Since it’s conception in 1931, the electric guitar has been perhaps the most influential instrument in 20th century music. It has developed essentially from a guitar that’s amplified to an instrument that is fully capable of producing any imaginable sound or style. Unlike early guitar pioneers, who learned to produce the sounds they wanted by experimenting with only the basic equipment they had at their disposal, today’s guitarists have access to a wide range of guitar effect pedals that enables them to recreate any sound their imagination can envision.

The four primary guitar effects are distortion, delay, wah-wah and chorus. There are dozens of other effects, but these four are the “core” effects. With a guitar effects pedal, the guitarist, either aspiring or accomplished, can capture that “sound.”

Distortion

Distortion occurs when there is a change in the shape of an electromagnetic signal. This can produce sounds ranging from a thick, fuzzy sound to a sharp biting sound. Normally, distortion isn’t desired, but early guitarists discovered the advantages of producing a “dirty” effect that often dovetailed perfectly with many genres of music, notably rock. Distortion, at least early on in the history of electric guitar, came about accidentally, usually the result of overloaded amplifier tubes. One of the best early examples of distortion is on The Kinks hit, “You Really Got Me.” Reportedly, guitarist Dave Davies attained that “dirty” sound by taking a razor to the speaker cone in his amplifier. The legendary Jimi Hendrix made distortion an art form.guitar effect pedals

Delay

Delay is an effect which literally “delays” the signal for a specified period of time, then plays the signal. Early analog delay could only be accomplished by recording the signal separately, then replaying it back during either performance or recording, and the inconveniences of this method to both production engineers and musicians was obvious. With the development of digital delay, the guitarist gained better control over the process, and the effect became more popular. U2′s The Edge is one of delay’s leading proponents, perhaps the best example being heard on “Where The Streets Have No Name.”

Chorus

Chorus pedals function by splitting the signal between guitar and amplifier, adding slight variations, such as vibrato or pitch. These effects produce a kind of “phase lock” which helps to strengthen or boost the harmonics, similar to a chorus or string orchestra. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana utilized the chorus effect frequently, most notably in “Come As You Are.” The Police’s “Walking On The Moon” featuring guitarist Andy Summers, is another example of the chorus effect.

Wah-Wah

The wah-wah is a guitar effect that alters the tone of the signal to produce a sound that mimics the human voice. The wah-wah pedal is essentially a speech synthesizer for guitar, although the effect is more commonly applied to guitar effect pedals. The wah-wah works by filtering out frequencies in the signal, and the frequencies are manipulated by a foot pedal as the guitarist plays. Examples of the wah-wah include “Up From the Skies” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience and “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh.

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