You know how a three-knob overdrive works. And a single-knob boost isn’t gonna throw you for a loop. But double the knobs and add parameters with names like Crash, Warp, and Glide, and things can get murky fast. This is the world of bizarre effects, and if you’re confused by stompboxes with more than a few knobs and switches, you’re certainly not alone.
Innovations in manufacturing techniques, inexpensive microprocessors, and computer connectivity help designers push the limits of what is possible within the finite space of an effects pedal. And it can seem like the road to interesting and inspiring guitar tones is sometimes paved by equipment that appears built for obsessive geeks only. Here, we’ll try to demystify some of the most mystifying gadgets by breaking them into some loose categories—Pitch, Synth, Destruction, and Ring Mod—and providing some guidance in how to access the tones hidden inside and implement them in your own pursuit of musical majesty.
The categories we investigate here typically cover a single device type. Some effects may fall into several categories and some will defy categories entirely. But as we’ll see, the surface complexity of many of these effects often comes with amazing musical potential that can change the way you approach the guitar.
We're kicking things off with pitch shifters, and will be adding a new effect each week for the next three weeks. Let us know in the comments how you use these effects, and what pedals are your favorites.
Pitch shifters go back to the earliest days of sound processing. Electronic pitch shifting started as a studio technique with the reel-to-reel tape machine. Psychedelic giants like the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix toyed with speeding up or slowing down reels to change the pitch of a musical passage. The inherent limitation with the tape manipulation approach was that you could not shift the pitch without changing the speed. Also, pitch shifting on tape could not be used on the fly.
One of the earliest stompbox attempts at pitch shift was Roger Mayer’s Octavia for Jimi Hendrix—a simple octave interval with a fuzz circuit. In subsequent years the complexity and number of simultaneous intervals that a pitch shift unit can reproduce has grown substantially.
Where You’ve Heard It
Ever wonder how Dimebag Darrell achieved those 2-octave bends to accent his frenetic and brilliant solos? It wasn’t some space age strings that could withstand a wicked tugging. He used a DigiTech Whammy pedal. Take another listen to “Becoming” on the Far Beyond Driven album. DigiTech’s Whammy is perhaps the most prolific pitch-shifting mechanism of relatively recent time and can be heard on recordings by the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Joe Satriani, Tom Morello, and Jack White, just to name a few.
How to Use It
Blend - Typically the first control you’re going to find on a pitch-shifting pedal is a blend control. With this control you mix the amount of pitch-shifted signal with your dry signal, pairing your original note with a harmonic counterpart to create a more lush effect.
Octave - Though numerous intervals such as 3rd, 4th, and 5th are common on pitch shifting stompboxes, the most common interval is the octave. Adding an octave down to your signal can beef up a solo, giving the notes additional punch and presence in the mix.
Setting: Octave Down at 50%, Dry at 50%
Its counterpart, the octave up, can add a singing, shimmering element to notes—not unlike those on a 12-string acoustic. Hendrix put his signature fuzzy octave shift to work in loads of material— “Purple Haze” is exemplary in its layered use of fat, octave-down fuzz rhythms and flying octave-up solos. There are several octave fuzz pedals on the market that shoot for Mayers’ classic Octavia tone including Dunlop’s Octavio and Demeter’s Fuzzy Octavulator.
Harmonize - For some guitarists, harmonizing pitch shifters are the way to go. To achieve a more harmonically rich tone there are just as many options, from the relatively straightforward Boss PS-6 Harmonist, to the nearly boundless PitchFactor by Eventide. Whatever the tool, the harmonizing effect adds flavor to your riffs and can give an ordinary melody a unique twist. With a harmonizing stompbox like the Boss PS-6 you can blend in any common interval. Harmony is most commonly employed vocally, so to get started with a harmonizer, think of your guitar like a single voice in a duet, or a small choir. The harmonizer gives you that backup melody that helps to richen your musical expression. In “Hotel California’s” climactic and final solo a pair of simple solo riffs are used in harmony to achieve an iconic passage that is un-mistakable. A primary usage of the harmony pedal for most guitarists is to easily achieve this type of duet effect with one guitar.
Settings: 3rd Up at 50%, Dry at 50%
But these passages would begin to sound stale if only a single interval were used. Consequently, most modern pitch shifters including the PS-6, DigiTech’s HarmonyMan, and Eventide’s PitchFactor are able to pitch shift diatonically, that is, according to a predetermined scale. These units select the pitch-shifted notes from a list defined by the selected scale.
Bend - One of the greatest things about stringed instruments is the ability to create vibrato by bending the strings rhythmically while a note sings out. But strings only bend so far before they snap, and the solution DigiTech posed in the early 1990s—for players who wanted to go beyond the tensile strength of their instrument—was the Whammy pedal. The effect found itself on the pedal boards of a handful of iconic players in the ’90s including The Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha and, most famously (and perhaps most impressively), Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell. With the capability of multi-octave bends at the dip of a rocker pedal, the Whammy was hugely successful in enabling guitarists to extend a solo into a sonic range well beyond the limits ever previously thought possible.
Settings: Expression pedal bend down from 2 octave up to root.
Dimebag’s use of the Whammy pedal on “The Becoming” and in numerous solos added a terrifying banshee squeal to his already colossal control of the floating tremolo bridge.
Pitch Explosion - Some of the more modern pitch shifting units allows you to get some very unique results. For example, the Eventide PitchFactor has an internal sequencer capable of selecting from a few dozen preset musical sequences. As you play a single note, the sequencer pitch shifts the note to the current note in the sequence.
Settings: Harpeggiator - rising arpeggio setting blended 50/50
The result harkens to the arpeggiated synth runs found on ’80s records by Duran Duran and synth pop pioneer Gary Numan. With full MIDI connectivity, the Digitech’s Whammy can achieve similar results. Pedal maker Molten Voltage created the Molten MIDI, which stores MIDI sequences and is specifically designed to interface with the DigiTech Whammy to produce wild pitch shifting arpeggios. While this may sound like a feat for the experienced, these are all preset, out-of-the-box settings that any player can tap easily.
Makers of pitch shifting devices are constantly expanding their horizons and the capabilities of their products. One maker, Snazzy FX, turned back the clock in a more unique way. Their Wow & Flutter device is essentially a delay pedal, but the twist is that the delays are pitch shifted by an amount that can be determined by your playing dynamics. The result can be anything from a delicious, analog chorus, to a seasick wash of warbled delays.
Pedals We Tested
Boss PS-6 – The Boss PS-6 Harmonist is a good starting point. The four rotary controls may seem like a lot to digest at first glance, like most other Boss stompboxes, it covers the basics effectively in a way that is straightforward and easy to implement. With a simple understanding of major/minor keys the effect is fairly simple to tap into quickly. The PS-6 includes an expression pedal input to facilitate pitch bends, which works in tandem with the pedal’s Super Bend setting. The PS-6 is also capable of multi-voice harmonies, standard pitch/octave shift, chorus, and stereo output. Some of the harmonic intervals on the PS-6 suffer from digital pitch shifting artifacts while the rest track quickly, without latency or artifacts.
DigiTech Whammy DT - DigiTech has always been an innovator in the realm of pitch shifting. Their aforementioned Ferrari red Whammy pedal practically set the standard and has gone through numerous iterations while staying relevant to the musical needs of the time. The latest model, the Whammy DT contains a few new features including an array of pitch shift presets, improved pitch shifting algorithms (for pristine pitch shifting, free of digital artifacts), true-bypass switching, and a slightly modified layout. The Whammy line, like its name suggests, has typically focused on pitch bending rather than shifting between set intervals. In addition to bending your original signal, the Whammy DT can produce a harmonic signal and allow you to bend that signal alone! This a fantastic tool for creating subtle musical bends that can add a touch of harmonic richness to your chord progressions. The new “drop tune” settings allow you to make a blanket pitch shift to your entire signal at any half-step interval from plus 7 to minus 7, as well as octave-up and octave down. This new feature on the Whammy allows you to change the range of your instrument while staying in familiar fretboard territory.
DigiTech HarmonyMan - DigiTech’s latest foray into the world of pitch modifying effects pedals is the HarmonyMan. As its name suggests, the HarmonyMan focuses on all things harmony. Its subtitle—Intelligent Pitch Shifter—suggests a unit that can detect key and adapt according to that information. The HarmonyMan does just that using its new musIQ mode to automatically detect a harmonic key. There are also two knobs (Voice1 & Voice2) that allow you to set the interval of the voices independently. These knobs can be used to control minor detuning, manual chromatic intervals, and varying intervals that work with the pedal’s intelligent key detection. A cool feature in the HarmonyMan is the Sidechain input. If you plug a second guitar into this input, the internal key detection will read from it. This is particularly awesome for duos where one guitarist plays rhythm while the other solos over the top. Working in concert with the Clean Input, the Distortion Send/Return can be used if you want to apply distortion before the harmonizing effect without confusing the HarmonyMan’s stellar pitch tracking capabilities.
Eventide PitchFactor - All of the units in Eventide’s Factor line pack an unprecedented amount of versatility and control into a relatively small package. With 11 knobs, 9 in/out jacks, MIDI capability, and 3 footswitches, the PitchFactor embodies the idea of an intimidating effects unit. But the PitchFactor’s interface relies on knobs more than menus and is therefore intuitive and surprisingly user friendly. The PitchFactor has the basics covered, including multi-voice (up to four voices) harmony, expression pedal control of pitch bends, and intelligent key detection. Additional features that set the PitchFactor apart includethe unit’s 10 effects modes, send/return loop, user preset storage, detailed mix control, extensive MIDI controllability, USB connectivity, a built-in tuner (strange that most other pitch-based effects don’t include this!), delay effects, and so much more. Eventide has taken their top 10 pitch tools, new and old, and packed them into the PitchFactor as “effects.” This includes legendary harmonizing giants H910 & H949. Other included settings enable chromatic pitch shifts in an astounding six-octave range, arpeggiator sequencing, classic octave/fuzz effects and numerous synthesizer tones..
Snazzy FX Wow & Flutter - Snazzy FX builds totally analog, big, beautiful, hand-crafted pedals that focus on doing something really cool, really well, while looking totally awesome in the process. The Wow & Flutter is no exception. It is a delay pedal that pitch bends the delays with an intensity that can be controlled by your playing dynamics. The unit harkens to reel-to-reel units and other tape machines where both delay and pitch can be modified by tinkering with the speed of the reels and the path of the tape. Imagine having a whammy bar that processes only your delays. When used subtly, the Wow & Flutter can create a beautiful cloud of meandering delays that is stunning. There are tons of usages for this pedal using the nine controls knobs and I would strongly suggest checking out this or any of the units in the Snazzy FX line. They’re all straightforward with totally analog controls allowing you to sit back, spin some knobs, and zone out with your tone out.