Honestly, I wish this was the question being asked. Should I? But the question is usually phrased more along the lines of “which effects should I use?” This assumes that any should be used at all.
To that end, I want to first ask the question “should I?” and use that to answer the “which ones?” question.
Why do you want to use an effect pedal with your acoustic guitar? If the reason is to create a certain effect that’s one thing. However, it’s been my experience that rather than trying to create a certain sound, most people looking to use effects pedals with their acoustic instrument are trying to create a better sound.
Now, this is an extremely important distention to note. If my goal is to create a specific sound or effect, then effects pedals are an obvious route to take. But if my goal is to get a better sound, and I’ve limited my search to effects pedals, then I may not be taking the best road to better tone, and I may not be on the right road at all.
So if the reason you want to use an effect pedal is for a certain sound or function, then yes, that could work, and read below for more information.
If the reason you want to use an effect pedal is better tone… well, the next section is for you.
TONE > EFFECT
Guitar Tone (how it sounds) is a very, very subjective thing. The combination of high, mid, and low range frequencies are often a matter of personal preference. One person might swear up and down that their guitar sounds like “the songs of the angels” while another person might just swear up and down because it’s the worst sound they’ve ever heard. Good tone isn’t so much described as it is just something you know when you hear it.
The honest answer which is almost always give is that it’s better have less gear, but to have better gear. If your acoustic guitar’s tone isn’t great, then you would probably be better off investing the money in a better guitar than in effects pedals. If your acoustic guitar sounds great on its own but not plugged in, then you should buy a better pick up instead of spending the money on some “sonic sweetener” that may or may not be “sonic snake-oil.”
If you’re just looking to “fill out the sound”, especially if it’s just you or a very limited band, there are other ways. By using in an effect like delay or reverb to “fill out the sound” you can quickly remove the things that make your guitar sound great, and do the opposite of what you intend. Different arrangements or the use of Pads and loops are probably a better call in this situation.
Personally, I have used the K&K Trinity System for many years. It’s a dual source pickup with a microphone, under saddle pickups and a preamp that can blend the two down to mono or send them out in stereo. It makes my guitar sound like a guitar when plugged into a PA system. I like the Taylor Expression system a lot. LR Baggs also makes a very good dual source system for a little less $$$ and I know of a few others that people recommend but I haven’t had direct experience with. Sadly, I have seen some really great guitars sound really, really horrible because their owner just went with the stock pickup.
Now, I recognize that some people are on a budget or they need a fix now, and waiting a year or two to save for a nicer guitar doesn’t solve any immediate problems for them. To that end I will make a few suggestions (Priced from low to high):
It’s not a pedal, but honestly, if you’re looking for higher quality sound in your acoustic guitar try putting a microphone on it. The Shure SM57 is a classic workhorse mic that I use for my guitar amps and have used with acoustic guitars in the past. That chances are pretty decent that your church already has one laying around somewhere, so you might not have to spend any money.
A friend of mine has one, and has been very happy with it. It’s a simple, one-knob pedal that adds filtering (EQ), compression and feedback reduction to bring life to a stock piezo pickup. I suppose you could get similar results with a BBE sonic stomp, which costs the same, but I’d go with the BodyRez since it’s specifically meant for acoustic guitars.
Now, I know some people who love this thing. I don’t think it makes you sound better, and all the demos I’ve seen include guys that already have high quality pickups in high quality guitars. The appeal I see in this unit is features, which it has in spades and which would make me think of buying one of these. But at $299, it’s not helpful to the people on a budget.
This thing will make your acoustic sound better. I tested it with a low end guitar, with an even lower end pickup, and it really helped. The problem is of course it’s higher price point and lack of features. I recommend this pedal for someone who is primarily an electric or bass player but who wants to improve the sound of their acoustic guitar for the times they do use it. I brought it with me to Mexico last summer and used it for acoustic, electric and bass guitar in multiple circumstances to great results.
I use this personally. It’s studio quality components that produce higher quality sound. The clean boost is great for solos or finger picking. However, it lacks some of the options of the other pedals we’ve mentioned and I get why someone would look elsewhere. But I’m a big fan of this pedal and it’s probably something I won’t ever sell.
WHICH ONES AND HOW TO USE THEM
Let’s assume that you are using effects pedals to create a certain effect during your worship time, let’s talk about how to do that.
These are effects like Wah or Filters like the POG. I’ve seen guys use them but it’s not my cup of tea. I tend to think these effects take more away than they add when acoustics are concerned.
I like compression. I think it serves a valid role where acoustic guitars are concerned. My advise is to use one with a clean blend so that you can add subtle compression. I like compression a lot when it comes to fingerpicking, and the volume loss that many players experience.
I don’t advise anyone to use any kind of gain pedal with any acoustic instrument, EVER. Yet, I know an LA studio guitarist who uses a Tube Screamer and a Rat with his acoustic guitar, so what do I know? Well, if you’re an LA or Nashville session player then you can do what you want, but for most of us, just avoid this.
I have a lot of bad memories of too many church guitarists overusing chorus on their acoustic guitar. I’ve heard some tremolo on acoustics that have sounded cool, especially fingerpicked, but generally speaking it’s probably not what you’re looking for.
Nothing wrong with using one. But if you’re looking for swells, you’re better off with an electric.
This is the effect I’m most sympathetic towards someone using. The thing to watch out for is the gain that can be part of the design of certain delay pedals. Digital delay is probably the way to go for this one.
I use Reverb very sparingly on certain songs. But by its nature, the reverb effect creates so much background noise that I only use this this effect when soloing or more likely, fingerpicking.
If ever there was an effect made for the acoustic guitar it’s the looper. Notable examples include the TC Ditto, the Digitech JamMan and the Boss Loop station.
WHAT DO I USE?
As I’ve already said, I have a K&K Trinity system in my acoustic guitar. I run it into my pedalboard (mostly for the tuner) but since it’s there I use my PreDrive and the Cali76 compressor (set very lightly), and it sounds pretty nice. Since I use a programmable switching system, I bypass all of my other and very rarely use a Supermoon Chrome (for Father You Are All We Need) or a light delay, for echo more than anything.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
One of the great things about electric guitars is that you can do a lot, sometimes more, with lower quality instruments. This is rarely the case with acoustic instruments; you get what you pay for. Want to put a reverb pedal on your acoustic rig? Generally speaking, the lower the quality the pedal, the lower the quality your tone will be. Want to get the most out of that high end DI box you bought? Start with a higher end guitar, or at the very least, a higher-end pickup.