Bass guitar effect pedals can seem pretty daunting. All kinds of brands, models, colors, technical components and thousands of reviews for all of them. How does anyone really get the right information about effects pedals, and how to use them?
Pedals play a big role for bass players. They help to add an additional layer of tone and dimension to our playing. Sure playing clean – or without any effects at all – is one way to go about playing bass, but effects can help you to:
- Cut through the mix on stage by adding an extra bit of bit or cut to your bass
- Express musical ideas with greater depth and variety (try to imagine Anesthesia without any effects)
- Make your playing come alive in a different way (again – see Anesthesia).
Bryan Beller had an article back in 2010 for Bass Player Magazine where he discussed bass guitar effect pedals and was the basis for this post and this infographic (see below – it’s pretty cool!)
This post is long overdue. We’re going to be looking at bass guitar effect pedals. Specifically:
- What each pedal does and how it works
- The difference between an overdrive and a distortion pedal
- How envelope filters work
- How phase shifting pedals like octave and chorus pedals work
- How compressors work and how they make your bass lines sound louder
- How delay effects work.
Think of this post as a reference tool if you’re a seasoned pedal veteran and an introduction to effect pedals for bass guitar if you’re brand new to the art of pedal.
A Super Short Overview of Effects Pedals
1. Volume Pedals:
Volume pedals allow players to adjust the volume of their rig from their pedalboard, rather than manually turning down the amp or the bass. Typically, you’ll find volume pedals being used by guitar players for volume swell effects more than you’ll find bassists using them for that reason.
In the bassist’s pedal chain, the volume pedal is often seen being a tool to tune with when used in conjunction with a chromatic tuner where you can then quiet the rig but still have your signal picked up by the pedal chain.
Standalone, volume pedals aren’t tremendously useful. They really do need other pedals to really be useful to a bass player and their pedal board.
A Handful of the Best Volume Pedals for Bass:
- Ernie Ball,
- Morley, and
- Visual Volume.
2. Octave Pedals
Octave pedals are a kind of pitch shifting pedal. When activated in the pedal chain, octave pedals work by splitting your signal into 2 octaves, one clean high and one distorted low one.
When engaged, octave pedals can create an effect similar to a synth pedal and deliver a fuzzed-out, synthesizer sounding effect:
A Handful of the Best Octave Pedals for Bass:
- Boss OC-3 Super Octave
- EH Bass Micro Synth
- Digitech Bass Synth Wah
- MXR Bass Octave
Here’s a sample of a BOSS OC-3 Octave Pedal and what it sounds like in action:
3. Overdrive Pedals and Distortion Pedals
Ever notice how when you turn your music up really, really loud, it starts to get fuzzy and distorted? That’s what overdrive and distortion pedals do – but in a really controlled way.
Overdrive pedals and distortion pedals, well, overdrive your signal by adding more strength into the signal, causing the signal to distort.
Distortion pedals work very similarly to overdrive pedals and many refer to them interchangeably because of their strong similarities in function and tone shaping.
The differences between distortion and overdrive pedals are subtle and can vary extensively or minimally depending who made the pedal and the tone shaping functionality of the pedal. Some claim overdrives tend to sound more “hollow” while distortion pedals tend to sound more “full” and “bottom heavy” but, again, differences between these two kinds of pedals can be very subjective.
At the end of the day, both pedals are designed to add additional gain to your signal to the point of minimal signal clipping (again – a fancy way of saying when you make things really, really loud, they distort and sound fuzzy).
Most overdrive pedals tend to have these controls associated with them:
- Gain (often labelled as Drive) controls the amount of overdrive – or how fuzzy the signal comes out of the amp.
- Tone to compensate for additional highs caused by the actual clipping process
- Volume (or Level) to balance the effect volume with the bypassed level. It can also be used to boost the signal for solos.
- And the additional Bass, Treble and Mid tone control options
A Handful of the Best Distortion and Overdrive Pedals for Bass Around:
- Way Huge Swollen Pickle
- Fuzzrocious Pedals’ Rat Tail
- Dr. Scientist’s The Elements
- Tech21 VT Bass
- Boss ODB-3
- Sansamp Bass Driver DI
- T-Rex Bass Juice
- Fulltone Bassdrive
- MXR Bass Blowtorch M181 (<– VERY powerful pedal!)
For bass players playing in hard rock, alternative rock, or metal, distortion and overdrive pedals are certainly something worth investing money and time into.
4. Envelope Filters and Wahs
Ever listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers? You’ve heard an envelope filter.
Envelope filters and wah pedals work by moving the signal of the up and down the frequency spectrum based on how you rock the pedal.
In other words, wahs work by “thinning” your sound and “widening” your sound based on how you rock the pedal. Rock the pedal back, and your tone widens out, rock the pedal forward and your tone thins and becomes more top heavy.
Envelope filters on the other hand provide that same frequency-altering effect, but automatically – hence why envelope filters are sometimes also called auto-wahs.
Auto-wahs work the same way as rocking wah pedals but are, well, automatic. The quality of the wah comes from how much the audio signal changes in volume.
Put another way, all this means is how you play the bass with the envelope filter on will affect how “thin” or “fat” the wah coming out of the amp is.
A Handful of the Best Envelope Filters and Wahs for Bass Around:
- 3leaf Audio Wonderlove Envelope Filter
- MXR Bass Envelope Filter
- Digitech DOD FX25-B (<- personal favorite and very affordable. Flea used one for a while, too!)
- EHX Q Balls Enigma
- Pigtronix Envelope Phaser
- SourceAudio Bass Envelope Filter
Here’s a demo of the Dunlop MXR Bass Envelope Filter. Pay particular attention to how the wah snaps back or “flattens out” as the bass player plays the bass. You should notice that the harder the bassist digs into the bass, the more snap is caused and the less attack he applies, leads to a fatter, wetter wah effect:
5. Chorus Pedals
Chorus pedals are another kind of pitch shifting pedal.
Like octave pedals (above), chorus pedals work by splitting the guitar’s signal into two: one clean and untouched and another changed. In this case, the second signal is treated with a small amount of reverb and delay, providing that “echo-ey” effect to your bass playing without being a full-blow delay.
Though often overlooked, Jaco Pastorius experimented for a period of time throughout his career with chorus pedals in a small pedal board consisting of a RAT distortion pedal and an EHX delay pedal. The pedals rarely made an appearance when they were, they were showcased during Jaco’s rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun”.
A Handful of the Best Chorus Pedals for Bass Around:
6. Reverb and Delay Pedals
If you’ve ever slammed your hand down on a table in a room and heard a slight echo come off the impact sound, you’ve just done the same thing that a delay pedal does.
Akin to overdrive and distortion, reverb and delay are terms to describe a certain kind of pedal and are often used interchangeably. Though there are pedals that are designed exclusively for recreating the reverb effect of the Fender Reverb amps of the 1960s, they are usually wired to be 6-string guitar compatible only.
In the context of bass guitar, delay and reverb are terms that, essentially, mean the same thing.
Most delay pedals do have a specific reverb effect built into them, fulfilling both effects in one pedal.
Delay pedals work by delaying the guitar’s signal a certain amount of milliseconds from the pedal interface itself. Most delay pedals will have these basic control options to them:
- Delay time
- Delay level
- Feedback sets how much delay is fed back to the input (for repeating delays)
A Handful of the Best Reverb and Delay Pedals for Bass Around:
- Boss DD-20
- Line 6 Echo Park
- Guyatone MD-3
- Digitech Digidelay
- Akai Headrush
8. Compression Pedals
A compressor pedal works by, essentially, “mashing down” the entire guitar signal to even out the highs and low into one, even signal.
This compression of the signal that takes place helps to “normalize tones” that are sometimes lost in the mix because of complex overtones, and it will result in a more articulate sound without compromising much of the quality of the other signals of the entire guitar chain.
This is typically why you’ll find compressors at the end of pedal chains, rather than at the beginning or in the middle.
Moreover, compressors also have the ability to increase the sustain of notes beyond sounds that are normally usable on the instrument.
Ever wonder how a guitar player is able to hold out a single note for a very long time? It’s the compressor pedal, baby, mashing down that super high frequency and extending it outward as a result.
The problem with compressors, however, is that compressors take away the ability to add expression to notes.
Take what we discussed earlier in this article about envelope filters modifying their sounds accordingly based on the volume of the signal. How you play the bass will affect the wah output or in other words, the expression you put into the bass will affect the output.
Compressors take away that expressiveness in exchange for an increased volume without distortion and sustain of notes.
Lastly, compressors have typically been seen on guitar player’s pedal boards more than bass player’s pedal boards for the simple reason that the frequency that guitar players play within is better suited for the changes in signal that a compressor delivers.
Because bass is a low-frequency instrument, using a compressor plus other effects runs you the risk of muddying your tone and making your bass just a wash of sound rather than articulate and punctuated.
A Handful of the Best Compression Pedals for Bass Around:
- EBS Multi Comp
- Retrospec Squeezebox
Please include attribution to https://smartbassguitar.com with this graphic.
- How to Set up a Pedal Board for Bassists - June 16, 2021
- The Best Bass Guitar Effects Pedals Guide You’ll Ever See [INFOGRAPHIC] - April 24, 2020
- The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Everything About Bass Guitar Strings - March 20, 2020
In that pedalboard (image) where would you put a preamp?
If you’re working with a pre-amp pedal like the Tech21 SansAmp or MXR M81, it would go last on the pedal chain. Typically, most players using a pre-amp last in the chain are using it as a tone shaper. They’re shaping the final result of their tone after the signal has gone through all their other effects.
Other players use the pre-amp first as an overdrive pedal or to dirty up the signal before it touches the other pedals in the chain.
At the end of the day, the choice is up to you where you want to use it and what purpose it’s going to serve. Talkbass.com has a great thread on this worth checking out: http://bit.ly/1MlQlff
Good! Thanks, Mike. I have one more question. I have 3 pedals that always cause me problems (because I’m never sure where to put them in my pedalboard): preamp, compressor and noise supressor.
As you say (and I think it’s right) the preamp fit almost perfect as the last one, so I can get its tone shaper and also is useful because of the DI. I think the compressor would be ok to be put before the preamp, so the signal that take the preamp is all mashed down. But, where would I put the Noise Supressor?
Just in case, I leave my pedalboard here:
Clean: Tuner – Boss CEB3 – Hartke VXL – Aguilar Tone Hammer
Dirty: Tuner – Boss ODB3 – Tech 21 Vtbass – Darkglass B7K
In both cases, where do you think I should put the compressor (Markbass Compressore) and the noise supressor (Boss NS2)?
Thanks a lot,
Compressor placement is going to be determined by what you’re trying to compress first.
Like in mixing music, the compressor’s placement is determined by how you want the final signal to sound. If you’re trying to compress the bass guitar signal before you add effects, so the added effects are affecting the compressed signal, put it first. If not, put it at the end of the chain. Doing so in each way is going to change the signal slightly, maybe not so much to the human ear initially, but certainly if/when you go to record it.
That being said, I don’t know how much compressor you plan on using or how reliant you are on it to get your tone.
This article might help you out: http://bit.ly/1vTW6qj
For noise suppressors, I’ll admit – I have not used a noise suppressor in any of my chains and have seldom encountered someone who needed one. So my expertise here is virtually non-existant.
That being said, I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction about where to put that one.
Jeremy Phipps says
The noise suppressor normally goes at the end of the effects chain (but before a volume pedal if you use one), to shut down any “hiss” or noise that’s generated by the rest of your effects.
Mack Fam says
May be a dumb question from a bass lover just starting out in the pedal world, but why wouldn’t I put the volume in just before my amp but after my compressor so the compressor wouldn’t try to boost the volume reduced signal?
Thanks in advance for your wisdom
Jeremy Phipps says
A true compressor doesn’t boost a low signal, although some stompbox compressors will include a “sustainer” that will… but you’re right. Volume adjusters (vol pedal, comp/sustain, etc) are normally put in at the end of the chain, just before it sends to the amplifier, especially since you already have two volume adjusters (your fingers and your volume knob) on the bass itself, in case you want to roll in Overdrive as volume increases, or any number of other gain-based effects.
Kevin mac says
What about the mothership from pigtronix? And the bit commander?
Rich Sackett says
No direct boxes? Hugely important and a huge oversight. Chorus pedals are more commonly used by guitarists. Flangers are more idiomatic to the bass guitar. The MXR one I have good, a little fatter and quieter than my old DOD unit. Lastly, don’t limit your compressor choice to one shaped like a stomp box. I have an old Ashly SC-50 that is really good. The DOD 825 (?) is also nice. De-esser’s awful though.
My two go to pedals for 25 years boss CE 2 chorus and Boss DD3 delay. Chorus works much better than a flanger and doesn’t washout your tone. Don’t limit your mind to the same effects as every other bass player.
Hey. Thanks for the info. I know which pedals to look for in future if I want to add or change stuff. I personally disagree about the compressors being at the end of the chain… especially for bass. I find that when I switch between fingerstyle and slapstyle, my levels change dramatically and thus a compressor helps a lot at the beginning…after all, a slight increase in level from the start can lead to a massive increase by the time the signal goes through to the amp. Especially if you’re going through fuzzes and distortions. Also, the compressor does add nice colour to your tone. But of course, it should really set up right or you face the problems mentioned. MXR bass compressor is a great pedal which I think deserves a place on the list. Cheers!
What pedal would enable your bass to sound more like a lead guitar if one chose to have that option? thank you.
Salvage Custom says
Great post! Very nice these videos really Its so much helpful videos It’s really awesome indeed.Custom guitar caseSalvage makes absolutely the most incredible and boutique pedal boards and guitar case out there. The construction is absolutely solid and this thing looks phenomenal.
1. Tuner pedal.
2. Bass eq
These are the only pedals I seem to need, unless I require a specific sound. Which means occasional overdrive or chorus (I’ve stopped using an envelope filter and octave pedal due to noise issues and I only use a compressor with my passive bass as it has no effect on active pickups)
I especially can’t see the point of using a delay pedal – how can you hold the groove together for the whole band if you’re behind the beat, or if you’re providing multiple in-between beats?
Richard R. says
Anyone know of a pedal or amp to better create a standup bass sound. I play a fretless bass.
Tony Casas says
I just finished my pedal board and I put my compressor right after the tuner.
My order is:
Tuner – Comp – Octave – Freeze/Note Sus. – Reverb – Preamp – Bass Cabinet
I tried the compressor at the end of the chain and it suppresses my reverb shimer effect. I also tried my comp after my octave and it sound squashed rather than open, so I switched them around ( comp then octave) and that made for a more Phatter and still clean sound.
If anybody has other ideas I would like to hear them.
That seems a lot more sensible. The compressor definitely shouldn’t be at the end of the chain, and that isn’t where you would “typically” find them. Besides, the diagram above has all the inputs/outputs the wrong way round.