Basic Guide to Guitar Effect Pedals & Sound Processing

Basic Guide to Guitar Effect Pedals & Sound Processing

Let's break it down! Imagine playing your electric guitar with no effects. The pickups transform the vibrating string motion into an electric signal, and that is your guitar signal. Effects just alter the guitar signal, and there are 6 common ways they do that: 

  1. Tone: Increases or decreases specific ranges of frequencies of your guitar signal, to go from muddy to nasally to bright sounds. 
  2. Dynamics: Adjust the volume of your guitar signal, sometimes at a specific rate, sometimes squashing or cutting off sound all together. 
  3. Distortion: Boosts the guitar signal to the point that it overloads the amp and clips the signal, increasing sustain and creating crunch. 
  4. Phase Shift: The guitar signal is duplicated and then shifted, by a specific amount of time, to create a repeating cascade of sound.  
  5. Modulation: The guitar signal is duplicated, and then raised or lowered in pitch. 
  6. Reverb: The guitar signal travels through or against something, creating a sense of space. 

When you think about effects this way, it makes them easier to explore, and ultimately to find your guitar sound. Of course, there are other ways to group effects, so use this as a jumping off point on your individual sonic journey. I've included more detail, as well as links, and demo videos in this post below. Enjoy!

What Cable should you use to connect your pedals? I have heard great things about MAKA.

Looking for general guitar gear recommendations? Check out my Guitar Gear Page.


You have a tone control on your electric guitar, as well as low, mid, and high knobs on your amp, so you are probably familiar with the muddy to nasally to bright sounds you can get by adjusting the tone of your guitar signal.

Graphic Equalizer: Sliding controls, called faders, increase or reduce specific ranges of frequencies. Helpful to fix a guitar's "dead" or "boomy" sound when certain notes are played.

MXR M109S Six Band Graphic EQ Equalizer

Sweep Filter: Creates a moveable peak in the frequency spectrum, emphasizing certain frequencies by rocking the pedal back and forth. Creates a more vocal-like quality single notes and chords, and adds a kind of pitch-like variation in percussive (scratch) rhythmic playing.

Dunlop CBM95 Crybaby Mini Wah

Envelope Filter: This is a sweeping peaking filter that responds to the attack of the guitar signal, which can be adjusted to to respond to light or heavy picking, as desired. Creates a more vocal-like quality single notes and chords, and adds a kind of pitch-like variation in percussive (scratch) rhythmic playing.

Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah


Adjusting the amplitude (volume or loudness) of your guitar signal creates some cool effects.

Volume: A potentiometer, sometimes called a pot, is wired like the volume knob on a guitar and the volume is increased or decreased by rocking the pedal back and forth. Manually cuts or raises the signal, create "piano" chords and "violin" solos, by playing a chord or note with the volume all the way down, then increasing the volume after the strings have been attacked. 

Ernie Ball VP Jr 6180 Passive Volume