Must Have Guitar Pedals: A Minimalist Guide

If you’re in a hurry and want to cut to the chase, here’s a list of the essential guitar pedals we recommend in this article. Get one of each of the “absolute must-have” pedals — tuner, compressor, reverb, overdrive, distortion, delay, and chorus. If you want to go a step further, and your budget allows it, check out the “important but not crucial pedals” as well.

Absolute must-haves:

Important but not crucial:

A Minimalist, Must Have Guitar Pedals List

If you’ve been reading us at Really Simple Guitar for a while, you know we like to keep things simple.

So I recommend you take a minimalist approach to choosing the absolute must have guitar pedals.

Still, this is a long article. That’s because I want to give you a couple of options to choose from in each pedal category. 

But I encourage you to buy only seven guitar pedals: tuner, compressor, reverb, overdrive, distortion, delay, and chorus. These are the guitar pedals everyone should have.

I also overview five guitar pedals that are nice to have, but that you can live without. Especially if you’re a beginner, you’re on a tight budget, or both.

Are Guitar Pedals Worth Buying Nowadays?

If you haven’t been living under a rock during the last 20 years, you already own a mobile phone or a computer.

That means you can get all the guitar effects you’ll ever need by purchasing a VST plugin bundle.

It’ll be cheaper than buying the stompbox of each effect — even if you have to buy an audio interface.

And you won’t have to carry a heavy pedalboard to your gigs.

So why bother buying guitar pedals at all?

Better Sound Quality

The indisputable physical fact is that software can’t match the sound quality of analog guitar pedals.

But is the quality difference at all perceptible by the human ear?

This is a particularly relevant question in an era of lightning-fast technological progress.

However, it’s still a source of endless debates. And many professional and lay audiophiles swear they definitely can hear the difference.

In the end, it all comes down to preference and budget.

If you’re just getting started on your guitar journey on a tight budget, by all means, take VST-route.

But you, like so many of us, might be able to notice the natural, organic superiority of analog sound over digital. If so, you should start building your pedalboard as soon as your budget allows.

That’s why most of the pedals we’ll review in this article fall into the analog category.

Aesthetics and Mystique

Art is primarily an aesthetic experience. 

And the aesthetic quality of playing the guitar is not limited to sound quality. It also has to do with visual aspects. 

Beautiful gear enhances the aesthetic experience you’ll deliver to your audience on stage. It will make playing the guitar more pleasurable. It will boost your inspiration, and help you become a better player.

And for many of us, the look and feel of a computer is no match for the beauty of a pedalboard.

Many uber-shredders say the color of a guitar pedal influences their decision to use it.

Take, for instance, Paul Gilbert:

There’s also a whole tactile dimension to this.

Turning physical knobs on your pedals to dial in your sound is a completely different experience than manipulating a computer. 

If you ask me, changing the settings of your effects with a mouse simply feels weird.

Paul Davids explains it quite well in this short video:

Guitar Pedals Vs. Multi-FX Unit

Again, you could very well go for a multi-FX unit instead of going through the hassle of creating a pedalboard from scratch.

These units are usually more expensive than going full VST. But they can still save some money compared to purchasing the equivalent guitar pedals one by one.

Well, again, it all comes down to preference, aesthetics, and mystique.

On the one hand, many of the effects in multi-FX units are digital. If you don’t like how some of these effects sound, you can’t replace them like you would replace a pedal.

Also, pushing buttons and reading text in small LCD displays to dial in your sound might feel weird. 

You might find it more comfortable and fun to turn knobs in good ol’ stompboxes. And that’s a simple, valid reason to prefer guitar pedals.

• • •

Essential Guitar Pedals: Absolute Must-Haves

In this section, we’ll go through some of the pedals that you just can’t live without.

For a minimalist approach to your pedalboard, you’ll want to focus on buying only these pedals. 

They’re more than enough to fulfill your creative endeavors.

Tuner Pedal

You can have incredible chops. But if your guitar is out of tune, your sound won’t be too impressive.

(Unless you’re Tomi Iommi and you’re recording Black Sabbath’s debut album, of course.)

A tuner pedal will also work as a mute switch if you’re changing guitars between songs on stage.

Sure, you can rely on a clip-on tuner or clip-on tuner while you’re practicing at home or recording at the studio. 

But on stage, nothing can beat the ease of use, visual clarity, and precision of a tuning pedal.

TC electronic PolyTune 3

TC electronic PolyTune 3 tuner pedal. One of the must have guitar pedals any guitar player should own.

The TC Electronic PolyTune 3 is the successor of what was the world’s first polyphonic tuner.

In strobe mode, the PolyTune 3 gives you tuning accuracy of up to 0.1 cent — 1/1000th of a semitone.

But when you’d rather tune your guitar fast than perfectly, switch to chromatic mode. You’ll be able to tune your guitar at lightning speed, and still achieve accuracy within half a cent.

Last but not least, the PolyTune 3 features a built-in buffer. So if you’re playing with a long signal chain, don’t worry. You won’t need a separate buffer pedal in order to recuperate the high-end frequencies that true-bypass pedals might be stealing from you.

But if you’d rather take care of those problems through other means, PolyTune 3 includes a switchable true bypass option.

• • •

Boss TU-3

The Boss TU-3 is also worth checking out. 

It’s the successor of the world’s best-selling tuning pedal — the Boss TU-2. 

The Boss TU-3 features high tuning accuracy within one cent. It has every feature you need in a tuning pedal. And its led display has a kind of retro feel to it that is kinda cool.

As an added and very useful feature, the Boss TU-3 can supply power for up to seven BOSS compact effects pedals.

• • •

Compressor Pedal

In technical terms, this pedal “compresses” the dynamic range of your guitar’s signal. 

In plain English, it reduces the volume of the loud sounds and raises the volume of the quiet sounds from guitar.

This will make your sound more articulate, and smoother to the human ear. It’ll also boost your guitar’s sustain.

In other words, compression can make playing your guitar easier and more fun.

In the studio, a good compressor can make any guitar sound like it’s been professionally recorded.

Sure, great guitarists sound great primarily because of their talent and hard-earned work. But most of them use compression to help themselves of a little magic tone-juice.

So don’t be afraid to help yourself to some of it if you can afford it.

Keeley Compressor Plus

Keeley Compressor Plus compressor pedal.

A top-notch, American manufactured compressor with a ton of cool features. 

With a simple switch you can adapt it to either single coils or humbuckers by changing the attack and release times.

The Blend control knob allows you to lower the compression level without losing sustain-boosting power.

• • •

Wampler Ego Compressor

Wampler Ego Compressor pedal.

Yet another super high-end, super versatile, made-in-the-USA compressor. It’ll give that magic touch to your guitar’s tone for every music genre imaginable.

It’s a bit more expensive than the Keeley Compressor Plus though. So make sure to try it out and compare them back to back before you decide which one is your favorite.

• • •

Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer

Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer compressor pedal.

This one’s a bit of a cheaper option that still delivers great value for money. 

Like so many other Boss pedals, the Compression Sustainer has been in the market forever. It’s been both harshly criticized and passionately lauded by guitar players all over the world. 

Maybe you’re looking for a high-quality compressor but can live without the uber-precise fine-tuning options of more expensive units. 

If that’s so, then the Boss CS-3 might be just what you’re looking for.

• • •

Reverb Pedal

Sure, there’ll be times when you’ll want your guitar tone raw and dry. But if you want to add a touch of echoey mystery and mystique to it, a bit of reverb is all you need.

Reverb will add room between each note you pick during your solos, and each chord you strum while playing rhythm. It’ll make your sound smooth and fluid.

As mentioned above, most reverb pedals in the market today are digital. However, reverberation effects were invented using analog equipment back in the day.

Here’s a brief sketch of the classic reverb modes:

  • Plate. Originally achieved by making a metal plate vibrate with transducer-generated sound waves.
  • Spring. Originally achieved by making one or more metal springs vibrate using transducers.
  • Hall. Emulates what you’d hear in a concert hall, theater, or a similar large venue.
  • Room. Emulates the reverberation you’d hear in a room. Sound travels much faster through a room than a hall, so the decay of this reverb is always quicker than hall.

In an effort to differentiate themselves from the competition, many reverb pedals feature additional innovative modes. Time will tell if they manage to stick around long-term, like the classic modes have.

Reverb is such an essential effect that nowadays most amps come with some form of it built-in. But if your favorite amp doesn’t, here are a couple of options you should explore.

Boss RV-6

This is a great reverb pedal at a reasonable price for guitarists of any skill level.

Boss RV-6 reverb pedal.

It features eight reverb modes, four of which are all-time classics: Spring, Plate, Hall, and Room.

The other four are custom special-effect reverb modes:

  • Shimmer. It creates an oscillating, high-frequency overtone that gives it an otherworldly, fantasy-like vibe.
  • Dynamic. This mode tracks the depth of the reverb effect to your playing. It accentuates the reverberation if you play louder notes, and vice versa.
  • +Delay. Adds digital delay to the reverberation effect. It’s welcome if you don’t have the budget to buy a separate delay pedal.
  • Modulate. Adds modulation to hall reverb.

For a preview of each reverb mode, check out the following video:

The RV-6 has dual 1/4-inch jacks for mono or stereo operation. 

It also features an expression pedal jack, which basically allows you to control the depth of the effect with your foot.

However, the RV-6’s manual recommends Roland’s EV-5 expression pedal as the only compatible option. This isn’t exactly a cheap accesory.

Another minor drawback is the cramming of the reverb modes around a small rotary control. This makes them a bit hard to read.

• • •

TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2

TC Electronic Hall Of Fame 2 reverb pedal.

This is another great value-for-money reverb pedal. It features the classic room, hall, spring and plate reverb modes. And also more cutting-edge modes such as shimmer, modulate, and LoFi.

It doesn’t include a delay effect at all, like the Boss RV-6 pedal. However, its footswitch functions as an expression pedal.

So unlike the RV-6, you don’t need to buy a separate expression pedal when you buy the Hall of Fame 2.

Another cool feature of the Hall of Fame 2 is its customizability. Three empty slots around the selector switch let you add your own custom verbs. 

With TC Electronic’s TonePrint app you can download artist presets from their library. Or you can use the TonePrint Editor software to create your own custom reverb modes.

• • •

Overdrive Pedal

How’s an electric guitar different from a classic guitar?

More than anything else, in its capacity for producing loud sounds.

And if played loud enough, guitar amps create distortion — that crunchy, warm effect that is the lynchpin of blues, rock, and so many other modern-music genres.

Overdrive is a subtle form of distortion. It’s a natural consequence of cranking up a tube amp’s volume knob.

When the volume is high enough, the size of the guitar’s sound signal exceeds the capacity of the amp’s tube.

On a graph, this would look as if the peaks and troughs of the guitar signal’s waveform were clipped.

This clipping of the waveform is what spices up your guitar tone with extra harmonics, compression, and sustain. 

Legendary guitarists Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Angus Young, and John Frusciante are among the many that have used overdrive as a creative tool.

An overdrive pedal emulates the sound of a cranked-up tube amp without having to raise the volume of your amp. And it’ll work wonders on both tube and transistor amps.

Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive

This pedal has been in the market since 2004. 

Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive overdrive pedal.

Fulltone claims that it was the very first pedal to use Mosfets as soundwave-clipping devices. This is supposed to increase the sensitivity of the pedal to the force with which you hit the strings.

In 2017 Fulltone launched a new version that took the pedal to a whole new level.

Cool features of the new version include:

  • Output buffer. Protects your guitar’s overdriven signal from other pedals that might affect it. It’s also supposed to boost sustain.
  • Class A configured discrete 2N5457 JFET input section. Improves the interaction of the effect with single-coil and humbucking guitar pickups.
  • Enhanced bypass. Turns the pedal into a buffer that recuperates the loss that other pedals in your signal chain may cause. This is similar to what the TC Electronic Polytune 3 pedal does. But Fulltone claims it rescues the lost trebles without sacrificing bass frequencies. This usually happens with other buffer pedals.

But enough of the technical stuff. The best way to appreciate the quality of this little gem of a pedal is to enjoy its sound.

If you wanna do just that, check out the following demo:

• • •

Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive

Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive overdrive pedal.

This is one of the cheapest overdrive pedals in the market. 

It’s a bare-bones, easy to use pedal that won’t break the bank.

But don’t let all that deceive you. 

Like so many other Boss pedals, it has become a classic. And that’s simply because it sounds great.

Without further ado, here’s a demo by the great Leon Todd in which he uses the SD-1 and in a bunch of innovative ways:

• • •

Distortion Pedal

A distortion pedal creates a more intense distortion of your guitar’s signal than an overdrive pedal.

It’s the characteristic roaring sound of guitars that’s pervasive across modern music genres. However, it’s most heavily used, pardon the pun, in heavy metal and similar styles of rock music.

A distortion pedal achieves this by running your guitar signal through a circuit that clips it regardless of how loud the volume of your amp is. 

So distortion pedals sound great in both transistor and tube amplifiers. And your neighbors won’t call the police each time you practice your favorite hard rock and metal riffs.

Boss DS-1

Boss has sold tons of pedals in its stellar history. More than 10,000,000 worldwide.

Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.

And the DS-1 is Boss’s top-selling pedal ever.

Let that sink in.

The reason behind that phenomenal success is that the DS-1’s value for money is really, really hard to beat.

For around fifty bucks, you’ll buy a distortion pedal that pretty much revolutionized guitar sound since it was introduced in 1978. 

Since then, the DS-1 has earned a reputation of delivering tight, harmonics-rich distortion without altering the tonal uniqueness of different guitars and playing techniques.

This makes it a truly versatile distortion pedal. That’s why it’s been used by a wild variety of legendary  guitarists in all sorts of genres. Prince, Steve Vai, Gary Moore, Joe Satriani, Kurt Cobain, and John Frusciante, to name a few.

My favorite feature of the DS-1 is its tone control. Typically, a tone control cuts highs. But the DS-1’s increases highs and decreases lows when turned clockwise. It does the opposite when turned counter-clockwise.

This seemingly subtle difference is actually very powerful. It significantly widens the tone range you have access to. Whether you want to dial in a rhythm sound or a lead voice, nothing is out of reach for that little magic tone control.

If you use the DS-1 as a booster, the tone control is very effective for maintaining the definition of your low end. Especially when using older amps that tend to sound muddy.

Here’s a demo of the DS-1:

And here’s Steve Vai raving about how “hairy” the DS-1 is:

• • •

Pro Co RAT 2

Another classic distortion pedal that’ll cover most of your bases without breaking the bank.

Pro Co RAT 2 distortion pedal.

This little devil of a pedal is built to last — both physically, and artistically.

Physically, because of its virtually indestructible steel enclosure.

Artistically, because it’s a great distortion pedal for rock, blues, pop, or jazz. Since it was launched in 1988, it has managed to get into the pedalboards of larger-than-life guitarists such as David Gilmour, Dave Beck, Joe Walsh, and Dave Grohl.

Its versatility also shows in the fact that it’s widely used as an overdrive, and even as a fuzz pedal.

Some players consider the RAT 2 sounds best with single-coil pickups. But I guess that’s more a matter of opinion than objective fact. 

Also, it has a Filter knob which might be a little confusing. It works as a reverse tone knob. That is, it’ll decrease your tone’s trebles as you turn it clockwise.

This demo of the RAT 2 by JJ Tanis does a great job of showing its true colors:

• • •

Delay

Delay is synonymous with echo. It happens when the sound seems to repeat after bouncing off a surface. You’ll typically hear it in a large space, like a stadium. 

Delay emulates this natural auditory phenomenon. It’s yet another basic, pervasive guitar effect that you’ll hear in all kinds of modern music.

The MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay is a great choice. We review it together with a few other interesting options in our article on the best delay pedals for guitarists.

• • •

Chorus Pedal

The chorus effect makes your guitar sound as if it was playing along with many other guitars.

It mixes your guitar’s signal with several delayed and pitch-modulated copies of itself. 

The overall effect is perhaps best described as “dreamy” or “watery.” It also creates a significant “shimmer” effect, especially when used on higher-pitched chords.

Legendary examples of chorused guitar riffs include Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, and The Police’s “Message in a Bottle.”

MXR M-234 Analog Chorus

MXR M-234 Analog Chorus pedal

The MXR M-234 is a fully analog chorus pedal that uses bucket-brigade circuitry. This provides warmth and depth that digital chorus pedals simply can’t replicate. 

It features the indispensable rate, level, and depth controls. But also includes knobs that allow you to cut high and low frequencies. This  significantly increases your tone-dialing possibilities.

To listen to its magic, check out the following demo:

• • •

Essential Guitar Pedals: Important But Not Crucial

The following pedals are widely used by guitarists in many modern musical genres. But not as much as the pedals reviewed so far in this article. 

So if you’re a beginner or you have a relatively small budget, you might want to postpone buying any of these pedals.

Still, it’s a good idea to keep reading to become familiar with them. You can always bookmark this page and come back to it when you’re ready to expand your pedalboard.

Tremolo Pedal 

The beauty and power of the tremolo effect is in its simplicity. All it does is modulate the volume of your guitar’s signal.

The result is the hypnotic sound of guitar classics such as Link Wray’s Rumble, recently revived by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

My all-time favorite example of a tremolo effect in action? 

Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”.

(Which, by the way, was also brought back to life in 2003 by another Tarantino film — Kill Bill).

Boss TR-2

Boss TR-2 tremolo pedal.

The Boss TR-2 provides great vintage tremolo effects and it very easy to use.

Check it out at work in the following demo:

• • •

Wah Pedal

As the name suggests, the wah pedal shapes your guitar’s signal in a way that it mimics the human voice saying “wah-wah.”

Well, at least that’s when you’re playing solos. When you’re playing funky riffs, it’s usually described as a “wacka-wacka” effect. 

Controlling the intensity of the “wah” is a matter of making the pedal oscillate when you alternate the pressure between heel and toes.

Eric Clapton and Jimy Hendrix were the first guitarists to use the wah pedal in the studio in the 1960’s.

Here’s a great video by Paul Davids showing many of the most common uses of the wah pedal:

And here’s John Petrucci showing more unconventional wah techniques:

• • •

Dunlop Crybaby Multi Wah

The Dunlop Crybaby is by far the leading wah pedal in the marketplace. 

Dunlop 535Q-C Cry Baby 535Q Multi-wah pedal.

Its use is so widespread among guitarists of all genres that “crybaby” and “wah pedal” have pretty much become synonyms.

In 1985, Jim Dunlop acquired the patent of the wah pedal from Jim Plunkett, who invented it in 1966.

And in the early 90’s Jim’s son, Jimmy Dunlop, took the pedal to a whole new level. He made it highly flexible and customizable, and it’s stayed that way ever since.

• • •

Phaser Pedal

The phaser creates a sweeping effect in the sound signal. 

It can be used to create a cybernetic-like sound. It was used, for instance, to create the original voice of C-3PO in Star Wars.

However, when used with an electric guitar, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the phaser infuses your sound in a psychedelic vibe.

MXR Mini Phase 95

MXR M290 Mini Phase 95 phaser pedal

MXR is pretty much the iconic brand when it comes to phase pedals. 

This is in large part due to Eddie Van Halen’s use of an MXR phaser. Most notably in the band’s first album.

My favorite example from Van Halen I is the riff of “”Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love.”

“Atomic Punk” also shows a great, yet more extreme use of the phaser:

The MXR Mini Phase 95 is a compact little phase pedal that packs enough power to make you sound like Eddie. Without breaking the bank!

• • •

To wrap things up, here’s a great video by Jamey Arent taking full advantage of a small pedalboard with several of the effects reviewed in this article.

It does a really good job of putting together everything we’ve talked about.:

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