Pedal Power: Using Effects Pedals For Each Genre
By Justin Boden
Effects pedals have become a genre-defining piece of a guitar player’s arsenal. Since becoming commonplace on the floor of stages, garages, and bedrooms in the ‘60s, stompboxes have become synonymous with particular types of music and have even defined specific players’ tones just as much as their amplifiers and guitars have. From reverb and delay to distortion, fuzz, and overdrive, each pedal can play a crucial role in achieving tones and sounds that are specific to each popular genre.
What about amplifiers, pickups, and different guitars, don’t they define genres too? Of course, all of these absolutely add to each genre’s nuances. Humbuckers will generally add more gain by design than your traditional single coil pickups, and Fender’s notoriously glassy, clear amps versus a crunchy valve amplifier by Marshall will ultimately allow closer tone matches. If you only play one type of music and never go outside of that genre, it can make a lot of sense to really go all in and match ideal amplifiers, pickups, and guitars to that genre. You can even read our breakdown on pickups to learn exactly what is ideal for your sound. However, pedals remain perhaps the easiest and quickest way to switch between different genre tones. With that in mind, for the renaissance player that doesn’t only play one type of music, it can make just as much sense or more to pick up some pedals that cover a variety of music types as it can to go full bore into just one type.
Whether you’re trying to build a pedalboard for a specific genre of music, or you want to throw together a universal board that will best help you cover a wide variety of musical genres, we’ve built a guide to which pedals are most necessary to encapsulate the tones that capture the most common and popular genres of music.
The Essentials: Compressor, Overdrive, Delay
Today’s country is a bit expanded from traditional chicken pickin’ tunes and covers a gamut of genre-bending tones. But for the traditional twangy slapback country sound, only a few pedals are required.
Go ahead and get used to hearing about compressors like the Boss CS-3. They don’t dazzle and are never the star of any board but a compressor can do more to your tone and sustain than almost any other pedal universally. For country music it nabs you the attack and pop needed to get that distinct country twang. Add an overdrive pedal like the Maxon 808, the original Tube Screamer, or the Boss BD-2 to get into those dirty sections as a boost into warmth and fuzz for some true grit. Finally, a nice quick slapback style delay that nicely simulates room like effect. This keeps that twang crisp, vocal and present and can be the make or break in locking down that traditional country sound. Both the Boss DD-3 and DD-7 get you there in spades, and the DD-7 even includes a built-in looper too.
The Essentials: Reverb, Reverb and more Reverb. Ok, Tremolo too.
Surf rock has seen somewhat of a revival over the last several years and rightly so. It’s fun to play, sounds great and throws out a positive vibe that is impossible to stand still against. Its clean, spring-loaded sound is instantly recognizable as an iconic blend of 1960’s Americana. During that time players like Dick Dale simply plugged into amps that had reverb tank built into them like the Fender ‘65 Deluxe Reverb. Thanks to technology, a reverb pedal, like Keeley's Vibe-O-Verb Lost Reverb, set to spring settings can have you instantly riding Misirlou’s traditional Middle Eastern scales like a perfect break on Oahu’s North Shore.
Tremolo pedals offer undulation effects that nicely mimic the rhythm of ocean waves that can often ripple in sound and really polish off the true surf rock fullness. The Boss TR-2 has a depth that can cover a full range of surf sounds and will have your guitar dripping in tasty waves.
The Essentials: Overdrive, Compressor
The blues are a byproduct of a painful part of American history. Growing from the deep South and becoming a voice for oppression with its call and response talk back, the blues are gritty, raw and full of heart. Nothing better fills that grit texture like a nice, warm overdrive pedal. Finding that magic spot just at the breakup point can really play towards the strength of blues' ups and downs. The Maxon 808 is again a great option, as is the Boss BD-2, beloved by many players as signature blues tones.
Tired of hearing about compressors yet? It cannot be understated how underrated these things are. Sustain will keep your guitar weeping, and the depth added from your boost in attack can bleed out emotion straight from your hands like you're a disciple of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson.
The Essentials: Compressor
Jazz is complex, transcending from blues and ragtime with a playstyle that can be seemingly perplexing at times. It is clean, smooth and despite its complexities in theory, sometimes the simplest effects will get you the sound you’re looking for and jazz fits that bill to a tee.
Purists will even say to leave the compressor out of the chain, instead going guitar, cable, amp only. With a fantastic classic amp with lots of headroom, this can really deliver some beautiful jazz sound, but a compressor can also bring up some wonderful tone all around with rich sustain that rings through.
The Essentials: Wah, Phaser, Filter
Funk is a feeling, a vibe with soul, and played best through the hands, but a handful of pedals can have you wavy in the funk gravy built upon finding the groove and riding it. This is why pedals that offer attention to filling rhythm are all-stars in the funk genre. A wah, like the ever classic Dunlop Cry Baby is a valuable tool in keeping flavor bouncing throughout the soundwave.
Phasers or Phase Shifter offer pulsation and warble that bring a further element to the table stacking on top of a wah and blending all together. MXR has been filling those little orange stompboxes with classic phaser sound and Boss’ PH-3 has so many options from modern to classic that it can fill many genre styles. Filters, like envelope or auto filters, also send the funk to eleven encapsulating everything the ‘70s was about by modulating the attack from the player’s string strikes. Even all alone, an envelope filter can get some funky sounds, but being able to fully control the modulation on the fly with a wah and phaser can offer more control overall.
The Essentials: Volume Pedal, Reverb, Delay, Looper
Ambient guitar has exploded over the last several years along with the rise of EDM styled live bands and beat guided wavy riffs from the likes of artists like Tycho, The Album Leaf, and El Ten Eleven. Ambient guitar is all about swells, space, and layers. The swells come pumping through the use of a volume pedal like those made by Ernie Ball . They are easy to use, like most expression type pedals and can make your sound go from huge overhead waves to shore breaking wash that really adds depth to your playing. A nice spacey reverb, stacked with, say a Boss DD-7 can open up the sound and really deliver an open feeling that when paired with swells give the prototypical ambient sound.
A looper pulls everything together because the most popular ambient music tends to have a depth of layers. We’re talking stacks of dripping guitar lines over vivacious ringing chords. The best and quickest way to achieve this in a live setting is with a loop pedal like the Boss RC-1 which offers quick on the fly looping, or even better, the RC-3 which offers up to 3 hours of recording time ensuring you’re never out of time when you’re trying to get to space.
The Essentials: Distortion, EQ, Delay, Compressor
Ask any metalhead to break down the differences between all the different types of metal and you’re in for a three-hour conversation about the subtleties between death metal, dark metal, and doom metal. With all the different styles, metal pedalboards can be astounding and have an array of pedals but for the most part the pedals we listed will be staples really rooting the board with a metal vibe.
Distortion is the drive behind metal, and the higher the gain, the more chunk and power, the more it starts to feel like a pedal built to bring black dreams. The Metal Zone seems like an obvious choice for this, and it can deliver with the right settings, however, we also love the original DS-1 by Boss which delivers classic drive distortion and can really bring out the fat thickness metal asks for.
A compressor and EQ pedal can be vital for solid metal tones. Honestly, these two pedals are our picks for absolute must-owns on any board. An EQ for metal will allow you to really shape and carve the tone you want to achieve. From blending heavier lows and cutting down the highs to straight scooping the mids an EQ gives full control and can be more sound shaping than almost any other pedal on a board. The GE-7 shines in the EQ world offering up 7 different bands to play with. We’re just going to assume that by now you understand the importance of a compressor pedal to your board. They’re important for metal too.
The use of a delay pedal with metal music can really add to lead lines and solos. The additional depth really makes a solo pop from the rest of the sounds and adds another layer that blends nicely with metal music. Digital delay specifically stay extremely clean through their pings while analog delays can sometimes feel mushy down their decay so while many music styles preference analog delay, metal can really benefit from the use of digital delay pedals.
The Essentials: Compressor, Distortion, Overdrive, Fuzz, Reverb, Delay, Phaser, Chorus, Tremolo…
When it comes to rock it’s near impossible to break down the essentials. Rock is simply too broad, covering everything from punk and hard rock to alt and classic rock. What worked for Jimi Hendrix, a fuzz pedal, might not cover what’s needed by The Foo Fighters or prodigal punk legends The Descendents. An entire article could be designated simply to covering the different styles of rock and roll and what each needs to attain the specific tones. U2’s The Edge can attest that it’s simply impossible to have enough effects in rock, so in fact, it makes the most sense to have them all, and while this is a stretch surely, an array of sounds fulfill the rock genre.
You’re definitely going to want some sort of drive. Whether that be Distortion, Overdrive or Fuzz is up to your personal tastes and what you find yourself playing most often likely. We even have an article covering the subtle nuances of the three that can teach you more about how each function and what niche they tend to fill. Between them, one will fill your drive needs and can power just about any fat sound needed. After that though, it’s a mecca of possibilities that seemingly never ends. Some will tell you to keep it simple and let the drive lead the way, that’s how rock should be, while others will have a pedalboard that controls their rackmount that controls two other pedalboards. The sky is the limit with rock and that’s probably why it has become such a staple within the world of guitar. It finds a place in nearly every player’s heart someway or another.