Last updated on October 18th, 2017: Added recommendations from Guitar World editors Damian Fanelli, Paul Riario and Guitar Gate creator Michael Palmisano.
Typically, we break pedals down by type, based on the sound they actually make. For example, we have roundups that feature single effects, like phaser pedals. But in this piece, we're looking to cobble together a list of the best guitar pedals overall, that only adheres to broad effect categories.
For example, a delay and reverb pedal would both fall into the category of ambient effects.
Another good example would be overdrive and boost pedals. Those would be be considered gain-related or distortion effects.
In total, we'll look at the best guitar pedals out of these five categories:
Nearly all the guitar pedals that have ever existed can be plugged into one of these groupings. We'll use them to curate our choices and recommendations in this article, instead of having separate sections for each individual effect type.
How are we determining which pedals are the best? Isn't that kind of subjective?
One of these actually makes it onto our list. You may be able to guess. Flickr Commons image via Game.co.uk
Websites, that we would not recommend to you, write lists like this one all the time. And yes, they are extremely subjective. Not only that, but they're largely unhelpful in terms of providing actual knowledge about the guitar pedals in question.
With that in mind, we need to point out something about this piece of content, and others like it that we have written: This is based on the knowledge and opinion of real musicians. We are not marketers or internet gurus trying only to make a buck off Amazon. Now, we do use affiliate programs to support this site and those who run it, but we are not simply throwing pedals up without knowing why we're suggesting them.
This is based on the knowledge and opinions of real musicians who have used this gear.
And while the opinion of any human being on a topic like this is always going to be somewhat contextual and subjective, we can give you concrete reasons why we recommend these pedals over others.
Primarily, our recommendations are based on the following factors:
- Actual use and experience with the pedal
- Secondhand knowledge from other musicians we know who have used or owned the pedal
- A proper value assessment
Guitar World contributor, educator, writer and guitarist since 1996.
Worship leader, PCA deacon and guitarist.
Session musician, guitar, keyboard & bass
Additional recommendations and contributions from:
What is a proper value assessment?
We determine value by first knowing the features of effects and guitar pedals that matter the most. For example, when it comes to delay pedals, we know that (in many cases) having a tap tempo included in your delay pedal is better than not having one.
How do we know this? Because we've actually used delay pedals, some of which did and did not have a tap tempo.
This means that we can make a proper value assessment based on actual features without just saying, "this delay pedal will sound great" or one of our personal favorites:
"Among the most prolific pedals made popular by its solid performance."
Use this Google result if you want to see what site we're referring to.
That kind of "endorsement" is dumb and completely unhelpful.
Please, no vague guitar pedal endorsements. Flickr Commons image via Steven Tyler PJs (View Larger Image)
Additionally, as we can identify and confirm more of those features that add quality, we can then look for pedals that give you those features at the lowest possible price points.
Thus, we define the best guitar pedals by those that provide the most value, based on the following:
If you boil it down, our template is quite simple.
Just look for the features that matter and see which brands and pedals deliver those features at the lowest price.
- As quality goes up, value increases
- As price going down, value increases
- As quality goes down, value decreases
- As price goes up, value decreases
What this list is and What it is Not
We should point out that this list is not a ranking or a full review of each pedal. Per our publishing policy, we do not publish physical product reviews, in favor of making contextual recommendations.
The term "review" is a bit deceptive, since most people who review guitar gear don't have anything bad to say about it. That's not a review as much as it is an endorsement. In most cases, we simply avoiding talking about products that we can't or wouldn't recommend to Guitar Chalk readers.
Thus, it's misleading and disingenuous to use the term "review."
As a consequence, we want to be clear that this list is not a review, nor are the numbers used an indication of ranking the products in any particular order. Instead, these are contextual recommendations, based on our experience that may or may not apply to your own situation.
Our Two Favorite Guitar Pedals from these Lists
The two guitar pedal purchases we are absolutely the most confident about making, having made them ourselves.
Best Guitar Pedals: Recommendations Based on Value
For each category, we're going to list our favorite pedal, along with a bullet list of honorable mentions and workable alternatives. For example, in the modulation category we'll list our favorite pedal out of the phaser, chorus, flanger and tremolo effect types.
Remember, we're looking for value, which means we're not going to have a "favorite" recommendation for each type of effect. Instead, we'll have a favorite from a category, then a listing of others we recommend from that same category that might be a different type of effect.
Here's how it would look on paper:
Pedal types within an effect category. (View Larger Image)
This breakdown can be established for all five of the categories we listed in the earlier paragraphs of this post. While we won't do a diagram like this for each category, just be generally aware of the parent categories and how different effects types fit into each one.
If you want information about a specific type of effect, here are a few that we've already covered in other posts:
For this section, we'll start with ambient pedals and work our way down.
Ambience: EHX Memory Boy Analog Delay
The EHX Deluxe Memory Boy combines two of the most coveted delay features, which aren't often found in the same pedal: Analog bucket brigade circuit design and a tap tempo. Analog circuits, which are more natural and organic sounding than digital processors, are often preferred, particularly when you're talking about delay pedals. The only problem is that analog delay pedals tend to have less customization features, and usually omit the tap tempo button.
This is one of the few delay pedals that has a true analog circuit, which also incorporates a ton of customization into the box.
In addition to tap tempo, you can choose how to divide the wave modulation, adjust depth, gain and control the mix between your wet and dry signal.
There's also an expression pedal option with four different modes of control.
Of all the ambient pedals, it's our favorite recommendation.
- Expression pedal (control rate, depth, feedback or delay)
- Delay, feedback and rate (common three-band EQ for delay pedals)
- Depth knob
- Gain knob
- Blend knob (mix between the wet and dry signal)
- Tap tempo and tap divide (wave modulation)
Price and Value
Pound for pound, we believe the Memory Boy gives you the best delay pedal for what you pay, as many of its comparisons are more expensive and don't have as wide an array of features and tweaking options.
Overall, the tone and sound of this pedal is just fantastic, especially for those who want a more lush and vintage-sounding delay with a modernized control scheme.
Other Ambient Pedals we Recommend
Modulation: Boss BF-3 Flanger
Boss's BF-3 Flanger is one of the most versatile modulation pedals we've ever used, capable of tones similar to chorus and phaser effects, as well as the flanger sound itself. It's also unusually cheap as it often drops in price, particularly in the used market where a lot of BF-3s and BF-2s tend to circulate.
The BF-3 has four different modes to choose from, all with their own unique capabilities:
Bobby has tested out all of these modes in this article featuring some of his preferred BF-3 Flanger settings, which includes a bunch of audio samples.
Included are the common rate and depth controls (fairly standard for all modulation) as well as a resolution ("res") knob. You've got the option to exit the pedal in stereo, sending the signal into two separate paths. The BF-3 also has inputs for both guitar and bass.
Holding the pedal down for two seconds will engage a tap tempo mode, which allows you to set your wave rhythm, though a tap tempo is less critical for modulation effects.
While using the pedal, we rarely felt the need to set it.
Since versatility, customization options and price all find a happy medium in the BF-3, we're comfortable recommending it as one of the best-value modulation stompboxes we can dig up.
- Rate and depth controls (typical modulation)
- Four flanger modes
- Stereo outputs and dual inputs (for guitar and bass)
- Resolution control
- Tap tempo option
Black Hole Sun riff
Basic Modulation Layer
Wes Borland Phaser Style (delay from a Line 6 DL4)
Price and Value
The BF-3, in its price range, is one of the most versatile single-stomp modulation pedals on the market. If you can get one used, you have a good chance at paying well under the retail markup and getting back a ton of functionality in return.
Other Modulation Pedals we Recommend
Gain and Distortion: Amptweaker TightMetal Distortion
Particularly when it comes to modern distortion pedals, the TightMetal ST by Amptweaker is one of our favorite designs. Its ability to mimic an amp-driven tone, both heavily and mildly saturated, makes it one of the few distortion pedals we'd be willing to compare to a high-quality amplifier-based distortion source.
In most cases, professional guitarists and musicians don't get distortion from a pedal. Instead, they use the dirty channel on their amplifier, which has a gain control that creates heavier distortion.
This is why a lot of the pros that use heavier distortion tones have amps like the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, which is known for its high amount of onboard gain.
But when it comes to pedals, gain is often used as a volume adjustment or as a simple solo boost.
Closeup look at the Amptweaker TightMetal Pro, which is a bit larger than the ST version, though shares a lot of the same functionality. (View Larger Image)
The TightMetal ST can do those things, but it can also handle the heavy lifting of more saturated distortion. In fact, it was designed by the same guy who used to design a number of amplifiers for Peavey. We like the TightMetal for all of that functionality, particularly if you're leaning more towards a heavy metal or modern distortion vibe.
Additional features worth mentioning include a built-in noise gate, which does a fantastic job at higher gain levels, as well as a switchable effects loop and mid scooping switch.
With the effects loop and stereo outputs, there are several different ways you could hook up and configure the TightMetal ST.
- Tight knob
- Tone knob
- Volume knob
- Gain knob
- Noise control switch
- Mid control switch
- Effects loop bypass switch
Price and Value
There's a Jr. version of the TightMetal, which is smaller that the ST, while the Pro version of the TightMetal is a little bigger with some extra functionality built in (pictured above).
We think the ST is a happy medium between the two, and one of the most complete and functional distortion pedals available. For those who might want a more subtle or vintage-style distortion, check the rest of our listed recommendations below the pros and cons section.
Other Distortion, Gain, Overdrive & Boost Pedals we Recommend
Filter and Wah: Morley Bad Horise Wah
The most typical filter effect is the wah pedal, since it essentially acts as a glorified tone knob that quickly filters out the lows and highs of your guitar's EQ. When that happens quickly, you get the wah effect that these pedals produce. There are also several envelope filters and octave effects that could go in this category, though we'll focus primarily on wah pedals, since they're by far the most common.
Our favorite is the Morley Bad Horise Steve Vai signature wah pedal.
Steve Vai's signature wah pedal has two versions, the first Bad Horise and the Bad Horsie 2 contour wah. Both are fantastic wah pedals, where the first one is far simpler without the contour controls or mode button.
The hallmark feature of the Bad Horsie pedals is the switchless functionality. Instead of having to click a switch to turn the pedal on, simply step on it and start rocking the foot pedal back and forth. When you want to stop, just let the pedal snap back to its original position, which it will do on its own when you take your foot off of it.
Bobby typically recommends this wah pedal because he's been using it since he was 15, and can't seem to get used to wahs that actually have a bypass switch.
As we mentioned, the second iteration of the Bad Horsie has two selectable wah modes via the metal switch, but we're just as happy with the first Bad Horsie, which is generally a good deal cheaper.
- Switchless engagement (step on to engage, step off to bypass)
- Tone knob
- Volume knob
- Gain knob
- Noise control switch
- Mid control switch
- Effects loop bypass switch
Price and Value
The Bad Horsie family is middle of the road in terms of wah pedal pricing, but we believe it's one of the absolute best available, both from a tone and functionality perspective. For what it's worth, Bobby's has lasted over 16 years.
Other Wah Pedals we Recommend
Utility: Ernie Ball VP Jr. Volume Pedal
Utility guitar pedals can be a lot of different things.
Loopers, A/B/Y switches, noise gates and tuners would all fall under the banner of utilities. And while it's tempting give the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner the headline here, we felt that having a tuner would fit better in a category of its own. Besides, that's a rather obvious addition to any decent pedalboard.
What we've found to be one of the most crucial utility pedals is the volume pedal, and in most cases the Ernie Ball VP Jr. is our favorite recommendation.
It's cheap, sized down - so it fits better on pedalboards - and it has a taper switch which gives you a couple distinctive swelling points, meaning less guess work if you want to return to a specific volume.
It's not exciting, but it's one of the most useful and important pieces you can add to your board.
- Step on to engage
- Taper switch for distinctive swells
- For passive signals
Price and Value
In our opinion, all volume pedals are overpriced.
However, this is one of the cheaper options that we can vouch for personally. And since most pedalboards can benefit from a volume pedal, this is an easy recommendation for us.
Other Utility Pedals we Recommend
Pedal Order and Effects Chain Best Practices
One of the most common questions surrounding the use of effects is whether or not there is a best, or most optimal, way in which to order those pedals. In a typical signal chain, the input originates at your guitar and is outputted through an amplifier. The guitar pedals sit in the middle of that line, processing the signal from the guitar before sending it into the amplifier and out through a speaker.
Strymon has an article that explains this in detail and provides some extremely helpful graphics for scenarios with and without an effects loop.
Let's look at the non-effects loop version first:
Without an Effects Loop
Compression and volume pedals are placed at the beginning of the signal, right after your guitar. Wah, distortion and modulation follow in that order. The last effect type before your amp should usually be your ambient effects like delay and reverb.
If you do have an effects loop, your ambient pedals would get dropped in there, using the send/return option to take them out of your main signal chain.
Here's the diagram from Strymon depicting that setup:
With an Effects Loop
Again, these are conventions to be tested and not rules that must be followed. You should also keep in mind a couple notable areas these graphics don't address, namely the following:
We'd put a tuner at the very front of your chain, or in the "tuner" jack provided by the Ernie Ball volume pedal.
The equalizer pedal, something like the Boss GE-7, would (in our humble opinion) be most effective at the very end of your signal chain, right before the amplifier. In this position, it can act as sort of a pre-preamp, shaping the signal from your pedals before sending it into the actual amplifier.
There are a lot of different ways to do it, but these graphics are a reliable template to start with. You can fill in the gaps as you go.
Should I use amp or pedal distortion?
Amp or pedal-based distortion?
When discussing the Amptweaker distortion pedal, we mentioned that a lot of professional guitar players use an amplifier as their distortion source instead of a pedal. This begs the question: Is it better to use the amp for your distortion, or should you opt for the pedal variety?
As usual, context is needed to answer this question properly.
First, and perhaps most obviously, it depends on the amp that you already own. Certain amplifiers are designed with strong onboard distortion, usually in the form of a "high gain" or "dirty" channel. Most of the Marshall amplifiers have this and are ideally suited to handle distortion without the aid of a pedal.
However, there are plenty of amps that don't have a dirty channel or, if they do, aren't going to produce the style of distortion you want.
For example, the Fender Deluxe amplifier has a dirty channel, but it's a distinctly vintage-style distortion that probably won't meet the saturation standards of more modern players. If an amp gives you soft bluesy gain while you want metal saturation, its onboard distortion isn't going to be a good option for you.
Put all this together and you have three different options, depending on your amp:
- Amplifier running a clean channel + distortion pedal
- Amplifier running a clean channel + dirty channel as the distortion source
- Amplifier running a clean channel + dirty channel + distortion pedal as the distortion source
If We Had to Pick One: The Optimal Scenario
The most ideal scenario is that you have an amp with a good onboard distortion, like the Mesa Boogie Recitifiers or the Marshall JCM series. In most cases, however, these amps tend to be extremely expensive.
If you're in the situation where you've got an amp that doesn't meet your distortion standards, replacing that job with a pedal is totally fine.
It's almost always going to be cheaper than buying an entirely new amp.
Otherwise, if you're happy with the distortion from your amp, odds are that switching to the pedal form won't be an upgrade.
Q: What pedal tuner would you recommend?
A: As mentioned earlier, the Boss TU-3 is our go-to recommendation.
Q: Which effects types should I start with?
A: We'd recommend starting with a distortion and modulation pedal, then adding volume and wah as you expand your pedalboard.
Q: How do I tell which effects are specific to certain styles?
A: In most cases, the best guitar pedals are going to avoid being style specific. For example, the MXR Phase 90 is is not at all limited by stylistic usability. Usually pedals that are genre-specific will be designated in their title, like the Boss "Blues" Driver.
Q: Are there disadvantages to buying one of the big multi-effects units instead of all the single pedals?
A: Multi-effects pedals are largely a matter of preference. Most guitarists want to have individual stompboxes, even in the digital age, but that's not to say that multi-effects units can't be helpful and useful. I'd recommend them based on preference alone. However, it's worth noting that many professional rigs employ multi-effects units in a rackmounted form to supplement a few single stompboxes.
Q: What's the difference between modulation and ambient effects?
A: Ambient effects are generally related to a change in timing while modulation effects change wave form.
Q: What's the difference between the "gain" and "volume" knob on my distortion pedal?
A: Distortion pedals function like a small amplifier, in that they use gain (which is basically just volume) that's capped, in order to create the distorted effect. Thus, "gain" knobs on a pedal increase the volume that is capped which means more saturation. "Volume" knobs on a distortion pedal decrease or increase the overall output from that pedal, just like the master volume for a power amp.
Q: Is it "okay" to use batteries for these pedals, or should I buy a power supply?
A: Nine volt batteries will power your pedals fine. The downside is that they're expensive and guitar pedals tend to drain power from them really quickly, even when not engaged. If you just have a few pedals, and you don't play live, 9V batteries are fine. But, as your board grows, particularly if you're performing, a power supply becomes much more important.
Q: What kind of cables should I use in between each pedal?
A: We recommend using low profile right angle patch cables (regardless of brand - those ones are made by Hosa) for saving space between stompboxes.
Concluding and Additional Questions
Have questions about these guitar pedals that we didn't address? Feel free to drop them in the comments section below. Usually Bobby will answer there, which is preferred over email so that others who read the article in the future will have access to that information as well.
We also love hearing pedal suggestions and recommendations for these types of posts.
Just keep in mind our value assessment and method for including products. It shouldn't just be something you like personally, but should have some objective support as to why it belongs on a best guitar pedals list, like this one.
Flickr Commons Image courtesy of JJeff