Rock music would not be what it is today if it weren’t for the blues, and blues today wouldn’t be what it is without rock. Many of the most legendary guitar heroes in history have studied (read: worshipped) the blues, from iconic virtuosos like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix to the future legends of the new school like Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Gary Clark Jr.
Blues is a style more dependent upon soul than a lengthy signal chain of effects, but a few deliberate choices of the right stompboxes can help to maximize your tone. With these pedal selections you can cover ground from traditional purist blues all the way to more modern, hybrid sounds. Here are some of the best blues guitar pedals.
A Tubescreamer-style overdrive is the quintessential dirt pedal for blues. Perhaps the most notorious player to sport the little green monster was the legend himself – Stevie Ray Vaughan. One of the best reasons that this type of overdrive works so well with the style is that many blues players use guitars with single-coil pickups, and the characteristic “mid-hump” EQ curve of the circuit complements the mid-range scoop of those kind of pickups quite perfectly.
But a Tubescreamer-style is far from the only overdrive that suits the blues. Anything with a strong mid-range and not too much gain will do the trick. Some other solid choices are “transparent” drives like a Klon Centaur or MXR Timmy, or anything on the lower end of the gain spectrum.
With a style where expressive soloing is so fundamental, you’re going to want to be able to cut above the band for a solo. Blues is not a style reliant on a lot of gain, so a solid clean boost might be exactly what you need to make your solos sing. That’s not to say that you might not want to use a second overdrive (you can always turn the gain down), but don’t disregard how useful a simple clean boost pedal can be at lifting your signal or driving the front end of the amplifier.
A style as soulful as the blues needs an effect that is as equally expressive, and there might not be a better effect for this than wah. From the old school to the new, any blues player can find a use for it in their signal chain. In addition to offering a way to really make guitar parts speak, a wah can also be used in a fixed position as an additional tonal control.
While modulation effects are usually not crowding the pedalboards of blues guitarists, many of the legends are known to use some sort of rotary speaker effect. Leslies are the most popular, but if you don’t have the capital to pay a team of people to haul a gargantuan piece of delicate equipment to and from your gigs, there are a lot of pedals that can get you where you need to be. And if a rotary effect isn’t quite your thing, you can get an approximation by combining a phase shifter with tremolo – especially in stereo.
Blues might not be the first type of music that comes to mind when you think of a fuzz sound, but they have found their way onto the pedalboards of blues players for the better part of half a century. From blues/classic rock hybrid artists like Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix to hardline blues artists like Clapton and Beck, a fuzz pedal and the blues are a match made in heaven.
There are two main types of fuzz circuits – germanium and silicon. Germanium fuzz pedals generally have a more aggressive sound with a narrower EQ focus on the midrange. Silicon produces a somewhat smoother type of fuzz, has a wider frequency spectrum, and can generally produce more gain than germanium. Both have their merits so it’s up to you to try each out to see which is the best fit for your rig.