If you or someone you know is looking to build a collection of the best guitar effects pedals then let me start by saying, “Welcome to the best club ever.”
I love guitar gear. It’s an obsession for me. I spend so much of my free time researching gear that it only seemed logical that I should start putting some of this passion into a website. So, if you want information, I have already done the research.
Why trust me? I have been playing guitar for over 20 years and I have experimented with tons of pedals. During my lunch breaks, I sneak off to Guitar Center and New York City’s boutique guitar shops to try out all the new (and vintage) toys. I have the product lines practically memorized for all of the major guitar companies. My brother is also a gear head and it’s all we talk about. Did I say that I love gear?
Now is perhaps the best time to buy guitar effects pedals because there are tons of options, quality is at an all time high and prices are cheap.
Below is my list of the five perfect pedals to start with. I tried to keep prices in the $100 range with one pedals as low as $49. (Click on the links to check the prices on Amazon.)
I have strived to suggest pedals that are easy to use, sound amazing (duh) and have stood the test of time.
Anything you pick from the list below will be cool today and something you will still use years later. Many of these pedals appear on the boards of touring rock stars.
I’ll list these in the order I think you should buy them and then I’ll list the order you should connect them once you hook them all up together. Here we go!
This is the most famous overdrive pedal and with good reason. The Tube Screamer has managed to remain in constant use by professional guitarists for decades. Everyone from your weekend warrior to Stevie Ray Vaughn have used a Tube Screamer to define their sound.
If size isn’t a concern, I would suggest getting the full size Tube Screamer because you can run it off of a battery. You can see the size difference in the video above.
Why start with this as your first pedal?
This is going to make you feel like rock star. Sure, your amp may have some overdrive and distortion sounds, but unless you have a quality tube amp I’m guessing the sound leaves a lot to be desired. Using a tube screamer will boost and distort your guitar in a really pleasing way by giving it a slight push to the midrange tone. This will help your guitar stand out if you are playing with other instruments. Plus, there is something really satisfying about stomping on a pedal and having your guitar go from clean to screaming. Casually pushing some button on your solid state practice amp just doesn’t have the same level of oomph.
If you amp does decent a high gain sound, then the tube screamer can be used in conjunction to create more (cool) madness.
If you are strictly looking to play punk or metal then check out the “runner up” options below. But, if you play a mix of rock, blues, and metal songs and you are experimenting to find your sound then trust me – you will get years of use out of your Tube Screamer.
Runner up options:
Boss DS1: If you want an edgier high gain sound, this pedal will do the trick. It also holds the distinction of being the lowest priced pedal on the list. If you really want to nerd out and modify a pedal, you can find tons schematics online.
Fulltone OCD: If you want a modern sounding distortion with tons of gain on tap then the OCD will not let you down. This thing ranges from being a mild boost to ripping your face off and forcing you to eat it.
2: BOSS DD-7 Delay (check prices)
Now that you have a Tube Screamer to make your guitar go from quiet to loud and from clean to distorted all with the stomp of your foot, let’s expand your sound in a way that only delay can. Delay can add a unique character to your sound that says: country, psychedelic, epic and dreamy all by how you set the controls.
Delay also happens to be the one type of pedal that guitarists are the pickiest about. Some people want a ton of controls, others want it simple, some want Tap Tempo while others could care less. And, the argument over Digital vs Analog will go on until the end of time.
In keeping with the concept of this list I decided to keep my choice easy to use and respected enough that no-one would scoff if you showed up to a gig or jam sessions with this on your board.
I thought long and hard about what to suggest but the Boss DD-7 was my ultimate winner. Why? The DD-7 is small, easy to use and (because it is digital ) it contains various options allowing you to experiment and learn what type of delay you ultimately like best. Want an “Analog” sounding delay? Just turn the knob and it has a setting for that. Want a clean digital delay? Turn the knob again. Want a crazy reverse delay? It has that too.
If you are reading this post it’s possible that you don’t yet know where you fall in the Analog vs Digital debate.
While the analog MXR Carbon Copy has become a gold standard in delay pedals I decided to keep this as a runner up because if you are learning what you like in delay you may find the limited controls a bummer. That said, if you know you want a simple pedal with three knobs and classic warm analog tone the the Carbon Copy is hard to beat. And, it was REALLY hard to pick an analog delay. So the Boss DM2W Waza Craft is another choice if you want analog.
Why delay and not a reverb pedal?
Most guitar amps contain some form of reverb so I’m going to treat reverb as a “free” effect you already have. But, if you specifically want a reverb pedal or if your amp doesn’t have reverb I’ve included the TC Electronic Hall of Fame as my suggested reverb of choice. It has a lot of controls (especially with the tone print feature) and it does a lot – including some reverb with delay options.
Runner up suggestions:
MXR Carbon Copy (Analog Delay)
Boss DM-2W Delay Waza Craft (Analog Delay)
TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb Pedal with TonePrint (Digital Reverb with Delay)
3: Dunlop Crybaby Mini Wah Wah (check prices)
A Wah is basically a notched EQ that you sweep up and down with your foot. This allows your guitar to make that classic “Whacka-Whacka” sound that you have heard everywhere from Jimi Hendrix, 70’s Funk, Metallica and contemporary rock. …Oh, and clichéd Porno soundtracks.
A wah lends an expressive quality to your playing allowing you to sculpt your tone in real time. A lot of famous artists have also used the wah without sweeping it back and forth to give their guitar a punchy tone that cuts in the mix.
I thought long and hard on this, and the Dunlop Mini Wah is the best wah you can buy right now.
Runner up options:
Dunlop BG95 Buddy Guy Signature Wah: Here is a expensive wah for the sake of giving a second option… . This is expensive but I think it’s worth it. I LOVE mine.
VOX V847: Vox is the other big name in Wah pedals and the classic V847 has a slightly different tone, often called bright and edgy. This video compares the Vox against a similar Dunlop but, honestly, for the same cost as the VOX you might as well buy the Dunlop Mini with it’s 3 tone options and convenient size. The Dunlop Mini is a game changer.
4: MXR Phase 95 (check prices)
Okay, by now we have covered a lot of the standard effects so it’s time to get weird and talk about modulation. Modulation effects are a category of pedals that adjust your sound in a way that causes the listener to perceive additional dimension, depth, and movement. This includes flangers, phasers, chorus effects (including “UniVibe chorus”), and pitch vibrato. Tremolo (turning sound on/off quickly), and rotary speaker effects like a Leslie are often included in this.
I love modulation pedals. My first pedal was a Chorus. While I loved opening it Christmas morning all those years ago (Thanks Mom!) it wasn’t the right sound to start my pedal collection. I’ve learned to love Chorus and I’m currently obsessed with my Moog Flanger, but I think a phaser is the pest place to start with modulation effects. Phasers are wild enough to sound weird, but not so crazy that you lose all musical quality. Phasers also work really well with gain pedals and can be used in everything from Psychedelic Rock to Metal.
The MXR Phase 95 is a brand new mini pedal and this is the one to own!
For those not aware of the whole obsession guitarists have with phasers I’ll try to sum this up… There are basically two phasers that everyone feels are the best: the MXR Phase 45 and the MXR Phase 90. But… There were two versions of the phase 45 and 90 made previously. The vintage units with a “script” logo and the modern versions with a “block” logo. People get all crazy about what sounds better. Well… the Phase 95 lets you toggle between the Phase 45 and the Phase 90 in both Script and Block settings just by pressing a button. FINALLY!
This pedal is super affordable, especially when you consider that it’s four best-sellers in one.
The only downside to this pedal is that is doesn’t take batteries so you will need an external AC adapter or a power supply on your pedal board. Not a deal breaker considering how much versatility you can get from one pedal!
Runner up options:
Fulltone Déja Vibe: If you know you are going to be playing a lot of Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn tunes then this is that mystery pedal that gave everything that golden swirling throb. It’s amazing. This is the secret ingredient to Hendrix’s Woodstock version of The Star Spangled Banner. Best of all, there have been 4 versions of this pedal over the years, The original Déja-vibe, the Déja-vibe Mini, and then the Déja-vibe V2 and V3 that include a foot controller. As a result, you can now find these used for a fraction of the original price.
Boss CE-2W Chorus Waza Craft: If you know you are going to be playing a lot of Police and Nirvana covers then go with this newly released chorus.
5: Ditto Looper (check prices) AND a secret guest star!
Why is this as your fifth pedal? The DD-7 delay that I mentioned above has a basic looper function included, so now you can decided if you want to dedicate yourself to a looper full-time.
If you want something bare-bones the Ditto Looper is the obvious choice. If you want to get something complex for live performances see some suggestions below.
A looper is a super fun practice tool to record yourself playing chords, loop them and play a solo over what you just recorded. Plus, when you solo you will now have all the other cool pedals above to play with! YES!
The TC Electronic Ditto looper is about as basic as it gets.
One knob, one button. Super simple to use, super popular and perhaps the best selling looper of all time.
The Ditto doesn’t have drum sounds or a built in metronome, but honestly, now that recording to a computer is super easy (think GarageBand for Mac) if you want to play with a computerized drummer you are more likely to do it there anyway. Having a small looper like the Ditto is about spontaneous organic fun.
The Ditto Looper will require you to plug it into a power supply or AC outlet. It does not accept batteries and the AC adapter is sold separately.
Runner up options:
DigiTech Trio: this pedal learns the loop you created and then adds appropriate drums and bass so that you can Jam with a band.
TC Electronic Ditto X4 Looper: This is an four button looper that offers tons of live looping flexibility. If you have experimented with the basic looper in the DD7 delay and you know that you want a full fledged looper then you should really check this out.
*WAIT A SECOND*
What if you don’t want a stand alone looper?
Perhaps the freeze function on the DD-7 is all the looper you need or you just don’t like playing with a looper. I am going to suggest that you pickup a compressor instead.
Compressors limit the dynamic range of your guitar signal. This “squash” is often desirable to help even out volume with fast picking – so much so that compressors are used everywhere from country picking to legato filled metal solos.
Xotic Effects SP Compressor (Check Prices)
The Xotic Effects SP Compressor is a great entry into the world of compressors. It offers simple controls, a great transparent sound and best of all it is a micro-sized pedal meaning you will be able to find space for it on your board for years to come. Beyond the classic compression functions, the SP Compressor has a lot of extra gain on tap and can be blended with your original signal making it a great pedals to kick on for a boost during your solos. For the price you would be hard pressed to find something better.
I was originally tempted to recommend the legendary MXR Dnya Comp – perhaps the easiest compressor of all time with it’s two control knobs – but the Xotic has a similar sound and a bit more flexibility. The Dnya Comp will definitely color your sound, although many players choose this pedal as that tone change has become classic in it’s own way. Note that the Dyna Comp is true bypass so your sound will be unaffected in anyway when turned off (Yay!). At less than $100 the iconic Dyna Comp remains a killer pedal worth considering.
Why no tuner?
If you are a beginner, a tuner can be extremely helpful… but, you should also learn to turn your guitar manually. If you are just playing at home and jamming with friends then you can easily use a free or low cost tuner app for iPhone or Android and save your money for the fun stuff, like a phaser! If you really want a tuner pedal, I’m going to suggest the classic Boss TU-3 Tuner. It’s built like a tank and you see them on the touring pedal boards of pretty much every rock act.
Suggested Signal Flow:
Option #1: Guitar > Dunlop Mini Wah > Tube Screamer > Phase 90 > Delay > Looper > Amp
Option #2: Try placing the Wah after the tube screamer and then before it. What sound do you like more? Both are correct. It’s up to you.
Option #3: Try putting your Delay and Phaser after the looper. This way those effects are being added on top of the loop you recorded. You may like this set up more.
Are these the five best guitar effects pedals?
Please leave a comment and share your thoughts. Did I leave something out? Let me know.