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The Pedal Revolution: A Brief History of Guitar Effects Pedals

The Pedal Revolution: A Brief History of Guitar Effects Pedals

We all have our beloved six strings that we adore. Some of us name them, obsess over them, and daydream about them. But, even the most beautiful solid-body electric depends on amps and guitar effects pedals. Otherwise, we can only deliver soulless, flavorless, uninspired sounds.

Whether we’re chasing a molasses-covered bluesy phrase, a tangy funk riff with some bite, or face-melting molten metal shred glory, we need guitar amps and guitar pedals. And, no matter how far technology advances, we guitarists are as fascinated with the sonic goodness these little boxes deliver as we were with Matchbox cars and legos in our youth. For the record, I had neither—a story for another time. 

How did this Pedal Revolution begin? Well, that’s what we’re exploring this month at Guitar Space. So, let’s get into it.

The 30s–50s: In the Beginning 

Paul Bigsby created his first vibrato bar in the 1930s, and it used a motor and pulleys to wobble the bridge. In the 40s, he modified the vibrato system and eighty-sixed the motor. Although there are many different models today, the basic design has changed little over the years.

Another early effect was the “echo speaker” used in a few amps of the 40s and 50s. This was basically an extension cabinet jack. The idea was to use a long cable and put another speaker in the far-off corner of the stage.

It was not the most exciting effect, but it inspired the tremolo units that were later added to amps. In 1955, Fender introduced the Tremolux, which wasn’t the first amp to use a tremolo system. But, it was the most popular.

Tremolux fender

Other companies began experimenting with tube-based outboard units. And this ultimately led to the creation of the spring reverb tank in the late 50s. And in 1962, Fender again introduced the most popular reverb units. And this gave Surf Guitar its signature sound.

Also, in the 1950s, guitarists Les Paul and Chet Atkins were experimenting with echo units. But, accordion player and amp builder, Ray Butts, beat them both to the punch by creating the EchoSonic amp. Butts sold the first to Chet Atkins and the second to Scotty Moore. Moore used it to create the iconic tape-delay sound on Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train.”

Less than 70 hand-built EchoSonics were made, and Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and session player Luther Perkins acquired this iconic amp. But, in the late 1950s, Market Electronics created an outboard version of the echo unit that was copied by other companies until Maestro delivered the sweetest-sounding echo unit of all time, the Echoplex, in 1962. And the famous tape slapback echo was born.

On a side note: Butts never patented the EchoSonic. However, he did ask Maestro about the circuit’s design, and Maestro offered him a small royalty. 

The 1960s: Hippies, Freak Flags, and the Birth of FX Pedals

Until the mid-1960s, guitar effects were bulky, cumbersome electromagnetic devices. Transistors were now more readily available, and this was the beginning of making guitar effects more portable and less glitchy.

The first transistor-based stompbox was a fuzz pedal inspired by the bass solo from the Marty Robbins tune, “Don’t Worry,” recorded in Nashville in 1961. The bass player was Grady Martin, and the sound was an accident. The preamp channel was on the fritz resulting in the overdriven tone.

Interesting Read: The Best Ways to Use a Preamp Pedal.

Recording engineer, Glen Snotty, created a simple transistorized fuzz circuit and sold it to Maestro, who commercially marketed it as the Fuzz-Tone. It was initially marketed to jazz guitarists and session players. That is until Keith Richards got a hold of it and recorded the “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” riff in 1965. And soon, every British teen wielding a six-string had a Fuzz-Tone.

One early fuzz pedal adopter was Jimmy Page, who opted for the Sola Sound Tone Bender launched in 1965. Sola Sound later became Colorsound, and the pedal was marketed as the Vox Tone Bender. But, in 1966, Dallas-Arbiter delivered the holy grail of fuzzes with the Fuzz Face. And I’m sure that Jimi Hendrix played a significant role in the Fuzz Face’s success.

Not All Fuzzes Are Created Equal

I always wondered what the difference is between germanium and silicon transistors. Also, why do many players make such a big deal about the difference in transistors? And here’s the fundamental difference.

Germanium produces a warmer, rounder, and, some say, more musical fuzz than silicon. But, these transistors are susceptible to heat, causing them to be inconsistent and drift from the spec value. For this reason, not every vintage fuzz sounds good. 

Germanium transistors also work well with boost pedals and in some early wah pedals. But they eventually gave way to the more consistent silicon transistors in the 1970s. And pedal hounds look for fuzzes with matching germanium transistors. But, modern fuzz master, Eric Johnson, prefers silicon transistors in his Fuzz Face. So, it all comes down to personal taste.

The Magic of the Wah Pedal

Clyde McCoy Guitar Effects Pedals

The first production wah-wah was introduced in 1965 and developed by the Vox company. This first wah pedal was called the Clyde McCoy model, and he was not a guitar player. He was a jazz trumpeter famous for his muted-trumpet sound.

The wah pedal uses transistors. And, vintage tonehounds will swear that the sonic magic lies in the small Fasel inductor cable, not the transistor, and these are only found in the Italian-made pedals from the Jen Company. But, the silver-trash-can inductors also have their fans.

The Vox wah was favored by Hendrix and Clapton. But, Thomas Organ, who developed the Clyde McCoy for Vox, also designed the Cry Baby Wah. The Cry Baby was preferred by Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson.

Both pedals have similar characteristics with subtle differences. The Clyde McCoy Wah has a distinct rounded vocal quality, while the Cry Baby Wah has a more fluid response across its full-range sweep.

The Octave Pedal

Roger Mayer was an engineer and stompbox pioneer. He developed pedals for Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Big Jim Sullivan. But his creation of the Octavia pedal, famously used by Jimi Hendrix, puts him on every tone chaser’s radar.

Unfortunately, Mayer never offered the Octavia pedal as a production model. By the early 70s, the Tycobrahe Octavia directly copied his design, and other competitors such as Foxx Tone Machine, Fender Blender, and MXR Blue Box created worthy rivals.

Tycobrahe Octavia

The octave pedal was considered an acquired taste for a long time. But, with modern technological advances, many current players are finding creative uses for it.

The Uni-Vibe

Yet another effect attached to Jimi Hendrix. The Uni-Vibe was developed by the Shin-Ei Company of Japan for the Univox company. Univox was interested in offering a rotary speaker in a more-portable stompbox, but not for guitars, for electric organs.

The Beatles and Pink Floyd also used the rotary speaker and Leslie cabinet during recording sessions. Many fans thought that these bands were using a Uni-Vibe when, in fact, they used a big and bulky Fender Vibratone cabinet.

Uni-Vibe shin ei Guitar Effects Pedal

Guitar players loved the effect because it was genuinely portable, but, more importantly, they could use the pedal in front of their amp of choice. Post-Jimi disciples known for their use of the Uni-Vibe are Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The Uni-Vibe is essentially a four-stage phaser. Each stage has a light bulb and photocell that can be tuned slightly differently. Next, an oscillator sweeps the signal across each stage, creating a chorusing effect.

This set the stage for the modulation effects developed in the 1970s.

The 1970s: Bell Bottoms, Disco, and Modulation Effects

Simple phasers arrived on the scene in the early- to mid-70s. The improved capabilities, affordability, and availability of the integrated circuit (IC) technology led to more swirls, twirls, and echoes in the world of guitar effects. But the first phasers used solid-state field effects transistors (FETs). And these are considered archaic, especially by today’s standards.

For example, the “archaic” FET technology was used in the one-knob MXR Phase 90 (1972), which was used by Mick Jones in The Clash’s classic “Lost in the Supermarket” (1979) from London Calling and Eddie Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talking’ ’bout Love” (1978) from the VH debut album. Many players consider the FET technology the source of the sweeter-sounding phase effects.

The development of the IC chip (aka ‘opamp’) was the precursor to other more complex, larger, and more powerful chips that would enter the market in the later part of the 70s. And you can hear this in action on Keith Richards’ swirling riffs in “Shattered” from The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls album. Keith used an MXR Phase 100, comprising six TL072 dual opamps. The complexity of the opamp chip allowed for more control and greater dimension than earlier phasers.

Electro-Harmonix tried to rival the MXR Phase 100 with its version of the complex phaser. E-H introduced the Bad Stone, which included several opamps that create a deep phasing sound. But the Bad Stone’s little brother, a simpler version dubbed the Small Stone — with one Rate knob and a Color switch — proved to be the company’s best-selling pedal. At one point, E-H was shipping up to 8000 pedals per month.

Both E-H pedals are collector items, especially during the vintage-pedal wave of the late-80s into the 90s. Due in no small part to the early-90s classic “Come As You Are.” Kurt Cobain used the E-H Small Clone Chorus to fuel the main riff. The Small Clone used IC technology to create that classic chorusing effect.

The Chorus and Flanger 

IC-based chorus pedals were the next evolution of the simple FET-based phasers from earlier in the decade. And in the 70s, the Boss company was still in its early stages. But Boss was experimenting with the Analog Chorus that created a big, multi-dimensional stereo effect that became a significant part of the 80s sound. 

Many believed that it was this Analog Chorus effect that Andy Summers used in “Message in a Bottle” from Regatta de Blanc (1979) as part of his signature sound. Instead, Andy used an E-H Electric Mistress Flanger. Give that a try the next time you’re covering a Police classic.

Bring on the ‘Bucket Brigade’

The bucket brigade chip, as it’s commonly called, uses the IC’s taps differently. The bucket brigade chip (BB-chip, my unofficial reference term) can create flanging, multi-dimensional chorus sounds and other advanced effects by shifting and modulating the IC taps. 

The BB-chip got its name from its design. They took the signal from the input and handed it along from stage to stage, down a series of steps that could be tapped at differing points to create echo.

This technology put the Boss CE-1 Chorus at the top of the food chain in its class, setting the standard for chorus pedals. The beauty of the bucket brigade chip was that it was more consistent and powerful than the technology used in the bulky, high-maintenance Echoplexes.  

Boss CE-1 Chorus

Electro-Harmonix also used the BB-chip in their Memory Man and Electric Mistress Flanger/Filter Matrix in 1976. These are also sought-after pedals by collectors. The other desired alternative to echo stomps was MXR’s Analog Delay which was imitated by DOD, Boss, and Ibanez.

The Big 80s: Doing the Digital Dance

In the mid-80s, digital technology entered the delay game. And, just like the appearance of solid-state transistors had diehards longing for tape machines, the arrival of digital delay left tone hounds nostalgic for analog’s warm and musical tone. Analog circuits generate a softer and more ear-friendly delay sound.

This influenced digital delay engineers into incorporating analog-like, lo-fi reproduction and delay corruption to make the new delays more appealing. Check out The Edge’s guitar playing on U2’s early work to hear the warm musicality of the E-H Memory Man.


The fuzz was a 60s innovation that had become an acquired taste in the 70s and early 80s, as the levels of distortion it could achieve had limitations. These diode-based transistor pedals (like the MXR Distortion+) used the term distortion, but they were really fuzzy overdrive pedals.

Opamp-based distortions and overdrives from the 80s offered more power and tonal versatility than their predecessors from the 60s. Boss’s OD-1 and SD-1, the various Tube Screamers, and the DOD Overdrive Preamp 250 all recreated tube-amp-like distortion impressively. And the Pro Co Rat, Boss DS-1, and other similar pedals cranked the distortion up to 11.

Today, many players prefer the analog distortion chip. But, advances in digital technology have taken modulation and delay effects to new heights. 

Digital Modulation and Delay Effects

In the 80s, digital effects pedals were billed as cleaner-sounding and performing with higher fidelity. But, the Pepsi Challenge (that’s an A/B comparison for the younger readers) proved that 8-bit digital technology produced cold and harsh-sounding delays. I like to use the term ‘musical’ for this reference.

Even today’s delay units can lack the warm musicality of an analog unit. For example, the ‘decay’ of the note resulted in a nasty, unmusical deterioration. But, the delay times, long echos, and looping capabilities that digital offered had many players converted.

The best-in-class digital delays in the 80s were DOD/Digitech PDS1000 and PDS2000, Boss DD-2 and DSD-2, and the Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Digital Delay.


Digital reigned supreme in the Chorus and Flanger markets through the 80s and 90s. With technological advances and improved sound quality, power, and versatility, effects like harmonizers and pitch shifters were not just studio luxuries. The standard 8-bit was quickly replaced by 16-, 24-, and 28-bit technologies. This led to the development of multi-effects pedalboards.

The 90s and Beyond

In the early 90s, many players went retro. I was certainly one of them. Digital technology had guitarists dumping their pedals and creating gig-unfriendly rack units. I saw player after player hauling these refrigerator-sized rigs and a 4 x 12 speaker from club to club, and just remembering that makes my back hurt.

So, like many other players, I downsized. I had a simple pedalboard setup for club date gigs. And my amp choice for my precious blues gigs was a Mesa Boogie Mark IV 1 x 12 combo. It was heavy, but my guitar case, pedal case, and amp fit comfortably in the trunk of my car. 

Mesa Boogie Mark IV

I wasn’t necessarily a trendsetter. Instead, I was one of many non-conformists dusting off their old stomps and returning to basics. There was also a growing interest in vintage amps at the time. And, the DIY, build-your-own stomp subculture was growing. 

This led to hot-rodding and modifying amps and pedals, and a boutique culture was born for both amps, pedals, and analog circuits.

We guitarists love pedals, period. But, I also enjoy the technological advances, virtual amps, and effects that make guitar-playing fun. And, that’s all we want from our guitars, amps, and pedals — digital, analog, virtual, or otherwise — is to enjoy our guitar-playing lifestyle. 

I have much more to come. Thanks for reading. I appreciate you!

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