Whether you’ve been collecting guitar pedals for decades or just picked up the hobby in recent months, there are some staples that everybody should own.
Whether it’s a practical, utilitarian type of pedal that works more as a tool than an exciting effect or some of the most unique modulation options out there, the options that live on your pedalboard can shape your sound and playing experience. And while your selection of pedals is a very personal choice that largely depends on what you’re playing and where/how you’re playing it, some things are nice to have handy for one situation or another (even if they’re not getting used every single day).
Some of them are on the pricier side, some of them can be found on platforms like Reverb for much cheaper, and some of them are generic types of pedals that come at all different price points — but all of them will make your guitar life better in one way or another.
Is a tuner a sexy option for guitar pedals? Not at all. Is it the most important piece of hardware you could possibly own? Absolutely. If you’re horribly out of tune, you’ll sound like shit no matter how well you play. Does it really matter what brand of tuner you get? Not in particular, but some are definitely better than others. The Boss TU-3 and TC Electronic Polytune 3 are probably the two most popular options, but the Korg Pitchblack (and Pitchblack+) certainly has its own claims for the top spot and some high-end guitar nerds will swear Peterson StroboStomp is the only way to go. The most important thing is probably just that you own one (or at the very least a clip-on tuner) and preferably that it’s the same as your bandmates’ so you’re not all tuning to slightly different standards.
Bear with me for one more utility pedal before we get to the fun stuff. A noise gate probably won’t be necessary when playing in your bedroom, in a studio setting or even in a lot of live situations, but it’s sure nice to have as an emergency option. It’s particularly useful if you’re using high-output single-coil pickups (like P-90s) with a heavy amount of gain and/or playing venues that might have questionable electricity or big lighting rigs. Once again, Boss makes the industry standard with the NS-2 and NS-1X, but plenty of punk, hardcore and metal musicians prefer other options like the Pigtronix Gatekeeper.
MXR Carbon Copy
You can spend a lot of money looking for the perfect delay. Or you can grab a used MXR Carbon Copy off of Reverb for under $100 and call it a day. It’s simple enough that anyone can use it, effective and durable enough that tons of professionals rely on it regardless of age or genre, and widely available enough that you can get one for cheap and let it outperform $300 boutique delay pedals. Sure, you can get other amazing — and much more complicated — delays like the Line 6 DL4 or the Boss DM-101/RE-202/SDE-3000 (depending on your preferences), but why go complicated when the simple option works so well? If you get the regular MXR Carbon Copy (not the Mini or Deluxe or whatever other variants), run it at 18 volts to give it some extra oomph.
On the other end of the delay spectrum is the Universal Audio Del-Verb. At $350 a pop, it’s definitely not one of the cheaper options on this list, but it’s also likely the only delay and/or reverb you’ll ever need. UA’s pedals in general are for the high-end clientele who are willing to pay a bit more for a feature-packed experience, and the Del-Verb is effectively the best of their Golden Reverberator and Starlight Echo Station jammed into one pedal. If you really want to get lost in the noise, you can spend twice as much to get both of those pedals separately (which also takes up twice as much space on a pedalboard), but the Del-Verb was created because Universal Audio’s lead mad scientist, James Santiago, didn’t want to deal with having to dial in both of them every time. If the Del-Verb is good enough for him, it’s good enough for you. The EarthQuaker Devices Dispatch Master is a pretty damn good fill-in (for under $150 used on Reverb) if you can’t swing the Del-Verb, but after a side-by-side comparison, it was a no-brainer to me.
It’s 2024, guitar pedals are bigger than ever, and Bill Finnegan still hasn’t shown any kind of inclination or desire to make anywhere near enough of his legendary Klon pedals to satisfy demand. Thankfully, the rest of the industry has taken his relatively simple circuit and made enough “Klones” of different varieties that you can pretty much get one to suit your specific needs. You can get a no-frills Mosky Silver (or Golden) Horse for like $30 on Reverb, or get something boutique with a little more edge and some harder options for heavier music, like the Demonic Machines HTR or Bowman Audio Endeavors’ signature Bowman Overdrive. Hell, you can even mix it up and get a PRS Horsemeat to match your Silver Sky dreams of being John Mayer or just shell out for an overdrive that can do literally everything in the Kernom Ridge.
As the author and curator of this list and the person who generally writes all of the gear stuff for SPIN, I feel like it’d be disingenuous not to mention that for the first 17+ years of my guitar-playing journey, I never used anything other than a Boss SD-1. If memory serves correct, a 14-year-old me saw some documentary interview with Mike Ness of Social Distortion where he said it was his go-to pedal, so I immediately went out and bought a used one with money I’d saved up. That little yellow stompbox has crossed the country multiple times with me, been a part of my life for longer than all but one or two of my friends, and it still sounds just as good as the day I got it. Sure, some people might prefer a different overdrive like a classic tubescreamer or something, but I’m yet to find anything that sounds like it (but better), so you can pry my beat up old SD-1 out of my cold, dead hands (or at least off the pedalboard I use the most).
If there’s one area where guitar pedals have really evolved in recent years, it’s amp simulators. While the idea of a “Marshall-in-a-box” pedal that colors your sound as if it’s going through a cranked tube amp has been around for decades, we’ve reached the point where you don’t even really need an amp anymore. The Line 6 Helix series set the standard for amp modeling, but the HX Stomp still often costs over $500 used. Then came Universal Audio’s series of pedals — each one focused on a specific line of historic amps, most recently the Marshall-based Lion, but the Ruby (Vox) and Fender options are fan favorites as well. Recently, Boss introduced the IR-2, which came in at a lower price than the other top options ($200) and undoubtedly comes with the brand’s rugged durability and dependability. Whatever your preference may be, it’s great to have an option that you can just plug into an interface or passive DI box (like the Walrus Audio Canvas or Radial ProDI) and not have to worry about bringing a heavy amp everywhere.
Fender Shields Blender
Despite being a staple for both guitars and amps, Fender isn’t exactly known for having amazing pedal offerings. But their collaboration with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields is a massive step in the right direction. Is this pedal for everyone? Maybe not, because non-Big Muff fuzz pedals can be finicky and tricky to dial in. But if you can get your hands on one, enjoy oversized pedals with a ton of knobs, and are even remotely interested in the big “wall of sound” over-the-top fuzz sounds that bands like My Bloody Valentine employ, it’s worth giving it a shot. Yes, that potentially goes against the title of this list, but it’s a unique experience of a pedal that deserves a unique spot.
Wondering what the distortion pedal your favorite artist used sometime between 1980 and now? Well, odds are it was either a ProCo RAT or something inspired by the RAT. With the ability to go from overdrive to full-blown fuzz, the RAT is both one of the most versatile and influential pedals, and (like the Klon) has inspired countless variations and takes on the classic. My personal favorite currently available from ProCo is the FAT RAT, which adds a pair of switches to the iconic distortion to give you some extra options — but that likely won’t stop me from buying the next “Big Box” reissue they put out. If you’re new to RATs, I highly recommend getting one of the multi-RAT options out there, my favorite of which is the Black Mass Electronics 1312. The JHS PackRat also sounds great if you’re lame enough to be offended by the 1312’s artwork and/or support of trans people (like those who would support disgraced media moguls and drag the LGBT community simultaneously).
Compressors are like underwear. You don’t exactly need one and it can be freeing to play without it, but it often helps to hold everything together and appear professional. The crispness and consistency you hear on many professional records is frequently (at least partially) due to the use of a compressor somewhere in the chain. But also like underwear, everyone has their own preferences for what works best for them. A lot of guitarists lean on the yellow Diamond Comp/EQ pedal or the Keeley Compressor+ (including myself until the UA 1176 released in pedal form), while others like the simplicity, tiny footprint and sub-$100 used price of the Xotic SP Compressor. Ultimately, compressors are probably the pedal that’s most dependent on the player feeling their way through and determining if there’s something you want to use for specific instances or as an always-on situation.