Guitar Pedals for Beginners – A Simple Guide

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The world of guitar pedals can be pretty intimidating for a beginner. After all, there are pedals for pretty much every function, from sampling and looping to offering a myriad of new sounds for your guitar like distortion, fuzz, reverb and echo and much more. With new pedals coming out all the time, the possibilities are seemingly endless. And somewhat overwhelming.

When I was at a guitar store last week, I saw a man looking perplexed, staring down at a bunch of guitar pedals in his hands. I was stood next to him so I asked him if he needed any help. He explained that his daughter had just started playing the electric guitar and was getting really good at it. Her birthday was just around the corner and he wanted to buy her guitar pedal but was completely clueless about what was best for a beginner. Even after speaking to the shop assistant with his full vocabulary of hip muso jargon, the poor man was none the wiser as to what pedal to buy for his daughter .

first guitar pedal

That conversation made me realise that choosing your first guitar pedal can be pretty daunting if you don’t know where to start. Most beginners just end up grabbing the snazziest-looking distortion pedal with the familiar brand name within their budget and start there – like I did! Whilst there is nothing wrong with that at all, I’ve put together some handy tips and advice on this blog which I would have given my younger self when I first started out acquiring pedals. Beyond the kind of sounds that you think would be fun to make, there are other factors which should be considered to avoid wasting money on pedals that will end up collecting dust in a corner somewhere due to chronic lack of use.

So I hope you find the information on here useful and interesting to read. Do leave your questions or comments below if you still need help deciding on what to buy or if you think I’ve left out anything. Feedback is always most welcome. 🙂

What Beginners Need to Know About Guitar Pedals

First of all, you gotta ask yourself if you REALLY want to get into the world of guitar pedals. After all, there are plenty of guitar players out there who are perfectly happy just rocking out through their amp and settling for the tone coming out through that. Nothing wrong with that all. 

Certainly, it’s a much cheaper option doing it that way as opposed to getting into buying a bunch of guitar pedals which – to geeks like myself – is the proverbial slippery slope, financially speaking. Trust me when I say that there is no such thing as having too many pedals!

Once you start getting into pedals and building up your own board, it’s almost as if you can’t – or you won’t – stop until you are either a) rock star famous or b) flat broke, single with no prospect of getting a girlfriend anytime soon and living in your old room back at your parents’ place that’s overrun with expensive gear you can’t afford to keep. It’s that kind of addictive.

So right off the bat, you gotta ask yourself a few questions. Do you really want to go down that pedal route? Are you really willing to blow all that lovely moolah on a bunch of stompboxes or should you just invest in a killer amp and stick with that? Most importantly, can and will a bunch of guitar pedals really help you achieve your dream tone? After all, that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day: being able to dial up a copernica of magical sounds every single time with minimum fuss. All this before even considering what kind of pedals you may want or need to buy. Still interested?

Defining Your Sound to Determine Your Guitar Pedal

So after taking all the above into account, you’ve decided that yes, you still definitely want to get into collecting guitar pedals and all the lovely soundscapery that comes along with it. So the next step is to start thinking about what kind of pedals to invest in. 

First off, you’ve got to figure out the kind of music that you want to play and the kind of sounds you are interested in making. Blindingly obvious I know but it still needs to be put out there because knowing the kind of music you want to play is key in narrowing down the pedals you need to acquire.

So are you a shoegazer, a post rocker, a retro rocker, a metal head, a post punker, a punk rocker or a mainstream pop tart? Do you want to rock, roll, swing, glide, seduce, hypnotise, terrify or simply melt faces? Whatever your rock mode of choice, you can be rest assured that there will be a selection of pedals to choose from to help you get your preferred sound across. It is just a case of going through them to settle on your favourite.

Myself, I’m am an out-and-out indie boy whose favourite guitar players (in no particular order) are John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees), Johnny Marr (The Smiths), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, The Jicks), William Reid (Jesus and Mary Chain), Nels Cline (Wilco) and Ron Asheton (The Stooges). I love my guitar sounds weird, loud, raw, uncompromising, warped, psychedelic, adventurous… all those things definitely but without sacrificing the melodic nature of my playing because at the end of the day, melody is – and always will be –  king to my battered old ear drums.

To achieve my sound, I like to use ‘classic’ time-honoured guitars – Fender Telecasters , Fender Jazzmasters and Gibson Les Pauls are my weapons of choice – though a tube amp. They are reliable, when it comes to holding their tuning, are solidly built and look amazing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, looks are very important when it comes to guitars.

Obviously I would love to go down the proper vintage route with regards to my equipment but alas, my finances won’t stretch that far so I make do with affordable modern reissues of the classics. Basically, I’m talking about Japanese or Mexican Fender Jazzmasters or Telecasters (if you can’t afford Fenders, Squiers will definitely suffice) through a pedalboard stocked with reverb, delay, phaser, tremolo, overdrive distortion and fuzz pedals – mainly generic brands like Boss, MXR and TC Electronic rather than the posh, more expensive boutique stuff – into an old tube Carvin amp circa late nineties.

There are many other ways to achieve tonal nirvana but that’s my personal preference. I like to use a lot of pedals because I’m no purist when it comes to tone and also because I find that they really help to cover up a lot of my many inadequacies as a player and make me sound better than I am. Mainly, I like my guitar to not sound too much like a guitar, if that makes any sense! To pinch a very cool quote from the maestro himself Nels Cline: “the degradation is my sound.”

The coolest thing about pedals is that“expensive” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” a lot of the time. Some of the gnarliest guitar sounds ever created were achieved with the cheapest pedals around. Case in point, the often-imitated, insane wall of fuzz and feedback noise guitar on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s groundbreaking debut Psychocandy which was achieved via a combination of an (allegedly broken) cheap and nasty ’70s Japanese Shin-Ei Fuzz Wah pedal, which practically played itself by screeching like crazy whenever it was switched on according to the Marychain’s Jim Reid, and two Fender Twin Reverb amps.

The Guitar Pedal Every Beginner Must Have

So you’ve decided you want to head down the pedal route. Cool. So what’s the first and most important / essential pedal every guitar player should splash out on first and foremost? The answer? A decent chromatic tuner. Dead boring yes, but absolutely key, no two ways about it.

Yes, buying a pedal tuner hurts a little. For what you get – i.e not very much apart from perfect pitch – they do feel like an expensive, even pointless purchase (beginners rarely see the benefit of perfect pitch until it’s too late), like cash splashed for no fun at all. But the minute you start to think that you can do without one is where you start to go wrong in terms of getting your act together in a professional manner.

Quite simply, a chromatic tuner pedal is THE first, must-have item on your pedal board because without a perfectly in-tune guitar, nothing else you do on it will work. So you have to suck it up, bite the bullet and invest in the very best tuner pedal that you can afford. For a guitar player who employs a lot of open tunings, I knew I simply could not do without one. So I regard my tuner the same as I would regard my favourite reverb or distortion pedal. If you had to make do with only a couple of pedals, one of them would have to be a tuner, they are that important.

Best Tuner Guitar Pedals for Beginners

So what to consider when buying a tuner? Right off the bat for me, the number one priority when it comes to choosing a pedal tuner for me is the size of the LED screen. Basically, you got to be able to read that sucker on a dark stage so the bigger and brighter the letters on the screen, the better. Everything else is just gravy really when you can actually see what you are doing clearly on a tuner pedal. Simples.

Korg Pitch Black Pedal Tuner

To this end, I picked the Korg Pitch Black pedal tuner. Affordable, compact, really cool-looking with its classy, matt black finish and built like a goddamn tank with its aluminium die cast body, this tuner has served me faultlessly since I purchased it some ten years ago. And most importantly, its large, bright LED meters makes tuning on even the most darkest of stages a breeze. Add to that the pedal’s ability to deliver true 100% bypass output that doesn’t mess with your guitar tone along with a spare 9VDC output jack provided for cascading power supply to other pedals and you’ve got yourself a serious winner of a pedal tuner on your hands.

Boss TU 2 Tuner Pedal

The Boss TU 2 was the first pedal tuner to go viral upon its release in 1998 – it seems nuts that nobody had really gone for pedal tuners up until that point – and these days, it’s the BOSS TU3, which is an updated version of the TU2, that you see gracing the pedalboards of the majority of the star players of the guitar world and it will definitely do the job for you with no fuss. But for me, the Korg Pitch Black wins out because of the fact that its LED display is so much easier to read.

Polytune 3 Mini Polyphonic Tuner Pedal

Portability is another consideration. If you don’t want your tuner to take up too much real estate on your pedal board, you may want to consider something from the mini tuner range from which the sweet-looking Polytune 3 Mini Polyphonic Tuner from TC Electronic would be the pick of choice for me. Tiny and with a super-bright 109-LED display, it’s ideal for super accurate and lightning quick tuning on fully-loaded pedal boards where every inch counts. They say that size doesn’t matter? Well the Polytune 3 puts paid to that notion. A great little tuner this one.

In Conclusion

So to summarise, you gotta bite the bullet and invest in a good pedal tuner. End of. In fact, have a couple lying around with one on standby just in case. A pedal tuner is really something you don’t ever want to think about too much or replace too often, so take the time to find one that really ticks the boxes for you in terms of easy usability and then get on with the rest of your life making sweet music in perfect pitch.

Updated 23 Jan 2020. 

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