Guitar Effects: An Infographic History and Breakdown

1930s: The first effect came built into Rickenbacker’s Vibrola Spanish Guitar. It used a motorized pulley system to modify pitch, creating the first floating tremolo bridge.

1940s: Guitarists DIY-ed early effects, though most were only possible in the recording studio.

  • Les Paul manipulated reel-to-reel tape to add echo effects.
  • Duane Eddy created a studio reverb/echo chamber using a 500-gallon water tank outfitted with a microphone and speaker.

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By the late ’40s, amp makers started including gain and reverb, utilized by guitarists like Roy Orbison and Chet Atkins to make a “Slapback” effect.

  • First tremolo amp: Gibson GA-50T and Premier ’66’ (1948)
  • First spring reverb amp: EchoSonic (1950)

1946: Release of first commercial stand-alone guitar effect (Trem Trol 800 Tremolo).

  • The guitar’s signal passed through a glass jar of electrolytic fluid. The pedal’s motor would shake the jar, making the signal fluctuate.
  • Used famously by: Bo Diddley (“Diddley Daddy”, “Pretty Thing”), Muddy Waters (“Flood”)

1950s: Guitarists discover distortion (for the most part completely by accident).

  • ’50s power chord master Pat Hare achieved distortion by turning the volume knob “all the way to the right until the speaker was screaming”.
  • Link Wray reportedly stabbed a hole in his amp’s speaker for the distortion on “Rumble”.
  • Willie Kizert (Ike Turner and the Rhythm Kings) found the first fuzz effect after dropping his Fender Bassman amp on a rainy street, blowing a tube.

1956: First intentional guitar distortion attributed to a 1956 recording from Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio.

  • Marshall Amplification soon followed with the Marshall 1963, the first amp to intentionally produce distortion.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, stand-alone effects gained popularity. Powered by vacuum tubes, they were bulky, expensive, and fragile, limiting their use

  • Gibson GAV-I: first popular stand-alone vibrato
  • Fend Reverb Box: first popular stand-alone reverb (released 1961)
  • Watkins Copicat: first portable tape echo effect (released in 1958, popularized by The Shadows)

1960s: The first transistor-powered pedals hit the market. Cheaper, lighter, and more stable, these pedals made effects available to more players

  • Maestro Fuzz Tone, 1962: marketed by Gibson, made famous by Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”)
  • The Clyde McCoy, 1967: First wah-wah pedal, made by Warwick Electronics
  • Octavio, 1967: First octave effect, Named by Jimi Hendrix and made by Jim Morris of Kelsey-Morris Sound
  • Uni-Vibe, 1968: marketed by Univox and based off the Leslie rotating speaker, made famous by Jimi Hendrix

1970s: Effects pedals skyrocketed in popularity. The options expanded and solidified into the basic categories you’ll still find today:

Signal alterations: Narrows or expands the signal’s tone or level

  • Boost: raises signal level
  • Compression: narrows tone range
  • Volume: Pedal volume operation for swells and fades
  • Noise gate: Hides sound going into amp when guitar is silent

Distortion: Mimics the sounds of damaged or overdriven vacuum tubes

  • Overdrive: sound of tube amps pushed to their limit
  • Fuzz: Replicates buzzy tone of a busted vacuum tube
  • Digital distortion: alters waveform and boosts levels

Modulation: Changes the pitch or frequency of the signal

  • Vibrato: Quick, subtle pitch changes (can be produced manually using whammy bars)
  • Tremolo: Quick, subtle dynamic changes
  • Octave: Signal output up or down an octave
  • Phaser: Signal is split and played back at different wavelengths
  • Flange: More sweeping form of phaser
  • Ring modulator: Signal is split and internal oscillator makes math-based alterations

Time-based effects: Duplicates original signal, often with modifications

  • Echo: Adds echo to signal
  • Reverb: Multiple echoes with different decay rates emulates sense of space
  • Chorus: Signal duplicated and slightly detuned to sound like multiple players
  • Delay: Signal played back after short pause
  • Reverse delay: Signal reversed then played back
  • Loop: Full phrases recorded and layered

Filter Effects: Alters select frequencies

  • Equalizer (EQ): Boost or low specific frequencies or ranges
  • Wah-Wah: Filter or compress select frequencies to create crying sound
  • Envelope filter: Folds sound back on itself
  • Talk box: Links guitar sound to vocals
A Beginner's Guide To Guitar Effects Pedals...Effect Types Explained!

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