quieter before 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 is essentially a very long delay that gives you the option of eliminating decay, thus locking the recorded piece into a continuously replaying loop. You can then add other loops and layer them on top of each other. Some modern loopers actually let you save loops so you can create entire or partial overdubbed songs for later playback (subject to memory limits).
While a good looper provides phenomenal musical potential, especially for solo improvisational performance, and most are simple to use, looping is a difficult art to master for the novice. Experienced musicians will have an easier time creating with it, either for immediate performance or in songwriting.
Modulation effects are generally less natural-sounding than delays, lacking any natural analog to compare them to. They involve certain sound frequencies or amplitudes being modulated while other parts of the sound are either unaffected or are affected in a different way. They also often involve slight delays.
Chorus is the most common modulation effect—even appearing as the sole effect on a number of amps—and is generally the most subtle. As it is usually applied, chorus sounds like the same signal running through two amps with a very slight delay between them. In fact, Pat Metheny's famous chorus sound is 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 full-sounding clean runs as well. Stereo output (from two separate speakers) enhances chorus a great deal.
A flanger simulates the effect of repeatedly putting your thumb on the reel of a moving tape machine for a second and then letting it catch back up while a dry signal plays alongside. Flangers usually feature a depth control, which controls the intensity of the effect, and a rate control for the speed of the cycles.
Flange 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 unrecognizable. This broad range makes a flanger a fun stomp box to start with.
A phase shifter cyclically eliminates certain frequencies in the overall sonic signature. Various phasing sounds involve multiple notches in the sound. Like a flanger, a phase shifter can create very spacey and open sounds, but it can also deliver more solid jet engine-like sounds appropriate for very loud, aggressive music. Phase shifting (or simply phasing) manipulates the pitch less than a flanger does.
The rotary effect is an imitation of the sound made by a rotating speaker cab such as a Leslie. These cabs make a modulating sound by actually rotating the speaker very rapidly on its vertical axis as it plays, thus distributing the sound all around the room. Rotary is a particularly cool effect for generating a vintage vibe, but it requires a stereo (dual speaker) setup to be really effective.
Vibrato is a subtle raising and lowering of the pitch of the note or notes being played. This effect is usually generated by shaking your fret hand or using the vibrato bar on your guitar, but some effects units provide vibrato. Since vibrato works best as an intermittent effect, it's best used with an on/off footswitch. (A whammy bar on a guitar is often called a tremolo bar, but in fact generates vibrato, not tremolo.)
Tremolo is simply the rapid raising and lowering of the volume, like the sound from rapidly turning the volume up and down on your stereo. Many amplifiers from the late '40s and '50s had this effect built in. Tremolo was used a lot for rockabilly, surf, and other music from the '50s, so it's good for a vintage vibe.
Ring modulation is among the strangest and most extreme effects. It is produced by multiplying the incoming guitar signal with another signal generated by an internal oscillator in the ring modulator to create unique new frequencies. Ring modulation is generally dissonant and is most commonly used just to add weird sounds for mood.
Indeed, if you're using all ring mod with no dry signal, you may find it impossible to produce melodic lines. For this reason, ring modulation is usually mixed into other effects in small doses to add weird overtones.
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 bass or low-end sounds such as the thump of a bass drum, EQ effects don't change the pitch but rather the timbre or quality of the sound.
Simple equalization can take a great many forms. The tone knob on your guitar is a basic equalization device that usually cuts the treble side of the sound when you turn toward the bass. Many amps have 3-band EQs onboard in the form of Treble, Mid, and Bass knobs. These usually work by boosting their respective frequency bands when you turn them up.
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 accurate your adjustments can be.
EQ can make a huge difference in the sound of a guitar or bass. Experiment with the sound that works best for you, especially in the context of your band playing. What sounds good when alone may not come through at all when the whole band is playing. With almost all effects, you'll find you have to increase their intensity to make a big impact in a loud setting. EQ pedals or rack units can be very useful not so much for adjusting your straight guitar sound but for correcting EQ changes that result from your other effects.
A wah pedal is a foot treadle that controls a potentiometer very similar to your guitar's tone control. As you rock forward on the pedal, the sound becomes more trebly. As you rock back, the trebles are muted. In the middle positions, a wah produces a nasal, midrangey tone that is interesting and useful in its own right. Since you can change the wah's tone constantly while you're playing, it's a very dynamic and expressive effect that can become an integral part of your playing.
You can play each note with the pedal back and quickly push it forward to get the characteristic wah wah wah sound, or move it more slowly for more subtle effects. Push it up and back very slowly to add power to fast, repetitive runs. There are a broad range of wahs on the market, each with its own distinctive flavor.
Not to be confused with a city in Canada, auto-wah effects do what a wah does but without the foot treadle. Usually, you can adjust the attack time (how fast the tone shifts toward the treble) and the depth of the cycle. Some auto-wahs also let you set a constant up and down motion that's not triggered by the note.
Originally, distortion of the guitar signal happened accidentally when tube amps were turned up too loud. While distortion was first considered undesirable, players soon came to recognize that a distorted signal increased the amount of sustain they could get out of each note. This essential discovery created a fundamental shift in guitar soloing styles to include extended notes such as those produced by a wind instrument or organ. Used on rhythm guitar parts, distortion thickens up the signal and allows for a much "heavier" meatier sound.
Tube amp distortion is created when tubes are overdriven—i.e. they're receiving more juice than they can handle without letting the signal break up. Tube amps are still being produced because of the warm, musical tones they create, and some distortion-type effects use actual tubes to create that same sound. But most distortion effects are produced either through analog solid-state circuitry or digitally.
Generally, overdrive effects distort the guitar or bass signal, but not as severely as a distortion unit would. When you hit your strings harder, your pickups generate more signal. A good overdrive sits right at the threshold where playing softly leaves the signal pretty clean while playing hard overdrives the circuits in question to cause a little breakup.
Overdrive is an essential effect to warm up and broaden a rhythm guitar in all kinds of music. It can also be very effective to fatten up the signal for guitar solos without masking subtle hand technique.
Due to distortion's critical function in modern guitar styles, by far the lion's share of stomp boxes are distortion units. Most of these feature intensity and tone controls but don't share much in the way of sound. You'll be amazed at the different types of distortions that can be produced, from rich, creamy, smooth, and melodic to harsh, jagged, and piercing. Many distortion units produce a broad range of styles of distortion.
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 get an idea of the boxes your heroes are using. Also, be sure to check out our Real Audio sound bytes.
A fuzz pedal is just an extreme distortion. Generally fuzz is such a radical change of the signal that it is used for musical trimmings rather than as a meat-and-potatoes sound. Since it thickens up the sound so dramatically, fuzz can be fun for intros and solo guitar parts when no other instruments are playing—a la Jimi Hendrix playing "Star Spangled Banner."
Pitch shift effects work by generating a note that is a specified interval (pitch distance) above or below the note being played. If you're not careful, you can easily produce another note which is out of key with the song you're playing, so most pitch shift effects involve sophisticated control options.
Harmonize is the basic pitch-shifting function. Often used to generate vocal harmonies, it can also do wonders for bass and guitar sounds. Most harmonizing effects let 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 signal mixed in.
Many modern harmonizing 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 have two or more harmonies simultaneously. Used judiciously, harmonize can dramatically fatten up your sound.
A sub-octave is a simplified harmonizing effect that generates a note a full octave beneath the note you're playing. This is a particularly effective tool for bass players who want to generate heavy lines you feel as much as hear. Drop-tuning guitar players also can get a hefty boost from a sub-octave.
The whammy pedal is a unique and brilliant device that derives its name from the slang for a rocking vibrato bar on a guitar. Like a whammy bar, the whammy pedal lets you dynamically bend the guitar's pitch up or down, in this case through the use of a foot treadle.
The original DigiTech Whammy pedal lets you specify the sweep controlled by the treadle in terms of intervals above and below the original note and provides some special effects as well. For single pedals, the whammy is certainly among the most fun, and it's a great way to get vibrato effects from a guitar without a vibrato arm.
There are a number of effects that don't really change the character of the sound but rather condition the signal in subtle ways to make a more pleasing overall output. They don't make new, different, fun sounds but they can make a world of difference in the quality of your final signal.
Gain is simply the amount of electricity carrying the sound signal. A standalone gain booster is essentially just a preamp and can be an effective way to overdrive the preamp section of your amp, creating easier breakup and increasing the amp's power. A gain booster in a stomp box lets you instantly boost your sound level for solos.
Many stomp boxes for other effects also include gain controls that instantly bump up your signal when you activate the effect. Watch these controls closely and beware of stompbox gain buildup, which can hit your amp's preamp section with more juice than it can handle.
A volume pedal is simply a volume pot, like the one on your guitar or bass, housed in a foot treadle so you can control your instrument's output gain with no hands. A volume pedal does not boost an instrument's gain. When you rock the treadle back, the volume is off, when you rock it forward the gain gradually comes up to the instrument's full normal output. Volume pedals are great for swells—smooth sounds created by striking the string or strings with the volume off then applying volume by rocking forward on the treadle. (Technically, volume is a measure of the actual sound produced by your amp, while gain is just the strength of the signal before it comes out of the speakers. But since increasing the gain increases the volume, the terms are often confused, as in the name "volume pedal" for a device that only trims gain.)
A compressor effects the dynamics (volume levels) 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 very helpful for keeping your quieter passages from getting lost in the rest of the music and your louder passages from drowning everything else out.
A compressor can also increase 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 (rapidity with which the signal is raised or lowered).
A limiter is similar to a compressor that only works on the upper volume levels. Rather than simply making the signal quieter, a limiter cuts it altogether to protect your gear from overload damage.
An expander is the opposite of a compressor, it stretches out the signal allowing the quietest tones to be even quieter and the loudest sounds to be louder. This can be useful in situations where you want quieter noises—such as slide or fingering sounds—to get lost down in the mix where they don't attract attention, while the intentional tones soar to the top.
A noise gate is a very handy invention that gets rid of hums and hisses that normally become apparent when you're plugged in but not playing your instrument. Basically a limiter in reverse, a noise gate simply cuts out sounds below a certain level. So, as long as you're making music your sound is full on; but as soon as you stop playing, all that signal errata from your effects chain, vintage amp, and/or house wiring stops too.
All of the effects that were created in the mid-twentieth century were analog in nature. That is, they were some direct modification of an actual sound signal. Starting in the early '80s, the digital revolution invaded guitar/bass effects. Digital effects involve digital manipulation of a digitized signal which is then translated back to analog for output. The first digital effects were all modeled on existing effects, but such things as pitch shift only became practical with the advent of a digital signal.
While many players revere the original analog effects boxes and the modern reconstructions of these, the majority of the effects on the market are digitally based. Don't let that be a deterrent, digital effects are so advanced now that many of them can only be distinguished from analog effects by esoteric tone geeks. Professionals at all levels use digital effects.
Starting in the early '90s, music companies began developing digital effects which tried to re-create the sounds generated by classic effects, other instruments, and classic amplifiers. This technology quickly spread to include models of speaker types, microphones, and even specific microphone placements. Recently Line 6, one of the leaders in this field, even created guitars which model the sounds of famous vintage guitars. While different people cue on different elements of a classic sound, there can be no question that modeling works and is getting better all the time.
Whether or not they use modeling technology, most multi-effects units and many single-effect boxes provide you with presets. In a multi-effects unit or amp, these presets generally involve a complete setup with several effects applied and tweaked to create an overall sound. Usually presets are very easy to access.
Many modern processors have such great presets you'll never need to get into the heart of the machine and create your own. However, almost all units with presets allow you to easily create your own user presets. You can start with a factory preset, tweak the sounds to your taste, then save it in your own location to be recalled at the touch of a button while you're playing.
Since so many players choose to use several stomp boxes and individual pedal effects over multi-effects units, a number of manufacturers have introduced special holders which make it easy to organize your stomp boxes. These pedalboards usually provide an easy way to mount your pedals and/or a simplified powering scheme (to save on the ubiquitous "wall warts" and "line lumps"—power adapters). Often, the pedal board will form the base of a handy carrying case. There are also several stand-alone kits available to simplify connecting your pedals together or to power them more efficiently.
Whether you're using individual effects, a multi-effects processor, or both, the order in which you run your signal through your effects can have a great impact on the final sound. While effects order is an art in itself, to help you get started check out the following flow charts describing the way a professional guitarist and bassist order their effects.
Guitar Effects Chain One
Guitar » Wah » Compressor » Overdrive/Distortion » Delay » Modulation Effects » Stereo Output » Amplifiers
Guitar Effects Chain Two
Guitar » Wah » Compressor » Fuzz » EQ » Modulation » Delay » Stereo Output » Amplifiers
Bass Effects Chain
Bass » Distortion » EQ » Modulation Effects » Delay » Amplifier