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From the beginning of guitar playing, people wanted to make a sound that was all their own.
For some, that means one or more effects pedals, but with the rise of amps that can model nearly any sound and computer plugins that can reproduce vintage pedal effects, are guitar pedals obsolete?
While there are more options than ever for guitar effects, guitar pedals are not going to be obsolete anytime soon. Analog pedals offer a simple way for players to switch up their sounds live, and digital stompboxes can offer up a multitude of tones in a small, easy-to-use package.
Let’s look at what pedals do for tone, what the alternatives are, and why some players will always pick pedals over just about anything else.
Why Do Players Use Guitar Pedals?
One of the most important aspects of music is developing a personal style. Guitarists have everything from pickup configuration to tone controls on the guitar to EQ settings to work with, but they also have effects.
Those effects can be something like a spring reverb built into an amp, physical guitar pedals, or digital clones of expensive, hard to find vintage guitar pedals. As for what all is available, it would be nearly impossible to list everything out there.
Distortion, overdrive, fuzz, flanger, phaser, chorus, and echo are just a few of the more common guitar pedal options. There are so many choices that Reverb released a feature length documentary that you can rent about the entire history of the guitar pedal industry.
In the earliest days of rock n roll, any distortion came from the way tube guitar amps sounded when the gain was increased, or from speaker distortion. Tube amps have a particular kind of harmonic distortion, and as solid state amplifiers became more common, players wanted a way to mimic that sound.
And lest you think the talk about the special sound that tube amps have is just nostalgia, there is actually some scientific evidence to explain why musicians like the sound. The way vacuum tubes deal with being overdriven gives them a particularly warm, appealing tone.
Pedals can use solid state components to imitate the way a tube amplifier breaks up into distortion, and those are among the most common out there still. Other distortion pedals don’t really imitate the tube amp sound, and the terminology can get hard to follow.
This video gives a really quick overview of boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals and what they’re supposed to do.
Effects pedals like flangers, phasers, and chorus all take the guitar signal, modify it, and mix the modified and original signals together for a variety of sounds. You can get even more sounds when you mix and match pedals with different amps.
Do You Really Need A Guitar Pedal?
Effects can really change your guitar sound, but they aren’t the only thing that can do that. Things like playing style or pickup selection can have a dramatic effect on your tone.
And, as I noted above, effects don’t have to be in pedals. Plenty of amps have effects like reverb, chorus, vibrato, or tremolo built in.
Other amps have the ability to switch between two channels, giving you different sounds depending on what the song calls for. And many amps even have optional foot switches that allow you to turn effects on and off or switch channels remotely.
All of this is to say that guitar pedals aren’t necessary by any means. Plenty of players don’t use them, and others only use them sometimes.
The digital revolution has also changed the way guitarists think about effects. Starting in the 1990s, companies began to offer so-called “modeling” amplifiers that used computer simulations to offer passable imitations of multiple different classic amps, from Fenders of the tweed, silverface, and blackface variety to 1960s and 1970s Marshall stacks to modern Mesa-Boogie style gain monsters.
With the amps already using computer technology to imitate sounds, it was trivial to add in many effects, giving players an even wider range of tones. The ability to store and then recall preset sounds makes it easy to change sounds on the fly, also.
As technology has progressed, it’s become even easier to add effects. For players who primarily record music, as opposed to playing live, there are plug ins that can emulate just about any pedal ever made, making it easy to create just about any tone you can imagine.
Using a plug in can also be much more cost effective than buying a pedal, which can be quite expensive.
For some people, though, much of this might sound familiar. Starting in the 1980s, rack mounted guitar rigs, including effects processors, became quite popular.
Some predicted that things like effects pedals and even amp heads might go away, as the new way of doing things was so much more versatile.
Do Modern Guitarists Still Use Pedals?
Today, of course, rack mounted rigs are still around, but aren’t much more than a curiosity. They’re most practical for touring musicians who regularly play huge venues — not a very big pool.
Just like rack mounted rigs didn’t make traditional amps or guitar pedals obsolete, modeling amps and plug ins aren’t likely to do so, either. That’s because while plug ins can be amazingly versatile and affordable, guitar pedals have a few advantages.
First, as I noted above, plug ins are most useful for players who are recording more than playing live. You absolutely can use plug ins while playing live, but it’s a complicated set up and it won’t be practical or even possible at every venue.
Even if the set up works, it isn’t nearly as easy to switch between sounds, at least not without a fair bit of preparation. And you’ll need a bit of programming experience to get something like a foot switch working with it.
It’s also not so easy to switch sounds or effects on some modeling amps. Some have an optional foot switch or even a pedal board style foot controller available, but they can be expensive.
While guitar effects pedals can be quite expensive also, they have a few signal advantages over the other set ups. Often they have a foot switch and only a few knobs, making them simple to use and quick to turn on and off.
One way you can be sure that the idea of a guitar pedal isn’t obsolete is the fact that many multi effects units for guitars are in a pedal form factor.
While rack mounted multi effects processors never really caught on, the development of digital modeling multi effects pedals, which happened around the same time modeling amps appeared in the 1990s, has revolutionized the pedal industry.
Digital multi effects pedals offered a simple interface, often with only a few foot switches to operate different functions, and versatile sound. You could have a single pedal that gave you reverb and an octave effect while also serving up some distortion.
Companies like Line6, which led the amp modeling charge, also started offering pedals like the DL4 MkII, which has dozens of different delay, loop, echo, and reverb effects based on classic pedals. Instead of an all-in-one pedal that offered different kinds of effects, these pedals let a player have a pedal board full of different takes on the same basic effects, allowing them to pick just the right sound for a song, without dealing with Velcro stuck to the bottom of all those pedals.
This video gives an overview of the different kinds of sounds available from that pedal.
Other multi effects pedals offer models of both classic effects sounds and amplifiers.
One drawback to some of the multi effect pedals is the interface can be cramped and it can be hard to change some settings on the fly.
The introduction of a new technology doesn’t necessarily make already existing products obsolete, even though it can. A great example is the production of music on vinyl.
After the introduction of CDs in the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like a sure bet that vinyl records were obsolete. There was a time when it was difficult to buy a turntable or find a replacement needle cartridge.
But now, vinyl is back in the public consciousness because of the advantages it has, particularly when it comes to the warm sound it imparts.
Guitar pedals are much the same — while new technology might seem to make them no longer useful, the advantages they have, from portability to their tone to their ease of use, mean they will pretty much always have a place in the hearts — and signal chains — of guitarists.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.