Even before the boutique pedal explosion of the last few years, there was already a dizzying array of options for guitar players to explore and use. As a newcomer to the instrument, this can be nothing short of overwhelming. What are they? Why do I need them? What are the best guitar pedals for beginners?
Well, first off, it’s possible you might not even need them. It's worth reminding yourself that although it's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store with all the options available, that pedals are just tools. Just like guitars, they aren't really anything until the player – you – makes them into something.
Just as different guitars have different timbres and tones, so do pedals – and using them effectively is a way for you as a player to make an idea or riff really stand out. Some players become experts at sound design using pedals, and it's an excellent half-way-house between the immediacy of a guitar and having the knowledge required to do sound design in a studio setting.
All of that said, while it's nice to have a brace of cool FX on your pedalboard and loads of nice gear, some of the best music ever recorded was made with cheap gear and few-to-no pedals, so always keep in mind that the song comes first.
Okay, disclaimer over. Let's geek out on the best guitar pedals for beginners!
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Best guitar pedals for beginners: where to start?
Sorry to do this, but our first recommendation has to be a boring one – get a guitar tuner. We're fans of the TC Electronic Polytune 3 Mini or the Boss TU-3, but we also have to be honest and say that our first two pedals were a Boss Metal Zone and a Boss DD-6. We didn't get a tuner until our bandmates started complaining.
So, assuming you, like us, want to go for cool sounds first, then our two recommendations are simple. The first step is to get a drive or distortion. If we could have our time again, we'd probably go for a Big Muff or a ProCo RAT as we've always played in heavier bands, aiming for the guitar sounds of grunge bands like Smashing Pumpkins or progressive metal groups like Tool or Porcupine Tree. If we were in a more low-gain, indie or blues group, we'd go for the Tube Screamer, though it's worth saying that the RAT works really well at lower gain settings too, especially if you have a good amp.
Second, you'll want a delay. Check out some clips of the Ibanez Analogue Delay Mini and the Boss DD-3T and decide which one suits your playing style better. We tend to think that the versatility of a digital delay is better for a beginner as it gives you more options while you're finding your feet and your sound. Then again, perhaps you're somebody who thrives when dealing with creative constraints, in which case maybe the straightforwardness of an analogue delay would be right up your street.
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Broadly speaking, there are four main types of effects to focus on, although there's a lot of subtypes that you can delve into as your tastes and needs develop.
FUZZ Generated by pushing transistors into clipping, this abrasive type of signal mangling defined the tones of early rock and psychedelia, becoming synonymous with players like Jimi Hendrix. Over time, more refined pedals came out, like the Big Muff, a pedal that promised smooth, 'violin-like' sustain that was a far cry from the less-controlled sound of pedals like the Superfuzz, Fuzz Face and Tonebender. Ironically for a fuzz, the Big Muff has more in common with most overdrives than fuzzes in terms of its circuit.
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OVERDRIVE Ushered in by the ground-breaking Ibanez Tube Screamer, the goal of overdrives was simple – to emulate the distinctive sound of clipping or saturation of the guitar signal caused by a tube amp. To some degree, this was achieved, but something else incredibly useful happened – by boosting the guitar signal so that it drove a tube amp into distortion earlier, as well as making the signal more mid-forward, the Tube Screamer also made tube amps sound better too.
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DISTORTION Essentially a more aggressive overdrive, distortion pedals clipped the guitar signal more heavily. Where overdrives like the Tube Screamer or Boss Blues Driver employed 'soft clipping' diodes to clip the guitar signal, distortion pedals tend to employ 'hard clipping' after their amplification circuits, which chops up guitar signals into something that much more closely resembles a square wave.
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DELAY This effect which covers a deceptively large spread of pedals. At its core, delay is echo, and the first units in this area did just that, using tape loops. Pedals using bucket-brigade compact chips followed, and then eventually a jump to digital chips occurred. The thing is, many other types of effects were created by time-based manipulation of signals; flanging was achieved in the early days by running two tape machines and slowing one down; chorus was the same concept but with alternating speed. The more that engineers experimented, the more effect types they created. Digital delays were the real game changer, as they simply recorded and looped a buffer of audio – this in turn led to not only the guitar looper pedal, but also the pitch shifter. Today even the wildest, most out-there delay, glitch and looping pedals, from the Red Panda Particle to the Montreal Assembly Count to Five can trace their origins back to being able to digitally record and replay a buffer of audio.
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From these categories you get distortion, delay, modulation and pitch shifting; what remains are mainly utility pedals - EQs, line switchers, noise gates and tuners. For shaping your tone, you're likely to always be relying on some combination of distortion, modulation or delay and amp tone to zero in on the sound that's in your head.
But where to start? Let's dive in with our pick of the best guitar pedals for beginners…
Our pick of the best guitar pedals for beginners
Memorably described to us by one guitarist as a 'hoover', the Big Muff has been modded, cloned, reissued, rebuilt, and redesigned more than almost any other pedal in existence. With a distinctive 'scoop' in the guitar mids, the Muff can mean that you get lost in a band mix – it's like the anti-Tube Screamer in terms of EQ profile – but when it works, there's little else that has the same visceral impact.
Very broadly speaking, there's about five main versions – although, in total there are over thirty versions by our count, with passionate fans of each - and it's on these that the current crop of EHX Big Muffs are based.
The most common is the NYC Muff, which is available as the Nano Big Muff, while there's also several others; the Ram's Head, Triangle, Op Amp, and Russian. We could go on about them for days, but the lowdown is this – the Russian is more 'woolly', think Sonic Youth's 100%; the Op Amp is more compressed, and the version that Smashing Pumpkins used on their classic Siamese Dream LP; the Ram's Head is closer to a Dinosaur Jr., type tone; the Triangle is more old-school, a bit smoother and more articulate than the NYC to our ear.
The original overdrive pedal, the Tube Screamer and its descendants still represent a significant percentage of the worldwide pedal market just on their own.
There's a reason for this, of course – not just that it's a versatile drive with a wide range of operation that allows it to be used for everything from blues to metal. Its other strength is its EQ profile, which emphasizes the guitar's midrange around 1kHz, meaning it suddenly 'pops' in a band mix, either live or in the studio.
Moreover, if you turn the drive control down and the level up, it functions as a boost, and it's for this function that many guitarists acquire one. If you're lucky enough to have a decent tube amp, or access to one, boosting a tube amp with a Tube Screamer is likely to be better than almost any overdrive pedal on the market.
There's a difference between this, the TS9, and the original TS808, but for all the essays that have been written on the subject they're similar enough that a recommendation for one can be a recommendation for the other, nine times out of ten. If you’re looking to save some cash, the Ibanez TS Mini Tube Screamer is worth looking at too.
One of the first, and still most recognizable distortions, the ProCo RAT got its unique distortion sound from its LM308 op-amp internally clipping the signal into a triangular shape.
Though that's the secret of the RAT's tone, most distortions that followed emulated another part of the RAT's circuit – its two so-called 'hard clipping' diodes, which also distinguished the harder, more punchy distortion pedals from softer overdrives like the Ibanez Tubescreamer.
Rightly a classic, RATs are nevertheless not that expensive, and remain accessible to beginners that want a huge, punchy distortion sound. More than that, the RAT also works well at lower gain settings, especially into tube amps that already have a bit of dirt on the go. They're a surprisingly versatile distortion pedal and it's hard to go too wrong.
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The Boss DD-3 has been the gold standard for digital delays ever since its introduction in 1986, and members of the DD series have been used on records by bands as diverse as The Cult, Melt Banana, Tool and Radiohead. So many players have made the white-and-blue box their own that it's probably quicker to list the players that haven't owned a DD-series delay at some point.
For a digital delay, the DD-3 has a very pleasant character, bedding down well into a band mix while retaining enough of that pristine, digital feel that it 'chimes' in a way that analogue delays don't, cutting through the top end of a mix.
The DD-3T is the most modern incarnation of this classic pedal, adding tap tempo to an already formidable platform.
The Cry Baby has become synonymous with 'wah pedal' to the extent that most new players are probably best served by checking out this wah before any others, as it's more than likely the pedal that's been used on all your favourite records.
That said, it's not without its problems. It's notorious for 'tone suck' and the design is very long-in-the-tooth. Granted, there's not a huge amount of innovation possible in terms of core wah sounds other than frequency ranges, but there are wah pedals with more options and flexibility.
Digital delays are reliable and produce pristine, accurate delays, but that might not be desirable. For some types of music a bit of darkness and dirt can add character, and this is why the technologies that preceded the digital delay have never quite gone out of fashion.
One of these was the tape delay, exemplified by the Echoplex and Roland Space Echo, but these vintage units are expensive and difficult to maintain. The other technology was analogue delay. This relied on arrays of capacitors to delay the sound, and came with its own artifacts – a certain degree of grit, and roll-off of higher frequencies.
Not only do these qualities have some aesthetic value, but they're also reasons that analogue delays often bed better into a mix.
However, because of the chips used being comparatively expensive, analogue delays were for a while out of the reach of budget-conscious players, whereas now there's a variety of options, like this great mini unit from Ibanez, or other pedals like the EHX Memory Toy. We've chosen this for the warm character of its repeats and great form factor.
The Digitech Whammy was the original pitch shifter, and to our minds it's still the best.
This small, powerful unit boasts most of the features of its bigger brother, just without the rocking footswitch. In exchange, you get a ballistic control for the rise and fall speed that it hits the target interval and then returns to the fundamental, with the bonus of both momentary and latching options.
It's inexpensive, endlessly inspiring and will completely change the way you play guitar. Can't say fairer than that.
There's no love lost between Electro-Harmonix and Mooer, especially after the former successfully sued Mooer for cloning their POG pedal. That's probably why the Mooer ElecLady was rebranded to the still-rather-obvious E-Lady model name.
It's a flanger, inspired by the classic EHX Electric Mistress, that can also cover off a number of chorus-type sounds, making it a pretty versatile first modulation. The reason we're specifically recommending this is twofold – its low price, and tiny form factor. There's other excellent budget flanger pedals available, but very few are as compact or well-built.
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They might not be quite as small as some of the tiny offerings from Mooer and the like, but EHX's Nano range are certainly a far cry from the sometimes comically large big-box versions that were knocking around when we were youngsters.
Luckily, they're still the same great sounds, and the EHX Small Stone is the phaser against which we tend to benchmark all others. Once upon a time it had so-called 'tone sucking' issues, but the modern versions have resolved that, so you've got rock solid sounds and true bypass too. Stick a Big Muff in front of it, and take off for another world.
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