Elitist gear snobs will have you know that “tone comes from the fingers,” and all they need is “a guitar, an amp, and a cable.”
They’re also the kind to shell out for $60 guitar strings, hunt down that elusive rare Gibson guitar with their favorite “tonewood,” and shun anyone who plays a guitar made in any Asian country other than Japan.
If that’s you, then get outta here; this isn’t the article for you.
This article is for those of us who are big enough to admit that yes, all the gear in the world can’t make up for crappy technique, but it can sure as hell add to it.
Whether you’re a seasoned pedal pro, or just about to start your adventure in the world of stompboxes, then you’ll definitely find something in here that will feel at home in between your guitar and amp.
The 17 best guitar pedals that you can buy in 2020 are just around the corner. Or, I guess, just down the page.
If you are in the latter group, welcome to the club! And also, welcome to years of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), empty bank accounts, and colorful metal boxes littered across your bedroom floor. You’re in for a ride….
Let’s quickly break down what these little gadgets are, for those of you who haven’t yet felt the grace.
What Are Guitar Pedals
Simply put, guitar pedals (also known as effects pedals, effects units or stompboxes) are small electronic devices that alter the sound of your guitar in one way or another.
They’re designed to go on the floor (or stage), ideally mounted on a pedalboard to keep everything nice and tidy, and at the most basic level, have on input for your guitar, and an output on the other side which then connects to your amp via another guitar lead.
It can get a little more complex than that, with stereo effects pedals and delays with external tap tempo inputs, but for now just consider the basic guitar pedal, which has one input, one output, and an on/off switch.
So how do guitar pedals actually work?
Well, that’s really beyond the scope of this guide, for two reasons:
- There are a number of different types which all work differently
- It’s a little bit nerdy
All you really need to know is “What does this pedal make my guitar sound like?”
Where Do Guitar Pedals Go In My Signal Chain
You’ve got two options in terms of signal chains.
You can either have your pedal in between your guitar and amp, in which case the effect is applied before hitting the amp, or you can chuck it in your amps effects loop (if it has one). In that case, the effect is applied after the preamp section but before the power amp.
What’s the difference?
Let’s look at an example to demonstrate.
Imagine you’ve got a reverb pedal, which is designed to recreate the echo-y sound of certain environments, as if your guitar amp was inside, for example, a massive hall.
If you have the reverb before the amp with the gain cranked up, then you’re applying the reverb effect to a dry guitar, which then gets gained up and distorted by the amps preamp section.
If you have the reverb pedal in the effects loop, then your dry guitar signal is distorted by the preamp before hitting the reverb, in which case you’re applying that ‘room sound’ to the distorted guitar tone.
In case it wasn’t already obvious, the resulting sound will be dramatically different.
Though it really comes down to individual preference (what the hell doesn’t?), the general rule is that dynamics and drive pedals (compression, noise gate, wah, fuzz, distortion, overdrive) come before the amp, and modulation and time-based effects (delay, chorus, reverb, flanger) go in the effects loop.
Other stompboxes like volume pedals and loopers can go wherever you like, as depending on where they are located they’ll react differently and give you a fairly different functionality.
Before we dive into the 17 best guitar pedals on the market, let’s take a quick look at the different types of pedals you can actually get.
|Pedal Type||What It Does|
|Overdrive||Mimics the sound of turning up your tube amps preamp gain|
|Distortion||Hardclips your guitar signal to give you a heavy drive tone|
|Fuzz||Similar to distortion but with a more fuzzy, wooly tonal quality|
|Delay||Records and plays back what you’re playing, usually within the space of a few milliseconds, creating an echo type effect|
|Reverb||Mimics the sound of a certain space, such as a hall, room, or chamber|
|Looper||Records a passage of guitar playing and plays it back on loop|
|Compression||Reduces the dynamic range by boosting quieter sections and lowering louder ones|
|Wah||Alters the frequency spectrum of your guitar tone, give off the human vocal sound “wah”|
|Octave||Duplicates your guitar output an octave (or more) higher or lower)|
|Boost||Boosts the output of your guitar without any additional tonal changes|
|Flanger||Double your guitar signal and it plays it back slightly out of phase and out of time, creating a watery warbly effect.|
|Phaser||Alters the frequency spectrum of your guitar and modulates it, creating a sweeping effect.|
|Tremolo||Modulates the volume of your guitar up and down|
|Vibrato||Does the same as a tremolo pedal but with pitch instead of volume|
|Chorus||Doubles your input signal and plays one back slightly out of tune and out of time, mimicking the effect of a chorus of voices|
|Noise Gate||Silences the output of your guitar when the signal falls below a certain threshold|
|Multi-FX||Contains any and all of the above effects in one convenient guitar pedal!|
17 Best Guitar Pedals To Have On Your Pedalboard in 2020
Best Overdrive Pedal: Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
If there’s one pedal that you’ll find on like, pretty much every guitarist’s pedalboard, it’s a Tube Screamer.
Preceded by the TS808, the TS9 is by far the most popular of all of the Tube Screamers that Ibanez offer, which is a pretty huge range.
So why is the TS9 so damn popular, and what makes it the best overdrive pedal available?
Well, it was popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of the most famed guitarists of all times, and it’s used by guitarists today, such as Billie Joe Armstrong, Gay Clark Jr, Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Having three names isn’t a prerequisite for opening this pedal, though, just in case you were wondering.
Apart from being used by many of the greatest blues and rock guitarists out there (we all love to copy our heroes), it’s an incredibly versatile and smooth-sounding stompbox.
That’s because the drive on offer mimics the sound of an all-tube amplifier, and because we still love using those, it’s almost like doubling up on that tubey goodness.
The tone of the TS9 is characterized by a smooth mid-frequency hump, which gives the guitar pedal the edge and grit it’s known for. It was one of the first drive pedals to offer the now-famous three-knob format, which you’ll find on about 50 thousand other drive pedals: tone, drive, level.
The tone knob lets you alter the frequency range of that mid-range hump, and the drive and level controls are pretty self-explanatory.
There are a number of awesome uses for the TS9, the main one being to dial up the drive and kick this pedal on in front of a clean guitar amp.
A second option, and one which is used by pretty much every hard rock and metal guitarist every, is to use the Tube Screamer as a boost in front of a tube amp. This is achieved by keeping the drive low (or all the way down if you still want a fairly clean tone available), with the level all the way up. You can then adjust the tone as desired.
I love this technique for tightening up low-tuned guitars, as the mid-range bump that the TS9 is characterized by helps to remove some of the flubby, muddy low-mid ugliness that occurs in when you drop your tuning low and crank up the gain.
However you use it, the TS9 is one of the best and most versatile guitar pedals out there, overdrive or otherwise.
Best Distortion Pedal: Pro Co RAT 2
Whether you’re looking for a distortion pedal for soaring leads and solos, or for gritty, industrial, low-tuned riffage, the Pro Co RAT 2 is the one you need.
Though it’s the second iteration of the RAT, it’s been in production since 1988, so considering the original was only in production for 9 years, it’s fair to consider this baby the RAT.
If you’re new to the world of drive, you might be wondering what the hell the difference is between an overdrive pedal and a distortion pedal.
Without getting too nerdy and technical with it, they achieve similar effects but with quite different methods. It’s like regular ice cream and coconut ice cream. They’re both ice cream, but they’re made out of different things, and they taste quite different too.
While overdrive pedals tend to have a smooth, silky feel, distortion pedals are usually a bit harsher and grittier. The Pro Co RAT definitely has a gritty vibe, and that’s why so many of us love them.
A good example of what the RAT can achieve is the guitar tone on Metallica’s Ride The Lightning album. On it, James Hetfield is using a Marshall Plexi amp, but rather than pushing it to its limit and getting a bunch of tube sag and speaker breakup reminiscent of 60s and 70s rock tones, he chucks a RAT in front of it and cranks the gain up on the pedal.
It’s also pretty popular for use on bass guitar, like on Blur’s Song 2.
Best Fuzz Pedal: Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
The third type of drive pedal you’ll find on the pedalboards of many guitarists and bassists is the fuzz pedal.
This is like the soy ice cream in our creamy frozen convection analogy; it’s kind of a love it or hate it scenario.
Fuzz pedals definitely have a tone that’s distinctly fuzz. No prizes for guessing how they sound. Yup, fuzzy.
Fuzz is obnoxious, woolly, and in your face.
And if there’s one pedal that perfectly exemplifies the sound of fuzz, it’s the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi.
Generally referred to as the Big Muff, the pedal is produced by Electro-Harmonix (EHX) in New York City, in conjunction with their Russian sister company Sovtek. Sovtek is famous for making vacuum tubes that go inside guitar amps, so you know they’ve got that oozy distortion tone DOWN.
To give you an idea of the kinds of artists that use a Big Muff, you’ll hear it on records by bands such as NOFX, Bush, and The Smashing Pumpkins. Even blues guitarists like Santana and Hendrix have been known to rock a Big Muff.
Like all of the best drive pedals, the Big Muff is super versatile and can be used in several ways, but my personal view on fuzz pedals is all or nothing.
If I want a more subtle effect, then I’ll use a drive pedal or crank up the gain on my amp. If I want a crazy, balls to the wall, woolly, buzzed out tone that sounds sick with the pickup selector in the neck position, that’s when I turn to a fuzz like the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi.
Best Delay Pedal: TC Electronic Flashback X4
I honestly can’t explain how much I love the TC Electronic Flashback X4, and how much I miss my one.
God knows why I sold it. Probably to fuel some other pedal purchase. What I can say though is I regret that decision whole-heartedly.
The original flashback is a pretty standard delay, with knobs for feedback, level, time (called delay), and reverb type, plus a tiny switch for changing delay patterns.
The Flashback X4 has all of that, but allows you to save three presets to footswitches A, B, and C, with a fourth switch dedicated to tap tempo capabilities.
There’s nothing worse than delays that don’t have a dedicated tap tempo switch or input, when you have to do some weird double-tap, long-hold dance to access the tap function. I just end up screwing it up half the time, so I need a tap tempo switch.
So, why would you need three presets?
Well, the TC Electronic Flashback X4 has a ridiculous number of delay emulations, including:
- Space (Roland Space Echo)
- Analog with modulation
- 2290 with modulation
- Ping Pong
- 4 TonePrint presets
I was absolutely drooling over the Space Echo emulation, which was always on switch A, and the TonePrint capabilities are awesome as well.
With TonePrint, you can jump onto your computer and custom design your own delay sound, or download custom presets from artists such as Motorhead, The Doors, and Bon Jovi.
What’s more (and this is crazy), you don’t even need to plug the pedal into your computer. Just hold your phone up to your guitar’s pickup, and play the TonePrint from TC’s app, and the Flashback X4 knows just what to do!
Best Reverb Pedal: TC Electronic Hall of Fame
You can probably tell I’m a bit of a TC fanboy, but for good reason: their pedals are incredible.
I’m not the only one either. You’ll find the Hall of Fame reverb pedal on the pedalboards of some of the best guitarists out there.
The Hall of Fame is a stereo reverb which means it’s lush and wide, and it has a huge variety of reverb types, including
- 1x TonePrint
On top of that, you can choose between a long and short pre-delay, and dial up or down the tone, decay, and reverb level of each style.
I’m a big fan of plate reverbs for their smooth tail with tonnes of reflections, but I’ve also found some excellent uses in the Hall of Fame’s Church and Gated reverb styles.
If you’re new to the world of reverb, this is the best option for you for sure, as it allows you to dive deep into all the sounds available. It’s equally awesome for seasoned reverb pros though, given it does pretty much every sound you’d ever be after in one compact unit!
Best Looping Pedal: TC Electronic Ditto
Oh look, another pedal for TC Electronic.
Okay, last one from them, then we’ll cover some other manufacturers.
The TC Electronic Ditto is a super basic looper, so what makes it the best looping pedal out there?
Well, yes, there are many more loopers with much wider capabilities, and if you’re keen to get into some loop-heavy riffage then this might not be the one. But for most guitarists, we just need a simple pedal that we can stomp in to loop a short section to solo over, or to harmonize with.
When that’s the case, you don’t want tones of knobs and switches, you can just want to stomp it on and get to the loop.
And that’s what the TC Electronic Ditto allows you to do.
It has one input, one output, a level control, and a single footswitch. Easy!
If you are keen to get into some more serious looping arrangement, then I’d recommend looking into the TC Electronic Ditto X4, which takes the same framework and gives you way more functionality.
Either way, get a ditto.
Best Compression Pedal: Electro-Harmonix Soul Preacher
I’ll be honest, I’m not really a fan of compression pedals, at least not for guitar.
For bass, definitely, if used in the right way. And I’m well aware of the need for compression on drums and vocals in a mix, but I really don’t get it for guitars.
Maybe that’s because most of the time I’m using a heavily driven tone (which by nature is compressed already), but even when I’m using cleaner tones, I actually want all that extra dynamic range.
Still, compression has its place for those who want that on-edge, super responsive feeling of driven amps, but without the distortion.
And if I’m going to use a compression pedal, it’s going to be the Soul Preacher. That’s because of three reasons:
- It’s simple to use
- It doesn’t add any fuzz, drive, or distortion even when compressing hard
- I love EHX gear
Best Wah Pedal: Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby
Wah pedals often get a bad rap, but that’s because so many players overuse them.
I’m looking at you, Kirk Hammett.
When used sparingly, however, wah pedals can add some lovely edge and dynamics to your lead playing, and can even be used to create some interesting effects for rhythm playing too.
The Dunlop Cry Baby is probably the most well-known of all wah pedals, and is my go-to when I’m after that classic wah solo sound.
It’s made of a heavy die-cast metal construction, which is perfect as it’s likely to take some stomping abuse, and the rubber top is grippy as hell.
Sound-wise, the wah is aggressive and wide-ranging, meaning it takes a little while to perfect, but is super versatile once you’ve nailed it.
Best Octave Pedal: DigiTech Whammy
Okay, to be fair, the DigiTech Whammy is way more than an octave pedal, which is why I’ve called it the best octave pedal out there.
In addition to octave up and down transpositions, you get 2-octave up or down, dive bomb and drop tune modes, and a whole bunch of harmonies.
That harmony section is super powerful, as it allows you to add thirds or fourths to your lead playing to recreate your favorite records, and make sure you’re playing your originals faithfully while allowing the other guitarist to carry on with the backing chords.
Best Boost Pedal: Jim Dunlop MC401 MXR
When a pedal giant like MXR teams up with Jim Dunlop, you know the result is going to be epic.
Personally, I don’t tend to use clean boost pedals, as I’d rather use something like a TS9 to boost the front of my amp, and add a little tone and grit at the same time. But I do realize that’s not for everyone, and some of you are absolute clean freaks.
If that’s you, then the MC401 is the best boost pedal out there hands down.
It’s a pretty simple design, you get one on/off switch, and a variable gain control giving you up to 20dB of boost.
Considering every 10dB is a doubling in perceived volume, that essentially means the MC401 can boost your guitar’s volume by up to 4x!
Best Modulation Pedals
Some pedals, like noise gates and tuners, pretty much all do the same thing.
Modulation pedals on the other hand vary greatly. Not only are there a bunch of different types, from chorus to phaser to flanger, each modulation pedal and each category can sound crazy different.
Here are a few of the best modulation pedals in each category.
Best Flanger Pedal: Boss BF-3
Boss, an aptly-named pedal manufacturer, is pretty much the boss of guitar pedals.
Of all the flanger pedals out there, this Boss BF-3 is the most classic (classicest?), and is by far the best flanger on the market, thanks to its five different modes of operation.
Best Phaser Pedal: MXR EVH Eddie Van Halen Phase 90
If there’s any one guitarist who is known for sick phaser riffs, it’s Eddie Van Halen.
The MXR EVH Phase 90 is the best and simplest phaser, with just one knob for speed and a single button (script) for further sound manipulation. Other than, of course, the on/off switch.
Best Tremolo Pedal: Wampler Latitude Deluxe
Tremolo is a pretty basic effect, but Wampler takes it up about seven notches with the Latitude Deluxe.
With knobs for speed, space, depth, level, and attack, you can craft the perfect tremolo effect for every track. Oh, it also has a dedicated tap tempo switch, which I just can’t get enough of.
Best Vibrato Pedal: Boss Waza Craft VB-2W
Another entry here from Boss is the VB-2W, which is a Waza Craft pedal.
Waza Craft is a team-up deal between Boss and Japanese guitarist Shinji Wajima, delivering the ultimate boss tone experience.
Best Chorus Pedal: Walrus Audio Julia
Walrus Audio might sound like a somewhat out there brand name for a guitar pedal manufacturing company, but their pedals are just as out there!
The Julia (god knows where that name comes from) is a fully-analog chorus pedal with a tonne of features, like selectable analog waveform controls!
It even has a vibrato mode, which is why the Walrus Audio Julia is the best chorus pedal out there.
Best Noise Gate: ISP Technologies Decimator II G String
Just a few short years ago, everyone was raving about the Boss NS-2.
I really don’t get what the big deal is.
I mean, I love Boss pedals, but I’ve found the NS-2 to be kind of a piece of crap.
Enough about that old thing though, because the ISP Technologies Decimator II G String is here.
It’s a pretty stupidly long name, so I’m just going to call it the Decimator from here on it, despite there being a few different kinds of Decimator…
What makes this Decimator the best noise gate then?
Well, it’s a single-knob pedal, which usually gets me a little concerned when we’re talking about dynamics pedals, as I usually want access to attack and decay times. But somehow, the Decimator just kills these aspects without needing to tweak them, so I’m totally okay with the one-knob approach.
It also has two inputs and outputs, which aren’t for stereo, they’re for processing in a series.
That means you can have the Decimator in front of your amp and in the effects loop.
That’s how I tend to use it, especially when I’m working with high gain amps like a 5150. I’ll have the first version of the gate happening straight after my tuner so it’s tackling string noise, and then the second one right at the start of the effects loop, dealing to the insane noise that these high gain preamps put out.
Best Multi-FX Pedal: Line6 HX
As you can tell, there are a lot of different kinds of pedals.
You’re probably thinking one of two things:
- I’m gonna need a higher paying job
- I’m gonna need more floor space
Acutallt, you’re probably thinking both.
Well, there’s another solution: multi-fx pedal.
These are basically all-in-one floor units that do everything you need them to.
Line6 has pretty much the leading manufacturer in this game for here’s, starting the first generation of POD pedals (weird looking red boxes), moving into larger POD HDs, and now into their flagship Helix.
The Line6 HX is like the dumbed down version of the Helix, which is focused on the effects that the Helix has, but without all the amp simulation.
If you’re trying to find just one pedal that will do it all, and do it all excellently, let it be the Line6 HX.
Whether you’re after a simple delay, or a whole slew of modulation pedals, there’s something in here for everyone.
The big problem is, which one are you going to buy first?
Obviously, it depends on exactly what you’re looking to get, but if you’re simply looking to get started, here’s my recommendation: start with a delay.
Delay pedals are incredibly versatile, create a very obvious difference, and are the best option for a first guitar pedal.