How To Use Guitar Pedals – Beginners Guide | 2022

Almost every brand from guitar to amp manufacturers are making pedals today. With this many available, it’s very easy to get confused as to how they need to be used. There are many types, from distortion and overdrives, to delays and reverb.

Each type has a huge benefit to your sound and performance, but using guitar effects incorrectly can be disastrous! So it’s very important to learn how to use guitar pedals correctly.

Not every one will work in just any position, either. The placement in the chain will need to be correct to utilize them to their full potential. A designer has gone to great lengths for you to enjoy this device, you may as well use it correctly.

How Do Effects Pedals Work?

Guitar effects pedals work by altering the signal that is sent to their input based on the circuit design. Some effects pedals are designed to add modulation, reverberation, or even delay sounds to the original signal. Once this processing is done, the modified signal is then sent from the pedal output to the next device in the chain.

There are other effects pedals that create distortion or overdrive sounds by clipping the signal like a high gain amplifier. This can then sound like really aggressive rock and roll or metal sounds to fit that genre of music.

Guitar effects pedals are a great way to create different sounds and add more versatility to your music. Many professional guitarists play them, as they are hard to beat when it comes to originality in tone. No matter what kind of music you play, some pedals are a perfect fit on the market today.

How To Use Guitar Pedals

Guitar pedals are used correctly when they are connected according to their design, and powered using the right supply. Optimal results are obtained when they are connected together according to the effect they provide. 

Effects pedals are to be inserted into your guitar signal path at certain points. This could mean using some in the effects loop of your amplifier. Sometimes it means connecting them between your guitar or amplifier. This way, when you play, you get the best sound.

Manufacturers also provide instructions and best practices when it comes to using your effects. This is the best way to use guitar pedals.

It’s very possible to connect guitar pedals incorrectly. Even powering them wrong could damage it! And so it’s best to learn how to use them before proceeding to connect them. This way you will know exactly how to use it, then it’s just a matter of adjusting it to find your sound!

How To Set Up Guitar Effects

We will assume you have already decided on an effect pedal or even a few to buy. Perhaps you already have them and know what sounds you are looking to obtain. It’s just a matter of learning how to connect them.

There are a number of ways to connect effects pedals to other devices, but in this guide we will focus on using them with an amplifier.

This is the most common way guitar players use their effects pedals. So if you are following along, you will have a few devices ready to be connected together.

  • Guitar
  • Amplifier
  • Effect Pedals
  • Instrument cables

Your instrument cables will plug into the input and output jacks on the sides or top of your guitar pedal.

How To Use Guitar Pedals

How To Connect Your Effects To Your Guitar and Amp

Connecting a guitar to an amplifier is quite easy. Simply plug the cable into the instrument at one end and the amplifier input at the other. Then you are ready to rock! But when putting a guitar effects pedal into the chain, or perhaps a few of them, you will need multiple cables.

Most guitar pedals have their input on the right side. You can pretty much consider this universal among them. And so if you are the type of person who normally likes things from left to right, you may be disappointed here.

So it’s good to just remember that this is the input side. Even if yours has top mounted jacks, the right side will be your input. It’s always best to consult your user manual to verify this, just in case you have a boutique unit that doesn’t follow this rule.

Once you have verified this, you would then connect your guitar to the input using a fairly long instrument cable. You will want to obtain an instrument cable that is at minimum 10 feet long. Anything shorter will just prove to be an annoyance.

The other jack is the output. This jack is going to send a modified signal to the amplifier. Again, you will want to connect the output jack on your guitar pedal to the input jack on your amplifier.

Depending on how far away your amplifier is, this will determine what length of cable you will need. It doesn’t hurt to have a 15 to 25 foot cable for this role.

And that is it! You’re now connected and ready to send a signal correctly! We call this a mono connection. Next, we will look at connecting multiple units together. Then later on in the article we will look at powering them as you learn how to use guitar pedals.

Using Multiple Guitar Pedals

Now that you know how to connect one pedal to your rig, let us look at multiple. The thing about them is that you can never really stop at one. There are some great sounds available that normally a player will build a board full of them.

And so we will want you to know how to connect your new board together and use your amp. In our example, we will again use what we learned above. All inputs are on the right side of the pedals and the outputs on the left. This will allow us to connect them one to the other quite easily.

One will simply flow into the other. This will help keep our connectivity clean. But we can’t use a 10-foot instrument cable this time, otherwise we will have a mess of them.

In this case, we will want to obtain what are called pedal board cables. Some people call them patch cables, and rightfully so. But even your 25-footers are called that too, so we will refer to them as effect board cables. They are a necessary effects pedal accessories.

These cables are much shorter and are used to connect guitar pedals together without a mess of extra due to length. These cables keep your set-up clean and tidy.

So in this example, we will connect 3 together. Your device list to do this cleanly should look like this:

  • Guitar
  • Amplifier
  • 3 Effects
  • 2 pedal board cables
  • 2 – 15 foot instrument cables

You will once again connect your guitar to the first unit in the chain with a longer instrument cable. In this case, we will pretend it’s a tuner model. The tuner will then connect to the next pedal in the chain using an effect board cable.

Remember, the input is on the right side and the output is on the left. You will proceed to connect all the pedals together in this fashion until the only thing left is to hook up the chain to the amplifier with the final instrument cable.

That’s it! With pedals that have only 2 jacks, it really is that easy. If you are using noise gates that have 4 jacks and must be used for optimal results, then you will need to learn about the 4 cable method. But let’s keep it simple for now as you learn how to use guitar pedals.

Guitar pedal connection diagram

Connecting Stereo Guitar Pedals

Alternatively, there are guitar effects that are designed to also work in stereo and mono. These pedals will also have 3 to 4 jacks and allow the player to use it for a stereo set up. In order to take advantage of the stereo capabilities, you will need either 2 amplifiers, or one that provides this option. 

There are some solid state amps that provide stereo connectivity and will make it easy to use. But for the average player, running the pedal in mono is good enough, especially if this is all new to you. Keep it simple for now.

How To Connect To Power

Now that you have your signal connections figured out, it’s time to learn how to power them. There are 2 methods of powering a guitar effects, external supply or a battery. Most will allow you to use both methods, but there are some that do not.

It will be important to find out how your pedals will need to be powered by reading the user manual. This way, you will know the most convenient way for you to power them.

Choosing an External Unit

An external supply is probably the most convenient way of powering them. There are many pedal power supplies on the market that provide multiple outputs as well as current capabilities. This is what many players who use large boards will configure to properly power their effects. You may also hear this described as a pedal power brick.

Also, available are simple one unit power adapters. If you are using one, and it must be powered with an external unit, this will be your best bet. There are many adapters on the market designed for guitar effects, but there are some things that need to be known before selecting a supply.

A pedal power supply must match the requirements of the unit. There are 3 main parameters to verify:

  • Voltage Output
  • Current Capabilities and Direction
  • Barrel Connector configuration

Most will run happily on 9 volts DC by design. And so most adapters for guitar effects will output 9 volts DC. Sometimes a pedal will also be capable of running on a higher voltage, but the standard is 9V DC. Direct Current or DC is the most common direction of current, and so it’s also another important thing to keep in mind. 

Guitar pedal connections

There are also AC supplies on the market, and you don’t want to get this mixed up unless the unit calls for it. It’s less common, but there are some that do require AC, this is good to keep in mind as you learn how to use guitar pedals.

The pedals will also have a specific current requirement. Depending on the technology built into the effect, it might require more current to operate correctly. This might be printed on the case, but it is important to know this before buying a power supply.

Most will operate between 15 and 100 milli-amps (MA). But there are some that require more. Purchasing a power supply that cannot meet the demand will simply burn out in time. So make sure the supply can provide either exactly current the pedal needs or slightly over.

Pedal polarity diaagram

The barrel jack configuration is the final thing you need to verify. This is the power input connection on the pedal. It has 2 connection points that need to be wired correctly, as this is how effects work.

The pin and the sleeve. Most are wired to accept a center pin negative configuration. But the opposite is also available and can be plugged in as well by mistake.

If this polarity is reversed from what the model needs, damage to the unit is the result. So this needs to be right. So if these 3 power requirements are met, you are good to go!

Choosing Batteries as a Supply

While a lot of guitar pedals are moving away from using batteries, there are still a lot that will accept them as a power source. Batteries are fine when they are fully charged, but as time goes on and the battery drains, it will affect the performance of the pedal. Even when above half charge, the effect might start to sound different.

Then there is also the chance that the battery dies when you are performing. The last thing you need is the battery to die or be dead when you get to a gig. This is so common, it’s one of the primary reasons that musicians move to external power units.

Plus, batteries are drained quite rapidly in a guitar pedal, this only adds to waste created and headed to landfills.

So while batteries do have their place, they should only be considered in pedals that don’t get a ton of use. A better solution is to use a rechargeable battery system. If you are quite set on using batteries, then a system that you can recharge is your best bet.

Turning Pedals On and Off

Now that we have our effects hooked up and powered, we can begin using them. In order to turn them on and off, they have been equipped with foot switches. Normally located at the base of the top face, pressing this switch will activate the pedal.

Pressing it again will deactivate it. Some will have two-foot switches for different sections or effects. In some designs, you will find perhaps a boost section and drive section built into the same pedal. This will normally require two-foot switches.

There are many designs that offer players a great deal of functionality. One thing to be true in all designs, the foot switches are your means of turning them on and off. This is one of the more obvious things, as you will realize when you learn how to use guitar pedals.

True Bypass Vs Buffered

When looking at buying your first guitar pedals, you will notice some are described as being true bypass, while others are buffered. This means that when the effect is turned off, one of these two conditions exists.

True bypass means that when the pedal is turned off, the guitar signal is sent through the mechanical foot switch, not using any of the circuitry inside. With a true bypass model, it’s as if the unit isn’t even in the signal chain when turned off. True bypass circuitry will never alter the sound.

Buffered on the other hand means the circuit is still part of the guitar signal chain. It’s just not producing the effect in this state. But with a buffered model, if you were to hit it with a boost, there is a good chance that the pedal would affect the sound when turned off.

Whereas a true bypass would not. A benefit of a buffered bypass is that it lowers the impedance, allowing for a stronger guitar signal. Some buffered types alter the sound slightly at the expense of this benefit, some do not.

True bypass is usually preferred in distortions, overdrives and boosts. But buffered has its place too.

Adjust the Controls On a Guitar Effects Pedal

Along with the ability to turn them on and off, most guitar effects come with controls to alter how they sound and perform. These controls, normally knobs and toggle switches, allow the guitar player to modify gain levels, EQ settings and volume, for example.

When using your pedals for the first time, it’s always a good idea to consult the manual to learn about the different functions. These controls are what you need to use to get the sound in your head.

With a bit of time and tweaking, you will find that these units have some great range and can offer you a lot of different sounds. So spend some quality time with them.

Guitar Pedal Order By Effect

Now that you know how to connect and power your guitar effect, as well as turn them on and off, it’s good to know how they will interact with each other.

Some effects will need to go before or after others to get the optimal sound they are designed to produce. A distortion, for example, will chew up a delay effect, making it sound incorrect.

What I mean by this is that a distortion “clips” your guitar’s sound. If the delay is placed before the distortion pedal, the benefit it adds will also be clipped. You won’t end up with a great sounding delay, but a clipped, chewed up tone. 

So it’s good to know how to create the perfect pedal chain. This will help you get the best possible tone from your rig. Here is how you would want to place your essential guitar pedals, starting with the first effect the guitar will plug into.

  • Tuner
  • Volume (Sometimes built into the tuner)
  • Wah
  • Compressor
  • Distortions and overdrives (Sometimes gate pedal with distortions)
  • EQ Pedals
  • Modulation (chorus, tremolo etc.)
  • Reverb and delay effects pedal
  • Boost

If you start out with this order, you are more than likely going to have good results. Some of these pedals can work in different areas, like the volume and boost. And sometimes you may even be using your effects loop on your amp for time based stuff.

This is especially important with your time based and modulation effects. If you are using a high gain amplifier, then you will want to use your effects loop for them. But as you learn how to use guitar pedals, things will continue to make more sense.

FAQs

It takes time to learn how to use guitar pedals. Here are some commonly asked questions.

Does the order of guitar pedals matter?

Yes, the order of your guitar pedals matters. When put in the wrong order, the quality of the sound they produce could be compromised. This is because a distortion pedal will clip the sound it receives and alters what it then sends back out.

In a lot of cases, the sound is not good. And so, if you find that your sound is poor when running multiple guitar pedals, you may want to try a new arrangement.

Do you step on a guitar pedal?

Yes, a majority of guitar pedals are activated by stepping on the foot switch. There are some that do not require this, as they are normally always active. But if there is a foot switch on the pedal, it requires you to step on it.

Sometimes, some pedals will have more than one switch. This allows you to also turn on and off other functions, which can be great for versatility!

What do foot pedals do for guitar?

Guitar effect pedals are used to alter the clean sound of your instrument. By doing this you can add things like reverb, or delay, and even high gain distortion. You can even change the frequencies and create different sounds.

They add new sounds to a guitar’s output that are a lot of fun to use and are great accessories

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear.I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!