Hey gearheads! One of the coolest things about the electric guitar is the sheer amount of sonic variety you can get out of the ol’ six string (or seven… or eight… or…). Thanks to the ingenuity of pioneering guitarists and techs – and some fortunate accidents – there are almost limitless amounts of sounds that you can get out of a guitar. To explain them all would take more than this post (not to mention that would be outside of my comprehension!). But I can give a brief overview of a few of the most common types of effects. As always though, the best way to learn about this is to hear them for yourself!
When you think of an electric guitar, more often than not in your mind’s ear you probably hear it sound distorted. You hear that distinct dirty, gritty sound that makes it as if it was born to play rock n’ roll. But this was accidental. Since they were invented in the 1930’s, electric guitars were primarily created to give more wiggle room in big bands. All an amplifier needed to do was to simply make the guitar loud enough to be heard a midst the horns and percussion. But amps are susceptible to damage, especially when traveling and gigging. This, coupled with bringing an amp’s volume up past its natural limit, would give the sounds dirty overtones. Early guitarists such as Willie Johnson and Willie Kizart took advantage to make it musical (such as in Rocket 88, considered one of the first rock and roll songs), and thus, we have the ever popular distortion.
Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz effects are often used interchangeably. To an extent they all do a similar job, but at the same time there are differences. Overdrive is what you get when you boost the signal, typically using the gain control. Oftentimes when you boost the signal past a limit, this generates a natural distortion. Effective use is what gives rock its distinctive sound. Distortion effectively changes the signal as is making it nitty gritty no matter the volume/gain level. Often this is what you hear in hard rock and heavy metal tracks. Fuzz alters the signal into a square wave. They give a warm and sparkly distortion (er, fuzzy tone). These days most amps come with some sort of distortion or overdrive channel.
Chorus is used to make a guitar sound like more than one is playing in unison. To emulate a chorus of singers, the guitar signal is doubled, slightly delayed, and slightly out of tune. The clashing overtones give it a fuller sound without muddying up the tone. It sounds especially majestic with a clean tone or light distortion mixed in beforehand.
Let’s be honest; most guitarist want to be heard above the rest. Short for reverberation, reverb is the shortcut ticket to sounding BIG. Most of you have probably realized this before, but the room or area we play our instrument can have an effect on the sound we perceive. Since sound is a physical thing, it will react and reflect differently depending on the number of objects, size, and furniture in the space. Think about the difference between a huge auditorium versus a clubhouse. Reverb effects can emulate the sound that space causes. Depending on the type of reverb effect, you can even control the type of room you want to emulate the sound reverberating against. Pretty popular among rockabilly and surf guitar players.
There are different types of delay effects, but in essence they create echoes or repeating sounds. They can be used for subtly or as audible as yelling out an echo across a vast canyon. There are some that let you sample your playing, allowing you to “play over” yourself, or even reverse echo delays that plays your notes backwards!
Nothing describes the sound of ‘wah’ better than the name it has been given. What wah does is put the entire tonal range of the guitar into an active pedal: from bass-y to treble-y. Rocking between them back and forth creates a sound akin to making your instrument whine. One of the most famous brand is the ‘Cry Baby.’ The name says it all. There are many funk tunes that employ the wah pedal. Jimi Hendrix also used the Cry Babies to great effect.
These are just a handful of effects many with different ways to achieve their sound. Most you can find as foot pedals that give you hands free control. There are also multi-effect processor boards that give you multiple effects in one unit. There are amps that come preloaded with effects. Effects can be added digitally via audio workstation. The list goes on. Go out and experiment with them!
Here are some video examples: