September 1, 2017


Ken K – Littleton Guitar School

Not long after you get the electric guitar and amp, learn a few chords and riffs, you realize you might want to buy some effects pedals to experiment with and alter your tone. You hear your favorite guitar players using distortion, echo, or other cool sounding effects and you quietly succomb to the first symptoms of “gear acquisition syndrome” (GAS). Welcome to the club.

One of the first things you’ll notice is there are two paths to go – stand-alone effects pedals (stompbox) or multi-effect pedals. What is the best approach for pedals/effects? Are individual pedals better to have verses a multi effects unit that offers different amp models and tones?

There are a handful of multi-effects units targeted at the first-time buyer from notable brands like Zoom, Line 6, Digitech, and Boss. These same big companies also manufacture stand-alone pedals amongst a huge market of boutique guitar effect pedals, pedal modifications, and pedal board configurations.

There are a lot of advantages to the multi-effects option. It used to be that these digital emulators didn’t sound as good as the individual pedals (which have their own circuitry), but you need a pretty good ear these days to hear the differences. You can get an awful lot of sounds for the price of one pedal with most of the popular units, plus a looper, drum patterns, tuner, and amp simulators. Some even have recording capabilities all for the cost of a couple boutique stand-alone pedals.

Some other advantages are they are easy to hook up and share a power supply. Often there’s a community of people who share patches/ sound configurations. Another plus is that you can try out different effects and learn how they work/ sound, etc. I have previously used a Line 6 PodLive playing hundreds of gigs over many years and the setup was very convenient and flexible. It only required two cables and I was able to play two guitars through it simultaneously.

The biggest downside is that when it breaks, you have nothing. And it will break (at the worst time).
Stand-alone effects pedals are usually higher quality than the effects in multi-effects but not always. They are almost always more expensive to invest in. Boutique pedal makers focus their efforts on one box doing one effect with better components and electronics and sometimes cost more that an entire multi-effects unit. As you collect guitar effects pedals you will need to configure a pedal board to move them around or take them to gigs. Adding to the expense, there are usually at least two cords required to connect every pedal, plus each pedal requires a power supply. The wiring is also a potential source of problems waiting to happen.
That said, most professional guitar players use stand-alone pedals on pedal boards. Pros look for higher quality and don’t usually need 60 flanger patches or 85 delays. They know the sounds they like and choose the best pedals for those needs.

So what should you do? It depends, but if you’re just starting down this path I’d opt for the multi-effects unit. Learn how to use effect and how the different effects sound, and how to manipulate them. Learn the difference between overdrive and distortion so you can make informed decisions later if you choose to invest in stand-alone pedals. You can always buy a stand-alone pedal and hook it up along with the multi-effects unit. For instance, you find that you really like the delays and choruses of the multi-effects unit, you can still buy an overdrive/ distortion pedal down the line and use them both. You can build up your pedal collection and then sell the multi-effects unit when you’re happy with your pedal board. Or keep it as a backup for the small gig. Either way, be sure to educate yourself so you know what you’re doing as you dial in your tone on your guitar playing adventure.

About the author: Ken K is a performing guitarist and songwriter in Denver, Colorado as well as a guitar teacher helping students improve their guitar skills and have fun playing guitar. If you are interested in taking guitar lessons in Littleton, Highlands Ranch, Centennial, Lone Tree and Denver, CO – contact Ken as soon as possible!