For a lot of people walking into a music store, whether physically or virtually these days, is a lot like that “kid in a candy store” type of situation. It’s hard to know where to look, what to try, and eventually what to buy. It’s all so tasty and so colorful and so sweet. We want it all! But, do we really need it all? Can we be happy with only a few basic bass guitar pedals? The good news is that with the right knowledge of combining and ordering just a few bass effects, you can get a lot for relatively little. So, if we’re narrowing down our focus a bit, how do we hone in on the most essential effects pedals for bass guitar?
What Bass Effects Pedals do You Really Need?
If you don’t have a ton of experience with effects pedals and what they do, it may seem like every pedal does something different and each one is critical to own. However, the more you play around with them and the more you know about what they do, the better you’ll be able to filter your attention and make decisions about your bass guitar gear purchases. Let’s start by categorizing some bass pedals and putting them into a bit of perspective.
One quick note about pedals in general, there are a lot of “bass guitar” pedals on the market. Some of them are excellent, and some of them actually have features that work specifically for bass tones and frequencies. Just remember that if a guitar pedal doesn’t say “bass” on it, it is most definitely NOT off-limits. Some of the best bass guitar effects pedals just happen to be originally created for electric guitar. If you’re curious about a pedal, ask someone, do some research, and most importantly…play with it!
We’ll go through some general information here about effects pedals, and then we’ll make a few suggestions about what you might want to consider buying first. Remember, this is all subjective. A list of essential effects pedals for bass guitar will look pretty different for many bass players. Take our advice with a grain of salt, but it should help take a lot of the confusion out of the process.
Controlling your bass guitar tone with dynamic effects pedals
Compressors, limiters, and equalizer pedals are sometimes referred to as “dynamic effects” pedals. They should go at the front of the signal chain before any other effects because they are responsible for shaping and defining your overall tone rather than creating those more dramatic and unique altered sounds that you’ll get from something like a distortion pedal or a synth pedal. You want to first build a solid tone before you go messing with it. Your bass will normally plug directly into these dynamic types of pedals.
Compressors will help you reign in the output of your bass, controlling the overall range of both volume as well as highs and lows. Low frequencies get boosted a bit while higher, sometimes harder and more aggressive tones get mellowed out.
If you’ll be playing any slap bass or other very percussive styles of playing, you’ll want a good compressor to even out those dramatically louder pops and slaps in the overall mix. Hard playing with a pick will also benefit from some compression.
To be honest, this is probably one of the most important of the essential bass pedals. If you start with a wildly uncontrollable sound, you’re more likely to be unhappy with any tone shaping you do further down the line of your effects chain. Well done compression can make all of the other effects you use sound better and more consistent. It’s not necessarily a “sexy” effect until you get used to it and see what it can really do for your sound.
A limiter will behave similarly to a compressor, but they normally will just cap the louder, higher levels to your desired setting. Most, if not all, compressors will allow you to perform this function as well.
An equalizer will allow you to tweak the frequencies of your sound with a lot more granularity. This means that you can focus on the high end, the low end, or the middle of your tone to pinpoint the sounds you want to either boost or cut. If you’re looking for a very heavy, almost muddy, dub type of sound you can get that pretty easily with an EQ. You can also set thinner, higher tones to cut through the mix when you’re playing louder, harder music like punk. An equalizer pedal is a great thing to have if you’re really looking to dial in the specifics of your tone.
A few good options to consider:
Preamp / Direct Input Box Bass Guitar Pedals
With many of us going directly into a computer or headphones these days for much of our playing and practicing, direct box pedals are more important than ever. You can think of these as all-in-one tone boxes. You’ll be able to do pretty much everything listed above, and probably a bunch more.
Many modern preamp pedals also feature amp modeling and the ability to go directly into any output source. So, you can dial in your tone at home while you’re practicing or recording and then bring your tone with you when you go and play live with other people. All you need to do is plug your preamp box into a PA system or some other amplifier, and you’re good to go.
For most bass players, especially when you’re just starting out, one of these pedals will be all you need to start developing your own sound. A good preamp or direct box pedal can replace a compressor, a limiter, and an equalizer. It can also take the place of an amplifier if you’re playing primarily through headphones.
Check these options out…a couple even have built-in overdrive or distortion. The SansAmp is a great place to start as your first pedal, and you may decide you don’t even need an overdrive pedal in the end.
Go heavy with distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals
While all of these types of bass effects pedals do similar things to your tone, make it grungy, crunchy, and all that good stuff, they do it in different ways with somewhat different results. The circuitry and methodology in the pedal construction are what give the effect its character, but you just need to know which one is right for your sound.
For anyone playing a style that requires a bit of dirt in your sound, this would most definitely be in the essential effects pedals for bass guitar category.
Overdrive pedals are generally smoother sounding and less gravelly than the other types of bass distortion pedals. You can still get some very heavy sounds out of an overdrive pedal, especially as you play with your tone and what other effects you chain it with. However, overdrive pedals might also give you a mellower fuzziness, which can be really nice on a bass.
Distortion pedals are often crunchier, punchier, and harder-edged sounding in the tone they produce. If you’re going for a very grungy distorted sound, this is probably the pedal you’re looking for. Check out the Big Muff (bass guitar and the original model are both awesome) for some serious heavy distortion. The Rat is also a very time-tested, classic choice.
Shaping your color with octave and phase bass pedals
As the name suggests, these pedals add notes either an octave below or above the note you play and sometimes both. Depending on the level of intensity that you set, you can achieve results ranging from a subtle, fuller tone all the way to an outrageously funky, almost synth-like sound.
Octave pedals sound particularly good when combined with other effects, such as overdrive or distortion. You’ll get a very distinctive effect out of this type of pedal, so if you’re not actually looking for this sound right now, it might be a good one to hold off on until later. Having said that, octave pedals are a LOT of fun to play with. They’re also fairly common in a bass player’s rig.
Phase pedals, also sometimes called phaser pedals, are a bit like envelope filters in that they shape the waveform that your bass produces. They can be configured to affect certain parts of the peaks and troughs of the signal, and they create a swooshing or whirling kind of a sound that’s sometimes referred to as psychadelic. You also might hear this effect used in new wave style pop or even goth.
Here are a couple of decent choices to check out:
Control timing and vibe with reverb, delay, sustain, and chorus bass pedals
Similar to an octave pedal, you can achieve anywhere from a subtle change in tone all the way to some outrageous timing acrobatics with this group of pedals.
Reverb effects are pretty well known and add a lot to your overall sound, but they’re very easy to overdo as well. Too much reverb can sound cheesy, fake, or just plain terrible. Just the right amount, however, can make your bass sound really active, alive, and full. This is especially true when you’re recording. Reverb can often be found on other pedals, like a direct input box, or in whatever DAW (digital audio workstation) you’re using to record, such as GarageBand.
Digital delay effects can be a lot of fun to play with, but they’re often a very specialty item. Delay bass pedals may be useful for styles such as reggae and dub, but they’re way too easy to overdo. Some guitar players like delay pedals for styles such as rockabilly as well, but not as much on bass. If you play one of these in a music store, you’ll know if you need one or not.
You can get some good sustain on a bass guitar by being smart with your compression to be honest. Your initial tone setup and the right amount and type of compression may be all you need. If you do need more though, you can always pick up a sustain pedal to make those bass notes sing on and on. Again, this is one of those pedals that you’ll pretty much know you need when you actually have a need for it.
If you’re looking to thicken up your sound, a chorus pedal is a solid choice. They take your original signal, double it, and then put the signals just barely out of phase and tune so that it sounds like two instruments playing together. Obviously, you can tweak the sound for more dramatic effects, but chorus pedals are actually more common and generally useful than some of the others listed here, especially for people who want a super fat, lush sound.
And now for something completely different with your bass tone
This brings us to that “something different” category. I saved this category for last because the effects are either really important to a specific genre of music, and you just have to have them, or they’re just so incredibly fun to play through that once you experience it, you’re screaming “take my money!”
Synth pedals and envelope filters
Playing through a bass synth pedal was one of those, “OH MAN, I NEED THIS PEDAL NOW!” kind of experiences for me. I love synths and envelope filters. Being able to create that kind of sound with a bass was so much fun…immediately. However, this kind of pedal isn’t all that useful unless you’re playing some seriously funky funk or maybe new wave?
Envelope filter pedals
An envelope filter pedal will allow you to control the frequency of your output signal in really fun and creative ways. It can roll through, cutting and boosting highs and lows giving you that “knob tweaking” sound that synth players love so much. They can also be set to react to certain attack settings so you only get those funky envelope sounds when you slap or pop your strings. Either way, they are tons of fun.
A bass synth pedal will, usually, allow you to use your bass to control an actual synthesizer. You can get pretty deep into sound shaping and designing with these effects pedals, and sometimes they do come with a bit of a learning curve. If you’re into both bass guitar and synthesizers, this is a must have.
There are plenty of bass players who will disagree with me about the application of bass synth pedals, and that’s fine. Just know that I don’t put this one in the category of “must haves” when it comes to essential effects pedals for bass guitar. I do, however, count it is a must have for myself and anyone else who likes to have fun.
Effects pedal ordering
Where you put each pedal in the chain of effects can create extremely different tones and sounds. With just a few pedals, you can create an almost endless supply of experimentation.
Make sure to move things around and see how the new combinations sound to you. It’s a good idea to keep your direct input box or preamp at the beginning so you can control your overall tone and compression, but after that go wild.
Some suggestions for bass pedal purchases
If you’re just starting out with bass effects pedals, here’s what I would start with. But definitely take your own situation and tastes into account, and go with what you think is right for you in the end.
I think you probably need a direct input box, an overdrive pedal, and one other effect to start. That other effect, for me, would be a synth pedal.
Other great alternatives would be an octave pedal or a phase pedal. Just remember to think carefully about the type of music you play and the situations that you play in. While most musicians who buy any gear at all have done it, it’s a shame to spend good money on something only to let it sit around and end up on Craigslist in a few months.
Essential Effects Pedals for Bass Guitar Wrap-up
We wanted to include this video from Reverb since they actually review a few of the pedals we have here. This is a great chance to hear what some of these sound like. Check out the SansAmp and the Plumes pedals for sure. While the C4 Synth isn’t for everyone, it’s definitely cool.
Bass guitar effects pedals can be a blast to work with. In some situations, they’re even pretty necessary. However, try not to get caught in that “shiny object” syndrome. And definitely avoid the mentality that new equipment will immediately make you a better musician.
Start with one pedal, either a direct input box or preamp would be good. You can’t go wrong with the SansAmp. Work on your tone and your chops. Then introduce new sounds and effects as your budget and interest allow. Most importantly, always have fun and do whatever makes you want to play more.
If you have any suggestions for essential effects pedals for bass guitar, let us know in the comments.
Last update on 2021-10-26 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API