Guitar effects pedals are commonplace nowadays, and if you’ve been playing for a while you are likely to have come across quite a selection. It’s worth remembering, however, that almost all of the effects pedals available today are based on the long history of guitarists messing around with their sound. Guitarists have been doing this for almost as long as the electric guitar has been around, always searching for a new and surprising effect. Let’s take a look at where it all began.
The very first stand-alone effects pedal was produced way back in 1948, the DeArmond Trem Trol 800. Though basic by today’s standards, the device was revolutionary at the time, and still sounds great. It produced a tremolo effect by passing the signal through a conducting fluid. If that sounds dangerous, it’s because it was.
By the 1950s, demand from guitarists meant that most amps came with their own effects, the most popular being tremolo, vibrato, and reverb. What was missing, however, was distortion. A lot of guitarists experimented with distortion in the 1950s, with some using very unusual means to achieve this – Rocket 88 even cut his speaker cones to shreds in order to get them to distort. Others took a more traditional route, and turned up the gain.
The 60s was when effects pedals really took off. Transistors were now cheap enough to find their way into consumer electronics, and this led to a whole load of new effects becoming available. The very first transistorized effects pedal came in 1962, with the Maestro Fuzz Tone pedal, which was also the first distortion pedal available. It was famously used by Keith Richards on the Stones’ Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Later in the decade, the effects available expanded rapidly. By 1969, wah-wah, chorus, phase, and fuzz were all widely available. The sound of the 60s was truly based on effects pedals.
The range of effects pedals continued to expand in the 1970s, with transistor technology making a huge range of new sounds available. Musicians continued to experiment, also, stringing together a number of effects pedals to achieve really strange sounds. Notable pedals from this era include the H910 Harmonizer Pitchshifter, used by both Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, and the Big Muff Pi Fuzz, used by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.
The 1980s saw the next revolution in effects pedals – digitized units that were able to combine lots of effects into one box, rather than the traditional stomp box. Effects could be synchronized across a number of channels, and this opened up huge new possibilities for musicians, and significantly reduced the cost of achieving professional-quality sound.
This trend continued into the 1990s, with multi-effects pedals becoming increasingly popular, and several musicians releasing signature models. At the same time, however, a growing interest in retro models meant that vintage effects pedals began to be used alongside their more modern counterparts.
Today, each year sees the release of new effects and pedals, which increasingly make use of computer technology to achieve an unprecedented level of customization. Alongside this, a number of classic pedals have been re-released, making it easy to combine classic effects with the complexity of modern effects.