An In Depth Look at 10 Common Effects Pedals
Of all the facets of tone, from guitars to amplifiers, the thing that makes the most noticeable change to a sound is usually an effects module, typically in the form of a small box with adjustable knobs.
Effects boxes usually go between an instrument and amplifier. The effect could be something like an echo, a distortion to give the sound a gritty edge, or even the ability to make a guitar talk.
I'll cover ten common effects pedals in depth. This includes their history, their sound, songs they have been used on, and how they work.
There are many types of effects, but I'll focus on 10 very common pedals used to modify signals of guitars and other instruments.
Effects pedals came on the scene around the 1960s, starting with the fuzz pedal.
Photo By DJdaedalus / CC BY-SA 3.0
History of fuzz:
The earliest commercially available fuzz boxes were originally promoted as a way to get a guitar to sound like a different instrument, like a cello or a horn. In the year 1965, a fuzz box was featured in a hit song for the first time. The song was "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. The Stone's lead guitarist imagined the song's main hook being played on horns, instead of a guitar. Since he wasn't horn player he did the next best thing and used a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone Pedal.
Even though "Satisfaction," was a huge hit, fuzz did not really catch on until Jimi Hendrix began using the Fuzzface in the later 60s. This finally opened up the floodgates to fuzz pedal market.
In the 1970s, a famous fuzz box called the Bigmuff was invented and became arguably the most popular fuzz box ever. It's popularity died down in the 80s, but it experienced a resurgence in the 90s where it was used by many musicians in the Grunge Movement. Although it seems to go in and out of style, fuzz is still a staple effect and continues to be used today.
What Does Fuzz Sound Like?
Fuzz is a perfect name for this effect since that is exactly what it sounds like; fuzzy. To me it is an unrefined distortion that almost sounds like white noise surrounding the notes or chords you are playing. Instead of just distorting just what you play, the fuzz effect is very large and seems to fill the entire speaker with fuzziness.
When playing with fuzz, I have had a hard time playing in a refined way, hitting subtle pinch harmonics and other nuances. Fuzz actually doesn't sound too special when playing guitar by myself in my bedroom.
The magic of fuzz happens when you are using it in a live band setting. Sometimes this overwhelming fuzz sound compliments the mix perfectly. I feel that it is very underrated when used this way. It is a refreshing sound to hear especially if you are used to hearing every Rock Band use a super refined crunch that is low on the midrange.
Fuzz seems to add a vintage feel. I have become more a fan of fuzz in my older years, probably because I haven’t used or heard it a lot in band settings. I used to consider it a cheap or cheesy effect. But after hearing how it compliments a mix I have become a huge fan. In the band I’m in, the guitarist uses fuzz sometimes, and it’s such a great refreshing unique sound, that I feel really sets us apart. I always tell the guitarist to never take this pedal out of his effects board. I am actually currently more enthusiastic about fuzz than the other types of distortion. It just sounds so good in a band mix when playing, for example, a ZZ Top song.
Which Famous Artists Used Fuzz?
Listen to a couple of these songs. The distorted guitar you hear is fuzz.
Jimi Hendrix: “Foxy Lady” and many others
Cream: “Sunshine of your love”
Norman Greenbaum: “Spirit in the sky”
Smashing Pumpkins: “Cherub rock”
Rolling Stones: Satisfaction (main guitar lick)
Beastie Boys: Sabotage
Also listen to a couple of examples where fuzz was achieved not by an effects box, but by overloading a studio mixer input channel.
The Beatles: “Revolution”
The Doors: “When the music’s over”
How Does Fuzz Work?
The fuzz pedal is pretty simple in design and works like this. An instrument is plugged into a fuzz box with a cable. Notes are played on the instrument which are converted to an electric signal which goes through the cable into the fuzz box. Inside the fuzz box the signal enters the circuit, where it is amplified by a series of transistors.
The transistors amplify the signal consisting of waveforms sent from the guitar. The waveforms are amplified till they are so large that they can’t make it through the circuit unless the heads of the waveforms are partially clipped off. This phenomenon is accurately known as clipping by audiophile geeks.
Clipping happens because there is a limited amount voltage in a circuit, and not enough voltage is available to pass along this over amplified waveform on steroids that came out of the transistors. So, this waveform which is now too big for its britches is passed along, but with parts of its heads clipped off. This creates sharp corners on the waveform, which results in distorted “fuzzy” sounds. Clean sounds usually have sound waves that are smooth and rounded. Really fuzzy sounds can even start to resemble a square shape.
I have an analogy just to drive the point home even further, and I’m showing my age a bit with this one.
If you’ve ever had a portable radio powered by batteries you probably noticed that the sound got fuzzy or distorted as the battery got low. When the battery was fully charged, there was plenty of voltage to pass along amplified signals. But when the battery was low, the signals were too large for the amount of available voltage, and the signals could not pass without being clipped. What you ended up hearing was a fuzzy sound. This is how a fuzz pedal basically works. And this is also probably why some people associate a fuzz sound with malfunctioning audio equipment.
Photo by Matt Eason / CC by 2.5
History of Distortion:
As early as the late 1940s, guitarists recognized the value of a little added grit to their guitar sound. When an early Fender tube amp was turned all the way up, the tube amplifiers would become oversaturated and the signal would clip slightly, resulting in a slightly gritty, subtly distorted sound. Early rock n roll guitarists knew this little secret.
As the years went by, distorted sounds became the cool thing. Musicians would find creative ways to make their sound more edgy and distorted. Overdriving an amplifier was one way of doing this. Turning the volume up too high on a mixing board was another route. Fuzz pedals were becoming available. And some artists, such as the band The Kinks, would even cut their speakers to cause the sound to break up!
Amplifier manufacturers began to realize that there was an actual market for distortion. Amps like the Marshall JCM800 had a perfect sound that was used by metal musicians, especially when gain and volume was turned up.
But for those who did not have this type of amplifier, or who wanted distortion in a portable product, the distortion pedal was a perfect solution. A distortion pedal delivers a sound closer to that of an amplifier designed for distortion, as opposed to a fuzz pedal, or other methods, like cutting speakers.
A distortion pedal like the DS-1 sounds great though a quality amplifier like a Marshall, with the amplifier on clean settings. It gives an artist another flavor of distortion to choose from other than the standard amplifier distortion. The pedal distortion can also be mixed in with the amplifier distortion to give a unique blend. It opens up another degree of variety.
How does a distortion pedal sound?
Distortion pedals give a crunchy, heavy, and dark metal sound. The sound reminds me of some of the legendary metal amplifiers like the Marshall JCM800, but with its own flavor.
A distortion pedal like the Boss DS-1 can be hooked up to an amplifier set to clean low volume settings and produce a metal sound once it is kicked in. You can use muting techniques on your chords and it will sound crunchy. You can hit harmonics and perform nuanced bends and leads and it will have a defined melting metal sound.
Distortion pedals are super fun to play with alone in bedroom settings and can also sound awesome in a band mix. They are great because you can go from super clean to super crunchy instantly.
In a band setting I would recommend making sure that your clean channel has less volume than your distorted sound after you’ve kicked in the effect. It’s just an opinion but I find it anti climatic when a song is supposed kick in with distortion and the volume actually lowers. This is a somewhat common, and easy mistake to make.
I have one other warning regarding distortion pedals. Some distortion pedals sound like blistering, “melt your face off” metal in the bedroom but will make you disappear in the mix at band practice. This can be frustrating. It often happens because effects produce “scooped mids” meaning lower midrange frequencies are absent. Without midrange it can be easy to be drowned out by things like bass guitar and cymbals. The guitar is a heavily focused midrange instrument in a band setting. Although it is always a balance. At the end of the day you have to use your ears to figure out what works best.
Who Uses Distortion Pedals?
Here are some examples of famous songs that used distortion pedals:
Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Dani California”
Nirvana: Most of the Nevermind album
How Does a Distortion Pedal Work?
There are some similarities to how a fuzz box works, but the resulting sound is quite a bit different, and more refined than fuzz.
The distortion pedal works like this. An instrument is plugged into a distortion box with a cable. Notes are played on the instrument which are converted to an electric signal which goes through the cable into the distortion box. Inside the distortion box the signal enters the circuit, where it is amplified by a series of operational amplifiers (op amps.)
Op amps are available in the form of a microchip. These op amps amplify the signal that consists of waveforms sent by the instrument. The wave forms are amplified till they are so large that they can’t make it through the circuit unless the heads of the waveforms are partially clipped off. Clipping creates edges on an otherwise smooth wave form, resulting in that distorted sound.
So why do distortion pedals sound different than fuzz boxes. The best way I can describe it is that transistors, which are used in fuzz boxes, are pretty old school, and basically came on the scene in the 1940s as an alternative to vacuum tubes. Op amps, on the other hand are a bit more modern. They amplify signals in a different way that a transistor, and they also clip signals in a more refined manner.
In addition, diodes are often added to the circuit of a distortion pedal in certain parts of the signal path. Diodes are basically a “one-way roads” and only allow signals to flow in one direction. This will end up chopping off parts of the signal going in the “wrong” direction, creating even more square edges on the signal.
What Is the Purpose of Overdrive?
Overdrive is usually used to enhance an amplifier's already good sound. As described above, tube amplifiers typically become oversaturated at very high volume and gain levels, producing a natural grit. But a guitarist usually won’t want this all the time. The overdrive pedal allows the amplifier to be played at lower, cleaner levels until grit is needed.
At a guitarists discretion, he can turn on an overdrive pedal which will boost the amplifier into saturation. The overdrive pedal, as opposed to the distortion pedal, does not introduce much of its own flavor into the mix. It mostly just enhances and brings out the best in the amplifiers existing tone, which especially shows itself at saturation.
But the overdrive pedal can also imitate an overdriven amplifier. As long as the gains are set high on the pedal, the amplifier can be turned down to bedroom levels, and an overdriven sound will still be heard. In this case, the overdriven sound comes from the pedal itself, since the amplifier is not being pushed to saturation. This allows a guitarist to achieve overdriven sounds without turning an amp all the way up and scaring anyone. So, at the end of the day you can still sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn and the neighbors can sleep through it!
What Does Overdrive Sound Like?
Whether using an overdrive pedal to boost an amplifier or using it to imitate a vintage tube amp it sounds the same.
(To read more about the Legendary Tube Amps that this pedal emulates, see my post: Guitar Amps Used By Legends.)
It sounds like a vintage tube amplifier such as an old Fender Tweed, whose gain and volume have been turned up high, to the point of saturation. It is a very smooth organic gritty sound. When playing chords is almost like a light, warm distortion, by I wouldn’t call it crunchy or heavy. When playing leads, it still sounds relatively clean but adds a bit of sustain and sweetness to the notes. It also adds a little compression, and the volume of the notes is a bit more consistent than they would be with a purely clean sound straight out of the amplifier.
Who Uses Overdrive Pedals?
Here are some examples of famous artists who used overdrive pedals:
Stevie Ray Vaughn: He is famous for using a Tube Screamer
The Edge of U2
How Do Overdrive Pedals Work?
Even though its use and sound are different, an overdrive pedal is actually very similar to a distortion pedal in design. Since you already read how distortion works, you might find this section a bit redundant, just a warning. Anyway, here is how an overdrive pedal works:
An instrument is plugged into an overdrive box with a cable. Notes are played on the instrument which are converted to an electric signal which goes through the cable into the overdrive box. Inside the overdrive box the signal enters the circuit, where it is amplified by a series of operational amplifiers (op amps.)
Op amps are available in the form of a microchip. These op amps amplify the signal that consists of waveforms sent by the instrument. The waveforms are amplified till they are so large that they can’t make it through the circuit unless the heads of the waveforms are partially clipped off.
So why does overdrive sound different than distortion. I believe it has to do mostly with the gain settings of the op amps. The circuit is set up in such a way as to over amplify the signal which will have to be clipped dramatically in order to pass through the circuit. This is known as “hard clipping.”
But the signal in an overdrive pedal is amplified in such a way as to only slightly clip the wave form, which retains most of the original waveform’s shape. This is known as “soft clipping.” This is why it ends up sounding very “organic.”
In addition, diodes can be added to the circuit. Diodes are basically a “one-way roads” and only allow signals to flow in one direction. This will end up chopping off parts of the signal going in the “wrong” direction, creating more edges on the signal. Diodes are usually an extra added on bonus for these effects pedals. The majority of the sound modification, however, comes from clipping that happens in the circuit’s amplifiers.
Photo by Roadside Guitars / CC BY-SA 3.0
What Does a Phase Effect Sound Like?
The phaser produces a trippy swirling sound surrounding the music you are playing. I can only describe it like this: Imagine that the sound of an instrument was coming in and out of water. If you could make the transition from underwater to above water a gradual process, I would imagine it sounding like a phaser. Unfortunately, the second you go underwater, the ear fills with water fast and all sound is muted instantly, and upon return to the surface your hearing instantly returns. But for these purposes just imagine it was a gradual acclimation process. Again, this is what I think a phaser would sound like. Bobbing in and out of water. You should try this sometime at the pool while humming the opening riff to Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.”
Who Uses Phase Effects?
Listen to the guitar in the following songs. You should be able to identify a phase sound similar to what I’ve described.
Van Halen on Eruption, and many others: Eddie Van Halen was famous for using an MXR Phase 90 box that contributed to his famous “Brown sound”
Rolling Stones: “Shattered”
Heart: “Magic man”
Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Tuesday’s gone”
Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Freebird”
Pink Floyd: “Have a cigar”
Queen: “We will rock you” guitar solo
Smashing Pumpkins: “Mayonnaise”
Waylon Jennings: “Luckenback Texas”, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and just about any Waylon Jennings song.
How Does a Phase Pedal Work?
The guitar is hooked up to a phase box. Something is played on the guitar and the electric signal goes to the box. The circuit divides the signal into two components, the original signal, and the duplicate signal. The duplicate signal is delayed and put through a filter. The filter’s frequency range is constantly adjusted (modulated) from hi to low by an oscillator. As the filter is modulated, it changes which frequencies are allowed to pass and interact with the original signal. The “in and out” phase sound you hear is the original signal’s frequencies mixing with the filtered signal’s frequencies. The frequencies of the two signals sometimes add together creating swells while other times canceling out and fading. The resulting sound is the in and out swirling sound described above.
Photo by Kirkwood123 / CC BY-SA 3.0
History of the Flanger
The Flanger Effect has a very interesting history. In the early days of recording, sound engineers would tinker with equipment to try to do things like thicken up vocals. One sound engineer who worked with John Lennon would slow down one of the tape reels containing the vocals. The idea was this: There would be two identical copies of the same vocal track, but the engineer would slow one of them down ever so slightly, by ten milliseconds or so. Since one track was just a hair behind the other, the two together would sound like the original vocal, but thicker and wider. This is known as doubling.
There was a problem though. This this wasn’t an exact science. In fact, the way it worked was that the guy would literally push his finger against the flange of the tape reel to slow it down. This was archaic at best. Even a surgeon couldn’t push his hands against a reel in a way that maintained one track exactly behind another track by 10 milliseconds for an entire song! So, here’s what would usually happen: the engineer would slow it down too much, and then probably have to release it and maybe even speed it up to allow it to catch up to the original track. While it was slowing down, or speeding up, relative to the original track, a swooshing sound would be heard. Some people realized that this actually sounded cool, at times even cooler than doubling. People started creating this sound on purpose. We now recognize this sound as flange.
The reason we call it a “flange effect” today has to do with John Lennon. Lennon worked with an engineer who used this method. Lennon began using the word “flange” as a verb. For example, he would typically say something like “Hey could you flange my vocals a little bit more?” This caught on and people wanted something that could “flange” their vocals as well. Luckily, a “flanger” was eventually invented and everybody could enjoy this effect.
What Does a Flanger Sound Like?
This first sound is a guitar with a light flange effect. To me, a light flange can sound the prettiest of all effects.
The sample below is an example of very "wet" or heavy flange. This level of flange should be used carefully, and consider only using it for small amounts of time. This is because the "whooshing" of the flange can be very dominating and even stand out more than the actual notes you are playing. But used correctly, it sounds very cool.
As I have already mentioned, the sound of a flanger is a “whoosh” sound that is happening behind what is being played. The sound has often been described as a jet flying across the sky. To be more descriptive, it is more like the sound of a jet coming and going, over and over again. To be even more descriptive, put that jet sound through a tunnel and you get the flange sound. It’s cool and very trippy. If flange is light it will accent the notes being played with a subtle coloring to the sound. But if it is laid on too thick it can be overwhelming and become the center of attention instead of the notes that are actually being played. I always thought people should be careful with how thick they lay on the flange.
Who Uses Flangers?
Listen to the guitar in the following songs. Can you hear an effect that subtly seems to be going up and down? Listen to all of these songs to get a feel of flange.
Heart: “Barracuda” (opening riff)
The Cure: “A forest”
Van Halen: “Unchained” (The opening riff plays
twice without the flanger and then the third time you can hear it being turned on.)
Eagles: “Life in the fast lane” (during a guitar riff break)
Lenny Kravitz: “Are you gonna go my way” (during a guitar riff break)
Smashing Pumpkins: “Cherub Rock” (during guitar solo)
Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Soul to squeeze” (Intro riff)
How Does a Flanger Work?
It works using the same principle as the simple method used by John Lennon’s sound engineer. To recap, he would speed up and slow down an identical copy of a track, which was played together with the original track.
Here’s how this works electronically: The electric signal goes from an instrument to a flange box. Inside the box the signal reaches the circuit, which first duplicates the electric signal. Now there are two signals, the original signal which will not be processed in any way, and the other signal, which will be increasingly delayed behind the original signal and then moved back in sync. As the duplicate signal is moved relative to the original signal, a “whooshing” sound is heard. An oscillator is the muscle that moves the duplicate track relative to the original. This ends up sounding like a jet coming, and then going, and then coming again, and so on. The oscillator makes this process repeat over and over. The speed of this oscillator can usually be controlled by the user.
What Does Chorus Sound Like?
The sample below is a guitar played through a very light and subtle chorus.
The sample below is a guitar played through a "wet" or heavy chorus, and the rate parameter turned up high.
Chorus can best be described as "shimmery," "watery," "wavy," and "pretty." It typically makes a guitar sound thicker and wider than the original signal. It is a great way to thicken up the signal for a band with only 1 guitarist, especially for ballad songs. This is due the the "pretty" nature of the chorus.
Light to medium chorus is a "pretty" sound, as opposed to a "trippy" or "macho" sound like phase or flange. But when the chorus rate and wetness are turned up, it can also become "trippy."
Be mindful of this type of heavy chorus, because it can "take over" a song much like heavy flange can.
Who Uses Chorus?
Here is a list of famous songs where chorus was used. Try to pick out this pretty effect in a few of these songs:
Nirvana: “Come as you are” (heavy chorus)
The Police: “Walking on the moon”
Daft Punk: “Get lucky”
Boston: “More than a feeling”
Crowded House: “Don’t dream it’s over”
Prince: “Purple rain” (chorus effect was likely a built in effect from a Roland JC120 Jazz Chorus amplifier)
Guns N’ Roses: “Paradise city” (intro clean guitar)
Modern English: “I’ll stop the world and melt with you” (not the chords but on the overlaid guitar notes)
The Cure: “Just Like Heaven” (Chorus effect could have come from either a Roland JC120 Amplifier or Boss CE-2 Pedal)
Christopher Cross: “Sailing”
Metallica: “Welcome Home Sanitarium”
The Police: “Message in a Bottle “
How Do Chorus Effects Work?
An instrument such as a guitar is connected to a chorus box with a cable. Notes are played and the electrical signal representing these wave forms are sent through the cable to the chorus box. Once inside the box, the electrical circuit duplicates the signal. One of these signals is unprocessed. The other signal is slightly delayed and goes through an oscillator that slightly raises and lowers the pitch. The two signals are combined resulting in a wide and spacious, shimmering, swirling chorus. It is a really beautiful effect. The oscillator that slightly raises and lowers the pitch of the affected signal can be sped up or slowed down by the user. On Nirvana’s "Come as You Are," Kurt Cobain is playing guitar through a chorus effect with the rate turned up pretty high. Usually chorus is subtler than this, but you can set an effects pedal however you like it. After all, the chorus effect in "Come as You Are" ended up being a very remembered sound all over the world.
Photo by aaronHwarren / CC BY-ND 2.0
The wah pedal is well named because sounds like someone voicing the word wah as it is opened. It can also sound like a “woo” or a “whoa” Yes, I said “whoah!” You can make your guitar sound like Keanu Reeves!
You can also set the pedal to a semi-closed position of your choice for a cool filtered sound. The best example I can think of is the opening riff for Dire Strait's “Money for Nothing.” I’m not completely sure if this is how they achieved that filtered sound, but I can replicate it by doing this. Using the wah this way doesn’t make any cool vowels, but it makes for a cool electric and boxy sound.
It sounds especially cool when you move the pedal back in forth while muting the strings and then unmuting them. This produces that “chicka chicka wow wow” sound that so many people joke about which were so prominent in adult films of the 1970s.
But wah pedals aren’t all about comedy. They sound straight up badass when used in the right context. Jimi Hendrix used this wah style in the opening riff of Voodoo Chile. What an awesome way to start a song! It is also commonly used in very danceable Funk Music and adds a lot of swagger and personality. It is used in many scorching metal leads. The variations are endless.
Who Uses a Wah Pedal?
Here are some examples of some songs that use a wah pedal. Listen to a few of them and see if you recognize the sound of a wah:
Jimi Hendrix: “Voodoo Chile” (intro lick)
Cream: “White room“
Guns N’ Roses: “Sweet child of mine” (2nd part of 2nd solo)
Marvin Gaye: “Let’s get in on”
Metallica: “Enter sandman” (guitar solo and many other Metallica solos. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett is famous for his love of the wah pedal for solos)
Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower” (2nd part of the guitar solo)
Zack Wylde: “Miracle man”
How Does a Wah Pedal Work?
The wah pedal is basically sound frequency filter that is adjusted by moving your pressing your foot on a pedal that can be rocked back and forth. As the pedal is moved, the filter allows different frequencies to pass, and blocks others. Moving the pedal back and forth changes which frequencies the filter allows to pass through to the amplifier.
Echo / Delay
Photo by Kirkwood123 / CC BY SA 3.0
What is Echo / Delay ?
Echo is simply an exact copy of the original sound. If you strike chord, then depending on how fast you set the delay, you will hear the chord you played again exactly as you played it. Pretty cool huh?
You can also set the number of repetitions so what you played will echo back several times. You can also set the repetitions or echos to be quieter than the original and fade out creating a natural echoing sound.
With that said, the speed at which the echo repeats can be set in various ways to achieve different effects.
For example, if the echo is set to happen anywhere from 50 to 150 milliseconds it creates an effect commonly known as slapback. This is common in rockabilly music. Listen to the drums in The Stray Cats, “Stray Cat Strut.” Or the vocals and guitar in their song “Rock This Town.” It is all dripping with slapback.
Normally an echo set to 50 ms or less is considered doubling. Doubling can be done naturally by playing the 2 licks on top of each other. If the two tracks are not exactly identical a doubling sound is created, which thickens the sound. Toni Iommi of Black Sabbath used this method frequently in his guitar solos.
But this can also be achieved in a cleaner way by setting an echo effect to 50 milliseconds or less. For a good example of this listen to John Lennon’s vocals on “Watching the Wheels.” It thickens up his vocals nicely. This is a good example of doubling, which is nothing more than a very fast delay.
For a classic example of delay which is set above 150 milliseconds listen to "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd. The first lyric of the song is “Hello.” You will hear a delay effect repeat the word several times and slowly fade out. “Hello…hello…hello…”
The Album "The Wall," by Pink Floyd has a lot of slower echo effects where each discrete echo can be heard. Another example is U2s Guitarist The Edge. He uses echoes as repeats, that he can bounce off of and make some interesting riffs.
This makes for a very fun effect to play with. If you play off the echo you can make some really cool sounds. It also forces you to be in time, almost "locks" you into rhythm. You could play with it for hours. Doing so actually improved my rhythm quite a bit. The sample below is kind of long, because I had fun making it.
Who Uses Echo / Delay
Here are just a few examples of delay used by famous artists:
Guns N’ Roses: “Welcome to the Jungle” (intro)
Pink Floyd: “Run like hell” (and throughout Wall album.)
U2: “Where the Streets Have No Name” (U2’s guitarist is famous for his creative use of delay.)
How Does Echo / Delay Work?
An instrument is plugged into a delay box with a cable. Notes are played on the instrument which are converted to an electric signal that goes through the cable into the delay box. Inside the delay box the signal enters the circuit, where the original signal is duplicated and repeated by use of an oscillator that powers a clock chip. The timing of the clock chip can be adjusted to regulate how fast the echo repeats. The number of echo repeats can also be adjusted.
Photo by Mataresephotos / cc by 3.0
History of Reverb:
Natural reverb has been used since before music could even be recorded. Large concert halls were designed for acoustics. In early recordings, echo chambers were used. An echo chamber was a large room acoustically designed for a natural reverb.
An invention was created to take the place of echo chambers called a reverb plate. It basically consisted of a large metal plate near a pickup. The vibrations of the metal plate through the pickup made a reverb sound. A smaller version called a spring reverb was made that could attach to an amplifier.
In the 1970s the first digital reverb effect was created. It was very expensive at the time, but technology improved upon it and drastically lowered the price. A digital reverb can now be used in place of a large concert hall, an echo chamber, or a super heavy metal plate. All at a reasonable price. I love technology!
What Does Reverb Sound Like?
Many use the words echo and reverb interchangeably. While they are related they sound quite a bit different.
With delay, a repeat of the original sound can be distinctly be heard. With reverb, however, so many sounds echoing off of so many walls that original sound is morphed into an after effect. Kind of a trail that lingers from the original sound. Think large garage with concrete floors
It can add an element of eeriness or romanticism. Think “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Listen to the guitar in “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaac. Listen to Dick Dale, or early Surf Music. It is often heavy on the reverb and can make you daydream a bit.
Reverb can make sounds larger, opening them up and filling in spaces. It can also cover up mistakes. A lot of karaoke bars add heavy layers to flatter terrible drunk singers. But some artists like a tighter sound. I can imagine Funk Bands being more attracted to a wah pedal than reverb. Reverb can be used on guitar, vocals, or even drums. Listen the drums on “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin.
How Does Reverb Work?
An instrument is plugged into a reverb box with a cable. Notes are played on the instrument which are converted to an electric signal which goes through the cable into the reverb box. Inside the reverb box the signal enters the circuit, where the original signal is duplicated and repeated by use of an oscillator that powers a clock chip.
A reverb circuit works similar to a delay, but the reverb circuit duplicates the repeats and processes them in so many ways that an individual repeat is no longer distinguishable. What you hear is more of a blend of all the repeats that have been processed in various ways. The resulting sound is similar to that of a natural reverb from a large room or a spring plate.
What Does an Octave Effect Sound Like?
There are two types of general octave effects. One type plays an octave higher than the original signal. The other plays an octave below. Either creates a very interesting sound. Depending on the settings the octave note can be very subtle (dry), or alternatively you can have the octave note more dominant. There are many ways to experiment with this to achieve some interesting sounds. One application I love is to use a bass guitar with a lower octave effect. It creates a super low-end rumble. Almost an angry/mean sound, but in a good way.
As far as "octave above" pedals, the thing I like about them is that they sound like they are in a constant state of "pinch harmonics." In case you didn't know, pinch harmonics is a way to get a little "squeal" out of a note by hitting the string a little differently with the pick or thumb. This little squeal gives the note "hot" or "cocky" sound to it. Like the note is so hot that another frequency is melting through it. Listen to the intro to "Crazy Babies" by Ozzy Osbourne for a perfect example of pinch harmonics. The guitarist, Zack Wylde, is a master of pinch harmonics.
So why is this relevant to the octave pedal? Well, to me, a lot of octave pedals create a sound like all the notes are in a constant state of pinch harmonics. Listen to Jimi Hendrix's solo on "Purple Haze" for a great example of this. In fact, Jimi used fuzz and octave together throughout the entire "Are You Experienced" album.
For a quick reference of this sound, listen to the following sample.
Examples of Octave Pedals in Mainstream Music
Jimi Hendrix: “Purple Haze” (Jimi’s lead lines are overloaded with both fuzz and octave effects.)
Led Zeppelin: “Fool in the rain” (solo, which is colored with both octave and fuzz.)
Rage Against The Machine: (guitar solo on "Killing in the Name")
How Does an Octave Effect Work?
When something is played on an instrument like a guitar, the cable carries the signal to an octave box. Inside the octave box a signal inverts reverse cycles of the sound waves so that all parts of the sound wave are on the positive cycle. This makes the sound wave sound like it has twice the frequency, which translates to an octave above the original tone. There are also octave pedals that create a lower octave, which is a different circuit.
Effects in Instruments Other Than Guitar:
I also want to emphasize that effects are not only used for guitar sounds. They can be used on anything, even an entire mix. Let’s see some examples:
Led Zeppelin: “Kashmir” (drums were run through a phaser. )
Phil Collins: “In the Air Tonight” (drums were run through a special type of reverb, called gated reverb. I’m not referring to the drum machine at the first section of the song. Listen to the part where the real drums kick in. Pay attention to the effects on the drums. They are heavily covered with a reverb that quickly cuts out after every drum hit. This gated reverb became very popular in 80s pop music. Gated reverb works by cutting off the tail end of the reverb. It has a very interesting history that I may cover in a future article.)
Michael Mcdonald: “I keep forgetting” (Fender Rhodes Piano using a chorus effect)
Billy Joel: “Just The Way You Are” (Fender Rhodes piano using a phaser effect)
Supertramp: “Goodbye Stranger” and “The Logical Song “ (Wurlitzer Piano using a chorus effect)
Steely Dan: “Peg” (Fender Rhodes Piano using a phaser effect)
Alan Parsons: “Eye in the sky” (Fender Rhodes piano using a chorus effect)
Ted Nugent: “Stranglehold” (bass guitar using a phase effect)
I only covered a few examples of various instruments that feature effects. But I guarantee that you can pick out many more examples if you listen closely.
Closing Thoughts on Effects
Many artists such as Angus Young are famous for not using any effects. He would plug directly into a Marshall Plexi Amplifier and crank it up. Jimi Hendrix, on the other hand, would use a lot of effects, and he also used a Marshall Plexi. These two had two completely different sounds that worked for them.
So I would encourage anyone to experiment with both avenues: Direct into an amp, or using some effects. The idea is to find a sound that suits your style. Hope you enjoyed the article!