Trying to decide what your first guitar pedal to buy can be overwhelming. It definitely was for me. My first pedal was a knock off chorus pedal which I immediately regretted buying. It’s crucial to know what you’re looking for before you take the plunge.
Whenever I’m asked what I recommend for a first guitar pedal, I immediately ask them:
Do you really need a guitar pedal right now?
The response I get is usually confusion; every guitarist they’ve seen has piles and piles of pedals! I remind them that they had to work up to that point, and you need to be comfortable with just a guitar and an amp before playing with pedals.
Don’t Buy a Guitar Pedal Until You Know You Need One
Why is that? What harm could it be buying one before you need one?
Pedals Can be a Crutch
A beginner may become frustrated with his progress and look for a quick fix. Instead of putting in the hours, many beginners try to use pedals to cover their weaknesses. This is detrimental to the learning process. You need to be comfortable making music before you go to the next step.
Know What You Need in a Pedal
Even if you’re confident in your ability to make a guitar/amp combo work, do you really know what you need? Ask yourself these questions:
- How do I want to sound?
- What genre will I primarily play?
- What is lacking in my tone?
- Will a pedal get me there?
Are you sure you’re ready to buy a pedal? If so, let’s move on!
Which Type of Guitar Pedal to Buy
Yes I know, how boring, but you’ll really appreciate this when you start playing gigs. As great as clip-on tuners are for studio and bedroom playing, they can be a pain in the ass on stage. On stage, it can fall off, and you have to have another way to mute the signal before you tune.
That’s why the first pedal I recommend is a tune, specifically the KLIQ TinyTune.
But, I imagine you didn’t come here looking for a tuner.
Overdrive / Distortion / Fuzz
In most cases (after the tuner), I’d recommend getting an overdrive pedal of some sort. If you’re looking for a great classic overdrive, I will always recommend the Ibanez Tube Screamer. It is the quintessential overdrive pedal.
For something a little crunchier, go with the Boss Blues Driver. This is a great first guitar pedal that you can use throughout your career.
If you’re craving full-on fuzz, or a brick wall of dirt, go all the way with a Big Muff. With this, you’ll be well on your way to sounding like Dan Auerback and Jack White. The tone is unmistakable, love it or hate it.
After you’ve got your distortion pedal picked out, you may be ready to through a compressor in the mix. You’ll want a compressor to tighten everything up, squash the dynamics, or just to increase your sustain. Regardless, distortion and compression go hand in hand. Either the MXR Dyna Comp or the Xotic SP Compressor is a great choice. Keep in mind, compressors can be difficult to wrap your head around. Read the manuals, and study how compression works before you attempt it. Be sure you know what you’re getting into before you go down the rabbit hole.
If at this point you have distortion and compression, and are having an issue with feedback, hissing, or noise, consider a noise gate. A noise gate will ensure that when you need silence, you’ll have it. This is not necessary in the beginning, but it’s nice to have, especially if you’re using loads of distortion or fuzz.
Maybe you’re ready to add a little width, or echo to your tone. A delay is great for this, especially if you don’t want to muddy your mix with loads of reverb. There is a lot of experimentation required when using a delay pedal. You can go anywhere from just a bit of slapback to trippy, infinite feedback, alien madness. It’s definitely not the first type of pedal I’d recommend, unless you were just going for slapback. In my experience, beginners tend to overuse them, and saturate their mix into oblivion.
If you’ve decided you want to practice your leads or a rhythm, or just need a bit more excitement in your practice, consider buying a looper. The Ditto Looper is the perfect pedal for a beginner.
If you feel like your tone needs a little more presence or space, maybe reverb is your thing. The TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb is a reverb pedal with a collection of ten different reverb types, and the ability to download TonePrints to the pedal. TonePrints are custom made settings that can be downloaded and used. Reverb can be used to great effect, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first guitar pedal. Reverb should be used to enhance what’s already there, and should not be used to cover up weakness in playing.
Decide Your Primary Genre
This is obviously important. If you’re primarily playing bebop jazz, you can probably do without a Crybaby or a Whammy, even though they are very cool pedals. However, if you’re playing funky jazz, a Crybaby may be beneficial.
For a setup that can play a variety of rock styles, consider buying an overdrive, then a fuzz, then a compressor.
Always ask yourself before you buy a pedal: Do I really need it? Do I need a reverb pedal, even though my amp has on board reverb?
Your First Guitar Pedal
Alright, time for my recommendation. I already advised buying the tuner, but if you already have one, or decided that’s too boring, I wholeheartedly recommend the Tube Screamer. You can never really go wrong with a Tube Screamer. I’m hard pressed to find a style that this pedal wouldn’t work in. It’s so versatile, I’m sure you’ll keep a permanent spot on your pedalboard for it.
Be sure to read our article on how to order your effects pedals on your pedalboard, to make all your lovely pedals play well together!