For well over half a century, guitarists of every stripe have been stomping on effects pedals to take their sound to a higher plane. Over time, some of these units have stood out from the crowd and become recognised as the most iconic, the most influential and the most sought-after guitar effects of all. You’ll find them on hit records, at the feet of the biggest-selling artists ever, and maybe even on your pedalboard, too. Let’s hit the floor…
It might not be a pedal in the conventional sense, but rest assured the world of electric guitar would be very different if it wasn’t for this nondescript little box. Designed to sit atop an amplifier, the Rangemaster Treble Booster was created to cut through the mush of dark-toned amps and murky 1960s live stages, yet guitarists soon found it was capable of something much more interesting.
In the days before dedicated drive pedals and hot pickups, treble boosters were a hit because guitarists realised they could help push a valve amp into glorious overdrive and singing sustain. Clapton’s revolutionary Bluesbreakers tone? Legend has it that a Dallas Rangemaster was involved in driving Eric’s JTM45 for those ‘Beano’ sessions. And then, of course, there’s Brian May – influenced by Rory Gallagher, the Rangemaster’s most famous disciple couldn’t live without his little box (pictured above), as the Queen legend told us in 2016: “I plugged my Red Special and a Rangemaster that I’d found into one of these amps [his Vox AC30] and the sound was just there. It had that depth, the overtones, the sustain, and the throaty splutter. I just knew that it was the sound I’d always been looking for, so we bought two at £25 each, took them home and that was it.”
Affordable alternative: Electro-Harmonix Screaming Bird
The BigSky has exploded in popularity since it was first launched in 2013, bringing studio-quality reverb to pedalboards with a remarkable amount of control, flexibility and truly inspiring sounds. The team behind the BigSky contains some of the modelling masterminds who had created the Line 6 Stompbox Modeler range a decade previously, and the ethos behind Strymon’s big-box pedal is similar, but more refined. The key factor is its 333MHz SHARC processor – a chip more commonly seen in studio and rackmount units – that gives the BigSky the DSP horsepower to almost endlessly refine 12 onboard reverb algorithms.
In addition to traditional offerings such as Hall, Plate, Spring and Room, you get modes that sprinkle anything you play with a heavenly sheen. There’s the utterly beautiful Cloud – a huge ambient reverb that works like a ‘better switch’ – and Chorale, which emulates an ensemble of human voices accompanying your playing. Shimmer adds highly adjustable pitch-shifted tones, while Swell brings the reverb or dry signal in gradually like a volume pedal. With 300 presets, the BigSky is well designed for live use, too, and all in all, it’s no wonder many players consider it to be the greatest digital reverb pedal ever made.
Affordable alternative: Strymon blueSky
Only in circulation between 1981 to 1984, the Boss DM-2 now commands a high price on the vintage market. The first delay pedal to use Boss’s compact enclosure, the DM-2 is now a bona-fide classic among pedal enthusiasts. Boss technicians implemented a bucket-brigade device – as opposed to the CDD used previously – in order to shrink the DM-1 circuit into a smaller form factor. Boss tweaked the design on numerous occasions, and there are now considered to be three different versions, all revered for their warm analogue tone. The first version used the MN3005 BBD, which was soon switched to the MN3205 BBD, with the third iteration also seeing different PCB markings. Featuring three dials for Repeat Rate, Echo and Intensity, this analogue tone-machine is able to produce delay times ranging from 30 to 300 milliseconds and its limited frequency response gives the pedal its warm characteristics and enveloping tone.
The DM-2 was discontinued in 1984 and the DM-3 swiftly followed, remaining similar to its predecessor with a few internal tweaks. The DM-3 comes in at a lower price point on the used market, but some prefer the cleaner nature of its repeats.
Affordable alternative: Way Huge Aqua-Puss
MXR Distortion +
When Keith Barr and Terry Sherwood owned an audio-repair shop in Rochester, NY during the early 70s, they were appalled at the standard of the effects their customers were bringing in. They founded MXR pedals and circa 1974, the now legendary M-104, aka Distortion +, was born. Featuring a simple two-knob configuration, no LED and a nine-volt battery, the Distortion + became an overnight success.
Categorised as a mild, fuzzy distortion, the Distortion + allows for cool and raunchy blues tone with the Output cranked and the Distortion set low, all the way up to classic 80s hard-rock tones with the Distortion maxed out. It uses a very simple circuit with a single op-amp and two germanium diodes, while also outputting more gain (46.5dB) than its competitors, namely the BOSS DS-1 (35dB) and Tube Screamer (41dB). The pedal’s simplicity was not without its drawbacks, though, and the first ‘Box Logo Period’ ended in 1981, when LEDs and 1/8-inch mains adaptors were introduced, and have remained ever since. Made famous by Randy Rhoads, most notably on the raucous solo in Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard Of Oz, the Distortion + has ben used by Thom Yorke, Jerry Garcia and Dave Murray.
Famous users: Randy Rhoads, Jerry Garcia, Thom Yorke
Affordable alternative: DOD FX50
The Boss CS-2 is the quintessential floor compressor, and also happens to be a firm office favourite. First introduced in1981, the CS-2 Compression Sustainer was a development on the circuit found in the CS-1, and used a VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier) instead of the photocouplers found in the CS-1. The implementation of the VCA chip sped up the signal processing of the circuit, which in turn made the attack faster than that of the CS-1.
Sounding like a toss-up between a transistor compressor, much like the MXR Dyna Comp, and an optical compressor, the CS-2 gives a sweet and smooth sustain, without pushing your tone into ice-pick territory. Following the success of the CS-3, which was introduced in ’86, the CS-2 was discontinued in 1989, but vintage iterations of this iconic squeezebox can now fetch north of £200 on Reverb.com.
Early versions of the CS-2’s close relative, the CS-3, also featured a similar VCA chip up until the early 1990s, when it switched to a THAT2159. The CS-3 remains Boss’s only compression pedal still in production, yet we remain hopeful for a WAZA Craft reissue of the CS-2 in 2019.
Famous users: David Gilmour, The Edge, Josh Klinghoffer
Affordable alternative: Mooer Yellow Comp
Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress
Designed by David Cockerell and first released in 1976, Electro-Harmonix’s Electric Mistress stereo flanger was the first pedal version of an effect that initially came into being in the 1940s and was discovered by Les Paul, before The Beatles reimagined it using tape machines in the mid-60s. By slowing down one of two playback reel tapes by around 20ms, the time delay causes a flanging effect. The Electric Mistress allowed players to take this tape-manipulating sound out of the studio and onto the bandstand.
The first iterations of the Electric Mistress, housed in Big Muff-sized metal enclosures, were made between 1976-1981 and powered by twin nine-volt batteries. There were numerous design changes, alongside minor changes to the schematic and a varying range of PCBs; the most commonly seen features a large green font. A filter matrix switch was added in 1977 and the introduction of the Deluxe version followed in 1978, sold alongside the standard version until the early 80s. Early models are famed for their fluid characteristics and chorus flanging. Be warned, though, not all were created equal…
Famous users: David Gilmour, J Mascis, Paul Gilbert
Affordable alternative: EHX Stereo Electric Mistress, Mooer ElecLady
Another true classic of the effects world, the Boss DS-1 was first introduced in 1978, a year after the company debuted its compact pedal enclosure. Famous for its low noise and hard edge, the DS-1 initially featured a Toshiba TA7136AP preamp chip, not an op-amp, during its early production days in Japan. This model is easily distinguishable due to its silver screw and long dash. The D in DS-1 also sits neatly under the second ‘T’ in Distortion.
This remained largely unchanged – despite the dramatic integration of a plastic screw in ’81 – for 16 years, until the production plant moved to Taiwan, coinciding with a revision to the DS-1 and a switch to ROHM op-amps. These chips were still manufactured in Japan, but resulted in a lower output and more transparent drive. Its more recent revisions have come within the past two decades: once in 2000, when both the pedal and chip (Mitsubishi op-amp) were made in Taiwan, and finally in 2006, when a New Japan Radio NJM2904L op-amp became the primary chip.
Made famous by Kurt Cobain, most notably as one of the main tone-shapers on Nevermind, this utilitarian distortion has also been utilised by the likes of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and John Frusciante. Cheap, cheerful and ubiquitous, you’d be hard pressed to find a better meat-and-potatoes distortion at this price point.
Affordable alternative: Biyang DS-10
MXR Dyna Comp
If you’re in the market for a transparent, colourless compressor, then you’re advised to look elsewhere. However, if you belong to the school of thought that compressors should add real texture and flavour to your tone, then look no further than this iconic red stompbox from MXR.
Introduced in 1972, the MXR Dyna Comp marked a turning point in the compressor’s move from the studio to the stage floor. Featuring two straightforward Output and Sensitivity controls, for volume and compression respectively, the Dyna Comp became an immediate hit, favoured by the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George, before landing at the feet of David Gilmour and Andy Summers.
Vintage units are prone to producing considerable hiss with both knobs cranked, but some would argue that’s part of their charm. Strum a big open chord and you’ll hear an entirely different tone on top of the expected attack and decay.
Original script-logo Dyna Comps featured a ‘tin can’ CA3080 IC, but this changed due to its scarcity, along with an update to the now-ubiquitous box logo. Both pedals, particularly box-logo models from the early 1970s, have a sound that is close enough that only the keenest compressor aficionados can tell the difference, resulting in a continuation of the classic Dyna Comp sound.
Famous users: Eric Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, Kevin Parker
Affordable alternative: Biyang CO-10, Maxon CP101
MXR Phase 90
MXR’s debut pedal remains its most famous, and with good reason. The little orange box is more than just a phaser, it’s the phaser, and has become totally synonymous with the effect. Don’t believe us? Open up your favourite digital amp-and-effects modelling software and select the phaser – we’ll bet it’s represented by an orange rectangle with rounded-off corners…
The secret of the Phase 90’s success is perhaps rooted in its simplicity – one Rate knob is all you need to take you from subtle shimmering to a thunderous jet-engine roar, and the original units didn’t even complicate matters with such basic embellishments as external power or an on/off LED. Most prized among collectors are the ‘Script’ Phase 90s, which were produced from 1974 through to their switch to the current ‘block’ logo around 1977. It’s a purely cosmetic difference, however, and the two pedals were identical under the hood. Certainly, Eddie Van Halen thought so – the Phase 90’s most famous proponent got his first Phase 90 in the mid 70s and used both block- and script-logo versions during Van Halen’s heyday. The original MXR company went bankrupt in 1984, but Dunlop produces a variety of Phase 90 variants and reissues today.
Famous users: Eddie Van Halen
Affordable alternative: MXR CSP026 ’74 Vintage Phase 90 Reissue
There are few effects pedals as easily recognisable as DigiTech’s Whammy. First introduced in 1989 by IVL Technologies, the now ubiquitous Whammy was a gamechanger in the stompbox world. A simple pitch-shifter controlled by an integrated expression pedal, this revolutionary metal box introduced guitarists to a new world of strange and esoteric guitar playing.
Pitch-shifters are generally octavers that enable pitch bends and shifts in harmony and the Whammy took this to another level by digitally processing these sounds through a range of presets, along with the ability to further manipulate the results with a treadle.
Its popularity also stems from its simple functionality and wide-ranging appeal: it’s been prominently featured by many groundbreaking guitar players, from Jonny Greenwood, Tom Morello and Jack White to John Scofield and Ichirou Agata of Melt-Banana.
Resplendent in Ferrari Red (excluding the Whammy II, which came in a black enclosure), the DigiTech Whammy is now in its seventh iteration – alongside the DigiTech Ricochet and Drop – and continues to give guitar players both young and old a fresh
Affordable alternative: DigiTech Whammy Ricochet
ProCo’s initial intention was to build simple connectors, cables and interface devices. In 1978, however, its resident ‘Hippie In Charge Of Technology’ Scott Burnham accidentally hooked up a 47-ohm resistor to the now-infamous Motorola LM308N op-amp – and the ProCo RAT distortion pedal was born.
Holed up in the basement of his rat-infested Kalamazoo shop in 1978, Burnham and his co-engineer Steve Kiraly built a custom-ordered prototype commonly referred to as the ‘Bud Box’ RAT, of which there were only 12 made, all of them being hand-drilled and featuring a silk-screened logo. With only this dirty dozen ever existing, they’re extremely rare and if you were to stumble across this particular rodent, you should immediately escort it to the Natural History Museum.
Once 1979 had come around, orders had skyrocketed, enabling the ProCo team to mass-produce the RAT we’ve all come to know and love; featuring a bent-steel enclosure, white logo and newly added Filter control. This model is commonly known as the Whiteface RAT.
From spitting fuzz, edgy distortion to searing lead lines, the RAT has left its footprints on some of rock’s most important records since its public release in 1979, including Metallica’s Kill ’Em All, Blur’s self-titled LP and Foo Fighters’ debut.
Affordable alternative: Boss DS-2
Sola Sound/Vox Tone Bender
The Maestro Fuzz-Tone might have been the first widely available fuzz pedal, but its close cousin, the Tone Bender, became a true phenomenon. The Tone Bender was originally designed and made by guitar technician Gary Hurst, who had previously worked for Vox and later for the Macari brothers. Legend has it that session ace Vic Flick (of James Bond theme fame) came into the Macari’s shop complaining his Maestro Fuzz-Tone lacked the sustain he needed, so Hurst offered to build him something better. By taking the Fuzz-Tone circuit and beefing up the voltage from three to nine volts, the result gave Flick the singing sustain he wanted. Soon, other London session men – including Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page – were after one of his wedge-shaped wooden boxes.
Quite how much truth there is in that tale is debatable, but it didn’t take long for the Tone Bender to become a hit. It has been through many iterations, and made under many brand names, including Sola Sound, Colorsound, JMI, Vox and Marshall (as the Supa Fuzz), but whatever the name, it remains a quintessential fuzz.
Affordable alternative: Electro-Harmonix Satisfaction
Though Japanese company Roland had been producing a range of effects pedals since it was established in 1972 by Ikutaro Kakehashi, 1976’s CE-1 Chorus Ensemble has the distinction of being the first effects pedal under the Boss brand, and also the first of any kind to use a Bucket Brigade Device (BBD) chip. Housed in a large ‘baked crackle’ diecast-steel box, which contained the same circuit as Roland’s 1975 JC-60 and JC-120 Jazz Chorus solid-state guitar amps, the stereo-output CE-1 progressively proved a hit with players.
Its success paved the way for Boss’s all-conquering line of compact pedals, including the mono CE-2 in 1979. Boss has continued to update the CE series and in 2016, debuted a modernised CE-2 in its high-end WAZA Craft range.
The CE-1’s sonic signature, offering independent chorus and vibrato modes with just a rudimentary Chorus Intensity control for the former, is most synonymous with Andy Summers of The Police – the distinctive, dynamic musical modulation of the CE-1 (or his JC-120) featured prominently in several early hits. Boss’s chorus practically defines 80s guitar; use a vintage CE-1 today and you may be surprised to find it sounds every bit as beguiling as its successors.
Famous users: Andy Summers, Eric Clapton, Brian May
Affordable alternative: Boss CE-5
Line 6 DL4
There’s an argument to be made that 1999’s Line 6 DL4 is the most important and influential effects pedal of the last 20 years. Line 6 had only been around for three years, and had enjoyed considerable success thanks to its revolutionary POD amp-modelling unit, but the four-switch Stompbox Modeler range represented a concerted effort to invade the pedalboards of serious musicians.
Ostensibly, the Stompbox Modelers did what they said on the tin. Each contained a selection of digital sounds modelled on a library of classic effects units – a concept that was pretty revolutionary back at the turn of the millennium. While the MM4 Modulation Modeler and FM4 Filter Modeler have their fans, the DL4 Delay Modeler became an unprecedented hit, and it wasn’t long before seemingly every guitarist on the planet had this big green box on their pedalboards. Some went even further, basing their entire sound on the DL4’s widescreen atmospheric capabilities and seemingly endless well of inspiration.
The genius of the DL4 lies in its versatility, its fidelity and its intuitive functionality. Created by a crack team of modelling boffins – including Way Huge mainman Jeorge Tripps – the DL4 digitally recreated 16 of the most iconic delay boxes of the past, with a hitherto unseen level of tweakability and flexibility, including tap tempo and three presets. There’s also the oft-forgotten looper function, which allows you to sample, reverse and slow down your repeats as needed. More accurate and versatile units have followed, but there’s something about the way the DL4 works that is enduring, and uniquely inspirational.
Famous users: Jonny Greenwood, Dave Knudson, Dave Konopka
Affordable alternative: TC Electronic Flashback 2
Depending on who you talk to, the Klon Centaur is either the greatest, most useful overdrive ever made, or the worst example of guitarists losing all sense of perspective about how much good tone should cost. This probably wasn’t what Bill Finnegan envisioned when he had the ingenious idea to use a high-fidelity, low-noise preamp in an overdrive pedal back in 1990.
Other innovations include a charge-pump power supply that doubled the operating voltage to increase headroom and a circuit that split the signal into clean and overdrive paths and then recombined them. The result was the Klon Centaur: a wonderful overdrive and boost that offers a widescreen frequency range and addictive touch responsiveness.
For many players, it was the Holy Grail, and as the word spread after its release in 1994, Finnegan could never build enough to satisfy demand. The scarcity of supply (8,000 or so were produced between 1994 and the end of production in 2000) meant that they soon began to skyrocket on the used market.
Centaurs now go for a staggering £1,500-£2,000 ($1,900-$2,500) a pop, and have spawned a whole host of clones (or ‘klones’). If you can afford it and can find one, you won’t want to switch it off.
Famous users: Jeff Beck, John Mayer, Jason Isbell
Affordable alternative: J Rockett Audio Designs Archer
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
As the 70s approached, Mike Matthews had been doing okay producing fuzz pedals for Guild, as well as the original Muff, but wanted something more exciting. “I asked my buddy, Bell Labs designer Bob Myer, to design a unit, one that would have a lot of sustain,” Matthews recalls.
“When I got the prototype from Bob, I loved the long sustain. This was done by cascading the circuit into additional sections, each one clipped by twin diodes. However, when you clip, the tone can be a bit raspy. So, I spent a couple of days changing capacitors to roll off distortion in the highs and eventually found the best long sustaining tone that was a sweet violin-like sound was done by having three capacitors in different parts of the circuit rolling off the rasp… I brought the very first units up to Henry, the boss at Manny’s Music Store on 48th Street, NYC. About a week later, I stopped by Manny’s… and Henry yelled out to me: ‘Hey Mike, I sold one of those new Big Muffs to Jimi Hendrix.’”
Gilmour, Santana and others were early adopters of the Big Muff and the number of players who’ve followed since is almost countless.
Famous users: David Gilmour, Billy Corgan, Thurston Moore
Affordable alternative: Electro-Harmonix Nano Big Muff Pi
Electro-Harmonix Memory Man
The original Memory Man was released in 1976, and while nobody is quite sure
if it was the very first analogue delay pedal, it was certainly one of them – and it was also the most successful. The transition from unreliable and cumbersome tape echoes to solid-state delay pedals was a huge benefit to guitarists.
Key to the Memory Man’s success were the warm, thick sounds that came courtesy of the famous ‘bucket brigade’ delay chips inside. The BBD chips were responsible for achieving an analogue warmth and tape-like echo that guitarists fell for, but Electro-Harmonix didn’t stop there. Throughout the late 70s, Mike Matthews and his team continued to develop the pedal with a stereo version (seen here) and arguably its zenith – the now-iconic Deluxe Memory Man.
The DMM took everything that people loved about the original – namely those warm, grainy analogue-delay sounds – and added a suite of new features to make the pedal even more versatile than before. So in addition to an effected output, the Deluxe also sported an output for the dry signal, and there was a Level control to tweak the intensity of the effect. Perhaps most notably, there was also the ‘Chorus/Vibrato’ knob – twisting this one way or the other would add varying degrees of modulation to your delayed sound.
The Deluxe Memory Man has been used by scores of guitarists over the years, but none more famously than U2’s The Edge, who remarked that: “Suddenly, everything changed…” when he first plugged in to one – as War famously demonstrates.
Famous users: The Edge, Ed O’Brien, Mike Einziger
Affordable alternative: Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy
Arbiter Fuzz Face
With its distinctive circular enclosure, the Fuzz Face is one of the most recognisable (if a tad impractical) effects pedals ever – and it’s also one of the most influential. First created by Arbiter Electronics in 1966, the Fuzz Face has one of the most simple and affordable fuzz circuits you could imagine, but they also sound sublime – just ask Jimi Hendrix.
Two distinct flavours of original Fuzz Faces existed – the early ones used germanium transistors, while later examples switched to BC108 silicon transistors. Germanium models have a sound that’s generally regarded as being warmer and fatter, while the latter has a more cutting and brighter tone.
A silicon Fuzz Face was famously used by David Gilmour on the all-conquering behemoth The Dark Side Of The Moon, while Hendrix used both germanium and silicon models in his career – though he also struggled with the Fuzz Face’s notorious unreliability. This hasn’t stopped the venerable pedal occupying a place in rock ’n’ roll history, however, and that famous round pedal, now owned by the Dunlop company, is still in production today, in a variety of model types – including signature Hendrix versions.
Famous users: Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Duane Allman
Affordable alternative: Jim Dunlop Fuzz Face Mini
Dunlop Cry Baby
The easily copied nature of electronic circuits means the history of many effects pedals can be quite complicated – and so it is with the most iconic wah of all, the Cry Baby. The wah pedal was first designed by Vox/Thomas Organ Company employee Bradley Plunkett in 1966, and came to the market the following year as the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal – endorsed by the famous jazz trumpeter, on the insistence of Thomas Organ/Vox boss Joe Benaron, who thought it should be a trumpet pedal. This didn’t detract from the pedal’s popularity with guitar players, however, and Vox was soon marketing it in both the UK and the USA. These early wahs were beloved by many players, not least Jimi Hendrix, but they were often unreliable and inconsistent. Enter Jim Dunlop.
In the early 1980s, Thomas Organ had stopped making the Cry Baby and had the brand up for sale. Seeing an opportunity to expand Dunlop Manufacturing’s remit from accessories to effects, Jim bought the brand and, alongside engineer Sam McRae, set about fixing many of the build and reliability issues, while preserving the all-important tone. The reborn Cry Baby remains a staple effect, and Dunlop claims it’s the best-selling pedal in the world…
Affordable alternative: Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby
Ibanez Tube Screamer
If you’re reading this, chances are that at some point in your life, you’ve owned an Ibanez Tube Screamer. There might be one of the iconic little green boxes on your pedalboard right now, or one of the countless copies, clones and modded recreations that have been produced over the years – such is the ubiquity of Ibanez’s most successful guitar pedal.
Designed by Susumu Tamura (an employee of the Nisshin company, who designed and manufactured pedals for Ibanez at this time) to compete with the popular Boss OD-1 and MXR Distortion +, the Tube Screamer had several distinctions that made that original TS808 a very different animal. Key among these is the symmetrical clipping pattern – meaning that the top and bottom of the soundwave distort in the same way – compared to the ostensibly more ‘tube like’ asymmetrical clipping of the OD-1. The Tube Screamer also sported a tone control, and perhaps most importantly, an integrated-circuit chip instead of a transistor.
Talk to a Tube Screamer aficionado, and it won’t be long before they start talking about IC chips – original TS808s and early TS-9s used the JRC4558D op-amp chip, and many users contend that it’s this that gives those original Tube Screamers the sweet, vocal midrange they became famous for. Many variants of the Tube Screamer have followed, often with different chips – including the later TS-9 and TS-10 variants – but something all Tube Screamers have in common is the wonderful and musical manner in which they drive a valve amp, and the way their famous ‘mid hump’ tightens flabby bottom-end and helps you cut through a band mix.
From Stevie Ray Vaughan to Steve Vai and everyone in between, the Tube Screamer is a near-universal weapon in any guitarist’s pedal arsenal, and the greatest overdrive pedal of them all. If you only own one stompbox, it’s probably a Tube Screamer.
Famous users: Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, Gary Moore
Affordable alternative: Ibanez TS808 Reissue