Cause & Effects – What’s the best first guitar pedal to start off with?

Everyone loves pedals, but getting into the wonderful world of stompboxes can be daunting – our resident effects artisan mulls over the question, which should you buy first?

First guitar pedal to buy

Image: Getty Images

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For many guitarists pulling on the thread of guitar effects feels like a daunting proposition. I know it was back when I bought my first pedal. I took the plunge and went for it, but I made a LOAD of mistakes along the way that cost me a ton of money and time.

It’s good to learn from your own mistakes, but it is better to learn from other people’s. To that end, please enjoy this rundown of how I got started and what drove me to make my own pedals.

False starts

Back in early 2003 I was looking for my first effects pedal, and my priority above all was value for money. My guitar was an Encore Strat-a-like (plywood body) and my amp was a solid-state practice combo with an 8-inch speaker. With that in mind, imagine my amazement when I found a guitar pedal that could do it all… 24 presets, delay, reverb, drive, modulation this titan of a pedal, the venerable Zoom 505 could do it all. I’m not alone in this purchase, the 505 was bought in the thousands by guitarists all over the world. My time with it was particularly brief.

It wasn’t that the 505 was terrible, it was just clearly aimed at providing a variety of sounds that approximate the things they say they do. The problem for me was I could hear that the pedal just didn’t sound accurate, particularly when it came to distortion and fuzz.
The decision was made to augment the 505 with a Big Muff NYC fuzz to the mix. And this is where the wheels began to come off for me. The Muff overwhelmed the practice amp as the 8-inch speaker couldn’t cope with the wall of fuzz!

I knew it should sound better than it did, so I tried it in a bigger solid-state amp (a Roland Cube) but still the result was underwhelming. I decided that I couldn’t get the sounds I wanted, consequently in frustration I ripped up the whole shebang and started again.

Roland Micro Cube GX
Image: Roland

My first pedal rig

Having changed my amp to Marshall valve combo I felt the time was right to give the effects pedals another go, only this time I wanted to go fully analogue. My decision was based entirely off my experience with the 505, so maybe not the best example of what digital effects could achieve. Either way though, the decision was made.

Tempted by the Boss DS-1 (I fancied sounding like Joe Satriani) I went to buy a Boss DS-1 and immediately got side-tracked into buying a Keeley modified DS-1. Turned out the Keeley-modded DS-1 was incredible and so I sought out more of his pedals what followed were several deliveries including a modified TS8-08, MT-2, and Keeley’s first smash hit original pedal, the four-knob Compressor. By the end of that year, I had four Keeley pedals and I was very happy with my board, but there remained a thirst to try as many pedals as I could.

Boss DS-1

The aftermath

Robert Keeley (through his awesome pedals) had shown me the light, I now knew what modified pedals could sound like and how good they could be over the standard items.
Whilst pursuing as many pedals as I could to audition etc I started to investigate vintage pedals with germanium fuzz and boost being a particular favourite. Unable to stretch to vintage prices I decided to go down the DIY route. This became an obsession and over a period of years I built as many circuits as I could, this led me to where I am now. So, my pedal journey ended up being much more immersive than I thought it would be when I started!

So what should you buy?

All this is to say that buying the right pedals for you is very important and can, in some extreme cases lead to one day owning a successful boutique pedal business! So with that in mind, what would I recommend for those just starting out? Well, I’d approach the problem in a more subtle and nuanced manner than I did, and consider the following:

  • Firstly, write down what your musical influences are.
  • What do you like to listen to?
  • What do you like to play?
  • What sound are you after that your amp cannot deliver/needs improving upon?
  • Where are you likely to play?
  • What’s your budget?
Boutique Guitar Pedals
Image: Getty Images

After doing this, find the time to go to a shop and try the pedals first hand with your guitar if you can. If this isn’t possible spend time watching and listening to any online demos you can. Try to balance the videos between those with slick production and those at the more amateur end of the scale. This will give you the best chance of getting closer to an understanding of how the pedal will sound over a wide range of use cases.

The other thing is to try to separate what you are seeing on the pedal from what you are hearing. A good example of this is how we (and I’m sure others too) design our pedals. We try and make them so that even the extremes of the knobs work as much as possible. Try not to park your knobs at 12, play your guitar and adjust the knobs without looking at the position. This way it’s the sound you choose as opposed to some psychological limit predetermined by where your eyes think they should be.

Pedals are a lot of fun to use, they can add colour, interest, and magic to your sound. If you choose to integrate them into your rig slowly and deliberately, you’ll have more success than operating a scattergun approach to making pedal choices. Either way, enjoy.

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