You have an electric guitar, a cable, and an amplifier.
You officially own everything that you need to play the electric guitar.
However, there is a lot more that can be done with the instrument through the use of guitar pedals.
Whether you’re a beginner trying to figure which effects are best to invest in first, or a seasoned vet looking for some inspiration, I’m going to help you figure out the first guitar pedal to buy and hopefully answer some of the most commonly asked questions about guitar pedals.
Guitar Pedals – The Basics and Their Origins
If you’re completely new to the world of guitar pedals, you may be wondering what they are and how they work.
While this differs from one effect type to the next, guitar pedals can be thought of a small, portable noise machines that go between your guitar and your amplifier. The signal from your guitar passes through the circuits inside the pedal, then goes on to your amplifier, creating a new kind of sound than you would have if the pedal wasn’t there.
Guitar effects have existed since the first guitarist to crank their amp too loud to create overdrive. It wasn’t long after this that companies started creating units to go on top of amplifiers, spring reverbs, tremolos, tape machines, and eventually pedals to alter clean guitar tones.
To learn more about the history of guitar pedals, check out this video below by JHS Pedals out of Kansas City, MO.
Since their creation, guitar pedals have shaped music history. The more you listen to your favorite guitar players, the more you’ll likely realize how many effects they use to get their sound.
So how does this apply to you and where should you get started? Let’s start by talking about the first guitar pedal you should think about buying!
Time to Buy Your First Guitar Pedal
Do You Need a Guitar Pedal?
Before answering what the first guitar pedal would be best for you, you may be wondering – Do I really need a guitar pedal?
It’s a question we guitar players or our significant others ask every time we’re about to buy yet another guitar pedal when we already own too many.
I think the easiest way to answer this question is with another question: Does your guitar and amp work/sound the way you want it to?
For instance, if you’re using an acoustic guitar at home to write songs, you don’t need any pedals. However, if you’re about to join a Pink Floyd cover band, you’re going to need some pedals.
The only guitar pedal that everyone needs is a tuner pedal. Even with tuners, there are other options like clip on tuners, built in tuners, even apps on your phone.
Other than a tuner, whether or not you need a pedal depends on the sounds you want to create.
Some of the greatest guitar tones ever have been created just by plugging into an amplifier. Then again, getting all of your overdrive tones straight from your amp may mean turning it up to a volume that your neighbors won’t appreciate. Or maybe you bought an amplifier on a budget and you want to change the way it sounds without having to buy a whole new amp.
Maybe you’ve joined a band that requires a certain sound and the only way to get it is with a pedal.
These are the kinds of circumstances where pedals become essential. Beyond that, whether or not you need a guitar pedal is up to you and how you want your rig to sound.
Which Are the Must-Have Pedals?
Another way to approach of what should be your first guitar pedal to buy is by looking at the must-have or essential pedals. This varies by player, but there are certain pedals I would say any guitarist can benefit from having.
Many of these “essential” effects are also effects that are commonly built into amplifiers.
1. Tuner Pedals
I mentioned it before and I’m mentioning it again because this pedal is so important to ensuring that your guitar works the way it is supposed to and so that you can play along with other musicians.
This is a pedal that even professionals have to have. It doesn’t matter how many effects pedals you have if your guitar is out of tune. It’s going to sound bad.
Tuners are inexpensive and are incredibly accurate these days. They come in many different display types and even come in mini pedal form so that they don’t take up much space on your board.
Some manufacturers have realized that buying a tuner isn’t the most fun purchase ever, so they have combined tuners with other useful effects or tools like buffers, power supplies, volume pedals, and loopers.
My biggest piece of advice for picking out a tuner is that it works the way that you want it to. Make sure it lights up/displays the way you need it to, works quickly, and is accurate.
- Kliq TinyTune Pro Stage – Best Budget Option
- Peterson StroboStomp HD Guitar Tuner – Best High-End Option
- TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Mini – Best Overall
2. Overdrive/Boost Pedals
I’ve included Overdrive pedals and Boost pedals in the same section because many Overdrives can be used as a Boost, and many Boosts can be used as Overdrives. You can benefit from having both, but if needed you could get away with one or the other depending on how you use them.
A Boost pedal is any pedal that makes your guitar louder. It’s that simple. With that in mind, just about any pedal that has a Volume control can be used as a boost. The beauty of boost pedals is that, when set clean, they preserve your original guitar and amp tone. The most common way that guitarists use boosts is by using them for solos. By bumping up the volume and the gain, your guitar gets a little extra crunch, nice sustain, and a necessary volume bump.
Overdrives can be used a boosts, or they can be used to completely reshape the sound of your amp. This is great if you need two distinct tones, perhaps a clean amp tone and a mid-forward dirty tone to use in the chorus. Overdrives work by clipping your signal, thus compressing your sound and changing the overall character, while providing a volume and gain bump.
Most boosts and overdrives are considered to be “low-gain” and adapt well to a wide arrange of amplifier/guitar pairings. Whichever you go for (maybe both?) low gain pedals like boost and overdrives will give you a lot more versatility for live performances and new tones to inspire or even define your sound.
- JHS Morning Glory V4 – Best Overdrive for Tube Amps
- Nobels ODR-Mini – Best Mini Overdrive
- Xotic Super Clean – Best Clean Boost
- MXR Micro Amp – Best Boost for Beginners
3. Buffer Pedals
If you’re considering buying a large amount of pedals to create your first pedalboard, a must-have pedal will definitely be a buffer pedal. Like tuners, these are utility pedals more than “effects” pedals, but they really do make your rig sound better.
If you do any kind of research on pedals, you’ll quickly come across the terms “true bypass’ and “buffered bypass” and the eternal gear forum debate that rages on about which sounds better.
In the simplest terms – you need both. This is because every time you buy a new pedal, you add a patch cable, and the more cable length there is in your pedalboard, the more signal degradation and high-end loss you get. Buffer pedals combat this.
In short, I would say that buffer pedals are essential if you own more than five guitar pedals. And if you own a Boss pedal, you already own one! All Boss pedals, and many others, come with a buffer built in.
Recommended Buffer Pedals
- Boss DD-8 Digital Delay – Best Delay/Buffer Combo
- Empress Buffer + Boost – Best High End Option
- JHS Little Black Buffer – Best Budget Option/Best Overall
4. Reverb Pedals
Reverb pedals work to artificially emulate space. The first technology used to achieve this was with springs and this technology is still used amplifiers today.
I’ve included reverb pedals as a must-have because so many guitarists claim that they can’t live without reverb. I’ve also included it because a lot of amplifiers have them built in, making the effect almost synonymous with electric guitar. If your amp doesn’t have a reverb built in, you’re more than likely going to want one in pedal form.
Modern reverb pedals sound amazing and can range from halls, to cathedrals, to caves and beyond. However, if you’re looking for an “always-on” reverb or something that will work well for a wide array of music genres, you can’t go wrong with either a classic spring reverb pedal or a plate reverb.
Recommended Reverb Pedals
Best Pedals for Beginners
When you’re a beginner, you’re still wrapping your head and fingers around the instrument, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start looking at guitar pedals, too. In fact, the pedals below can actually help you learn the instrument faster, or help you figure out what direction you want to take your playing stylistically.
The best pedals for beginners need to be easy to use, so as not to distract or overwhelm. They don’t have to be particularly expensive either, since you are still getting a feel for guitar and guitar pedals, so there isn’t a need to spend too much money.
Finally, the best pedals for beginners should be FUN. The most important thing when you’re a beginner, and really for the rest of your time playing the guitar, is to make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing.
1. Tuner Pedal
Okay, I know, overkill. And… I said the best pedals should be fun, but even beginners need a great tuner. Read above for more info on tuning.
2. Looper Pedal
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got when I was learning guitar and taking lessons was to record myself playing, and then listen back. Back then, it was recommended that I use a tape recorder, but now you can use a Looper pedal.
Looper pedals are a ton of fun because you can record your playing on the fly, and then the pedal instantly plays your recording back for you. What’s even more fun is that you can continue to record overdubs on top of that, giving you the ability to create your own songs or jam tracks all by yourself.
This is really helpful for guitarists that don’t know other musicians yet, or who are looking to improve their practice routine, and they are a great tool to use for songwriting. Using a looper teaches you good timing and rhythm on top of giving you an honest representation of your playing.
Once you have really figured out how to use a Looper pedal, you can even use it while gigging. Plenty of great songwriters use loopers live to create more sounds than there are musicians on stage, which really wows the audience and lets you get extra creative.
Recommended Looper Pedals
- Boss RC-1 Loop Station – Best Looper for Beginners
- LEKATO Loop Station – Best Looper Under $100
- Boomerang III Phrase Looper – Best for Live Performances
3. Multi-Effects Pedals
Multi-effects pedals have come a long way and are now more accessible and easier to use than ever before. There are multi-effects units designed specifically for modulation, specifically to emulate a particular guitarist, even units designed to have every effect (even amp models) all in one pedal.
If you’re new to pedals, this might seem overwhelming, even impossible.
I would recommend multi-effects pedals to anyone who is looking to explore and experiment with different effects for the first time because they can work like a “try before you buy” type of pedal.
For instance, if you’re thinking of buying a great fuzz pedal, but aren’t sure which type to go for, most multi-effects pedals have the classic fuzz sounds built into them. Once you decide you like a “fuzz face”, for example, you can then go out and find the perfect fuzz pedal for you.
My only other bit of advice with multi-effects pedals for beginners is to buy one that is easy to use. There are professional level multi-effects units like the Line 6 Helix and others that can easily overwhelm a beginner. I would even recommend starting with multi-effects pedals that focus on a particular effect type.
Beyond that, multi-effects pedals can surprise you with sounds you never thought of before and are likely to keep you excited about playing, which is important!
Recommended Multi-Effects Pedals
- Boss GT-1 – Best Under $200
- JOYO Vision R-09 – Best Multi-Modulation
- Fishman ToneDEQ – Best Multi-Effect for Acoustic Guitar
The First Pedal You Buy Should Make You Play More
Answering the question of “what should be the first guitar pedal I buy” isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s personal, and changes from one guitarist to the next.
When thinking about the first guitar pedals to buy, you have to keep in mind the practical side of your playing, like what effects your gig needs or what you feel you need for your playing style. This is where pedals like tuners and overdrives become a great first option.
That being said, there is a lot of merit to buying a pedal that inspires you. Pedals like Reverbs, delays, modulation, and multi-effects are so much fun and are bound to keep you exploring the instrument.
I think the bottom line here is that whatever pedal you choose to invest in first should be something that makes you play more. That can come in form of buying a pedal that helps you land a gig, thus giving you more playing time as a working musician. It can come in the form of a looper that helps you write your first song. Or it can come in the form of a pedal that lets you create a sound you never even though possible, making you wonder – what other sounds can make on the guitar?
The nice thing about pedals is that they are abundant, vast, and fun, so once you buy one pedal you’ll more than likely be onto your second. So don’t worry so much about picking the “right” pedal right from the beginning. You’ll have the opportunity to get the next right one soon enough.
It’s my hope that the recommendations on this list make choosing a pedal easier and that makes you want to keep playing guitar. Any of the pedals on this list are a great place to start and I’m confident you’ll be starting on the right foot from here.
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.