Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Far Out / Oscar Arteaga / YEH CHE WEI)

Music

The five most innovative guitar pedals of all time

@SamWKemp

From its humble, jangle-pop beginnings in the 1960s to the angular churn of contemporary groups like Black Midi, guitar music has morphed and remoulded itself countless times. When compared, The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ and My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Only Shallow’ seem as though they come not only from different decades but entirely different worlds. That’s pretty mind-bending, especially when you consider that both the Beatles and MBV were making music in the same four-piece band format.

If two groups playing the same instruments can sound so utterly different, what changed? That’s where pedals come in. Sorry to any guitar collectors out there, but, on a fundamental level, the six-stringed instrument is little more than a plank of electrified wood. The guitar comes alive when plugged into an amp and hooked up to effects, at which point it is transformed into something far greater than the sum of its parts. Dave Davies discovered this after using a razor blade to slash his amp speaker, letting forth the haze of overdrive that won them their first hit single, ‘You Really Got Me’, in 1964.

In honour of the guitar pedals’ influence on popular music, we’ve bought you a list of five of the most pioneering units of all time, ranging from the iconic Fuzz Face so beloved by Jimi Hendrix to the DigiTech Whammy pedal that came to define the sound of ’90s shoegaze.

Five innovative guitar pedals:

Arbiter Fuzz Face

Debut: 1966
Key track:
‘Beck’s Bolero’ – Jeff Beck

Immortalised by Jimi Hendrix, the Arbiter Face fuzz was introduced to British musicians in 1966 by Ivor Arbiter, a sax repairman responsible for both the ‘dropped-T’ Beatles logo and introducing Brits to karaoke. Offering dense distorted textures, the Fuzz Face was described as the “ultimate in controlled effects” at the time.

Jimi Hendrix was one of the first to employ the smiley-faced pedal, adopting it shortly after release for his November 1966 performance in Munich, one of his earliest appearances in Europe. Despite being especially heat-sensitive, the fuzz face became a mainstay among rock guitarists, only falling from favour after the release of similar pedals such as Electro-Harmonix’s Big Muff.

Maestro Echoplex

Debut: 1959
Key track: ‘Outside In’ – John Martyn

While not technically a pedal, the Maestro Echoplex is undoubtedly one of the mops important tape units of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Tape delay had been around since the 1950s, but the Echoplex was the first echo unit to utilise a user-moveable head, which allowed the user to modify the delay time to their own taste. It also added weight and depth to the player’s guitar tone with its internal pre-amp, leading some to bypass the unit’s delay effect altogether and use the Echoplex to bulk out their tone.

The precursor to the Echoplex, the Echo Sonic, was pioneered by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who used the effect on several of Elvis Presley’s early recordings, including ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Mystery Train’. Later, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin used the Echoplex to craft mesmerising counter-rhythms on tracks like  The Song Remains the Same’. Eddie Van Halen and Queen’s Brian May and John Martyn were also big fans of the Echoplex.

Cry Baby Wah

Debut: 1966
Key track: ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ – Jimi Hendrix

Invented pretty much by accident by Thomas Organ Company junior engineer Brad Plunkett in 1966, the Cry Baby is perhaps the most recognisable and widely-used pedal of all time. It is effectively a hi-pass filter that can be manually operated via a gas-pedal style lever, allowing for expressive control over the filter’s sweep.

Its intuitive design has made it a mainstay among guitarists, but it was originally marketed for horn players. Thankfully, Thomas Organ demonstrator Del Casher convinced his employers that it was better suited to guitarists. To prove his point, he made a demo 45 titled ‘Crybaby’ in which he demonstrated the range of the pedal. The name stuck, and the effect went on to win favour among some of the biggest names in music, including Jimi Hendrix, Funkadelic, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

DigiTech WH-4 Whammy

Debut: 1989
Key track: ‘When You Sleep’ – my Bloody Valentine

Now synonymous with My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields, the DigiTech WH-4 Whammy includes a selection of pitch-shifting and drop-tuning effects. Shields heavily relied on the pedal while making MBV’s 1991 album Loveless, using it to emphasise the warped bends emanating from his Fender Jazzmaster without worrying about putting the instrument out of tune.

Released in 1989, the DigiTech Whammy has been used in some of the most revolutionary rock recordings of all time. As well as Loveless, the pedal has been used in Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name Of’ and John Scofield’s jazz laced ‘Blackout’. Jack White, Steve Dai, Joe Satriani, David Gilmour and Noel Gallagher have also utilised the pedal throughout the years.

Heil Talk Box

Debut: 1974
Key track: ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ – Peter Frampton

Popularised by Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, Joe Walsh, Bon Jovi and others, this legendary effect houses a phenolic diaphragm speaker, the sound of which, when powered by an amp’s external speaker, can be carried to the user’s mouth via A 6-1/2 foot surgical tube.

Place the tube end near a vocal mic, and the guitarist can shape guitar sounds with their mouth, immediately achieving the ‘talking’ guitar sound heard on tracks such as Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow (1975) and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind (1972). The first talkbox was crafted way back in 1938, but Heil and Joe Walsh’s version was the first ‘high powered’ talkbox that could live up to the demands of stadium-scale shows. That version is still the most widely used edition of the effect.