The Best Guitar Pedals For Blues
The blues is a stripped back genre. It’s not about flashy effects and gimmicks; it’s about conveying emotion through technique, and a pure but simple guitar tone. Many blues guitarists pride themselves on their simple rig set ups.
As such, guitar pedals don’t play a predominant role in the blues. Some would go so far as to say they’re totally unnecessary. And I’m also of the opinion that you can get amazing tones by choosing the right guitar and pairing it with an appropriate amp.
Having said that, guitar pedals can be a useful addition to a rig for a number of reasons:
– Practically they allow you to produce vastly different tones at the flick of a switch. This is ideal if you’re playing live and want to switch between different sounds quickly.
– There are certain sounds for which you need guitar pedals. Specific sounds like fuzz and wah-wah can’t be produced by your guitar and amp alone. So you’ll need to buy guitar pedals if that’s the sound you want.
– Modern blues artists – like Gary Clark Jr and Jack White use a greater variety of sounds. If you want to emulate their more modern tones then you’ll need to add a few pedals to your rig.
– Finally, and arguably most importantly for the blues – the right pedal(s) can bring out the best in your guitar and amp. Even the best amps have weaknesses. Certain guitar pedals can be used to compensate for these weaknesses and enhance the natural tone of your amp.
There are a vast number of guitar pedals available and many different pedals used by the greats. Rather than list the countless variations of different pedals out there, I thought it would useful to look at the key blues tones and how guitar pedals will help you get there. I’ll also look in more depth at some of the guitar pedals used by the greats and why they work so well with their specific set ups.
The Basics of Guitar Pedals
Guitar pedals are designed to perform a very specific function. Where a guitarist will rely on one guitar and possibly a couple of different amp configurations to produce many different tones, they will use specific pedals to fulfil a specific need.
As such, even in the blues – the number of pedals used by famous guitarists greatly exceeds the number of different guitars and amps used. I haven’t listed these, but rather grouped pedals by category, pulling out a few specific models and explaining why they are effective:
Since the early electric blues guitarists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy – blues players have favoured a warm and slightly overdriven tone. In fact, modern blues guitarists very rarely play with a totally clean sound. As such, it’s a very good idea to invest in a decent overdrive pedal.
It is perhaps first worth noting that overdrive can be created in your guitar amp. If you ‘crank’ an amp loud enough, the sound will begin to break into distortion. Having said that, overdrive pedals push the preamp section of your amp harder. On valve amps, this causes the sound to break up at lower levels. It creates a thick and warm sounding distortion that features on some of the most notable blues songs ever recorded. So if you’re looking for those classic blues tones, here are some of the best guitar pedals to add to your rig:
Thanks to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blistering guitar tones, the lbanez Tube Screamer has become one of the most popular guitar pedals of all time. Stevie Ray combined it with a Fender Stratocaster and various different Fender amps and it was a key part of creating his amazing tone.
This is largely down to the fact that tube screamers have a ‘mid-hump’. Like other overdrive pedals, they boost the overall volume of the signal, but they do this disproportionately to the mid-range signals. Fender Stratocasters and Fender guitar amps are typically weaker in the mid ranges and produce a ‘scooped’ sound. The Tube Screamer puts those mid-range tones back into the mix. This results in a warm and thick sounding distortion that bolsters the naturally thinner sound of a Strat.
To capture the famous Tube Screamer tone, you’ll need to use a Fender Strat and a Fender amp. Having said that, they can be used to great affect with other classic guitar and amp combinations for beautiful vintage blues tones.
There are a number of different Tube Screamer variations, but for authenticity, go for the TS-808 Reissue. This is closely modelled on the original Tube Screamer, but is much more affordable.
Prior to the inception of the Blues Driver, a lot of blues guitarists relied on boutique, hand-wired guitar pedals. Then Boss introduced the Blues Driver, and created a brilliant all-round pedal that is also very affordable. Unlike the Tube Screamer, the Blues Driver pushes your guitar into overdrive, but it does so without dramatically altering the frequencies of the signal. This makes it a great guitar pedal to use with different amps and guitars. In other words, it’s a very well rounded pedal and a great choice if you want classic blues tones without breaking the bank.
Daniel Steinhardt of ‘That Pedal Show‘ described the Analog Man King of Tone as ‘one of the most important pedals of the last 10 years’. It performs the role of both a boost pedal and an overdrive pedal and does so whilst retaining the natural character of the guitar and amp with which it’s paired.
It’s perhaps no surprise it’s favoured by a vast number of famous guitarists, including Gary Clark Jr.
Unlike the other guitar pedals listed here, the King of Tone is a boutique pedal. It’s handmade and made to order by the team, who – due to high demand – are working their way through a waiting list of around 2 years.
So if you want to get your hands on a fabled King of Tone, I hope that patience is one of your strong suits, as you’re going to be waiting for a while…
The final overdrive pedal listed here, has garnered widespread popularity with some of the best modern blues guitarists; including John Mayer, Warren Haynes and Philip Sayce. In essence it’s very similar to a Tube Screamer. But unlike the Tube Screamer, there is less of a mid-boost, so it does more to retain the natural sound of the guitar. It also produces a tone with greater clarity than the Tube Screamer, which is why it has become so popular.
Treble Boost Pedals
Most guitarists don’t go out in search of more treble. A lot of the guitars that are used for blues – like Fender Stratocasters – already sound bright. The common concern is that adding more treble will make them sound thin and sharp. It’s a concern that is often misplaced. What treble boosters actually do, is help to shelve away the bottom end frequencies, and accentuate the frequencies you want to hear.
Rory Gallagher is perhaps the most famous bluesman to use a treble booster. He paired his Fender Strat with a Vox AC 30 and a Dallas Rangemaster Treble, which was later also used by both Brian May and Tony Iommi.
The Dallas Rangemaster is no longer in production, but if you’re looking for the fiery blues tones of players like Gallagher, have a look at one of these pedals below:
Made by the same creators of the legendary ‘King of Tone’, the Beano Boost is modelled very closely on the Dallas Rangemaster. Luckily, there isn’t the same lengthy waiting list for the Beano Boost and they’re also very competitively priced pedals.
If you’re on a tight budget but want to capture those vintage tones, the Screaming Bird is a great choice. It lacks the diversity and dynamism of the other boosters in this list – but the value really is unbeatable.
Also modelled on the Dallas Rangemaster, the Naga Viper is marketed as a ‘heavy duty’ boost pedal. So it makes a great choice if you’re looking for a tone that verges more on rock than on blues.
If you want to play hard hitting blues-rock, you need to get yourself a fuzz pedal.
Although it’s not a staple for classic blues tones, a decent fuzz pedal is a great investment if you want a heavier and more distorted sound. Jimi Hendrix was a big proponent, and modern players like Gary Clark Jr, Tyler Bryant and Philip Sayce have also used them to great affect. Although Eric Clapton didn’t use a fuzz pedal, his tone on the Cream recordings is heavily fuzzy (as a result of cranking his amp to insane levels!)
Fuzz is a very distinctive tone and one that can only really be achieved with a pedal. This is because it alters the sound wave quite significantly, turning it into a square and ‘clipping off’ a lot of the different frequencies. At low levels, fuzz pedals create a heavy and compressed sounding distortion. At higher levels, they totally alter the sound of your guitar and can even create a sound similar to an octave pedal.
As with all guitar pedals, there are hundreds of variations of fuzz pedals. But if you want to recreate those Jimi Hendrix and Gary Clark Jr tones, I’d recommend one of the following pedals:
David Gilmour is the most famous patron of the Big Muff pedal. Although he isn’t your typical Bluesman, Gilmour used it to produce the beautiful classic rock tones that feature on Animals and The Wall. More recently, it’s been a staple of Jack White’s set up and helped produce his heavily distorted tones. It remains one of the most popular guitar pedals on the market for these reasons, as well as the unbeatable value.
The original Fuzz Face – made by Dallas Arbiter and popularised by Jimi Hendrix – was responsible for some of the most distinctive fuzz tones ever recorded. They are now collectible items and fetch over £1000. Luckily, Dunlop have made a high quality and much more affordable, replacement (pictured above). So you can get those Hendrix tones without breaking the bank.
Most famously used by Jimi Hendrix on Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Wah-Wah is arguably one of the most distinguishable sounds in rock and blues rock. If you want to emulate the sound, you need to buy a wah-wah pedal. It’s never an in built feature on amps. With regards to pedals, you really have two choices. Jimi Hendrix famously used a Vox Wah, as did Stevie Ray Vaughan. On the other side, guitarists like Eric Clapton, Slash and Joe Bonamassa all favoured the Dunlop Cry Baby.
If your budget is limited, I wouldn’t rush to add a wah pedal to your rig. I bought a Vox Wah a year ago. I used it about twice to play Voodoo Child and then ended up selling it. In reality, it just isn’t a staple for blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan put it to good use on tracks like The Telephone Song, as did Eric Clapton when he was with Cream. More recently, Gary Clark Jr has used it to great effect on songs like Grinder and When my Train Pulls In.
Clark Jr’s use of wah is perhaps so effective because his style of blues-rock borrows heavily from funk and hip hop. Both of these styles use wah-wah more frequently, so the fit is more natural. In blues, wah-wah is usually a gimmicky addition. Guitarists use it to spice up an otherwise unimaginative solo or riff.
If you have a spare £100 burning a hole in your pocket, then buy one. If nothing else, you’ll be able to nail Voodoo Child (Slight Return). But if you’re in the pursuit of vintage blues tones then don’t worry about wah-wah. It’s a nice addition but by no means a staple.
Reverb is a natural sound that occurs when a sound is reflected. Reflections ‘build up’ and then the sound naturally decays as it gets absorbed by objects in a room.
Many guitar amps have reverb built in. If that’s the case for you, then you don’t have to worry about buying reverb pedals. But if your amp doesn’t have reverb, then you need to add it to your rig. For the blues, it’s unlikely that you’ll utilise a reverb pedal to its full capacity. But a bit of reverb will make you sound bigger and it will produce a more pleasing tone. Reverb rounds off each of the notes you play in a natural way. This makes them sound less abrupt and harsh on the ear.
It should be an absolute staple in your rig. So if you’re in need of a reverb pedal, here are some of the best on offer:
This is recommended as the ultimate reverb pedal by ‘That Pedal Show‘, which is a glowing reference indeed. With 12 different reverb channels – you can create a huge number of different sounds all with the one pedal. In addition, the pedal comes with 300 preset tones from which to choose. Such versatility doesn’t come cheaply and not everyone will want to make such an investment. But if money is no object, this is the pedal to go for!
At a lower price point is the MXR reverb pedal, offering 6 different reverb models. Simplicity is the key to this pedal. There are 3 easy controls, which allow you to choose the model, the speed of the decay and the ‘dryness’ of the effect.
Boss are one of the most renowned pedal manufacturers in the market. In recent years, they’ve expanded their range of reverb pedals, giving birth to the Boss RV-6. This has 6 different reverb channels, as well as delay and is super easy to set up and use. So it makes a great choice if like me, you don’t want to spend a lot of time messing around with different switches and dials.
Some Closing Thoughts…
So there we have it – a round up of some of the best guitar pedals for the blues. The pedals I’ve listed here are of course just a tiny selection of those that are available. But hopefully this has helped to give you a good idea of the pedals you should be including in your rig and some of the specific guitar pedals favoured by famous blues guitarists.
More so than with guitars and amps, the language that surrounds guitar pedals is highly technical. And the intricacies of picking and setting up the right pedals is complicated. My advice would be to start with the basics and nail a really sweet sounding tone. You can then look to get more adventurous as you become familiar with the different guitar pedals on offer.
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