If you have ever been to a concert, seen a live show, given change to a busker, or sat and enjoyed a cup of coffee while listening to a solo acoustic act, chances are you’ve seen a guitarist twiddle with some weird gadgets at their feet, or bend over during a show to twist a knob or two. If you’ve ever wondered how guitar players create their sonic signatures (or “tone”); it’s with the help of these little boxes, known as guitar pedals, or stomp boxes, that electric guitar players can create new worlds of sonic exploration, soaring distortion soaked leads, crunchy driving rhythms, ambient modulated room filling textures, and everything in between. Here are the Top 10 most influential guitar pedals, how they work, and who used them.
- The Heil Talk Box
For fans of classic rock and funk, the talk box is almost synonymous with the name Peter Frampton. He was the first big user, which rocketed the talk box from obscure musical gadgetry to super stardom. The idea behind the talk box has been around since 1939, where it was used a gimmick for lap steel guitar players to create a “singing guitar effect”. However, it wasn’t until The Kustom Electronics Talk Box (better known as “The Bag”), came along in 1969, that we began to see the talk box more widely used in rock and funk. All through the 70’s, throughout almost every popular genre, the talk box’s instantly recognizable metallic gargle can be heard on many seminal albums from Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow (1975), to Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind (1972). The very first modern “high powered” talkbox that musicians still use today was created by Bob Heil and Joe Walsh for his Barnstormer tour, along with his guitar tech. It employed the same principles as The Bag, but was adapted for high level rock shows. That version of the talk box was and still is the most widely used version of the effect, even though simpler, more modern appropriations are available.
Examples of talkbox use in songs:
- Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like We Do? (Frampton Comes Alive: 1976)
- Joe Walsh – Rocky Mountain Way (The Smoker Your Drink, The Player You Get: 1973)
- Pink Floyd – Pigs (Three Different Ones) (Animals: 1977)
- Univox (Shin-Ei) Uni-Vibe
Listen to the heartbeat, the clanking of money, the proletariat British voices speaking about insanity, and the screams of Clare Tory amalgamate into a climax, as it drops you into the arms of a warm, rich swirl. Listen to the pounding feedback and seething, pulsating fuzz as it rips your body apart through the hands of a machine gun wielding master of the Stratocaster. Hear the crooning and creaking of the bridge of sighs as it buckles under the weight of the thick, syrupy throb. These most majestic and unique sounds were created by the venerable Univox (Shin-Ei) Uni-Vibe. It’s original intent was to replicate the swirling, three dimensional sounds of a Leslie speaker. Although it wasn’t very good at it, it became a unique effect in its own right. Employing a lamp and photocell circuit, it creates a pulsing or throbbing effect, closer to a phaser then a Leslie, but far more thick and deeper sounding. The Uni-Vibe was most prominently used by Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour, but many others have used it as well, such as Robin Trower, Trey Anastasio, and many others. Since the original Shin-Ei unit was discontinued, many modern re-designs and clones have flooded the market, with the ones that feature an actual lamp and photocell circuit being the most desirable among Vibe fanatics. These are much more stable and portable than their vintage counterparts, but some guitarists still swear by an original. If you’ve got a hankering for some vintage Vibe, they can sometimes be found on eBay fetching prices ranging from $1200-2000 USD.
Notable Uni-Vibe Uses:
- Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon: 1973
- Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun (Band of Gypsys: 1970)
- Robin Trower – Bridge of Sighs (Bridge of Sighs: 1974)
- Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress Flanger
Electro-Harmonix, an effects pedal company based in New York City, has concocted many diverse and famous offerings for the sonically adventurous guitar player. With effects pedal legend Mike Mathews at the helm of this mad sonic laboratory, Electro-Harmonix continues to crank out new and exciting effects, as well as faithful recreations of some of their highly sought after classic designs for the masses. This story begins with a reel-to-reel tape machine, and another effects company known as A/DA. Tape flanging, was a technique in the studio, that involved running your finger across one reel of tape to slow it down, while the other reel ran at normal speed. This technique created a sort of metallic, jet engine like effect, and was used on many albums throughout the 70s. In the late 70’s, a small company known as A/DA set out to replicate this effect using (then) new IC (or bucket brigade) chips, which allowed for very complicated circuitry in a chip about the size of a fingernail. A/DA created the first commercially available flanger, but the Electric Mistress is the one that broke the market, and sold the new sound to a generation of guitarists. One of the early adopters of the Electric Mistress was David Gilmour, who was introduced to it during the Animals tour, and used it subsequently on every album since then, most notably The Wall. Andy Summers used it for a subtle shimmer during his time with The Police, and John Frusciante used it while on tour with The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Notable uses of the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress:
- Pink Floyd – Run Like Hell (The Wall: 1979)
- The Police – Do Do Do Da Da Da (Zenyatta Mondata: 1980)
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Soul to Squeeze (Coneheads Soundtrack: 1993)
- Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
There is a mysterious thing that happens when you plug a guitar in through a mess of transistors, capacitors, and diodes. Among normal folk, there is no way to fully explain that sound, just that it is the sound of an electric guitar. Among musicians however, that heavy, saturated, and overall huge sound is known as distortion. Musicians have been experimenting with distortion since the earliest days of rock n’ roll, and it is undeniably the sound that drove the genre to what it has become today. Some players have gone so far as to drop their amps in puddles of rain water, or take a razor blade to the speaker cone (Dave Davies of the Kinks’ secret to getting his sound on You Really Got Me). After much amp destruction, the correlation between volume and distortion was made. To have distortion, you needed a lot of volume to push the tubes in the amp to clip. This was no problem with a loud 100 watt amp stack in an arena, but was more of an issue when you wanted to get that tone in a studio or at home. Thus, the distortion pedal was born. Meant to mimic the sound of a cranked amp stack in a loud arena, except more friendly to use in the studio or at home. It also opened the floodgates for many tonal variations that you just can’t get when everything is at 11. After the venerable Fuzz Face (which we will discuss later on in the feature), the Big Muff is one of the most sought after and copied distortions of all time. Used by a huge variety of players, from Jack White and Billy Corgan to Dan Auerbach and even Tony Peluso (of Carpenters fame), the Big Muff has made its mark on rock history. The most famous and avid user of the Big Muff is David Gilmour, who used it on every album with Pink Floyd and beyond since Animals. His huge wall of sound tones found on The Wall are thanks to the Big Muff Pi.
Notable uses of the Big Muff Pi
- Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb (The Wall: 1979)
- The White Stripes – Ball and Biscuit (Elephant: 2003)
- Smashing Pumpkins – Rocket (Siamese Dream: 1993)
- Ibanez TS-808 “Tube Screamer”
Few pedals in history have commanded so many clones, so many interpretations, and so many rabid fans as the hallowed Tube Screamer. It was originally meant to mimic the sound of a vintage tube amp driven to distortion, and while it did that satisfactorily, it took on a whole new identity. The words Tube Screamer are almost always in the same sentence when talking about overdrive, and a huge chunk of overdrive pedal market today is dedicated to making a clone, upgrade, or new tonal take on this classic circuit. It was first popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughn for his classic fat, bluesy Strat tones, but has been spread across every genre imaginable, and is favored by many for its thick and creamy character. There are a few things that make the Tube Screamer so special, and most of them were happy accidents. At the very heart of an original TS-808, lies the JRC 4558D op amp chip. Most Tube Screamer fans swear by this chip, and it is what gives the sound it’s unique character, employing a mid-range boost and soft clipping (distortion) characteristic (to retain the original tonality of the input signal), followed by a very mild low pass filter to smooth out any leftover harshness of the clipping or distorted signal. Tube Screamers without a JRC 4558D are not even looked at by Tube Screamer purists. Of course, there is a lot of mojo and superstition that goes without saying. Many say the original cannot be beaten, and there is some sort of magical characteristic to it that is impossible to replicate in a modern clone. Original Tube Screamers can go for as much as $800 dollars on the used market, due mostly to the aforementioned “mojo”, but also due to the fact that it’s one of the most copied and popular guitar pedal circuits of all time.
Notable uses of the Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer
- Stevie Ray Vaughn – Pride and Joy (Texas Flood: 1983)
- Metallica – Master of Puppets (Master of Puppets: 1986)
- John Mayer – Neon (Room For Squares: 2001)
- Klon Centaur
Mention those very two words on any guitar forum, and prepare for a 25 page thread of vitriol, passion, love, and hate. The mythical (aptly named, ironically) Klon Centaur is one of the most hotly debated, sought after, mysterious, and expensive guitar pedals of all time. Everything about this pedal is shrouded in mystery, from the inner workings of the circuit, the reclusive designer, and it’s unimaginably high price. The story begins like this. In the late 70s, a reclusive boutique amp maker named Howard Alexander Dumble, took the guitar world by surprise by creating one the sweetest, most dynamic tube guitar amps in existence, by modifying a Fender Twin (“Blackface”) circuit to create an entirely new amp for Stevie Ray Vaughn. After Carlos Santana was leant one (Mr. Dumble is notoriously reclusive and very hard to reach), he loved the sound so much that he bought not only one, but three, after finally reaching Mr. Dumble. Carlos didn’t want the pristine cleans of a Steel String Singer (Dumble’s pristinely clean amp created for SRV), so Dumble created the Overdrive Special, or ODS for short. The sound of the ODS caught on like wildfire, and everyone fell in love with the sound of one. With the insane demand, Dumble became even more reclusive, and only made a few amps a year, if at all (which were mostly for the stars). A Dumble amp, in any variation, is the most expensive guitar amp on the planet, fetching prices up to $50,000 a piece, and more. So what does this have to do with the Klon Centaur? The Centaur is almost as mysterious as the Dumble, and many liken it to be the closest way to get that Dumble sound without having to buy a $38,000 amplifier. However, the Centaur is steeped in almost as much mystery as the Dumble itself. After four years in production, people clamored to get their hands on the fabled Centaur. Since it was more or less a two to three man operation at Klon, (Klon’s Bill Finnegan has an incredibly good ear, is very picky about components, and is notoriously lazy) Klon Centaurs were always backordered. It could take from 6 months to a year to fill your order, if you ever got the waiting list. People who did get their hands on a Klon Centaur, after opening it up would find that the circuit was covered in a black epoxy goo, discouraging any cloners and keeping the secrets of the revered “transparent overdrive” circuit a mystery. The lucky few who owned one raved about how incredible it was; so it was a combination of all of those things that gave it it’s infamous status, and infamous price. A used Klon Centaur can fetch as much as $3000 for an original “gold” version. Later on, seeing the demand for the Klon Centaur, Bill Finnegan and Klon created the Klon KTR, a cheaper version of the Klon, using off the shelf components (whereas the original used custom ones almost exclusively, another factor that drove the pedal’s price way up). The sound is still there, and emblazoned on the front of the pedal are these words “Kindly remember: The ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.”
Notable uses of the Klon Centaur
- Jeff Beck – Big Block (Live at Ronnie Scott’s: 2008)
- Gov’t Mule – Monkey Hill (Dark Side of the Mule: 2014)
- Matt Schofield – Anything But Time (Anything But Time: 2011)
- MXR Phase 90
How many pedals can you say were immortalized by Spandex-clad Dutch born guitar virtuoso who had a questionable attraction to his teacher? The answer is many, but one stands out above the rest, and is almost constantly associated with the revered “brown sound”. That pedal is the MXR Phase 90, that man is Eddie Van Halen, and that “brown sound” is most famously heard on Van Halen’s Eruption. The MXR Phase 90 was released in 1974, and it was yet another attempt to replicate that swirling Leslie tone in a compact stompbox. It yet again sounded nothing like a Leslie (the way it handles the incoming signal and the basic tonal characteristic is very similar to a Uni-Vibe), but it took on a life of its own, and found its way onto many seminal recordings of the 1970s. Utilizing one simple knob that reads “Speed”, you can go from a slow, 3 dimensional sweep, to a fast, pulsating, ramped-up Leslie like tone. Unfortunately, MXR filed for bankruptcy in 1984, and the production of many well-known pedals from MXR’s offerings ceased. However, when Jim Dunlop bought the MXR brand, production began again. MXR was rebranded (as modern “block logo” MXR), and resold to an eager market. However, some guitarists were disappointed. The new Dunlop manufactured “block logo” Phase 90, sounded almost nothing like it’s original counterpart, which was MXR’s flagship pedal. Some guitarists who were disappointed by the new Phase 90 instead opted for Mike Matthews offering, the Small Stone (another phaser that has been going head to head with the Phase 90 since its inception), and some electronically savvy guitar players set about to modifying their block logo Phase 90s to sound more like the script logo version (Script logo refers to the original Phase 90). Dunlop caught on to this, and released a faithful recreation of the script Phase 90 (as well as a hand-wired version with NOS “new old stock” components for the purists). They also released a Van Halen signature Phase 90, with that famous electrical tape Van Halen pattern on the pedal itself.
Notable uses of the MXR Phase 90
- Van Halen – Eruption (Van Halen: 1978)
- Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand (Presence: 1976)
- Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar (Wish You Were Here: 1975)
- Maestro Echoplex
When talking about the Maestro Echoplex, one cannot go any further without giving due praise to the other legendary tape units of the late 60’s and early 70s. Although the Echoplex itself found its way onto countless recordings, the tape delay has been around since the 1950’s, where Les Paul’s studio experimentation led to the discovery of the widely used technique known as tape delay, tape echo, or slapback(Click here for an example of Les Paul’s inventive use of the tape machine, which wasn’t only limited to slapback!). It utilizes a reel to reel tape, and works by recording, erasing, and re-writing the signal at different variations in time, utilizing the playback and record heads on a tape machine. The farther out the heads are spaced, the longer the delay is, and vice versa. One of the very first practical uses of this effect outside of the studio was Ray Butts’ EchoSonic amplifier, which employed a tape delay circuit inside of the amp. This amplifier was used heavily by Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore, to create that short echo or slapback effect heard throughout Elvis’ records. The tape delay was adapted into a more or less standard form, as an additional effect unit (much like a stompbox, except it’s quite large and didn’t usually sit on a pedalboard). There are many interpretations of the tape delay that operate on more or less that same principle, and spread across almost every genre of music imaginable. One of those is the Binson Echorec, an Italian made unit that ran on magnetic drum heads rather than reels, used most famously by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour heavily on almost every album for those huge fuzz tones and floating rhythms to create a sense of space, up until after the release of Animals. Another well-known tape unit is the WEM Watkins Copicat, used most famously by Hank Marvin to create a deep, shimmering, “underwater” sort of tone, combined with this use of the tremolo (vibrato) bar on his Fender Stratocaster (Hank Marvin & The Shadows – Apache). The Roland Space Echo is Japan’s tape delay offering that operates on the same principle, but is mostly used in studios, since it was far too cumbersome to lug around to gigs. The Space Echo has countless clones and renditions, and Roland used that circuit/effect in many of their rackmount studio effects units, such as the lush RE-501 Chorus Echo. Which brings us to the venerable Maestro Echoplex. The Echoplex was the first major tape echo unit that utilized a user-moveable head, allowing the player to set the delay time to anything they desired. Not only did the Echoplex create warm and rich repeats, it added girth and weight to your incoming guitar signal using an internal preamp, which added to the lushness of the sound. Many guitarists just bypassed the delay all together to get that coveted boosted Echoplex tone, which modern pedal makers have caught on to, releasing pedals such as the Xotic EP booster, or the Dunlop Echoplex Preamp. The reason the Echoplex was so widely used was because of its stability, portability, fidelity, and availability (Maestro was under the wing of Gibson during the time of the EP-3, the most popular version of the Echoplex, which made the Echoplex widely available and easy to find). The list of guitar players who used the Echoplex is long, and spans every decade from the mid-50s until this very day. The list of guitar players who used tape delay, and subsequently the albums/songs which feature the use of tape delay is infinitely longer. For the notable uses, I tried to focus on the best uses of tape delay overall, not just uses of the Echoplex, to help give you a better understanding of what this classic effect sounds like, and is capable of. There have been many attempts to recreate the lush sound of a tape delay in a more compact unit, which varied from using bucket brigade IC chips (similar to the ones used in the Electric Mistress), to full on digital simulations. Most of these attempts were implemented quite well, and yielded very good results. However, for some tape purists, you can never beat the sound of a real tape delay. There are scores of old tape delays to be found on eBay, (as expected they are quite expensive and finicky/difficult to maintain), but Fulltone pulled out all the stops by creating a brand new, real tape delay unit; The Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, which can be yours for a mere $1400 USD.
Notable uses of tape delay:
- Chet Atkins – Jam Man (Almost Alone: 1996) [Maestro Echoplex] **This is the song on the eSurance commercial
- Hank Marvin & The Shadows – Apache (Apache: 1960) [WEM Watkins Copicat]
- Queen – Brighton Rock (Sheer Heart Attack: 1974) [Maestro Echoplex EP-3]
2. Clyde McCoy “Cry Baby” Wah Pedal
Few pedals’ names are actually directly associated with the sound they make, for obvious reasons. Pedals introduce harmonic complexity to a guitar’s basic signal, so naming a distortion pedal BBRRAAAANNGGG may present a few complications when talking about how cool that solo was. The wah pedal however, is so synonymous with its sound, that really the only way to describe it is the way we hear it. This story starts with a trumpet player named Clyde McCoy, who was famous around the time of the Big Band era of the 30s and 40s. His shtick to set himself apart from the legions of trumpet players back in those days was to utilize a device called a trumpet mute, which made the trumpet sound more dynamic and vocal. By holding this plunger looking device at the end of his trumpet and moving it back and forth, letting out different amounts of sound, it would create a tone that sounded like a voice almost that was limited to the words “wah wah”, like a crying baby. As it has been with most effects pedals, in the late 60s, a mistake in the Vox factory when trying to make a new transistorized amp for The Beatles (then called The Thomas Organ Company) lead to the creation of the wah pedal, with a foot volume control pedal as it’s housing and main function. It works by using an inductor circuit (manufactured by Fasel in those days, an Italian company. Wahs with original Fasel inductors fetch very high prices on the vintage market), to open and close a slightly resonant filter, making the vowel sound we all know and love. The wah pedal’s use is spread across almost every genre of recorded music today, and has even been used on keyboards, clavinets, and synthesizers. The user who first popularized the use of the wah, and brought it to the mainstream, was non-other than Jimi Hendrix. It can be found scattered all over his diverse catalog, and most famously found on his song Voodoo Child.
Notable uses of the wah pedal:
- Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Child (Slight Return): Electric Ladyland (1968)
- Funkadelic – Maggot Brain: Maggot Brain (1971)
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – If You Have to Ask: Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
- The Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face
Now we reach number one, the end-all-be-all of guitar pedals (this is my opinion of course). No other pedal is as hated, loved, (and most of the time both) by so many diverse guitar players. It is said that a proper fuzz face in front of a loud tube amp can produce a cornucopia of tones with twists of the volume knob and adjustments of pick attack. This is the sound that defined rock n’ roll, and the sound that is synonymous with the electric guitar since the earliest days of its inception. In the 30s and 40s, electric guitars were just glorified chord machines stuck in the back of the big band halls and records, just to add a bit more swing to the melody to accompany the domineering woodwinds and brass. That changed with Charlie Christian, one of the few players who brought the amplified electric guitar to the forefront of big band/jazz. He was so influential that the single coil pickup in his trusty Gibson ES-150 (one of the very first electric guitar pickups) was named the “Charlie Christian pickup”. After him, with the popularization of rhythm & blues, and subsequently rock n’ roll, the electric guitar was an invaluable asset to any group that wanted to remain relevant with the generation of that day. As the guitar got louder, the sound of distortion was what defined the sound of rebellion and freedom. It sounded so powerful and unique that guitar players everywhere wanted to get that sound out of their amps, and young listeners wanted to hear it in the music coming off the airwaves, because to them it symbolized something new, exciting, rebellious, and best of all, something that their parents would hate. To get said distortion, players would have to turn up their amps to ear shattering volumes, and that wasn’t really conducive to small clubs or tightly controlled small venues. The Fuzz Face, created by Dallas-Arbiter of London, was meant to simulate the sound of a cranked tube amp, without having to crank your tube amp. If you think there was any delicacy in this approach to emulate that coveted sound, you’re wrong. The sound of a vintage fuzz is like mangling your guitar signal beyond recognition, and then throwing a blanket over it; and as you can guess, guitar players couldn’t get enough of it. A true fuzz is a wild horse, which is why many players turn away from it or don’t like it. However, if you take the time to learn how to tame it, it can be one of the most powerful weapons in your aural arsenal. The standard vintage Fuzz Face circuit has two variations, one is silicon, and the other germanium. The original Fuzz Face pedals used germanium transistors, but later the manufacturer switched to silicon because of its relatively low cost and tonal stability/consistency. The sound of these two, and the response, are similar to the untrained ear, but have very different effects. Germanium’s sound is characterized as warmer, thicker, and splattier, while silicon’s sound is characterized as brighter, clearer, and sharper. Nowadays, there is a market for both variations on the circuit, and true vintage Fuzz Faces (even period correct clones) can fetch an extremely high price. This doesn’t really make sense however, since the Fuzz Face circuit is deceptively simple, and what many beginner pedal builders learn to make first. Some people claim that the mojo comes from NOS (new old stock) transistors and vintage correct diodes, and some others claim that the age of the circuit changes the tone; no two fuzzes sound alike. Fuzz Face circuits are one of the most notoriously finicky on the planet; people do some crazy things to their Fuzz Faces. The transistors react to temperature changes, and you will get different tones in the summer and the winter. There are stories of people putting their Fuzz Faces in the freezer, or outside in the heat to change their tone. Eric Johnson claims that the material of the screws that hold the Fuzz Face enclosure together change the tone as well. Fuzz Faces do not like to be placed in the middle of the pedal chain, and hate digital pedals, buffered pedals, solid state amps, and active pickups . Like a cranky old lady, it seems to only get along with the stuff from its era, but if you can put up with her for long enough to tell her your story, you will be rewarded with one of the most dynamic, beautiful, powerful, and versatile guitar tones of all time.
Notable uses of the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face:
- Pink Floyd – Time: Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
- Jimi Hendrix – The Star Spangled Banner: Live at Woodstock (1969)
- Jeff Beck – Beck’s Bolero: Truth (1967)*
*-This song actually used a Colorsound Tonebender, a different flavor of the popular fuzz effect, but it is undoubtedly one of the most influential uses of fuzz.