Guitar Effects for Beginners - A Guide to Stomp Boxes and Multi-FX (Part 2)

In the last article I looked at the main types of effects you'll encounter for your guitar. Here I'll deal with the physical form these typically come in and I'll also, based on my personal experiences, recommend a few to get you started. Since as a beginner you're likely to be budget conscious, I'll focus on ones that won't break the bank.

Foot Pedals

The foot pedal or "stompbox" as it's more affectionately known, is the most common form (and for guitar die-hards the most desirable) of guitar effect unit.

A typical arrangement for a stompbox will consist of a metal box encasing the unit's circuitry, on top of which will be a footswitch to turn the effect on or bypass it, along with one or more rotary controls to alter the parameters of the effect. On one side of the unit you'll usually find an input jack for the signal from your guitar, along with an output jack on the other, which will carry the signal on out from the unit and on to the amp or another unit.

Stompboxes can be chained one after the other (i.e. the output from one unit leading into the input to another), with the last output from the chain going into your amp. As these units typically (although not always) only incorporate one type of effect each (i.e. one box for distortion, one for chorus, one for compression, etc) you can use this method to incorporate lots of different effects into your guitar sound, layering up or reducing the number of effects by switching the boxes on or off via their footwitches.

Building up a collection of good quality stompboxes and using them this way is something that's highly coveted by many guitarists, as they can select exactly what they want, unit by unit, giving them near total control on the shaping of their sound. However it's not the only way to go, but more on that shortly.

The amount of pedals produced both past and present for various different effect types is simply too massive to go into real detail here, however some famous brands and models you might want to look at to give you an idea of what's on offer are; BOSS (DS-1 Distortion, CH-1 Super Chorus, DD-7 Digital Delay), Electro Harmonix (Memory Man, Big Muff, Small Clone), MXR (Phase 90, Dyna Comp), and DigiTech (Hot Head, DigiVerb, Multi Chorus).

Multi-Effects Units

Having read the above, some of you may be feeling a tad disenchanted. Even allowing for the fact you might be buying budget pedals, you could end up spending a fair amount of time and money getting all the ones you want to craft your sound. Is there not a way of combining a whole pile of effects into one unit? There is indeed, in the form of multi-fx units.

Multi-fx units come in many shapes, sizes and prices, however a typical one intended to replace an array of stompboxes will be a floor unit, consisting of a few footswitches and selectors. Most above a certain price will also include an expression pedal, which you can assign as a wah-wah pedal or volume swell, or indeed to many other parameters.

Most modern examples will also include some form of "amp-modelling" - this is circuitry within the unit intended to simulate various types of guitar amp, allowing you to do away with a physical amp altogether and play through a set of conventional speakers. It's also a handy setup for recording as you can record direct to your recording device (say, your computer's soundcard) without first having to mic up your guitar amp.

Some examples of the type are, the BOSS ME & GT series, the Line 6 POD XT (Line 6 were pioneers in the field of amp modelling), the Vox Tonelab series and the Zoom G series.

Many though feel that this type of unit is a compromise, and that you simply won't get the tonal quality out of them that you would with a good set of individual effects pedals. The jury's out on that as far as I'm concerned. There's no doubt they have greatly improved over time and will continue to do so.

I remember trying an early example from Zoom. I was impressed with the ability to combine many effects into one small unit, however the results weren't particularly great. Overdrive and distortion tones in particular were a real problem as they lacked any of the warmth you'd get from a conventional amp or effect pedal, and had a harsh 'digitised' sound. Compare that to the units Zoom and others now produce and they seem a world away from those, with hindsight, primitive examples.

Some recommendations

One thing's for sure, you certainly get a lot more bang for your buck these days, compared to when I bought my first electric. Back then the premium brands, such as BOSS and Electro Harmonix dominated, and with good reason - the budget alternatives were cheap and not particularly cheerful.

That's rapidly changing though, so with the budget-conscious in mind I'll make a few recommendations.

Firstly I'd like to point you in the direction of Behringer's range of stompboxes. These cover all you'll likely need in terms of overdrive, distortion, modulation, compression, delays and reverbs. I currently use the Behringer CS400 Compression/Sustainer in my setup and am very happy with the results. The bulk of these pedals are currently priced new at under 30 (about 50 USD) each, so they're a great way of starting out your collection.

A lot of debate rages on YouTube and elsewhere about the merits or otherwise of these pedals. Surely something priced so low cannot match the quality of much higher-priced units? Well, perhaps they don't quite match them, but as I mentioned above the value for money factor here is pretty amazing. Behringer house these units in durable plastic as opposed to the metal cases more commonly used for stompboxes, which is probably key to keeping costs down. It doesn't follow though that this will make them sound worse.

Behringer also offer multi-fx in the form of the X V-Amp. This unit includes amp-modelling and should set you back a fairly modest 65 (110 USD).

Up the price range a bit, although still not exorbitant, is DigiTech's range of pedals. Again, I've had very good experience with these. They're very durable, built with metal casings, and should last a lifetime of playing. They have a more premium range, known as the Hardwire series, but their "ordinary" series (which is anything but!) are in the range of 50 to 90 (80 to 150 USD), with some good second-hand bargains to be had on eBay.

Kings of multi-fx for many years were the aforementioned Zoom. Whilst they're having that title challenged these days, they're still worth recommending because of their range, which goes from budget to premium and everything in between. Their G1N model can be picked up for around 60 (100 USD). The slightly pricier G1XN throws in an expression pedal as well.

That concludes this two-part article. Quite a lot to cover, and I haven't even got into more recent developments in the software emulation of effects - I intend though to cover that in a later article. Nonetheless I hope it's proved useful, and in the meantime be sure to keep practicing!

If you're just starting out in rock guitar and want to learn how to play in this style, here's a cool place with some very useful resources: Rock Guitar Power. Learn your riffs, plug in your stomp boxes and make some noise!

Iain is based in Scotland has been playing electric guitar for 20 years. In that time he has tried out a great many amps, stomp boxes and multi-effects units.

by Iain MacLennan; Monday, July 4, 2011 @ 04:44 PM [3487]

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