Guitar Pedals Explained (Part 6): Pitch Shifting

Even though pitch shifting pedals could be grouped within other filtering related guitar pedals, they generate such distinctive sounds and atmospheres that I have included octavers and harmonizers in a separate category.

What they basically do is to generate additional notes (at different pitches) to the original, creating magical harmonies. These harmonies can be very simple (just add or subtract an octave or any other given interval), or quite complex, by generating one (or several) additional notes within a given harmony that you can set.

These effects are a bit trickier to use, as you need to play the notes firmly (and in tune), because otherwise you will get some dirty and bad sounding harmonies.

In any case, they can provide your solos or single-note riffs with a dramatic presence and thickness that you won’t be able to live without after trying them…

These are the the pitch shifting pedals that I will talk about in this post:

  • Octaver. It generates an octave of the note you are playing, either up, down, or both at the same time.
  • Whammy. This pedal creates a shifted note at some given intervals, and allows you to act over the pitch shifting by rocking a foot pedal.
  • Harmonizer. This pedal creates shifted notes (either one, two and even more) within a preset harmony (major, minor7, etc.).

Octaver Pedals

An octave divider pedal splits the input signal and adds (or subtracts) an octave tone to the original. They were originally really simple devices, including just a couple transistors, a transformer and a few other passive components.

Try one of those adding up an octave and you will get a similar effect to the one obtained naturally by using a 12-string guitar. Like the sixties? You will get some psychedelic stuff with these guys…

In some stompboxes, an octave can be added and subtracted at the same time, and all them up to the original note. That is so cool for playing single note riffs…

But be careful here, they can sound awful if you play chords with them.

Electro Harmonix POG
Electro Harmonix POG

A little history on Octave pedals

Octave pedals were also very popular in the sixties and seventies. Jimmy Page used an MXR Blue Box for recording the solo in “Fool in the rain” with Led Zeppelin.

Due to the simplicity of the electronic circuit, these pedals are quite common among pedal manufacturers.

Octave pedals features & controls

Octaves are, in general, simple devices. Sometimes you will find the octave effect blended with other effects (like fuzz) in some stompboxes, but these are the controls you will see in an average pedal:

  • Octave 1. With this knob, you will bring into presence one of the octaves (i.e. the upper octave).
  • Octave 2. On the other hand, turn this knob clockwise and you will increase the volume of the down octave.
  • Tone. In some pedals you will be able to change the tone of the octaves, either with a single knobs or with two different, one for each octave.

Do I need an octave pedal?

This is one of the few pedals that a bassist should include in his pedalboard (if he had one), along with an envelope filter.

However, you may think octavers aren’t for you. Give them a try, and build an opinion yourself.

Whammy Pedal

In reality, whammy pedals are not like a category of pedals as such, but a very peculiar kind of effect made by Digitech.

This pedal works similarly to an octaver, but now you can change the pitch of the note in different intervals, not just limited to octaves. In addition, you can modify the pitch while playing by rocking the pedal with your foot.

Take any recording of Rage Against the Machine and you will hear Tom Morello creating very crazy tricks with one of these.

Digitech Whammy V
Digitech Whammy V

A little history Whammy pedal

The WH-1 Whammy pedal, the original Whammy, was first engineered and manufactured in 1989 by IVL Technologies, and was discontinued in 1993. Now you can find different models by Digitech.

I must admit that this pedal is not one of my favorites, but you will see many top guitarists using this effect since its inception more than 25 years ago.

Whammy pedal features & controls

The main characteristic of the whammy pedal is the pedal itself, as you can modify the pitch of the note you are playing with your foot.

Apart from that, these are the controls of whammy pedals:

  • Harmony. In this mode, it acts as a simple pitch shifter. Add an octave, a third, etc. to your original note, and the pitch shifted note will be always there while playing.
  • Whammy. With this control you can select (up or down) the maximum pitch shifting that you will get by rocking the pedal up and down. This functionality is the one whammy pedals are well known for.
  • Shift. Newer models have an additional section with which you can modify (momentarily or permanently) the pitch of the note. Instead of having a shifted replica of your dry signal, you will now have just one: the “wet” shifted one. Although it appears to not adding any additional juice, this will allow you to play some cool and imposible chord progressions.

Do I need a Whammy pedal?

I can’t say that you will need a whammy pedal if you like to play a music style in particular. This pedals are a very personal choice and are not necessary at all 99% of the times.

However, you may think that, for the other 1% of the rest of the times, the whammy is definitely what you need…

Harmonizer Pedals

Harmonizers also work with the pitch of the input signal. In this case, they automatically process the tone of the note you are playing and add one (or more) shifted note according to a preset harmony.

You can work with mayor scales, minor, pentatonic, and so on. This can result in a relatively complex signal processing in order to get a natural and nice sounding quality, so better go for a quality pedal here.

These pedals go even further, as some models will allow you to set different shifted notes at different delays, so you it automatically generates arpeggios in a given harmony too.

Eventide Harmonix pitch factor
Eventide Harmonix pitch factor

A little history on Harmonizer pedal

I don’t have very much to say about the history of Harmonizers, apart from the fact that I love how Brian May used them…

Please help me out in the comments section…

Harmonizer pedal features & controls

Harmonizers are very powerful devices due to the complexity of the digital processing circuits they incorporate. Most of them are rack mounted devices, so it’s very difficult to provide like general controls that an average stompbox device may contain.

In any case, expect to have, at list, some means to select the mode of operation (be sure that an harmonizer pedals will include a few pitch shifting capabilities), and a few more to control a parameter or two (generally the pitch level) of every shifted note the harmonizer generates.

An for sure, an LCD screen to deal with all the controls…

Do I need a harmonizer pedal?

Well, not really, do you?

If you want to emulate Brian May and his mythical harmonies (check the “God save the Queen” at the end of “A night at the opera” album by Queen), try one of them.

They are very versatile and complex devices, so if you are a kind of techy and love just playing and get lost within knobs, parameters and menus, you will be happy with one of those.

I always loved guitar effects and music. My effort is constantly directed towards new and innovative products that will make your job easier, help you develop your skills further and spark your creativity, while trying to keep the cost within reasonable bounds.