Understand which guitar pedals you should add to your rig to dial in a range of killer blues tones
In recent years, guitar pedals have come to play an increasingly important role in the blues. Manufacturers have made huge developments in pedal production, which has increased the range of guitar pedals out there and also made them both more readily available and also more affordable.
The benefits of this are significant. Guitar pedals have provided blues guitarists with many more tone shaping options. You can see the effect of this when you look at modern players like Gary Clark Jr, Philip Sayce, John Mayer and Dan Auerbach. They are just some of the many modern guitarists who use pedals as a key part of their sound.
Guitar pedals have also provided blues guitarists with a practical way of recreating vintage blues guitar tones.
The tones of early guitarists – from B.B. and Freddie King to Peter Green and Eric Clapton – remain some of the most celebrated of all time. This is partly because they are so challenging to recreate. And the challenge here is largely practical.
Broadly speaking, early electric blues guitarists did not use guitar pedals. They plugged their guitars straight into their amps, and achieved their beautiful blues tones by cranking their amps and pushing them into overdrive. For most guitarists who are playing at home and have family or neighbours to consider, cranking a 100 watt Marshall or Fender amp is not an option. And this is where guitar pedals have also proved to be invaluable.
So even though you don’t need a whole range of different guitar pedals to dial in a killer blues tone, there are a few key types of guitar pedal that will go a long way in helping you shape your tone.
And that is what this article is all about. Here I am going to run through some of the best guitar pedals for the blues. I am going to break down some of the main categories of guitar pedals I would recommend, and I will list some of the best guitar pedals within each category that are currently on the market.
Guitar pedals & the Blues
Although there are a huge number of guitar pedals out there, we can group them into categories, based on their circuitry, features and the tones they produce.
The categories of guitar pedal that I will be looking at in this article are as follows:
- Boost pedals
- Overdrive pedals
- Reverb pedals
- Fuzz pedals
- Wah-Wah pedals
- EQ pedals
- Delay pedals
- Chorus pedals
By no means is this list exhaustive. There are many more different types of guitar pedal out there, and too many to cover in a single article. As such, my aim here is to cover what I believe to be the guitar pedals most relevant for the blues.
Having said that, you don’t need all of the guitar pedals listed here. Some of these pedals are designed to create very specific tones. And if you have no interest in recreating those tones, then you don’t need to worry about adding those guitar pedals to your set-up.
If you are unsure of exactly what you are looking for, then don’t worry. Below I have added in the function of each of these guitar pedals. So if you are unsure if a specific pedal is right for you, then I hope you find the information outlined here helpful.
As a final and significant point, it is important to think about the rest of your rig when you are looking at buying any new guitar pedals. Failing to do this is a mistake that a huge number of guitarists make. They see a pedal demonstration or learn that one of their favourite guitarists plays a specific pedal, and they rush out to add that same pedal to their board.
Yet just because a guitar pedal works well for someone else, does not mean that it will work well for you. The tone the pedal helps to create – as well as how it functions – is determined by the rest of your rig. So keep thinking about your personal playing context when you are looking at the information laid out here. This will help to make sure you add the right guitar pedals to your rig.
So with that in mind, let’s get into it! Here are some of the best guitar pedals for the blues:
Of all of the guitar pedals listed here, I would argue that the boost pedal is one of the most important.
On the face of it, the function that a boost pedal performs is quite simplistic. It takes the signal from your guitar and intensifies it, before that signal reaches your amp.
Yet despite the simplicity of these pedals, they can be used in quite different ways. You can use a boost guitar pedal to:
- Increase your volume. This is very helpful if you are gigging or playing with other musicians. When you want to cut through the mix for a solo or riff – you just need to step on your boost pedal and your volume will increase.
- Push your amp into overdrive . If you have set your guitar amp so that it’s on the edge of breakup, engaging a boost pedal will drive your signal harder. This will create more overdrive and produce a beautiful and warm blues tone.
- Boost the volume of an overdrive pedal. This is very useful if you use an overdrive pedal to shape your base tone. Especially in a live setting, there will be times where you want to cut through the mix, whilst preserving your tone. If you place your boost pedal after an overdrive pedal in your signal chain, then when you step on the boost pedal, it will amplify your signal, without altering your tone.
- Push your overdrive pedal. You can use a clean boost to drive the signal of your overdrive pedal harder, without adding any extra volume. This works very well if you have used an overdrive or distortion pedal for your base tone, but you want more overdrive for a particular section in a song. If you place your boost pedal in front of an overdrive pedal in your signal chain, then stepping on the boost will add gain to your sound, without changing your volume.
Do you need a boost pedal?
As a result of its versatility, I would argue that most guitar players would benefit from adding a boost pedal to their rig. If you are gigging, then a boost pedal will give you a lot of control over your volume, which is very useful. It will ensure that you cut through the mix and stand out when playing lead.
Even if you are just playing at home, I would argue that a boost pedal is a worthy investment. This is because if you combine it with the right amp, a boost pedal will add warmth and weight to your tone.
The perennial challenge for most of us is getting a beautiful blues tone at a low volume. Playing a tube amp at a low volume can be totally uninspiring. Amps played at this level can sound thin and sharp. They often lack the warmth and the softly overdriven tones you hear on so many classic blues records.
This is where a boost pedal can work wonders. All you need to do is place the pedal in front of your amp and dial the pedal in to your desired volume. Provided you aren’t running your boost in front of a totally clean amp with lots of headroom, you should find that the boost pedal adds warmth to your tone and makes your guitar sound bigger.
For this reason – in addition to those noted above – I do think that adding a boost pedal is a wise move for most guitarists looking for killer blues tones.
Which boost pedal should you buy?
As is often the case with guitar pedals, – there are a wide range of different boost pedals from which you can choose. Having said that, I would argue that there are three categories of boost pedal that are really worth considering when it comes to the blues. These are as follows:
Clean boost pedals
A clean boost pedal amplifies the signal from your guitar, but it does so without colouring your sound. This means that the basic tone of your guitar and amp are preserved. Some great guitar pedals that are currently available in this category are:
Each of these pedals features a simple one knob design. So all you have to do is set the pedal at the level you want and you’re good to go. This makes any of them a great choice if you have favour simplicity and don’t want to spend a lot of time tweaking your tone.
‘Always on’ pedals
One of the most common and effective ways to use a boost pedal is to use it to create your base tone.
It is quite rare to hear a truly clean tone in the blues. And even when guitarists like B.B. King do play with a predominantly clean tone, there is still a thickness and warmth in their sound.
Trying to create this warmth by plugging your guitar straight into your amp is challenging. Without pushing the volume, your clean base tone can end up sounding piercing and thin.
And this is where an ‘always on’ boost pedal can make a significant difference to your tone. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
Both the Xotic EP Booster and MXR M293 Booster Mini Pedal are based on the circuitry used in Echoplex Delay units from the early 1960s. These units – which were intended for delay – actually ended up being used by guitarists to create a boost in their signal chain. Jimmy Page, Duane Allman and Eric Johnson are just three notable blues and blues rock guitarists to use the original Echoplex.
The boost pedals based on the Echolplex introduce a different circuit into your signal chain and ‘colour’ your sound. So the two boost pedals mentioned above will alter your base tone. If you don’t want that to be the case, then I would instead recommend you use a clean boost pedal as your ‘always on’ boost pedal.
Treble booster pedals
The final category of boost pedal I would recommend looking at, are treble boosters. These first came into prominence in England in the mid 1960s.
British bluesmen were struggling to get the tones they wanted, especially at high volumes. This was because unlike their American counterparts, most of them were not using bright and sparkly Fender amps. They were using high gain amps like Marshalls. And these amps had a lot of bass. When they cranked these amps, the bass frequencies became overpowering. Their tone turned ‘muddy’ and they struggled to cut through the mix.
Treble boosters solved this problem. They allowed these British guitarists to push their amps hard, but to filter out unwanted bass tones and amplify their mid and top end frequencies.
Rory Gallagher was arguably the biggest proponent of the treble booster. He relied heavily on the Dallas Rangemaster – the original and most famous treble booster – and it was a key part of his fiery blues tone. So if you are looking for a more overdriven, British blues sound, a treble boost pedal could be a great addition to your rig. My top choices here are as follows:
All of these guitar pedals will add a bit of bite and aggression to your sound. And if you are using a naturally dark sounding guitar and amp combination, they will help you to get closer to those classic British blues rock tones.
Since the inception of guitar amps in the 1940s, almost all blues guitarists have played with a slightly overdriven tone. At first, overdrive was produced in the amp itself. Guitarists found themselves playing in large venues, and they had to crank the volume on their amps to reach the audience.
This caused the signal of their amps to start breaking up, which produced a sound that we now refer to as ‘overdrive’. Far from being problematic, this sound proved popular with guitarists – many of whom actively started seeking out an overdriven sound.
Over time, this resulted in the creation of a wide range of different overdrive pedals. For although you can create overdrive by simply cranking the volume on your amp, there are a wide range of benefits to using an overdrive pedal, or multiple overdrive pedals. These are too extensive to list in full, but some of the key benefits are as follows:
- Using an overdrive pedal gives you the ability to quickly switch between clean and overdriven tones
- An overdrive pedal can help you to sculpt and alter your sound. It opens up more tonal possibilities beyond those in your amp
- Overdrive pedals allow you to create overdriven tones at lower volumes
- You can stack multiple overdrive pedals together to create a range of different tones
Each of these benefits is significant, regardless of whether you are gigging or playing at home.
Finally, overdrive pedals respond to both the nuances of your playing and to the way you set the controls on your guitar. This allows you to further tweak your sound and create a different feel by adjusting your pick attack, as well as your tone and volume controls.
Which overdrive pedal should you buy?
Of all of the different types of guitar pedals out there, I would argue that overdrive is the most essential.
Almost every famous electric blues guitarist has played or continues to play with an overdriven tone. Whether this comes from their amp, in the case of early bluesmen like Freddie and Albert King, or from overdrive pedals, it is little exaggeration to say that overdrive defines the sound of the blues.
As a result, there is an overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to overdrive pedals. To go into the required detail is beyond the scope of this article. This is largely because within the overdrive pedal category, there are a wide range of sub-categories. And the differences between these sub-categories are notable.
So if you are unsure of which type of overdrive pedal is right for you, then I would recommend reading my article: ‘7 Types Of Overdrive Pedal For Killer Blues Tones‘.
In that article I outline the main types of overdrive pedal on the market. I also provide examples of some of the best overdrive pedals that I would recommend.
After you’ve got your boost and overdrive pedals sorted, I would recommend turning your attention to reverb pedals.
Reverb is a natural effect that occurs when a sound is reflected off surfaces and objects in a room. Reflections ‘build up’ and then the sound naturally decays as it gets absorbed by the objects and surfaces in a room. This isn’t just related to musical instruments. Every time you speak or make any noise in a room, you create reverb.
The nature of this reverb and the rate at which it decays is determined by the size and shape of the room. As you likely know from experience, speaking or shouting in a small room will produce quite a different sound compared with doing the same in a large hall, or a building like a cathedral or church.
These differences initially played a significant role in the design of concert halls and music venues. Spaces were (and still are) constructed to create pleasing acoustics and maximise the impact of the music being performed.
In the mid 20th century when music started to be recorded, producers sought to recreate the natural reverb effect in a studio environment. This was done at first by creating dedicated rooms or ‘chambers’ to capture reverberating sounds. In some cases these rooms were quite makeshift – and involved placing recording equipment in studio bathrooms!
Plate & Spring reverb
The quest for pleasing reverb sounds was made easier in 1957 with the invention of plate reverb. So called because the reverb is created through the movement of a large metal plate, these early machines allowed record producers and sound engineers to control the amount of reverb in their sound with greater accuracy.
The downside was that these plate reverb machines were impractical for use outside of the studio. This was simply because of their size and weight. The plates in some of these early machines weighed more than 250kg!
This eventually led to the use of spring reverb machines. These worked much like plate reverb machines, but were constructed using springs; not large metal plates. This made them much more portable and practical. It also allowed them to be fitted inside amplifiers.
As a result, Fender amplifiers from the early 1960s had built-in spring reverb. And around the same time Fender started to manufacture standalone reverb ‘tanks’ that allowed guitarists using different amplifiers to control their reverb.
The next significant development came in the late 1970s, with the creation of digital reverb machines. At first these units were prohibitively expensive. So they were used solely by professional musicians and in high end recording studios.
This changed around 10 years later, when Boss introduced the Boss RV-2. This was a compact and affordable reverb pedal, which has since acted as a blueprint for the countless variations of reverb pedal on the market.
This blueprint includes settings that seek to recreate the sounds of classic reverb machines. As a result, reverb pedals typically have options for ‘plate’ and ‘spring’ reverb sounds. In addition, they often have settings that seek to emulate a variety of natural reverb sounds.
Typically, these are based on different spaces. So when searching for a new reverb pedal, you are likely to encounter reverb settings like ‘room’, ‘hall’ and ‘church’. Each of these has a different character based on the reverb created in that space. As you might expect then, a ‘church’ style reverb has a bigger and more spacious quality than room reverb.
Do you need a reverb pedal?
In my opinion, understanding and having some awareness of the history of reverb is essential. This is for 2 reasons.
Firstly, it helps you to appreciate the importance of the effect. Every blues guitarist that has ever recorded has used reverb – either natural or artificial. And every time you have ever played guitar, you have created some level of reverb.
It is an essential guitar effect. And in fact I would argue that we are so accustomed to hearing it – both through natural and artificial means – that it sounds quite odd if we hear a guitar without any reverb.
For this reason, I would argue that a reverb pedal is a crucial addition to your set-up. The only exception here, is if you have a guitar amp that includes reverb, and you are also happy with the different options included on the amp.
Which reverb pedal should you buy?
This second point is important, because as noted above, the vast majority of reverb pedals have settings that aim to recreate the sound of natural reverb in a variety of different spaces. Additionally, many of these pedals contain a whole further range of different settings and tone shaping possibilities.
When it comes to buying the right reverb pedal then, arguably the most important factor is deciding which – if any – features of reverb pedals you need. I say this because if you are looking for a vintage blues or blues rock tone, many of the settings that these pedals offer are superfluous.
You don’t need spacious or ambient sounds for the blues. All you need is a little reverb to add some thickness and natural decay to your sound. If you want to create some more alternative sounds – in addition to classic blues tones – then I would recommend going for a pedal with a greater number of tone shaping options. The Boss RV-6, Digitech Polara and the MXR M300 would all make great choices. These guitar pedals and others like them help you to produce classic plate and spring style reverb, in addition to more experimental sounds.
Conversely, if you are solely looking for classic blues and rock tones, I would recommend one of the following pedals:
Both the Strymon and Fender guitar pedals have a range of settings, and also give you the ability to tweak and sculpt your tone. Yet they are designed more with vintage tones in mind. This is particularly the case with the Strymon, where the settings are based on reverb sounds from different decades.
By contrast, the Holy Grail Nano is a very simplistic guitar pedal. It has two types of reverb and a ‘flerb’ setting – which mixes a flanger with reverb.
It also has just one dial to control the level of the reverb in the mix. This makes it a great choice if you are playing straight blues and have no interest in the more spacey sounds offered by some of the other pedals listed here.
Depending on the style of blues or blues rock you like to play, a fuzz pedal could make a brilliant addition to your rig.
Fuzz pedals first rose to prominence in the early 1960s, when Keith Richards used one on the famous opening riff of ‘(I can’t get no) satisfaction‘.
Just a few years later, fuzz became a key part of Jimi Hendrix’s tone. He used fuzz extensively both in the studio and in live performances. And his use of the effect to cultivate his psychedelic rock sound has gone on to inspire a huge range of blues and rock guitarists.
Modern players like Gary Clark Jr, Philip Sayce and Dan Auerbach are just some of the notable guitarists who use fuzz as a key part of their sound.
So if you are looking to create similar heavy blues and blues-rock tones, you need to add a decent fuzz pedal to your rig. Though as is always the case, navigating which of the many fuzz pedals out there is suitable for you, can be difficult.
Here then are some of the main elements you need to consider before buying a fuzz pedal, in addition to some of the best fuzz pedals out there for the blues:
Fuzz vs. Overdrive
Before you buy a new fuzz pedal, it is first worth establishing whether it is going to help you create your desired tone. This is of course important when buying any new guitar pedal.
However it is arguably more important here, as fuzz is often confused with overdrive. And although similarities between these guitar pedals do exist, there are significant differences. So you want to make sure you understand these properly and end up buying the best guitar pedal for your rig.
The key similarity between fuzz and overdrive pedals, is that they both distort your guitar’s clean signal. In other words, they fundamentally change the sound wave from your guitar and turn it into something different. It is the way that the different guitar pedals do this however, which determines your sound.
Overdrive pedals produce ‘soft clipping’. They round off the edges of the sound wave, which creates a warm and only slightly distorted sound.
Conversely, fuzz pedals clip the wave form in a much more extreme way. They take the softly shaped wave signal from your clean guitar and turn it into a square shape. This creates a heavily distorted sound that is only possible when using this type of guitar pedal.
Germanium vs. Silicon transistors
Within the fuzz pedal category, there are further differences you need to consider. As you might expect, and as is true of all guitar pedals – fuzz pedals will differ greatly in their features and number of switches and dials etc.
Yet beyond that, the key factor you need to consider when looking out for a new fuzz pedal, is the type of transistors that are used. There are two types of transistors that are commonly used – germanium and silicon.
Historically, fuzz pedals were made using germanium transistors. All of the early pedals made in the 1960s used germanium transistors. So amongst a lot of guitarists, there is a feeling that you should opt for a pedal with germanium transistors if you want vintage Jimi Hendrix style tones.
There are many tonal and practical benefits to using fuzz pedals with germanium transistors. The most significant of these are listed below. Fuzz pedals with germanium transistors:
- Have a warmer and more rounded, vintage tone
- Respond well to your picking dynamics
- Change when you adjust your volume controls. They ‘clean up’, when you reduce your volume
These benefits are important. They allow you to produce a range of unruly fuzz tones, yet they also give you control over your tone. With germanium based fuzz pedals, you can really change your tone through your playing style and by adjusting the volume controls on your guitar. In this way, these fuzz pedals respond more like overdrive pedals. It is just that they produce a lot more distortion.
There are two main downsides to fuzz pedals made with germanium transistors. The first, is that although these guitar pedals do pronounce mid-range frequencies, the same is not true of notes at the top or bottom ends of the spectrum. This means that if you play notes at either end of your guitar neck, they won’t cut through the mix so well in a band setting. For the same reason, more complex chords, as well as quick licks and melodies can lose their definition and sound quite muddy.
The second is that fuzz pedals made with germanium transistors are not so reliable. Most notably, they are affected by temperature. This means that they can sound quite different depending on whether you play them in a hot or a cold environment. If you are a gigging musician, this could be problematic. You could potentially dial in the perfect fuzz tone at home, only to find that it changes when you are on stage.
To help deal with these inconsistencies, in the late 1960s pedal manufacturers switched to using silicon transistors in their fuzz pedals. And since that point, most fuzz pedals have been made with silicon transistors.
These guitar pedals are more reliable than their germanium counterparts. Significantly, they are unaffected by temperature. So when you dial in a tone you are happy with, you can be confident it won’t change in different environments.
In addition, there are some further features of these pedals which are very beneficial, depending on your style of playing. The most significant of these are listed below. Fuzz pedals with silicon transistors:
- Produce higher amounts of gain
- Are easier to control
- Have a much wider frequency response
This last point is important. Unlike germanium based fuzz pedals, those made using silicon transistors have a more pronounced top and bottom end. This enables you to really cut through in a mix. It also allows you to play more complex chords and phrases, without your playing blending into a wall of sound.
So if you are looking for a higher gain fuzz tone, which is easier to dial in and will be reliable, a pedal with silicon transistors could make a great choice.
The main and significant drawback of these fuzz pedals, is that they are less responsive to the nuances of your playing. They don’t clean up so well if you adjust your guitar’s volume control. And they don’t respond well to the dynamics of your playing or your pick attack.
As such, these guitar pedals operate in a more binary way. You either have your fuzz pedal engaged, or you don’t. With these pedals you don’t have the same level of control compared with germanium based fuzz pedals.
Which Fuzz pedal is right for you?
When it comes to choosing either a germanium or silicon based fuzz pedal, there is no right or wrong answer. Neither type of pedal is better than the other, and they both have their pros and cons. It all just depends on your playing style, and what you want from a guitar pedal.
Broadly speaking though, I would suggest that you opt for a germanium based fuzz pedal if you want a vintage style tone that is slightly lower gain, and you also like to use dynamics and volume to alter your tone. Some of the best choices here are as follows:
Conversely, if you want a more modern, high gain sound and you also want to dial in your tone and leave the pedal alone, then I would recommend going for a silicon based fuzz pedal. Some of the best choices here are as follows:
The above is intended as a guideline. For whilst the differences between germanium and silicon transistors is significant, it is not the only factor that influences the way a fuzz pedal responds.
To start with, not all germanium and silicon transistors are the same. They all react differently and produce different amounts of gain. Additionally, different pedals use different numbers of transistors, which also impacts how the pedal reacts.
As such, the differences between silicon and germanium based fuzz pedals are not always as pronounced as you might think. For this reason, if you are looking to add a fuzz to your set-up, I would strongly recommend you try it out first. This will help you to understand if it works with your playing style and the rest of your rig.
Unlike the guitar pedals listed above, all of which have the potential to play a key role in your sound, wah-wah is an effect that you are likely to use much more sparingly.
In technical terms, a wah-wah pedal acts as an envelope filter. This means that in different positions the pedal blocks certain frequencies.
When the pedal is all the way up (and the heel end is depressed), the pedal acts as a low pass filter. In other words, it lets the low end frequencies through and blocks the high end frequencies.
Conversely, when the pedal is all the way down (and the toe end is depressed) it acts as a high pass filter. It lets all of the high end frequencies through and blocks the low end frequencies.
If you rock back and forth on a wah-wah pedal – as is very common amongst guitarists – you are essentially shifting rapidly between the two extremes of the tonal spectrum. This produces a unique sound that you cannot create without the use of a wah-wah pedal.
Do you need a Wah-wah pedal?
Clapton used wah-wah to great effect in his early career with Cream on songs like ‘White Room‘ and ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses‘. And the iconic introduction for ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)‘ is celebrated in no small part because of Hendrix’s skilful use of the effect.
If you want to recreate the specific tones of the guitarists on these songs – and on any of the other countless blues and blues rock songs that use wah-wah – then you need to buy a wah-wah pedal. You will not be able to recreate or get close to that unique sound using just your guitar and amp.
Having said that, if you are mindful of cost and have a slightly more limited budget for your guitar pedals, a wah-wah wouldn’t be my first choice. I would instead recommend that you focus on your ‘core’ tone by exploring some of the boost, overdrive and fuzz pedals listed above.
Then, once you are happy with your base tone, you can add a wah-wah pedal to your set-up to capture the specific sounds on some of the songs listed above.
Which Wah-wah pedal is right for you?
When it comes to wah-wah pedals, there are two main brands that have produced the vast majority of notable guitar pedals in this category.
The first of these is Vox. Vox created the first ever wah-wah pedals in 1966. As it happens, they did this accidentally, whilst trying to modify the Vox Super Beatle guitar amplifier. The potential impact of this error was not fully realised at first. In fact, some of the engineers involved were insistent that the effect be used for the saxophone.
This was not as unusual as it might at first sound. This is because prior to 1966, trumpet players had long been creating a wah-wah style sound by using a ‘harmon mute’. It is for this reason that Vox used the name of Clyde McCoy – a famous trumpet player – for endorsement when they released their early pedals.
Yet despite this, people soon discovered the suitability of the effect for the electric guitar. Eric Clapton adopted the effect soon after its release, and used it on a number of famous recordings with Cream. Jimi Hendrix was soon to follow, using a wah-wah pedal on his 1968 album Electric Ladyland to great effect. Just listen to songs like ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp‘, ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)‘ and ‘All Along The Watchtower‘.
Vox Wah-wah pedals
If you want to recreate the vintage wah-wah tones from these early albums, then a Vox wah-wah pedal could make a great addition to your rig.
The majority of early rock and blues rock guitar players used a Vox V846 Wah-Wah pedal. This is the guitar pedal that Eric Clapton used with Cream, and which both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan later used, as well.
The great news, is that reissue versions of this pedal are still readily available. So if you are interested in authenticity, then the Vox V846 Wah-Wah Reissue would be an amazing choice.
The Dunlop Cry Baby
The other significant brand to consider if you want to buy a new wah-wah pedal, is Dunlop. Shortly after Vox released the first wah-wah pedals, Dunlop trademarked the Cry Baby name. They then began to release their own wah-wah pedals.
The Dunlop Cry Baby has since gone on to become synonymous with the wah-wah effect. They have released a wide range of different wah-wah pedals, which have been used by a huge number of notable guitarists across different genres.
As such, there are many different Cry Baby guitar pedals that you can choose from. And in contrast to Vox – whose wah-wah pedals are vintage voiced and simplistic in their design – there is a much greater variance between different Cry Baby pedals.
However, if you want to utilise your wah-wah pedal a lot, or if you are looking for a boutique guitar pedal, then there are a further number of options to consider. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
The Gary Clark Jr. Cry Baby, Buddy Guy Signature Cry Baby and Jimi Hendrix Signature Cry Baby are all Signature Dunlop Cry Baby pedals. These are designed and modelled on the wah-wah sounds of those guitarists. So if you want to recreate the tones of those specific players, one of those guitar pedals could make a great choice.
Of all of the guitar pedals listed here, EQ pedals are perhaps the most misunderstood and also the least appealing. As Josh Scott of JHS pedals so neatly summarised:
EQ is not exactly fun. It’s not flashy. And if it goes to party, it’s probably stood in the corner being ignored…
I think this is partly because EQ pedals function slightly differently to most guitar pedals. Unlike the majority of guitar pedals listed here, EQ pedals require a little more work and direction. You can’t just step on an EQ pedal and transform your tone. In fact, if you just step on an EQ pedal, nothing at all will happen. This is because they rely totally on you moving the dials.
You might think that this is not so different to using a boost or an overdrive pedal. After all, with those guitar pedals you have to set the knobs at the level you want. Yet whilst this is true, their controls are typically quite intuitive. You normally just need to set one or two knobs at the level you want. Then when you engage the pedal, it’ll create that sound for you straight away. And whilst of course there is room for error when it comes to using an overdrive pedal, it is easy to make adjustments on the pedal until you find your desired tone.
The same is not true when you use an EQ pedal. EQ pedals usually have anywhere between 5 and 10 dials. And altering the settings on each of these dials can have a profound on your effect on your tone.
As such, compared with using some of the other guitar pedals listed here, using an EQ pedal can at first seem complicated and overwhelming. Don’t let this put off. For it is these same features which make EQ pedals amongst the most useful and versatile guitar pedals out there.
To run through all of the different ways that you can use an EQ pedal, as well as how you can dial in specific tones, is beyond the scope of this article. It is a topic that I will cover in much more detail in the future.
However, here are some of the key ways you can utilise an EQ pedal in a blues and blues rock context. You can use an EQ pedal in your rig to:
Give yourself a clean volume boost
If you leave all of the dials on an EQ pedal in place and just increase the level dial, your volume will increase when you engage the pedal. In this way you can get an EQ pedal to act exactly as one of the boost pedals listed above.
This function also works well if you are playing live and are switching between different guitars. If you switch between a guitar with humbucker pickups to one with single coils, you will lose a bit of volume. To counter this, all you need to do is step on your EQ pedal. Your volume will increase to humbucker level, but you’ll be able to dial in a different tone.
Get more from your Overdrive pedals
Overdrive pedals all have different core tonal characteristics. Some guitar pedals – like the Ibanez Tube Screamer – have a distinctive mid-hump. This means that they disproportionately boost the middle frequencies of your signal. Conversely, others are ‘transparent’ and don’t alter your signal in the same way.
One way of dealing with these differences is to buy more overdrive pedals. In this way you can ensure you have the right pedal for any given moment. But as you can imagine, this approach is both impractical and expensive.
This is where an EQ pedal can come in handy. You can put it in front of your overdrive pedal and use it to alter the frequencies that are boosted. In this way you can totally alter the sound of your overdrive pedal(s). So by just adding an EQ pedal to your set-up, you can get a lot more from a small number of guitar pedals.
Sound like a King
Both B.B. King and Freddie King played guitars with a Varitone switch. The Varitone is a 6 way rotary knob that helps guitarists shape their tone. This knob is connected to a notch filter, which is linked to 6 separate capacitors. The first position on the Varitone switch is true bypass. Then in positions 2-6, the Varitone removes certain frequencies from your sound. The amount that the circuit slices away in each position is preset, so in short, the Varitone offers 6 preset ‘EQ maps’.
It is quite rare to find guitars fitted with Varitone switches. But luckily, you can get close to recreating the sound of a Varitone circuit using an EQ pedal. Like a Varitone, an EQ also slices away certain frequencies in each position. The key difference between a Varitone and an EQ pedal is that the settings of the Varitone switch are hard wired.
There is some discussion around the exact frequencies that are removed by the Varitone in each position. There are also those that believe that the Varitone switches that were produced in the 1970s sound notably different. But below is a rough guide to the changes in EQ that happen at each position of the circuit:
1.) Bypass (no changes in EQ)
2.) -8.5dB at 1875Hz
3.) -12dB at 1090 Hz
4.) -15dB at 650 Hz
5.) -16dB at 350 Hz
6) -20dB at 130 Hz
Hopefully you can see then, that if you take an EQ pedal and altered the frequencies as above, you can replicate the different positions of the Varitone switch. This will help you get closer to the killer tones of B.B. and Freddie King.
Which EQ pedal should you buy?
By this point I hope I have convinced you of the benefits of adding an EQ pedal to your set-up. I really believe that if you use one correctly, it has the potential to not only improve your tone, but to give you many more options to tweak and adjust your current set-up.
If you do decide that you want to add an EQ pedal to your set-up, then the great news is that EQ pedals are also amongst the cheapest guitar pedals on the market. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
All of these guitar pedals have a similar design and features. They are all graphic guitar pedals, which allow you to visualise the changes and see how they correspond to changes in your tone.
Until the last few years, I never thought of delay pedals as being essential – or even particularly useful – in a blues or blues rock context. I had always associated them with ambient soundscapes. And as such, I had dismissed them as only being useful for more experimental or alternative genres.
This changed when I watched an episode of ‘That Pedal Show‘ with modern blues guitarist Matt Schofield. In the episode, Schofield describes his delay as ‘arguably the most important pedal’ on his board. He plays it as an ‘always on pedal’, using it to add some thickness and depth to his tone. You can see him demonstrate this starting at the 9.30 mark on this video here.
As you can see, his use of the effect is subtle. Yet at least to my ears, it unquestionably improves his tone. It gives it extra depth and also softens it slightly.
Delay vs. Reverb
I think that part of the reason delay pedals are under utilised amongst blues guitarists is that delay and reverb are often confused with one another. And although there are similarities between the effects, they are actually quite different.
As noted above, reverb is a natural effect. When you make a sound, you create a sound wave which is absorbed by the objects in your surroundings. Part of that sound wave bounces back to you. And the rate and length at which this happens determines the sound of the reverb that you hear.
Delay is also based on a natural effect. If you are in an open space, and create a sound, you will typically hear a distinct echo. The difference between this and reverb, is that in the second case, the echo occurs as a separate sound.
For example, if you have ever stood under a bridge or in a very large, empty room and shouted ‘echo!’ you will have heard that word repeated back to you a number of times until the sound fades away. This is the natural effect that delay is based upon.
This is different from reverb. With reverb, there is no separate echo. Instead, the reverberating sound you hear is closer to an extension of the original sound that you create.
Typically, delay pedals allow you to define the number of times you hear your playing repeat. They also allow you to define how loud the ‘echoes’ of your guitar playing repeat. And finally, they allow you to set the rate at which these ‘echoes’ trail off.
Which delay pedal should you buy?
If you are conscious of the price of your pedalboard, then adding a new delay to your set-up wouldn’t be my first recommendation. Instead I would recommend you buy one of the guitar pedals listed above, as they will all have a greater impact on your tone.
If you have the basics in place though, or if you are happy to spend a little more on your set-up, then a delay pedal will make a great addition to your rig. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
If you just want to use a very subtle amount of delay, then either the Way Huge Aqua-Puss Analog Delay or Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay would make a great choice. Conversely, if you are playing alternative styles of music in addition to the blues – or if you want the option to create a greater level of delay – then either the tc electronic Flashback Delay or Boss DD-8 Digital Delay would work well.
The final category of guitar pedal to consider if you want to improve your blues guitar tone, is chorus.
As is true of delay pedals, chorus is not an essential effect if you want to dial in a killer blues tones. In fact, compared with the majority of the guitar pedal categories listed above, chorus pedals have been used very sparingly by blues guitarists.
The two notable exceptions to this are Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. On a number of songs, both of these guitarists used the chorus effect heavily. Yet for the most part, they used chorus subtly to thicken up and add some depth to their tone.
In the case of Vaughan, you can hear this on songs like ‘Couldn’t Stand The Weather‘ and ‘The Things (That) I Used To Do’. Regarding Clapton, the guitar sound on the song ‘Cocaine‘ is a great example of his more subtle use of the effect.
Which Chorus pedal should you buy?
As noted above, I don’t think you need to rush out to add a chorus pedal to your set-up. But similar to delay, chorus can make a subtle but important difference to your tone.
I would recommend adding a simple chorus pedal to your rig. There are a huge range of these available, but some of my top choices are as follows:
The key with these pedals is to use them sparingly. Unless you are trying to recreate the tone on a song like ‘Cold Shot’, you just need to dial in a very small amount of the effect. This will help thicken your tone up without overly modulating your sound.
Well there we have it, some of the best guitar pedals for the blues. By no means is this list exhaustive. There are further categories of guitar pedal out there, and within those categories, many more individual guitar pedals. And of course, some of these guitar pedals have applications within a blues and blues rock context. Guitar pedals like compressors, phasers and tremolo all have their place.
What I have done here however is to highlight some of the guitar pedals I feel are most relevant if you want to create a killer blues guitar tone.
Of course, you don’t need to go out and buy all of these guitar pedals.
Instead, I would recommend that you start with the one or two pedals that you feel are most relevant to your set-up and the tones you are trying to achieve. Experiment with these, and try to get closer to the tone for which you are striving. Keep iterating and trying different things out. And when you feel comfortable and happy with your sound, think about adding a few additional guitar pedals to your rig from the list above.
Follow the same process of experimentation and iteration, and you will be amazed at what it does for your blues guitar tone.
Good luck guys! Let me know how you get on in the comments. And if you have any questions at all, just send me an email on email@example.com and I’m always happy to help.
Justin Guitar, Music Radar, Izotope, Pro Audio Files, Guitar World, Kitrae, Music Radar, Happy Mag, Sweet Water, Gearank, Andertons, Jim Dunlop, Music Radar, MasterClass, Wikipedia, Music Radar, Andertons, Sweet Water, YouTube, Wikipedia, Izotope, Gearank
Many of the links embedded in this article are affiliate links. As such, if you buy one of the pieces of gear I recommend, or an item from the same store after clicking one of these links, I will earn a small commission. I never recommend pieces of gear that I wouldn’t use myself, and I include these affiliate links to ensure that I can keep this content free. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on firstname.lastname@example.org.