With the explosion of boutique guitar pedal manufacturers in recent years, there’s never been a better time to get that certain sound under your stage toes. But it’s also in the nature of specialty pedals to be, well, specialized. In addition to being less versatile, they also tend to be a bit more expensive.
Here at Soundfly, we’ve recently explored a unique tech workaround for live performance involving Apple’s MainStage digital pedalboard, which guitarist Kaki King has been using to innovative ends on recent tours. Check out our free course with her called Digital Pedalboards with Kaki King to learn more about this onstage option.
For those of you just starting out in the pedal world, however, it might help to stick to the basics. So here are eight very cheap and very useful pedals from some well-known manufacturers. Each one can hold its own sonically, but used together, they form a veritably successful and multi-faceted pedalboard!
HOTONE Soul Press Wah/Volume/Expression
The Soul Press embodies versatility at a low price. In a tiny, compact frame, you get three functions (wah, volume, and expression) for $100. The wah is reminiscent of the Cry Baby’s classic sound. It has that signature frequency sweep and pronounced, quacky resonance on the filter. The volume pedal, built on active electronics, retains a clarity that is often missing from volume pedals with a passive circuit. And the expression pedal function makes it possible to control parameters on other pedals, like the cutoff filter on a guitar synth.
Throw full bypass and red-hot construction design into the mix, and you’ve got a real winner. Although, I still can’t figure out if it’s pronounced “hot-one” or “hoh-tone.”
MXR Phase 90
It doesn’t get much simpler than this classic’s single “Speed” knob. No matter though, because the sound contained in this bright orange box has made it onto more hit records than one could care to mention. Phaser effects are incredibly useful for those of us who play funk or psychedelic music but are often unsung heroes of a big rock sound as well. Eddie Van Halen loved the Phase 90 so much that he has his own signature line, and placing it ahead of a distortion box with speed all the way down is a favored guitar solo trick of Billy Corgan.
ELECTRO-HARMONIX Crayon Full Range Overdrive
The Crayon, so named because of the variety of “colors” inside this little box, is Electro-Harmonix’s impressive attempt to create a Swiss Army knife for overdriven sound. The key to this pedal is the way the drive interacts with the EQ. Pedal drive circuits typically pronounce the midrange frequencies, which is also true of the Crayon.
But this pedal has additional bass and treble controls that allow the frequency spectrum to rebalance once the desired amount of gain is on tap. Spend some time with it, and you’ll be able to get decent approximations of many classic drive boxes (Rats, OCDs, Klons, etc.) inside this one enclosure. Admittedly, the Crayon isn’t the only pedal that’s managed this, but it is the only one to do it at such a low retail price tag.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How Guitar Amps Work and What You Can Do to Start Tweaking Your Own”
KORG Pitchblack Tuner Pedal
What’s to say here? Whether your guitar just can’t stay in tune or you’re often experimenting with alternate tunings beyond the standard, everybody needs a tuner pedal and Korg’s Pitchblack is just a really good one for the price. The slick, black design and big retro display make it easy to read, even on the darkest of stages.
Pitch can be metered in Regular, Strobe, Half-Strobe, or Split modes depending on what you’re after. It will auto-detect whether you have a bass or guitar plugged in and is accurate within one cent.
TC ELECTRONIC HOF Mini Reverb
Reverb is a hugely important part of a good guitar sound. Sometimes playing dry simply isn’t going to cut it, and, to make things worse, many amps ship with no reverb or a really cheap one. The HOF Mini Reverb ships with the TC family’s massive “Hall” setting built in, which will add some serious depth and spaciousness to any sound. But thanks to the company’s TonePrint tech, you can use your phone to hook up to the HOF and access their growing database of different reverb sounds. So, ultimately, you don’t have to choose between some epic Pink Floyd stadium soar or the warbly spring of a Fender Twin’s reverb tank.
BOSS CH-1 Super Chorus
There’s a reason they went overboard with chorus in the ’80s — it’s just that cool! Make your lead lines fatter, your chords rich and deep, or just turn all the knobs up and fly off into space. The CH-1 Super Chorus has been in constant production for over two decades now. There’s something about the sound of this box; the way it tip-toes the line between warm and transparent and the ease with which it handles both hi-gain and clean tones make it special indeed.
Get to know this pedal well, and you can also start pulling good versions of tremolo, flanger, and rotating Leslie speaker sounds. If you’re venturing out into the lush land of chorus for the first time, this is a great first bet.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Discover all-new guitar sounds with our free series of bite-sized courses, Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist.
IBANEZ Tube Screamer Mini
Ah, the Tube Screamer. The pedal that launched an industry of imitators and competitors. The concept behind this classic couldn’t be simpler. Three controls allow the signal to be driven, made louder, or EQ’d towards the darker or brighter side. In practice, this means that the pedal can work as a clean boost to give extra level or presence to a sound or step up to contribute its own immediately identifiable and pleasing moderate overdrive. You’re not going to have heaps of gain on tap (check the above Electro-Harmonix Crayon for something more raucous), but the iconic sound and versatility of a Tube Screamer makes it an asset on any pedalboard.
MOOER Yellow Comp
There are many different kinds of compressors designed for guitar. I’ve always been a fan of the transparent and powerful compression captured in Diamond’s range of guitar and bass pedals. Mooer, one of the up-and-coming manufacturers of small pedals, has created a tribute in their Yellow Comp. For under a hundred clams, you can have one of the most coveted guitar compression circuits at your feet. This little dude especially shines when used as an “always on” pedal, transparently managing your volume, covertly making everything else on your board sound better.
Thanks for reading! Once again, if you’re looking to lighten your load on the road and minimize pedal maintenance, Apple’s MainStage digital board might be for you. Here’s why Kaki King made the switch.