Published on 04 June 2019
It’s Pedal Week in our 15 week, 15th birthday celebrations and we’ve chosen to look at the most era-defining, significant pedals ever. Taking each decade in turn (with a slight blending of the 50s & 60s into one section!), I’ve gathered together some of the most defining, important and popular effects pedals in existence. Hopefully, I will illustrate some of the changing tastes, advancing technologies and emerging sounds that characterises music from each of these core eras.
This will of course be somewhat subjective: wah pedals, for example, are in the 50s/60s section but have surely been the most widely-used effect in every decade of guitar playing! I’ve also taken creative licence with the timeline in a few specific situations, for hopefully understandable reasons. In particular, I’ve designated the Whammy pedal for the 1990s, even though it was released in 1989. I argue that it came to prominence with artists like Tom Morello in 1992, so it wasn’t on the map in a big way before then.
Modern art: Tom Morello's pedal board (sporting many iconic classics) on display at the MET.
So, without further ado, let’s check out some pedal highlights from the dawn of the electric guitar right up until the present day! I will definitely have missed out some of your favourites and I apologise in advance! The pedals I have picked, though, all more than deserve their place in guitar history. Onwards!
The Fifties and Sixties
In the beginning, back at the dawn of time, before even the Beatles, effects for guitars were sparse indeed. Pioneers like Les Paul were getting busy transforming their guitar tones with custom-built inventions since there were no real manufactured products to buy.
DeArmond produced the Trem-trol in 1948 as a standalone unit, but it was hardly a portable device! The same goes for echo chambers and reverb tanks: these early effects devices were huge enclosures that required installing permanently in studios. Fender and Gibson later released some bulky reverb and vibrato devices, but it was with the release of the Watkins Copicat, in 1958, that the market for guitar effects truly began.
Built like a solid little tool box, The Watkins Copicat is a true tape echo machine. Inspired by the sounds created with two tape machines in a commercial recording studio, inventor Charlie Watkins put together a couple of valves, some actual tape and a sprinkling of magic to make a device that, more than any other device, has defined the whole notion of ‘warm delay’. Your devices echoes were printed directly on to the tape and passed, through variable speeds, through the tape heads. You’d have to change out the tapes routinely since they would stretch and perish, but it all added to the charm!
The sound of the WEM Copicat (as it is often referred) is still highly in demand. Plenty of modern pedal manufacturers base their ‘tape delay’ sounds on it, and many dedicated guitarists actually still use their original Copicat units to this day, scouring the internet for replacement tapes! We admire the dedication!
The sixties brought several of the most famous guitar effects that have ever been offered. Chief of these must be the all-conquering Wah pedal. What began life as a device to mimic a muted trumpet (it was a simpler time...) has ended up being the one pedal besides an overdrive and, hopefully, a tuner, that every guitarist has under their feet. Even people who aren’t musicians understand the ‘wacka-chacka’ funk sound as being the result of a wah-wah pedal. Your auntie may not recognise a phaser or pitch-shifter effect in a song, but she knows what a wah pedal sounds like!
The first wah pedal was made by Warwick Electronics Inc/Thomas Organ Company in 1966. These guys distributed Vox amps and so this wah quickly became the Vox Wah. From Hendrix to Slash to Kirk Hammett, we all have our wah heroes, and today there are a dizzying amount of wah pedals available, featuring different EQ curves, sweeps and frequency boosts. Check them out here, or even better, pop into a guitarguitar store and try some out!
Not far behind the wah in effect pedal immortality lies the fuzz pedal. Ostensibly an archaic overdrive, fuzz pedals are often rated on how much they corrupt, rather than complement, your tone. Originally created to provide guitarists with sustain and a smooth sound in times when amplifiers were not designed to overdrive, the imperfections inherent in early fuzz pedals like the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and the Gibson Maestro FZ-1 were quickly reassessed as being triumphant virtues. Texture, expression and attitude were all now very available from the guitar, in ways that had been impossible before! Collectors like to seek out germanium transistors for vintage tone, whilst fans of more aggressive fuzzes hunt out silicon-based models.
Fuzz pedals aren’t exactly hard to find these days: they are perhaps the most populous boutique pedal available. Literally hundreds of manufacturers offer their take on pleasant or nasty fuzz-tones, and they all compete with each other to create the most attractive and over-the-top silk-screened graphics for the chassis! The distinctive Fuzz Face is a classic, partly because it sounds incredible, but also because of pictures like the one below: clock the Fuzz Face clearly sitting at Jimi's feet. Now THAT is an endorsement!
Our favourite fuzz pedals include the beyond-iconic Electro Harmonix Big Muff, available now in countless iterations, before you even begin to count the boutique clones! (we’d opt for the ‘Siamese Dream’ Op-Amp model), the Catalinbread Karma Suture Harmonic Fuzz (really pleasant overtones just seem to happen with this!) and the Earthquaker Devices Cloven Hoof V2. Don’t take our word for it though: fire in to your nearest guitarguitar and have a try for yourself!
The other effect we’d like to salute from this era (and we apologise for all the classics we’ve had to omit for space reasons!) is the Uni-Vibe. That beautiful, watery, thick and expressive sound immediately evokes an era and a style. Whether you associate it with Robin Trower, Jimi’s Band of Gypsies or David Gilmour, you’re talking about iconic psychedelic vibes and top-players!
Though many people refer to the Uni-Vibe as a Chorus/Vibrato hybrid, it is in fact a phaser! We’ll skip the technical details but listen closely and you’ll hear it! You can certainly achieve Chorus-type and Vibrato-type sounds, but they are achieved with a phase-shifting circuit. Classic Uni-Vibe pedals (originally made by Shin-ei, sub-branded ‘Univox’ in the US) consisted of a main unit and an additional expression pedal, allowing real-time control over the speed and intensity of the sound.
MXR are the guys to go to these days for an ‘official’ Uni-Vibe. Other pedal makers like Keeley, Fulltone and TC Electronic also make superb ‘vibe’ pedals!
The seventies saw lots of new pedals enter the market, as well as many people simply using the ones released in the 60s, as they do today! The 70s did bring a host of notable effects though, and the ones we’ll mention today are the ones we feel are the most significant.
The first must be the enduring number one overdrive in the world, and the most-copied circuit of them all: the Ibanez TS-808 Tubescreamer. For many, this little green box is integral to their tone, to the point that they won’t play without one! So, what does it do? Well, it’s just an overdrive, but saying that is like saying an Aston Martin is just a car.
The TS-808 used a specific chip in its circuit-the JRC-4558-to produce a tone that was rich in upper middle frequencies, something very specifically important to guitar sounds. Not only that, the Tubescreamer has a lot of dynamic range, making it exceptional at interpreting pick attack and therefore keeping much of your performance’s emotional content intact throughout the overdrive.
The Tubescreamer has been used by everybody: Blues players love the extra bite and sustain they get, Rock players love it for its rhythm tone and Metal players who get their ultimate high gain crunch by placing one of these (gain off, volume and tone up full) in front of their highly distorted amplifier. It's a classic among classics!
Another classic pedal from the 70s is the MXR Phase 90. The one you know today is pretty much exactly the one made back in 1974: orange steel chassis, one knob, no nonsense! The single control knob is for rate, since the rest of the phaser sound has been dialled in to perfection already! The thick, liquid phase sound is so good, it makes you want to take a bite and chew it up! Keep the rate knob at slower settings (say, 9 o’clock) for instant Jimmy Page/Van Halen tones or speed things up for an attention-grabbing Leslie-style effect. From clean funk to cyber-metal, every style of music can make use of this gem of a pedal.
Electro-Harmonix, who have brought us probably more classic pedals that every other company, hit a home run in 1976 with their Memory Man analog delay. How important is it? Well, put it this way: no Memory Man, no U2. This was Edge’s primary delay effect until after they hit big with their 3rd album, War. Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien keeps one in his pedalboard to this day. It’s a big deal now and has been since it was released in 1976. The reason is the sound: warm, complementary and with an inbuilt modulation that just improves your overall tone! Can’t be bad!
The legacy of the Memory Man is large: Electro-Harmonix themselves make a wide range of modern Memory Men (Mans?) with everything from tap tempo and time sub-divisions to loopers (called Hazarai, in true E-HX patois), reverse settings...it’s quite a family. The Deluxe Memory Man will be the model to go for if you want the closest modern approximation of the 70s classic but do check out the other models since they come in all shapes and sizes and are all excellent.
One final box from the 70s now, and it would be terrible to miss this out! This staggeringly popular pedal is of course the mighty DS-1 from BOSS! That trusty orange box has been on more stage floors than spilled beer!
Here’s a question: do you have any albums by these artists? Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Prince, The Cure, The Eagles, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai? If so, you have definitely heard a BOSS DS-1 being put through its paces! It’s a fairly vicious, saturated gain sound that cuts through a mix and really makes its presence known! This is down to a (for it’s time) revolutionary circuit that blends two types of gain stage (utilising both op-amp and transistor types) to give a range of gain levels that was extraordinary. Mild clipping overdrive to full on Teen Spirit is available with a swift adjustment of the gain control.
The DS-1 shares good company on this tasteful board alongside other blog-favourites the Vox wah, TS-808 and Big muff.
The relative affordability of the DS-1 has made it a go-to gain pedal for generation after generation of players since its release in 1978. Even in today’s market, when there are thousands of distortion pedals available, all vying for your attention, the humble DS-1 stands tall. Boss's first distortion pedal is also their longest and best selling. Recently, it has enjoyed a premium upgrade in the form of the DS-1X.
The 80s brought lots of rack technology to the fore: it may have been a sign of the excessive times, but pro guitarists were not seemingly taken seriously unless they had a veritable starship’s worth of flashing lights lurking behind them on stage inside multiple rack units. Advances in this realm were many and varied, including those by Eventide, whose mortgage-expensive Harmonizer units were the most advanced processors on the planet. More on them later, but for now, without dipping our toes into the Rocktrons and Lexicons of rack-world (since this article is about pedals), there was one device which has since shown up in a variety of pedals, making its inclusion here worthwhile.
We are talking about the TC Electronic 2290 Dynamic Digital delay. Made in 1985, the 2290 offered significantly cleaner delay repeats than had ever been found before. Suddenly, the definition of ‘studio quality’ meant something higher than it did before. On top of the signal quality, the TC 2290 also allowed for far longer delays than had ever been possible before: a total delay time of 32 seconds was possible now, with modulation added to the repeats and a stereo output signal bringing ‘ping pong’ effects to the fore.
Nowadays, the legacy of the 2290 Delay is alive and well within many of TC’s current delay pedals such as the Flashback series and the ND-1 Nova Delay. TC also make the TC2290-DT Desktop module for studio engineers and producers.
If the 80s were the decade of Chorus effects dripping off every sound, the BOSS CE-2 was the one that most players actually had on their board. With the original BOSS CE-1 Chorus using a larger, more atypical enclosure, this CE-2 model reverted to the now-famously familiar BOSS pedal chassis. With a light Blue finish and a simple 2 control setup, this pedal made it easy to sound lush and dreamy!
The CE-2 was, in full disclosure, introduced in 1979 but it’s ubiquity throughout the 80s (it was discontinued in 1992, when musical tastes had become more ‘Seattle-like’) justifies its inclusion here. Vintage examples of this famous pedal are eminently available today, a sure testament to the stringent build quality of BOSS Japan. Much like the MXR Phase 90, this is a simple pedal with very little in the way to go wrong! BOSS of course make modern day counterparts: check out the CE-5 Chorus Ensemble, the CH-1 Chorus and also the CE-2W Waza Craft reissue of the CE-2 itself!
As the 90s dawned, the era of the uber-rack seemed to draw to a close and guitarists began hunting down individual pedals again. Grunge may have rewritten the rulebook on what was acceptable in terms of guitar music, but players still wanted cool sounds! Bands like Rage Against The Machine and Korn paved new sonic roads for guitars to travel, and this was a mixture of new technology becoming available and the resurgence of older pedals on the second hand market.
We cheated slightly with the 1979 BOSS CE-2 appearing in the 80s section and, my goodness, we’re doing it again! Digitech debuted their almighty Whammy pedal in 1989 but it’s seismic reaction throughout the 90s means there could be no other decade to place it.
Ostensibly, the Digitech Whammy is a pitch shifter: nothing new in and of itself. But what this big red pedal had going for it over other devices was not only an intelligent pre-set based design, but also a treadle pedal for 100% real-time pitch manipulation. You could raise or lower your guitar’s pitch by up to two octaves either way, just by moving your foot on the pedal! This opened the door to all manner of skyscraping note swoops and synth-like textures to emanate from electric guitars in ways that had been quite unheard of before, not to mention impossible to achieve. To say that the Whammy pedal was a game-changer would be like saying that Marvel movies are quite popular.
Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello 'giving it some', with Whammy pedal clearly visible on his surprisingly sparse board.
The great thing about the Whammy was that, like the wah before it, every player approached it in a completely different way. Arguably the most famous use of a Whammy pedal is in the ludicrous/genius guitar solo on Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In the Name, but other highly original examples of the Whammy’s (1 and 2) octave up functions include Jonny Greenwood’s highly exaggerated ‘riff’ in Radiohead’s Just and David Gilmour’s blissful lead lines on Pink Floyd’s Marooned from 1994’s Division Bell album.
The 'David' referred to on the Whammy is none other than David Gilmour!
The Whammy is alive and well these days, now in its 5th iteration and with a family of similar pedals carrying on the madness!
If the DS-1 is BOSS’s most popular pedal (and it is), then the 90s brought their second best-selling pedal to the fore. Yes, more than the DD-3 Delay, more than the NS-2 Noise Suppressor, 1991’s MT-2 Metal Zone, an unapologetically huge sounding high gain pedal, is the one players continue to flock to! It is an entirely satisfying and rather overpowering creation that brought genuine heaviness to bedroom players everywhere.
The MT-2 accurately summed up that tight, fast Thrash Metal sound pretty perfectly. A generous 4 knob EQ section proved to be the factor that elevated the MT-2 above its buzzsaw peers. Critical mid frequencies could be selected and then boosted or cut dramatically to bring you thick Hardcore sounds or scooped Dimebag tones with next to no effort. Fans of heavy riffing regard the MT-2 is a milestone and a masterpiece.
Today, you can buy a modern update of the BOSS MT-2 in the form of the...BOSS MT-2. That’s right, it has remained in production since its release in ’91! Other high gain pedals have come and gone but the Metal Zone remains.
On the other end of the tonal spectrum, we will briefly mention a pedal that most of us have never even seen in real life, let alone owned! It’s the polar opposite to the BOSS MT-2 both in tone and ubiquity: a low gain overdrive that is harder to find than a Yeti. The most sought after of all the boutique ‘tone-hound’ pedals, the Special Sauce for some of the greatest Blues and retro players out there (the usual suspects: Keith Urban, John Mayer, Joe Bonamassa etc)...yes, it has to be none other than the semi-mythical Klon Centaur!
Lots of pedal makers produce their version of the Klon Centaur, and it’s a good thing they do since ‘Horsie’ models (preferable to ‘non-Horsie’ models that have no graphic and are presumably not as good...) fetch over THREE THOUSAND pounds on the second hand market! Google it if you don’t believe us! The original model still has a mystique like no other pedal though. Grown adults can get VERY carried away with this particular subject.
So, what’s the deal with the Klon Centaur anyway? It’s a pretty straightforward transparent overdrive (albeit featuring some clever use of voltage converter and multiple germanium diodes), designed and built by Bill Finnegan. It appeared in 1994 and lasted until 2009, with between 5400 and 8000 units existing, depending on which mythology you read. It is considered to be both a superlative clean boost and the apotheosis of natural, amp-like overdrive. For people who dream about ‘classy’ tones, the Klon Centaur floats around on a cloud, sitting on a throne of gold.
Interestingly, Finnegan himself released another pedal with the exact same innards (not covered in epoxy resin ‘goop’ this time, to prevent other makers copying his thang) as the Centaur but mass-produced with easily re-producible surface mount technology. He felt that things were getting a little absurd in terms of the used prices for his creation and wanted to bring a more affordable version that would cost less than a small fortune. Tellingly, was even moved to screen print the following exasperated statement to the front of the pedal: ‘kindly remember: the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making’. This version of the Centaur doesn’t even have a title or name printed on it; such is the legend of this thing!
So how does the Klon Centaur sound? On the basis of online videos, which is as far as we’ve ever gotten, it sounds absolutely incredible and we want one right now, dammit.
In the meantime, we can use other overdrives that come unbelievably close and are chump change compared to the Scrooge McDuck outlay required for a genuine Klon. Checkout pedals like the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food, the Wampler Tumnus, and the 800 others that all bear either a vague likeness to the pedal’s distinctive housing or else use a mythical, quadrupedal archer-being as their graphic.
One ‘Klone’ pedal that we would recommend checking out though, is the MXR M294 Sugar Drive. It seems to us (bearing in mind again that we, and most other people, have only heard a Klon Centaur on online videos) that this little blue pedal absolutely NAILS that ‘double voltage’ transparent overdrive sound, with a price tag that is more than acceptable and a build quality that is typically bomb-proof. Give this a try and see what it can do for your sound!
The New Millennium
The turn of the millennium has brought its own era-defining pedals, though it is interesting to see that many of them are actually recreating past-glories and classic effects rather than offering brand new sounds for guitarists. This doesn’t matter much to us, since a great sound is always going to be a great sound, but it is interesting to note none the less!
Having said that, one pedal that resolutely does not sound like any others is the Electro-Harmonix POG. Yes, there have been pitch shifters out there for a long time. Yes, some of them gave you multiple voices and tracked pretty well. But only the POG gave you all of this together in one device, with a simple design and straightforward slider controls. It took away the menus, musical theory and deliberation, and instead made your guitar sound like anything from a massive church organ to a legion of skeletons rising from their graves, depending on your predilection and choice of settings.
The original POG (Polyphonic Octave Generator) was released in 2005 and allowed you to supplement your guitar’s pitch with three additional notes: one an octave below your note, one an octave above and another TWO octaves above! These were blend-able, so you could emphasize certain octaves over others. They were also very tight in terms of tracking: there was hardly ever any burbling ghost frequencies or ‘wonky notes’, so the performance was very clean and assured.
Famous users of this most specific of effects include Jack White, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nine Inch Nails and Daughters.
Electro Harmonix followed this with a suite of further POGs, including the POG2 which added another sub octave (that would be two octaves down) and a lowpass filter; and the Micro POG, which distilled the essence of the sound into a simple three knob pedal. Nowadays the POG family has many more members, including the ambitious HOG, all of which stem from the initial ground covered by the otherworldly tones of the POG.
We are going to allow ourselves to cheat slightly in terms of our timeline (yes, again) by mentioning a most famous delay effect from 1999. The Line 6 DL4 has appeared on so many pro pedalboards over the years, it would be very bad form to leave it out here!
Designed partly by pedal guru Jeorge Tripps (creator of Way Huge pedals amongst many other achievements), the DL4 gathered together high-quality recreations of some of the most famous delay effects in history, from authentic WEM Copicat sounds to the pristine digital delays of the 80s and beyond. These were supplemented by some delay models of Tripps’ own design, combining for a veritable cornucopia of ambience.
The sounds themselves were of famously high quality, and eminently tweakable via a comprehensive yet simple control panel of 6 knobs and 4 footswitches. 16 delay models were available, including an effective (and well ahead of the pack) looper that allowed you to slow down and reverse your loops! Very creative! You could store presets as well, upping the practicality further.
This impressive green metal box is still available today and is an excellent choice for not only guitarists but bassists, synth players, vocalists and all musicians looking for superb delay sounds.
Our final choice for Post-Millennial pedals of particular provenance and prestige must go to a device that, more than any other pedal, defines the times we live in, at least in terms of technology. We are talking about none other than the Eventide H9.
A lot of people miss the idea of what the H9 is all about, so it is worth looking into somewhat. As we know, Eventide are the makers of some of the most extraordinary rack processors in musical history. Their off-the-wall algorithms for pitch shifting and ambient effects drew on a massive amount of processor power, more that any foot pedals of previous eras could ever hope to cope with. Having Eventide sounds available at your feet was an impossible dream.
Until, of course, it became possible! First came Eventide’s ‘Factor’ pedals: the TimeFactor delay, the ModFactor modulation and the PitchFactor, which brought significant elements of the H-9000 Harmonizer into a relatively compact pedal form. These pedals changed the game overnight: there was (and still is) nothing as powerful in terms of sheer processing available in stomp box format. These are world-class, top level effects with absolutely acres of editability and creative potential. With these pedals, you could go in deep.
This level of deep control actually bamboozled a lot of prospective players. It gave some people ‘the fear’. Guitarists tend to prefer simpler and quicker modes of editing sounds: if it takes too long, it gets in the way of playing!
Thus, Eventide released the revolutionary H9: a pared-down, simple two button box with a selection of effects from EACH of the Factor pedals, along with a good seasoning of distortion! Better still, users could take advantage of Bluetooth technology and buy, via an app, additional presets from the Factor series and beyond, then have them instantly upload to the pedal! One preset could be a ridiculously complex reverb algorithm from the Space pedal, and the next preset could be the famous ‘Undulator’ effect from the ModFactor! Now Eventide had a concept that was light years ahead of the competition, which in effect matched the future-forwardness of the sounds within! With a small footprint, the H9 could easily be added to any pedalboard and up the game of any player using it.
We think The Eventide H9 is genuinely state of the art. It is the type of effect you could simply not get in the 90s and, due to its open-ended nature, is able to move into the future. If you have always body-swerved Eventide due to the cost and complexity, now is the time to re-engage!
Well, there we have it. Over half a century’s worth of significant effects in little over 4000 words. We’ve missed lots of classics and lots of popular models, all in favour of the pedals that we feel shifted the goalposts the most. We think all of these pedals have advanced the art itself and made things more interesting, fun and expressive for guitarists all over the world.
We could have included rack units, the E-Bow and Sustainer pickups, we could have mentioned MIDI and guitar-synths, we could have talked about software plugins. We didn’t though, because these move us away from effects pedals and those are the things we want to celebrate today. There will be more articles in the future to cover those other subjects, rest assured!
Effects are a big part of our world in guitarguitar. We love them, we appreciate the form, the minutiae and the variations, the graphics, everything! We get excited about new effects pedals and we always look forward to bringing them to you! Please keep checking in with us, either here on the site or in our stores, because our team are always hunting down fresh new Modern Classics to add to our ever-heaving pedalboards! Long may it continue!