What’s on our pedalboards tells us a lot about us as guitar players. There are the minimalists who use them sparingly, a little salt and pepper, seasoning to taste with maybe an overdrive or a reverb pedal for ambience.
Then there are the maximalists, those whose ‘boards are busting to the seams with different flavours of delay, fuzz pedals for all seasons, and maybe a wah pedal on the side – you know, just for the weekend.
But what does the popular vote for best new guitar effects pedal tell us about how guitar playing habits? What does it say for us as players, and how our tastes in tones has evolved over a year?
Well, this year’s MusicRadar reader’s poll results are in, and it makes for interesting reading, particularly with your top two technically speaking doing nothing for our tone, yet offering a transformative experience for the solo guitar player, and for the practising musician.
Our poll’s top two results echo music retail giant Reverb’s year-end sales report for 2020, when the looper pedal was the biggest-selling effects pedal of the year – presumably as guitar players coped with lockdown by tracking their backing parts to a pedal for accompaniment.
But functional, essential or utilitarian, there’s something enduring about the looper's appeal, and its ubiquity on the acoustic guitar player’s pedalboard might go someway to explaining the vote.
The final podium place, meanwhile, is a tie between the high-end stompbox release of the year, and the return of one of the most storied effects pedals of all time, revamped and retooled to deliver chainsaw guitar tones for a new generation of metal players.
Let’s take a look at your top 10 guitar effects pedals of 2021.
1. TC Electronic Ditto+ Looper
There are many versions of TC Electronic’s evergreen looper but for our money the Ditto+ is the best. First off, it’s small, sized similarly to most mini guitar effects pedals on the market. Secondly, it’s very powerful, offering a whopping 60 minutes of looping time, to which you can add unlimited overdubs.
Furthermore, it is just so easy to use and flat-out helpful. We particularly liked its Extended Loop Mode, which helps out if you record an overdub that’s longer than the loop you are recording to – this clever feature simply extends the loop to sit underneath the overdub.
The 24-bit audio is top quality, and there are 99 programmable sessions, meaning you can save down your loops and recall them at will.
If you are a singer-songwriter who uses your looper for live accompaniment, that can be a neat way of building a set. You can also load pre-recorded loops in WAV format to the Ditto+ via USB.
For a little over 100 bucks, the TC Electronic Ditto+ is a no-brainer.
2. Boss RC-5 Loop Station
Another looper, and another pedalboard-friendly powerhouse, the Boss RC-5 Loop Station assumes the form of the classic Boss compact stompbox and delivers exceptional performance.
Here we have 32-bit audio processing, an upgrade on its successors, the RC-1 and RC-3, and like the best looper pedals it is easy to use, with an easy-to-read LED screen, allowing for easy parameter editing, and also alerting you to the progress of your loop.
Like the Ditto+, you’ve got unlimited overdubs, with 99 user programmable slots, but here, the stereo looping engine offers 13 hours of recording time, and there are 57 onboard drum grooves you can play along to. Boss also gives you A/B variations on each groove, customised patterns and the choice of seven types of drum kit.
The multi-function parameter knob makes it a breeze to use. You can use MIDI to control the pedal and sync it with your DAW or drum machine. You can backup your loops via USB (like the Ditto+, these are handled in WAV format) and download backing audio to play over via Boss’ Tone Studio software.
= 3. Boss HM-2W Heavy Metal Waza Craft distortion pedal
The chainsaw returns, new and improved, yet still as deadly as it was the first time around. The Boss HM-2 is a classic distortion pedal but somehow resists the veneer of respectability that cork sniffers have bestowed upon other much-loved circuits.
That is because of the tone. Famously the nuclear option for a certain breed of death metal guitarist and underground extremist, the original HM-2 helped define the sound of Swedish death metal and it returns here in a deluxe, made in Japan Waza Craft edition. As is the house style for Boss' Waza Craft range, there are some extras.
The HM-2W has two modes. In the Standard Mode you'll get all the chainsaw menace of the original pedals, positively feral sound that somehow even sounds more hostile with this improved circuit removing the noise from the signal and maximising output.
In Custom Mode, the sound profile is even more aggressive – the sort of modern update players might want after so many years of the HM-2 being out of production. It says heavy metal on the enclosure, but you there are many uses for an HM-2 outside of the black t-shirt demographic. Use for shoegaze, noise rock, punk, adding weirdness... Of course, if you are playing death metal, tune down, dime it, and stand well back.
=3. Universal Audio UAFX series
There was no question that Universal Audio’s stompbox debut would be nothing other than super-premium. There’s a design aesthetic at Universal Audio that enhances their gear with a user experience – and, in all fairness, a street price – that makes some liken them to the Apple of the market.
There are three pedals in the UAFX series, each with a powerful dual-processor and the capability to be run in mono or stereo. The Golden Reverberator presents a trio of classic reverb sounds and offers some modulation to add movement to them.
The Starlight Echo Station offers Echoplex-style tape echo, Deluxe Memory Man-style analogue delay, and a digital delay mode. You can add preamp coloration to change the sonic character of the tape echo and analogue delays, and there is tap tempo control, subdivisions and a host of features to style your repeats how you like them.
Finally, the Astra Modulation Machine assumes a similar format, offering chorus, flanger and tremolo effects with secondary modes and tap tempo. All pedals reward a little time spent experimenting, and with downloadable sounds via UA’s app, there are no shortage of options for players seeking superb presentations of classic effects pedal sounds.
5. Dunlop GCB65 Cry Baby Custom Badass Dual-Inductor Edition Wah
The Custom Badass is a get-it-while-its-hot limited edition wah pedal. For many wah enthusiasts, it presents the best of both worlds, with both Fasel and Halo inductor wahs in one unit, switchable via a side-mounted toe switch.
Dunlop gives us plenty of control over both circuits, too, with a pair of side-mounted dials allowing you to adjust the sweep for each circuit. The LED above each pot lets you know which is active, while a rear-mounted LED tells you when the wah is active or disengaged.
The Halo inductor gives you that throaty vocal wah sound that you might have heard on vintage Clyde McCoy wahs from the Thomas Organ Company / Jen Electronica. This is ideal for retro adventures in ‘60s electric guitar tone.
If you’re looking for a wah sound that’s a little brighter and plays better with modern, high-gain amps, the Fasel might be more your speed. But with a wah like this, the joy is in experimenting, and having the option to toggle between two adjustable voicings should make this play nice with whichever guitar and guitar amp combination you are using.
6. Walrus Audio Mako Series R1 High-Fidelity Stereo Reverb
MusicRadar says: "Walrus Audio makes the most of a compact stompbox with an intuitive array of controls that present exceptional sounding reverbs that range from the everyday to the sublime."
=7. Beetronics Vezzpa Octave Stinger
MusicRadar says: "Once more, all the buzz about the new Beetronics fuzz is well deserved, with the Vezzpa Octave Stinger combining a most aggro op-amp fuzz sound with an octave-up fuzz that's full of harmonic drama. Great fun."
=7. Strymon Zelzah Multidimensional Phaser
2021 was in many respects the year of the phaser, and Strymon's Zelzah was one of the best we have seen. Zelzah offers a pair of independent 4-stage and 6-stage phaser circuits and allows you to use them in all manner of creative ways.
Like the best phasers, Zelzah blurs the line between phase shifting, vibrato, chorus, and uses digital technology to produce some truly heady old-school swirl and chew.
9. Walrus Audio Polychrome
MusicRadar says: "A flanger with plenty of range and hidden depths, the Polychrome is another classy addition to Walrus Audio’s modulation lineup."
10. MXR FOD Drive
Remember the Dookie Drive? Here it returns with a new look, new branding, and some extra features for getting the most out of its dual-overdrive setup, with toggle-switch for boosting the mids – plus scoop and flat modes.
The effect, as it was intended, offers the experience of two amp stacks in one pedal, and more than enough drive for stadium-rocking punk endeavours.