If you’re building a pedalboard, whether for the first time or rebuilding your current pedalboard, there are a few essential guitar pedals that need to find their way into your signal chain. This article breaks down the the major must-have guitar pedals by type, and offers suggestions on their applications.
Note: To find tips on what order to place your guitar pedals, read our How to Arrange Guitar Effects article for insight into popular placements and tonal options. Our Best Guitar Pedals article offers insight as to what popular pedal makers’ consider their favorites.
Essential Guitar Pedal #1: Overdrive/Low-Gain
Overdriving an amplifier is what started rock guitar, yet most guitarists these days simply can’t crank up their amplifier to get those classic tones that lured us into electric guitar in the first place.
The solution is a high-quality overdrive pedal that mimics the sound of a cranked amplifier. Overdrive pedals are key for crunchy rhythm tones, tasteful blues tones or lightly saturated lead guitar tones where qualities like touch sensitivity, sustain and dynamics are required. Overdrive pedals are the most common type of guitar pedal made today, so there are a lot of options.
3 Popular Must-Have Overdrive Pedals
- Klon Centaur (best mid-range voiced overdrive)
- Ibanez Tubescreamer (boutique modified version)
- Lovepedal Eternity (transparent, glass-like overdrive)
Essential Guitar Pedal #2: Fuzz/Distortion
Most guitarists will need another, more saturated dirt pedal for taking searing leads over top of the rhythm section, or creating wider distortion coverage within harder rock songs. Fuzz and distortion are similar, but different.
Fuzz tones are chewy, thick and can sound great at all saturation levels. Distortion pedals typically are more linear in nature (the more you turn up the gain, the more sustain and saturation you will get). Having only an overdrive pedal is usually not enough for most guitarists, and a fuzz or distortion pedal will help take your tones to the next level in terms of saturation.
3 Must-Have Fuzz/Distortion Pedals
- Analogman Sunface (Fuzzface clone)
- DAM Professional MKII (Tonebender clone)
- Fulltone Distortion Pro (classic distortion)
Essential Guitar Pedal #3: Delay/Reverb
For solos and more ambient guitar passages, guitarists will need a delay or reverb pedal to fill out the sound underneath their guitar. A delay pedal will help keep the background ambience a bit cleaner than a reverb pedal by adding simple (or complex) repeats of the notes that are played. A reverb pedal helps to make the guitar sound “bigger than life,” mimicking the guitar tone being played in different room sizes (from small rooms, to halls, to cathedrals).
These pedals are not just popular with shoegazer, ambient, or indie bands looking to create soundscapes. They are applicable for any style where the guitarist needs to make their guitar sound wider at certain points in their music.
3 Must-Have Delay & Reverb Pedals
- Empress Superdelay (8 customizable delay tones)
- Maxon AD999 (warm, analog, ambient delay)
- Strymon Bluesky Reverb (realistic reverb tones for guitar)
Essential Guitar Pedal #4: Wah/Filter
Wah pedals and filters (like the Whammy pedal) offer unique ways for a guitarist to change the expression of a guitar’s tone. Funk and rock music can be spiced up with a wah pedal, which sweeps a predefined frequency range allowing the guitarist to achieve classic “quack” tones (classic funk) to filtered midrange tones (think Frank Zappa and Jimmy Page). Filter pedals like the Digitech Whammy offer pitch-bending tones that make a guitar incredibly expressive, and able to mimic other instruments to a degree.
3 Must-Have Wah & Filter Pedals
- Real McCoy Wah (customizable, vintage wah tones)
- Mutron III (still the greatest envelope filter)
- Digitech Whammy II (best sounding, easiest-to-use whammy)
Essential Guitar Pedal #5: Compressor/Boost
Oftentimes, guitarists get lost in the mix within a large band. A compressor pedal can help keep the guitar’s tone and volume focused at an audible level, thus improving its presence in the frequency spectrum of a full band.
Some compressors (like Ross clones) offer squash along with sustain, while others (typically optical compressors) are more transparent while achieving the same thing. For this reason, Ross compressor clones are often used for guitar leads due to their added color (the squash factor), while optical compressors are more often used for rhythm and acoustic guitar. However, this is not a set-in-stone rule. A high-quality boost pedal is also a helpful effect for boosting the guitar’s volume for key points within a song (solos, endings, etc.).
3 Must-Have Compressor & Boost Pedals
- Keeley Compressor (classic Ross clone)
- Diamond Comprossor (optical compression)
- Zvex Super Hard On (sparkle + boost)
Essential Guitar Pedal #6: Modulation
Sometimes guitarists need “movement” in the guitar’s sound for a particular song. This can be achieved through a number of different effects (usually time-based) such as chorus, flanger, uni-vibe or phaser pedals.
A chorus effect is achieved by replicating the sound of adding multiple layers of the same tone on top of each other. A flanger effect is based on the old studio trick (made popular by Jimi Hendrix) of grabbing the flange of a reel-to-reel recording device and creating a unique delay sound (with a “whoosh” character). Phaser pedals blend the guitar’s tone both in and out of phase, with multiple degrees of complexity to give a rich, watery character to the sound. These effects really help to add unique dynamics to the song in which they are used, whether as a rhythm or lead voicing.
3 Must-Have Modulation Pedals
- Strymon Mobius (multi-modulation pedal)
- Sweetsound Ultravibe (ultra-warm uni-vibe)
- Moogerfooger 12-Stage Phaser (full-spectrum phaser)
Essential Guitar Pedal #7: Volume/EQ
Guitarists will often need to adjust their volume on the fly within a song, and that can be difficult to do with your hands. As an alternative, volume pedals provide a popular way to control your guitar’s volume with your feet. They use a simple circuit involving a potentiometer to simple increase and decrease the signal volume passing through it.
Incredible swell and fade-in/fade-out effects can be achieved with volume pedals, and offer a very natural-sounding way to vary your guitar tone. Equalizer (EQ) pedals are a must-have for guitarists wanting to change the tonal shape of their guitar without adding additional color from the pedal’s circuit (like overdrive, fuzz and distortion pedals do).
3 Must-Have Volume or EQ Pedals
- Ernie Ball Volume Jr. (affordable volume pedal)
- Empress ParaEQ (ultimage EQ pedal)
- Boss 7-Band Graphic EQ (affordable EQ)
Essential Guitar Pedal #8: Tuner
If your guitar is out of tune, everyone will notice. Everyone. Nothing sounds more amateur than a guitar that is not in tune. For this reason, a tuner is an essential guitar pedal.
There are a lot of tuners on the market, and guitarists will want to take things like tuner accuracy, true bypass and footprint into account. Strobe tuners have come back in digital form in recent years. Headstock tuners help save space. Here’s a few of the more popular options.
3 Must-Have Tuner Pedals
- Sonic Research Turbo Tuner (accurate, true bypass, small)
- Peterson Strobe Tuner (accurate, true bypass)
- Korg AW2G (headstock tuner, saves pedalboard space)
One can certainly argue that there are other pedal types to include, but these are the major essential guitar pedals to include on your pedalboard. For most gigging situations, these must-have pedals will help your guitar find its place in the mix with ample tonal options, in a number of different band setups and for a myriad different song situations. But, this is just a start…not a complete list.
What other essential guitar pedals would you include?