Welcome to the rich and addictive world of guitar pedals! Whether you’re looking to expand your current pedal collection or this is your very first venture into guitar effects, this guide has got you covered. I’ll be explaining what you should be taking into account when buying new guitar pedals and also what makes a pedal especially good for a beginner guitarist. I’ll also give you a breakdown of what each type of pedal actually does, along with my recommendations for each category.
There is a laundry list of factors to consider when choosing the best guitar pedals for new players. You want to buy something that’s going to give you high-quality guitar tones but also not break the bank. While it’s okay to invest in expensive pedals, there’s a point of diminishing returns where more money won’t mean “more tone.”
Beginner guitar pedals should be easy to get a good sound from and be diverse enough to work with any combination of guitars and amps. Later in this guide, for each type of pedal, I’ll give two recommendations that I believe to be the best balance of price, tone, and usability. Ultimately, I consider all the pedals I mention to be the best guitar pedals for beginners in 2023.
It goes without saying that different styles of music require you to aim for different sounds. A metal player needs some extra distortion, and a praise & worship player is going to need a healthy dose of delay and reverb. What this means is that you don’t need to have one of everything on your pedalboard. Tailor your picks to the genres of music you are most interested in playing. And if you decide to branch out into new styles down the road, you can always pick up any pedals you’re missing later.
Here’s where you’ll find the real meat of this guide. I’ll be answering the top questions that beginners have about the different types of guitar pedals on the market, as well as giving my top recommendations for the best pedals in each category.
No matter what style of music you want to play, staying in tune is priority number one. And while clip-on tuners can do a good job, a tuner pedal is a much better option if you’re already using a pedalboard. Tuner pedals are quick and easy to read while multitasking and can also double as a convenient on/off mute switch.
Our recommendations: TC Electronic PolyTune 3 ($99.00) or Boss TU-3 ($99.99)
In my opinion, overdrive is the ultimate guitar effect. It’s the magic sauce designed to emulate the sound and feel of a cranked-up tube amplifier. A good overdrive pedal will cause your clean guitar tone to lightly distort and your distorted tone to crunch even harder. These pedals typically have a slight EQ curve to them depending on which variation of the circuit you end up going with, and they clean up when you roll the volume knob on your guitar back.
There are some very technical ways to properly categorize these effects, but in this guide, I want to keep things beginner-friendly. So the easiest way to think about it is as follows: overdrive is a light, uncompressed distortion; distortion is a medium to heavy, compressed distortion; and fuzz is an all-out heavy distortion. This is definitely a simplification, but all you need to worry about for now.
There are three main overdrive circuit variations based on different iconic pedals from the past few decades. These are the Tube Screamer (TS) circuit, the Blues Breaker (BB) circuit, and the Klon circuit. Most overdrive pedals are based on one of these three circuits. However, there are plenty of exceptions, like pedals based on the Nobels ODR-1 or pedals designed to have a flat EQ and be as transparent as possible. In case you were wondering, the MXR Duke of Tone is based on a Blues Breaker, and the Wampler Tumnus is based on a Klon.
Our recommendations: MXR Duke of Tone ($149.99) or Wampler Tumnus ($149.97)
Much like an overdrive pedal, a distortion pedal is designed to emulate the sound of a saturated tube amp. The main difference here is quite simply more gain and more compression. When compared to overdrive, distortion is less dynamic and will make a noticeable change to your guitar tone.
Our recommendations: Boss DS-1 ($62.99) or ProCo RAT 2 ($89.99)
The last of the three main gain pedals is fuzz. And a fuzz pedal is essentially going to make it sound like your amp is exploding. It will feel quite stiff compared to an overdrive or distortion pedal, and works best when it’s being stacked with another overdrive pedal or being run into an amp that’s already working hard.
Our recommendations: Electro-Harmonix Op-Amp Big Muff Pi Reissue Fuzz ($96.20) or Dunlop FFM3 Jimi Hendrix Signature Fuzz Face Mini ($169.99)
I like to think of compression as a distortion pedal for your clean tone. In short, it’ll make the loud things quieter and the quiet things louder, evening out your overall signal. When overdrive or distortion is added to your guitar, it naturally compresses while also adding grit. A compressor pedal does this without adding any grit at all, making it perfect for spanky pop or funk tones. If you play a guitar with single coil pickups, an “always-on” compressor can work wonders by thickening up your base tone before hitting your other effects.
Our recommendations: Wampler Mini Ego ($149.97) or Keeley Compressor Plus ($149)
Simply put, delay is echo. It’s the effect of your guitar repeating after you play something. This can be as basic as a quick slap-back or a long modulated series of repeats. There are many ways to use a delay pedal to create space and atmosphere, or you can add bouncing rhythmic qualities to a guitar part.
Over the years, guitarists have used many different methods to get this effect. And this resulted in three main delay archetypes – analog, tape, and digital. Nowadays, we can easily access any of these delay types in a small enclosure, though that wasn’t always the case. All these delays essentially work the same way, and the type you choose will come down to some very subtle differences. Personally, I love analog delay for its warmth and slight signal degradation upon each repeat.
Some delay pedals come with a feature that allows you to tap your foot on a switch to set the repeat rate. Some guitarists swear by having this feature, but if you prefer your delay to sit more in the background to create space, then you may not need it to line up with the tempo of a song perfectly.
Our recommendations: MXR Carbon Copy ($149.99) or Keeley Caverns ($199.00)
If delay is used to create space, then reverb is used to create depth. Imagine clapping your hands in a large cathedral. The collection of reflections that comes after the initial clap is reverb. And it can come in all different shapes and sizes.
Just like delay, there are a number of different reverb archetypes. These are room, hall, spring, and plate. Each one of these is a slightly different flavor of the same effect, and which one you choose will just come down to personal preference. Personally, I love a subtle spring reverb on all the time, and then I’ll kick on a more dramatic plate or hall when I need it.
Spring reverb is the type of reverb most commonly associated with the electric guitar. The reason for this is because many amps contain a built-in spring reverb tank. Inside the tank, the sound is passed through a transducer that vibrates the spring, which in turn creates the reverb effect. Spring reverb has a characteristic sound that is often described as bright, metallic, and splashy.
Room reverb is exactly what you’d assume it is. It’s the sound of your guitar in different rooms. You can experience this type of reverb naturally when you make a sound in a room and hear the reflections of that sound off the walls, floor, and ceiling. Room reverb can have many different qualities based on the size of the room and the materials the room is made of. These days, room reverb is mostly achieved through digital means, but it can also be captured naturally through the use of microphones.
Hall reverb is simply room reverb taken to a further degree. Instead of just a room, imagine your guitar being played in a cathedral, a stadium, or any other massive space. This effect is much more difficult to capture in its natural habitat and is mostly applied through digital means. This makes it easy to combine hall reverb with modulation, allowing you to create some incredible ambient soundscapes. If synth-like guitar pads and lush ambient tones are your goal, then hall reverb will always be your best choice.
Plate reverb is smooth, warm, and natural sounding. It is created by taking a large metal plate suspended by springs and sending sound waves through it. The resulting sound is what we know as plate reverb. Since these large plate-wielding contraptions aren’t exactly realistic to own for yourself, we once again lean on digital reproductions. The differences between plate, room, and hall can be subtle, so ultimately, the best choice is up to you!
In most cases, guitar is a mono instrument. But some effects can be used in stereo to create some pretty amazing results. Stereo reverbs can be an especially effective way to achieve a massive guitar tone. Stereo effects like these are commonly used in the praise & worship genre.
Our recommendations: Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 Reverb ($176.00) or Boss RV-6 Reverb ($169.99)
Modulation pedals can be split into a number of different subcategories like chorus, vibrato, tremolo, phaser, flanger, vibe, and rotary. These are all different ways to wiggle and wobble your guitar tone. If you’re not chasing a specific guitar tone, then I’d recommend looking at this category last, as these effects aren’t nearly as essential to getting a good sound.
Chorus is a modulation effect where your guitar signal is doubled and then slightly pitched up or down before being combined back with the original signal.
Vibrato is commonly confused with tremolo thanks to Leo Fender’s mislabeling of these effects decades ago. However, vibrato is the consistent fluctuation of pitch. Similar to the effect created when you apply the vibrato technique while playing or using the vibrato bar (if it has one) on your guitar.
Much like vibrato, tremolo involves the same consistent fluctuation, but instead of pitch, it’s volume. This is the effect found on many Fender amps from the ‘60s that was infamously mislabeled as “vibrato.” Most tremolo pedals give you the option to fluctuate smoothly or sharply, depending on the guitar tone you’re after.
Without getting too complicated, a phaser applies an oscillating filter to your guitar signal. This creates a sweeping effect made especially popular by guitarists like Eddie Van Halen.
In sound, a flanger is very similar to a phaser, but instead, it doubles your guitar signal and adds a slight delay to it. This process produces a sweeping comb-filtering effect that many people associate with the sound of an airplane taking off.
Rotary pedals are designed to emulate the sound of a rotating Leslie speaker. It’s similar to tremolo, but due to the doppler effect, there is a steady increase and decrease in pitch at the same time.
Our recommendations: Boss CE-2W Waza Craft Chorus or Wampler Terraform
Let’s face it, the pedals you buy today might not be the pedals you want a year from now. And something that isn’t talked about nearly enough when it comes to buying guitar pedals is resale value. Unlike many other things you can spend your money on, pedals hold their value for years. You’ll take an initial loss when buying something brand new, but after that, the value of your pedal on the used market is unlikely to drop as time passes. In some cases, it’ll even go up!
So while this doesn’t necessarily mean that guitar pedals are a great long-term investment, you can rest assured that the money you put into your pedalboard is likely to hold most of its value. All the recommended pedals listed in this article were put there with this in mind.
This is just the very tip of the iceberg, so don’t stop here! There are other pedals out there as well, like clean boosts, volume pedals, looper pedals, wahs, and a whole lot more. No matter what style of music you’re interested in pursuing, if you follow the suggestions from in guide, then you’ll be off on the right foot. So happy playing, and I hope you enjoy your new toys!
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