Understanding the Different Kinds of Electric Guitar Effects

By Jon Chappell, Carl Verheyen

Top guitarists understand how to make their tone come alive by adding effects. It’s the reason why a professional guitarist’s tone can sound different from an amateur’s, even when they are playing the same piece. Understanding guitar effects and knowing how to use them can be the difference between nirvana and narcolepsy.

Effects are devices that electronically alter, in strange and wondrous ways, the sound coming out of your guitar. Effects go between your guitar and amp and are built for modularity, meaning you can use as many effects as you want and put them in whatever order you want, to achieve slightly different variations in sound.

Think of effects like a train: The guitar is the engine and the amp is the caboose. In between go the boxcars, which can be placed in any number and in any order and still form a train. Because effects are modular and self-contained, you can mix and match to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content.

Effects alter the relationship between a guitar and amp, adding another layer of sonic potential in between. Best of all, effects let you play the role of sound designer. The right processors can fortify an anemic sound or morph a mundane tone into an otherworldly swirl.

Effects can generally be broken down into four divisions:

  • Gain based: These effects act on the volume or signal level and respond in various ways. They include distortion, compressors, volume pedals, and gates.

  • Tone based: These effects — which include graphic and parametric EQ, wah-wah pedal, and auto-wah — affect the tonal color, such as the bass and treble content.

  • Modulation: The most “effect like” of the effects, modulation effects generally do something strange to the sound, such as make the guitar sound like it’s swirling or under water or wavering. These effects include chorus, flanger, phase shifter, rotating speaker, tremolo, and vibrato.

  • Ambience: Ambience effects provide an acoustic space or environment and include reverb and echo (referred to as delay by musicians).

Some effects, such as flanger, wah-wah, and delay, are obvious to the ear. But others, such as compression, reverb, and even distortion, are core elements of your tone, so you might not always notice these as “effects.” But used artfully, or sometimes even just correctly, they can take you to tonal utopia. Even if your personal style doesn’t call for mind-altering sound, you can still improve your sound by using effects.