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:
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:
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:
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
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