The best guitar pedals in 2023: ten essential stompboxes
These ten pedals are guaranteed to kickstart any pedal collection.
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Looking to populate a pedalboard? There are countless brilliant effects pedals out there right now, but if you’re not quite sure what your next purchase should be, you can’t go wrong with any of these: a pedalboard consisting of just these ten pedals would be able to cover pretty much any genre under the sun.
Importantly, though, this is not an extensive list. In reality there’s no such thing as the single best pedal in any given category – but, we’ve tried to represent the tip of the iceberg of each, with pedals that show what their style of stompbox can bring to the sonic table. There’s a reason pedal fans are obsessive collectors: each avenue of effects opens up a huge labyrinth to explore!
Ten essential stompboxes, at a glance:
- Earthquaker Devices Plumes
- ProCo RAT
- Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
- JHS Supreme
- Keeley Compressor Plus
- MXR Phase 90
- Walrus Audio Julianna
- Strymon Cloudburst
- Boss RE-2
- Line 6 DL-4
Soft-clipping overdrive: Earthquaker Devices Plumes
The Earthquaker Devices Plumes is the brand’s own take on the iconic ‘green’ flavour of overdrive, that is, based on the classic Tubescreamer circuit. But the Plumes is more than just a clone: it adds in cleaner buffers, extra clipping options and more headroom to create an extra-versatile overdrive. The Plumes’ soft-clipping nature and focused midrange push means it’s great for adding a clear, singing drive to a clean amplifier, or for pushing a gainy amp into tight, chugging distortion without adding mud. As an added benefit, it feels very much like a boutique clone but there’s no sign of a boutique price-tag here!
Today’s best deals on the Earthquaker Devices Plumes
Hard-clipping distortion: ProCo RAT
The ProCo RAT is an affordable classic, and currently will set you back well under $/£100. It’s very versatile, with everything from bright crunch to grungy pseudo-fuzz just a couple of knob-turns away. The distortion is created by an op-amp boosting the signal, and then slicing off the top and bottom of the waveform with silicon diodes connected to ground – hence, hard-clipping. The result is a more compressed and aggressive distortion than a soft-clipper like the Plumes. If you want to know what pure pedal distortion can offer, the RAT is a great place to start.
Today’s best deals on the ProCo RAT
High-gain fuzz: Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
Is the RAT leaving you wanting even more sonic chaos? Well, you’re probably in need of a fuzz. The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi is a famously high-gain fuzz, which can immediately take any clean sound and turn it into a big wall of noise. The classic Big Muff Pi is still available, but its scooped sound and huge enclosure might not be for every player: luckily, EHX has reissued it in nano pedal form, alongside a load of its variants, some of which have a lot more midrange if you prefer a pokier sound.
Today’s best deals on the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
Vintage octave fuzz: JHS Supreme
The Big Muff is a great fuzz, but for some, it doesn’t exhibit the spluttery, broken weirdness that really sets apart ‘fuzz’ from ‘distortion’. The JHS Supreme – an updated take of the Univox Super Fuzz – is much more in the tradition of vintage octave-fuzz, with a ripping, velcro-like sound, and plenty of harmonic strangeness. The tone switch adjusts the midrange character, while the ‘mode’ switch ups the presence of the upper octave and boosts the output to modern levels.
Today’s best deals on the JHS Supreme
Compression: Keeley Compressor Plus
Ok, things have been very distorted for a while now – let’s clean things up. A compressor can be an essential tool on a pedalboard for a bunch of reasons – it can help even out your playing dynamics, increase sustain and just generally ‘sweeten’ a clean sound. Keeley’s Compressor Plus has the added benefit of a blend control, which lets you add back in some uncompressed guitar tone to the mix, giving you the best of both worlds.
Today’s best deals on the Keeley Compressor Plus
Phaser: MXR Phase 90
It’s a classic for a reason, mainly its simplicity. Just one control means no messing about – just great phase tones, straight away. The speed control takes it all the way from slow wooshiness to fast and choppy, but beyond that it’s all set for you. It works amazingly with or without distortion: a classic sound for a reason.
Today’s best deals on the MXR Phase 90
Chorus: Walrus Audio Julianna
The Julianna, the sequel to the wildly successful Julia, could be the first and last chorus pedal you ever buy. It keeps the same lush chorus sounds that propelled the Julia to pedal success, while adding some extra features like tap tempo and a random waveform to
Walrus’ own D-C-V knob adjusts the blend of the modulated signal all the way to fully wet, too, hence dry-chorus-vibrato, because (spoiler alert) a chorus is just a slightly delayed and pitch-modulated signal mixed in with your dry sound.
Today’s best deals on the Walrus Audio Julianna
Ambient reverb: Strymon Cloudburst
Strymon does a lot of things well, but one thing it does particularly well is ambient reverb. The Cloudburst is the company’s most straightforward take on that yet, with no screen and just one footswitch, and a much more compact form factor. But packed into that little enclosure is a massive amount of digital reverb power, ready to provide huge textures, ambient washes and even string-like accompaniment with the ensemble mode.
Today’s best deals on the Strymon Cloudburst
Tape echo: Boss RE-2
Playing through a tape-echo is a great way to reconnect with the guitar tones of yore, the sonic equivalent of laying a hand on an ancient cave painting. But, it’s also a good way to empty your bank account, mainly on repair bills. And so a high-quality digital recreation is a great way to get those sounds without having to lug around something the size of an amp head. And who better to do that Boss/Roland, the makers of the original Space Echo? The RE-2 plonks the excellent tapey warble of the original into Boss’ indestructible compact pedal format.
Today’s best deals on the Boss RE-2
Digital delay: Line 6 DL-4 MkII
Of course, the characteristics of tape isn’t the only thing digital processing can do to delay repeats – the DL-4 is a proudly digital delay unit, and MkII introduced a whole bunch of new modes on top of the original’s idiosyncratic sounds. It’s a really good showcase of what digital can do – from ultra-clean repeats to glitched-out, reversed, modulated weirdness, as well as powerful control features like MIDI, instant preset recall and tap-tempo.