Guitar Effects Basics - Part 1


Here's the basics for any player who wants to look into guitar effects. What kind of effects are there and what do they do? Which ones are the most common? This Part 1 describes overdrive, distortion, fuzz, delay, reverb, compressor, booster and noise gate.


What follows is a short description of a wide range of guitar effects available in guitar effects pedals ('stomp boxes'). Effects come in different categories, based on how the incoming guitar signal is processed in order to produce the effected sound.


Note that there are a lot of guitar amps available today with built-in effects, however the sound quality of these effects varies greatly.


Effects pedals are usually placed in between the guitar and the amp, as in the picture. This means the simplified signal chain will be:

guitar -> effects pedal(s) -> amplifier.

Another option is to put them in the effects loop of an amp.

What kind of effects are there?




These effects all emulate the sound of a tube amplifier that is overdriven.

Overdriven means: fed with a signal that is too loud. This results in clipping, which produces the instantly recognizable sound of overdrive or distortion. It's a sound typical to the guitar. Overdrive and distortion will give your sound more sustain, so that notes can be held longer.

Guitar amps often offer an overdriven or distorted setting in addition to the basic, clean tone.


Overdrive is the mildest form. At best it can produce an overdriven guitar tone that does not colour the character of the original clean tone too much. Well-known overdrive pedals are the Ibanez Tubescreamer and the Boss OD-1.

Distortion is the more agressive version of overdrive. It produces more grit and longer sustain. Distortion is often used on guitar solos. Hard-rock and heavy metal guitar players use distortion a lot to produce a big and agressive sound. Well-known (even famous) distortion pedals are the Proco RAT and the BOSS DS-1.

Fuzz is also a more agressive type of overdrive. It was made famous in the 60's by Jimi Hendrix who used it a lot to produce his insane guitar sounds. Well-known fuzz type pedals are the Dallas Arbiter Fuzzface and the Electro Harmonix Big Muff.

Guitar Effects Basics - Part 1 - boss pedals
Boss, a division of the Roland Corporation, makes all kinds of compact guitar effect pedals. They're widely available.



Delay, a time-based effect, is also known as echo. Echo means the reflection of a sound.


The Delay/Echo effect repeats your playing to a fade, at fixed time intervals. The volume and number of repetitions can be set as well as the time interval.






Delay is widely used in music and can give your guitar sound a very spacious character. Well-known delay pedals are the Boss DD-3 and the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man.



The Reverb effect, also a time-based effect, emulates what happens to sound in a smaller or bigger space. This can make your guitar playing sound like you were playing in a bathroom or in a cathedral. Reverb, like delay, adds a spacious character to your sound.

Reverb is not just found in effects units, it's included in a lot of guitar amplifiers as well.


Compressor/Booster/Noise Gate

These effects alter the amplitude, volume, and signal-to-noise ratio of your guitar signal.

A compressor squeezes your signal into a smaller amplitude. This averages out your signal, squashing peaks to the same level as the rest of the signal. This gives the effect of giving softly played notes a similar output volume as notes played aggressively. This can produce a longer sustain. This is an effect used widely in funk guitar playing.

A booster increases the volume of your signal. This is often used to drive a tube guitar amp harder to produce a more overdriven sound.

A noise gate is sometimes used in situations where a lot of guitar effects pedals are used at the same time. It is therefore not really an effect itself. The simultaneous use of multiple guitar pedals can produce unwanted noise. A noise gate will suppress that noise when the guitar player is NOT playing.



An equalizer is used to adjust the balance between lower, middle and higher frequencies of the guitar signal. Most guitar amps also offer these 'tone' controls, but seperate, so-called 'graphic' equalizer (also: EQ) pedals offer more precision, as they divide the guitar signal into 5 or more frequency 'bands' that can be individually adjusted for their volume.


Read on for more effect types in Part 2.


Guitar Effects Basics - Part 1 - signal chain setup