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Adding Effects to Your Electric Guitar Sound

1 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Adding Effects and Articulation to Guitar

How many times have you heard a professional guitarist’s tone and thought, Why can’t my playing sound like that? One reason that top guitarists are able to make their guitars come alive is by adding effects. Guitar effects electronically alterthe sound coming out of your guitar in strange and wondrous ways.

Guitar effects come in four basic formats:

  • Individual, single-function effect pedals, or stompboxes

  • Floor-mounted multi-effects units

  • Rack-mounted processors

  • Effects built into an amp or preamp

Stompboxes

Individual effects pedals, or stompboxes, are the most common type of electric guitar effect. They’re the masochists of the electronic world because you literally stomp on them to turn them on and off. Most stompboxes work best when you place them between the guitar and the amp in your signal chain.

Their greatest strength, besides (hopefully) their ruggedness and affordability, is modularity: A typical stompbox may produce only one or two effects, so you can mix and match your favorites to create your ideal system.

A stompbox’s battery will drain any time something is plugged into the device’s input — even if the box appears to be turned off. Always unplug the input cable of battery-powered effects pedals when they're not in use. And to prevent a loud (and potentially speaker- or eardrum-damaging pop), turn your amp off, put it in standby, or turn down the volume all the way before unplugging any cables.

Floor-mounted multi-effects

Floor-mounted multi-effects combine a number of popular effects into a single, integrated package that sits on the floor, underfoot. This unit provides you with any number of closely spaced pedals that you can hit to activate any effect singly, or change all the effects at once by changing presets.

Any floor-effects unit covers the basics — such as distortion, compression, chorus, reverb, and delay — but some include advanced features, such as amp modeling and auto-accompaniment. Their biggest advantage is convenience: Because all effects reside in one unit, you have less to set up on stage and all the effects run off of one central power supply. They even let you store your favorite settings as “presets” for later recall, which is a big advantage over the traditional stompboxes.

Rack-mounted effects

When something is “rack-mounted,” it sits in a cabinet-like rack. A rack allows you to place several effects devices in one housing and control these effects with attached foot pedals. In rack units, the brains sit in the rack at the back of the stage (or even offstage) and a small pedal or series of pedals resides near the guitarist’s foot. As a rule, a rack-mounted version of an effect will be more powerful and of higher quality than a similarly named one that exists in floor-mounted or stompbox form.

Built-in effects

The effects built in to amplifiers were once limited to onboard reverb and tremolo, but full-featured onboard processors are becoming more common, especially with the emergence of digital amps and preamps.

Some amps offer a full complement of effects, including distortion, compression, modulation, delay, reverb, and beyond, while others concentrate on modulation and spatial effects and leave the distortion and compression to you. Again, convenience comes at the expense of flexibility — built-in effects can sound great, but you’re stuck with the ones in your amp. Still, you don’t have to use the built-in ones if you don’t want to.

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The Essentials of Adding Effects and Articulation to Guitar

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