Are Guitar Pedals Necessary?


Guitar pedals are not necessary. To produce sound, simply connect an electric guitar to an amplifier with no additional equipment. Turning controls on a guitar and/or amplifier can easily modify volume, overdrive/distortion, tone, and EQ.

In this article, I’ll take a closer look at guitar pedals and compare them to the effects of adjusting levels on a guitar and/or amplifier.

I’ll also discuss how some people rely on pedals as crutches and give some tips for learning to modify your sound more efficiently and effectively with no pedals at all.

So without further ado, let’s begin.

Adjusting Levels to Modify Sound

One of the simplest ways to change your tone using a guitar is to use controls on either the guitar or amplifier.

On the guitar, these controls include both volume and tone knobs as well as switches such as pickup selector switches.

On an amplifier, there are often numerous controls including:

  • Volume
  • Treble
  • Bass
  • Presence/depth/presence boost switches
  • Contour/cut-1 and cut-2 switches

For the purposes of this example, I’ll stick with using only the basic controls provided on many combo amps.

These might include master volume, treble, bass, and possibly another control on the front of the amp for overdrive/distortion.

Adjusting levels can be very effective at changing your sound.

You can go from a bright clean tone to a dark dirty tone simply by turning knobs or flipping switches.

Changing these controls will often help your guitar produce a tone that is very, very different from the one you have dialed in using your pedal(s).

In fact, many guitarists can utilize these controls to great effect without ever touching their pedals.

So if turning knobs on your guitar and/or amplifier can do this much, what exactly can pedals do?

Guitar Pedals are they necessary?

To answer this question, let’s start by examining some of the more common guitar pedal types.

Distortion/overdrive pedals

These pedals are designed to generate distortion or overdrive (depending on how they’re EQ’d).

A good-quality distortion pedal can create sounds ranging from light bluesy overdrive to all-out metal distortion.

In the ’70s, players such as David Gilmour and The Edge were using relatively simple pedals to create amazing sounds on their guitars.

If these pedals can produce such a wide range of high-quality sounds, what do they have that your guitar controls don’t?

The short answer is in how they are utilized.

As I discussed in the section about adjusting levels on your guitar and amp, you can use basic tone controls to get a pretty wide range of sounds.

But if you know how to utilize these controls well, you can get just about any distortion or overdrive sound that you want without ever touching your pedalboard.

The only thing that pedals really give you over your guitar and/or amp controls is a wider selection of possible sounds.

In many cases, they also take up more space on your board, cost more to buy and maintain, and take up more time than simply adjusting levels on your rig.

So should you completely remove all of your pedals?

Not at all.

But if you’re not an experienced enough player to utilize basic pedal controls well, I would seriously consider learning how to do it before spending a lot of time and money on pedals that might sit un-utilized in your rig for years.

Delay/reverb pedals

A delay pedal is something that generates echo (if not pitch-shifted) and a reverb pedal is something that simulates an acoustic space.

I’ll discuss these pedals together, as they are both utilized to create ambient sounds.

Delay pedals can be used effectively at their simplest settings for subtle repeats of your playing, adding texture to your sound that you might not hear otherwise.

I personally use this to great effect with rhythm playing, as I’ll often set the repeats relatively low and fast so it’s barely noticeable but enough to add some subtle depth to my chords.

For those looking to push their delay pedals further, the sky is the limit.

They often take on the role of modern-day psychedelic rock guitarists by creating walls of sound, repeating phrases with dramatic time shifts, and many other unusual sounds that you simply can’t get with your guitar.

Reverb pedals also have a wide range of possible applications.

At its simplest setting, it can be used to make your electric guitar sound like an acoustic.

Imagine the possibilities if you’re playing in a rock band where your guitarist is utilizing this effect, but your drummer is not…

You simply can’t hear him!

At its best, it can turn your guitar into something, unlike any other instrument.

A good reverb pedal will make your guitar sounds like an orchestra, a choir, or even a drum set.

For those looking to explore the sonic possibilities of reverb and delay pedals further:

The first step is to find yourself some great-sounding pedals and give them a listen.

A good way to do this (at least for effects you cannot try before buying) is to read the reviews.

Now that we have some basic knowledge of how pedals work, I’ll discuss how they are used more in-depth.

The overall effect of guitar pedals

The overall effect that a pedal has on your overall tone is called its “character,” and the character of a pedal can be broken down into three key components:

  1. The movement from off to on (called “attack”)
  2. How strongly and for how long it affects your tone (called “sustain”)
  3. Whether or not it is “transparent” or if it colorizes your overall tone (called “tone”)

There are hundreds of pedals out there, all with different characters.

By far the best way to find out what “character” is best for you is to try out as many pedals as possible.

I’ve tried dozens of them, and the only way I learned which ones I liked was by trying them out for myself.

The following are suggestions that will help you break down your search into manageable chunks:  

  • For attack (when it turns on), I like pedals with a “hard-start.”  This means that when you step on it, the effect is immediate.  It doesn’t gradually turn on; it either is or isn’t engaged.
  • For sustain (how long it sustains your tone), I like pedals with lots of control over the duration. If it sustains forever (or can be set to), that’s great; but if not, I like the control.  I need to know how long it will sustain before it dies out.
  • For tone (whether or not it colors your sound), I like pedals without even the slightest hint of coloring my overall tone.

A pedal that has all three of these properties would be the perfect one for me.

I have yet to find one that checks off all three categories perfectly, which is why your search should consist of checking out different pedals with different characters.

Are guitar pedals necessary for beginners?

As mentioned in the beginning, if you’re just starting out, I’d recommend sticking to just your amp and your guitar.  

However, if you’re looking to experiment beyond the realm of what you have already learned so far on the guitar, then purchasing a few pedals can be a great way to get started.

A good place for beginners to start is with the more simple pedals such as the ones that add gain, delay, or reverb to your sound.

I’ve had more fun and learned more about music by adding a few of these basic effects than I have by playing through hours and hours of songs by other musicians.

Sure, it’s not as much fun to just play the same scales over and over again; but if you’re looking for something more than just playing songs by others…

I encourage you to try out some basic effects pedals first.

The next time that you are jamming with your friends or during band practice, bring in a few of your own pedals and see what happens.

Read Also: My Gear Recommendations

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