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If you’re a new guitar player trying to decide how to spend your limited gear budget, you might be considering an effects pedal but also have some concerns.
A pedal can cost quite a bit, after all, and you want to know whether it’s a wise investment. That raises the question: How long do guitar pedals last?
How long a guitar pedal will last depends on its construction, what parts are used, how it’s cared for, and more, but in general, a guitar pedal should last for decades. Analog, single function pedals with metal enclosures and heavy duty switches are likely to outlast plastic digital multi-effects stompboxes, for example.
Let’s look at what goes into making a durable guitar pedal, as well as some of the more common pedal failures players run into.
How Long Can You Use A Guitar Pedal?
So much of guitar playing is about creating your own distinctive sound, and obviously, effects pedals can do a lot to shape your tone. Some relatively new players might balk at buying a pedal, though, because they fear having to replace it.
It’s an understandable thing to be anxious about. Beginners often are told that they’ll have to replace their first guitar and probably their first amplifier, also, as they progress.
Fortunately, guitar pedals tend to last longer than both inexpensive guitars and inexpensive amplifiers, though in general, the more cheaply something is built, the less durable it will be.
Another reason you probably won’t need to quickly replace a pedal is that wear isn’t the only reason players need to replace guitars and amps. As players improve, they might have a different need, which, in turn, requires a different guitar.
In the case of amplifiers, a small practice amp will be fine at first, but if you plan to play live, you’ll need something more powerful.
When it comes to an effects pedal, though, as long as it works and the tone is what you’re going for, you don’t necessarily need to change or upgrade.
This video looks at three kinds of effects pedals — overdrive, delay, and tremolo — and makes suggestions about what kind of pedal might make sense for a player getting started with effects.
Those three effects types are good examples of why pedals tend to be so durable. All three kinds of effects were originally developed using vacuum tube technology.
Since the advent of solid state technology, though, the job once handled by those vacuum tubes has instead been done by transistors, capacitors, and other electronic devices. The original advantage was miniaturization — imagine carrying a vacuum tube powered tape delay system with you to every gig, in addition to all your other gear! — but another benefit was durability.
Simply put, transistors and other solid state parts don’t wear out, or if they do, they wear out much, much more slowly than vacuum tubes and similar components.
They’re also much more durable when handled. Vacuum tubes, after all, are made from glass, and can be damaged by being struck, as well as by sudden changes in electrical voltage.
Electrical problems can affect transistors, but they’re not easily damaged when bumped or jostled, making them a much better choice for something that goes through the amount of handling an effects pedal does.
Transistors also made it possible to run effects pedals on 9 volt batteries, as opposed to the much power requirements of something that uses vacuum tubes. It also makes things like pedal boards possible — imagine the power requirements for multiple vacuum tube powered effects units.
The advent of digital technology meant more advanced transistors doing more work, but for the most part, the durability stayed the same. That’s because while digital modeling eliminates the need for many physical parts, some of the components aren’t as robust as what they replace.
Think of how many old LCD screens are no longer legible, for example.
But, just like with solid state analog effects pedals, as long as there isn’t a problem with the power supply, and as long as the pedal itself isn’t broken, digital pedals should last for years and years of use.
Do Guitar Pedals Go Bad?
Just because pedals are general quite durable and reliable doesn’t mean nothing ever goes wrong. Electronic components can fail for a variety of reasons, which might cause a pedal to stop working.
One of the least likely places for there to be a problem is with the electronic circuits at the heart of the effects pedal. The resistors, capacitors, diodes, and transistors that make the effect work are generally quite robust.
The only place in the circuit you’re likely to find an issue is with things like the solder joints that connect the components to the circuit board. Depending on when and where the pedal was made, and whether it was done by hand or by machine could all affect the durability of the connections.
In most cases, though, the circuitry itself is unlikely to be a problem.
More common problems come from the parts of the pedal the player interacts with all the time. By that, I mean the control knobs and the potentiometers they’re connected to, as well as the input and output jacks and the foot switch.
For digital pedals, that would also include any control buttons and screens.
The reason those parts are more likely to fail is obvious: They’re the ones being touched and bumped the most.
Rough handling or an inadvertent drop down the stairs could knock loose the connections to the jacks, or for one of the wires grounding one of the potentiometers to break. That could cause the pedal to stop working entirely or make it very noisy when powered up.
The right way to diagnose that is to open the pedal enclosure and check the connections. If you can’t see a problem but still are having an issue, use a multimeter to test the continuity of the wires connecting the jacks and the ones grounding different components.
Another physical connection that can become a problem is the foot switch, used to turn the pedal on and off, and so being used regularly.
Like any switch, the connections can wear out over time, but because you step on the switch, rough handling can break things. If the switch isn’t working, use a multimeter to test continuity and make sure all the connections are working properly.
This is a place where construction has a direct effect on the durability of the pedal. Older digital effects pedals made from inexpensive plastic had notoriously poor switches, and they would wear out.
Because of the way they were connected they were also much more difficult to replace than the more rugged metal foot switches commonly found on analog pedals.
The most common issue you’ll find that makes a pedal stop working correctly is with the potentiometers. Most pedals have at least one, and they’re essential for dialing in the correct settings.
But over time, contaminants from the air, ambient moisture, and other environmental factors can cause a build up of corrosion inside the potentiometer. Normally, this manifests as the classic “scratchy pots” you’ll hear people complain about on just about anything that has a potentiometer.
The scratchy pots sound — normally it sounds like the signal is cutting in and out when turning the pot — is bad, but if left untreated, enough corrosion can build up to short the pot out and cause the signal to drop out.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution. Spray electronic contact cleaner, which is available from music stores and auto parts stores, into the potentiometer while turning the knob back and forth.
If you have the pedal plugged in and turned on, you should be able to hear the sound clear up as the cleaner works its way through the pot.
When it comes to longevity, it’s hard to beat a simple, analog, single function pedal, such as an overdrive or distortion pedal or modulation pedals. There just isn’t much to go wrong, and as long as you don’t fall out of love with the sound it makes, it could be a longtime companion.
The more complex the pedal, of course, the more potential for failure, especially when digital components are involved, because they can have relatively fragile connections.
But as a quick search on an auction or resale site will show you, there are plenty of pedals from 40 to 50 years ago or more that are still available and in great working shape. That should give you a sense of how long you can expect a pedal to last, as long as you take reasonably good care of it.
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.