Building the Ultimate ’80s Guitar Pedalboard

As with most genres, ‘80s music has come full circle again, with many younger players discovering it for the first time. The guitar sounds from the ‘80s are some of the most recognisable and sought after in music history. In this blog, we delve into the classic ‘80s guitar tones and look at which pedals you’ll need to build the ultimate '80s pedalboard!

Chris Toft

Chris Toft

The ‘80s will always be regarded as the pinnacle of rock n roll decadence, debauchery and showmanship! But behind all the hairspray, makeup and spandex (and that was just the men), there were some exceptionally gifted guitarists. From Eddie Van Halen to Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Lukather to Dan Huff, you couldn’t throw a stone in the ‘80s without hitting a guitar hero! Aside from their mind-boggling licks and iconic riffs though, these players had some of the most recognisable, genre-defining guitar tones in the business.

Many of our favourite players from the ‘80s had rigs that would make today’s touring musician’s eyes water! It was not uncommon to see huge racks full of studio-grade compressors, EQs, harmonizers and delays in arenas and even clubs in the ‘80s. The main reason for this was because guitarists wanted to bring their studio tones to the stage, and these all-encompassing racks were the only way to achieve this. Fortunately for us average Joes though, with so many great guitar pedals available today, these once essential rigs are no longer necessary to get huge, studio-worthy ‘80s guitar tones!

The quintessential ‘80s guitar sound can be split into three distinct tones – clean, rhythm and lead. There are a few essential pedals to achieve each of these tones, so let’s take a look at what you’ll need to build the ultimate ’80s guitar pedalboard!

’80s Clean Guitar Tone

‘80s clean guitar tones are some of the most recognisable among guitarists. Love them or loathe them, these heavily processed tones have an unmistakable shimmer and presence to them, with an almost synth-like quality. It goes without saying then that a good clean amp with plenty of headroom is imperative for creating a classic ‘80s clean tone. It will act as the blank canvas on which you add the colour with various effects.

Check out the classic ’80s clean tone on Def Leppard’s “Hysteria”.


Compressors bring a uniformity to your guitar sound, essentially making your loudest bits quieter and your quietest bits louder. By “squashing” the sound, you sacrifice some of your dynamics but gain a bigger, more balanced tone with enhanced sustain. This effect is perfect for those power ballad arpeggios that ring out for days!

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If there is one effect that is synonymous with ‘80s music, it’s chorus. It was used, and some would say overused, on absolutely everything from Rock to Pop, Funk to Metal. Chorus adds a wide stereo spread to your sound by doubling up your signal and detuning it slightly. This gives the illusion of two guitars playing in unison as well as adding a lush shimmer. A tri-chorus will produce the most lush and spacious effect but any good chorus pedal will do the job just fine! No ‘80s clean tone is complete without heaps of chorus on it!

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Digital Delay

A digital delay with plenty of repeats is another essential effect when creating an epic ‘80s clean tone. Delay is perfect for adding a thick, ambient wash to your sound, particularly when used in a stereo rig! For the best results, try using two separate delay pedals set with different delay times. Alternatively, an all-singing, all-dancing dual digital delay will achieve the same effect.

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The humble EQ pedal (or equaliser) may not be the most exciting effect you’ll ever buy, but it’s importance cannot be overlooked. ‘80s clean tones often have a lot of presence in the high-end with many of the lower bass frequencies dialled back. A good 6 or 7-band EQ pedal will allow you to fine tune your sound beyond the capabilities of your amp.

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The last piece of the puzzle in achieving a lush ‘80s clean tone is reverb, ideally with a long decay time. Most reverb pedals will include a “Hall” setting and this is what you’ll want to use to recreate those epic reverbs, reminiscent of a huge concert hall or arena. When combined with a digital delay, your otherwise bland guitar tone will be transformed into an ambient soundscape!

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’80s Rhythm Guitar Tone

When you think of classic ‘80s rhythm guitar tones, what comes to mind? The chances are you’re imagining a mid-gain “British” crunch with plenty of mids. Back in the ‘80s, guitarists favoured cranked amplifiers to achieve these tones, and the results speak for themselves. However, if you’re not in a position to turn it up to 11, there are a number of pedals that’ll get you close.

“Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins features a solid overdriven rhythm guitar tone with loads of chorus!


One of the most effective ways to dial in a great ‘80s rhythm sound is to start by setting your amp up with a good amount of gain, but not too much. Next, take your favourite overdrive pedal and keep the gain control low, with the volume control maxed out. This will push your amp further into overdrive for a satisfying crunch with a tight, defined low end. You can then fine tune the gain on the overdrive pedal to your taste. A “screamer-style” overdrive pedal (you know the one) will achieve the best results for this sound!


If your amplifier is a real clean-machine with not a lot of gain on hand, you may find a distortion pedal is the best option. There are probably more distortion pedals on the market than any other effect, so your choices are seemingly endless! A good “British” sounding distortion pedal, set with a medium amount of gain, will give you a great sounding rhythm tone. Too much gain though, and you’ll lose all of your pick attack and definition, so don’t go overboard!

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We’ve already discussed the importance of chorus on your clean tone, but it can be used to great effect on your rhythm tones too. Chorus on top of overdrive/distortion can produce a thick, almost three-dimensional rhythm sound that fills up the space sonically. From Zakk Wylde to Alex Lifeson, Slash to Phil Collen, some of the biggest rhythm guitar tones from the ‘80s are drenched in chorus!

For a similar effect, try using a harmoniser or “detune” style pedal for a massive sounding rhythm tone. It works just like a chorus but without the modulation (or movement) and sounds epic! You can set the precise number of cents by which your tone gets detuned. Think Eddie Van Halen during the Sammy Hagar years…this was achieved by setting the pitch controls somewhere around +9/-9 cents.

’80s Lead Guitar Tone

As with the rhythm tones, many of the classic ‘80s lead tones were achieved using a cranked amplifier. However, with the help of a few simple pedals, you can replicate these same searing tones using even the cleanest of amplifiers.

Warren DeMartini’s tasty solo on Ratt’s “Lay it Down” features a classic ’80s lead guitar tone!


To achieve a classic ‘80s lead tone, you’re going to need a distortion pedal with plenty of gain to replicate the sound of a cranked valve amp. There are some fantastic distortion pedals on the market that are incredibly affordable, so you don’t need to break the bank to get great tones. Set the pedal with a good amount of gain and dial in the tone/EQ control so that the mids are boosted. This will help you cut through the mix when it’s time for your face melting solo! If you need an extra bit of gain, try putting an overdrive pedal before the distortion in your signal chain.

Delay & Reverb

Much like with the clean tones, you’re going to want plenty of digital delay and a long reverb to make your lead tones that little bit more epic! Try setting your delay with fewer repeats and EQ the delays so they’re a little darker than your dry signal. This will help the delays to blend with your dry signal and not get in the way.

When setting up your reverb, you’ll probably want to stick to the “Hall” or “Plate” settings with a long trail for the best effect. Try experimenting with the tone control on your reverb pedal and you might be surprised at how different the reverb sounds at darker and brighter settings.


It wouldn’t be an 80’s guitar tone with a generous helping of chorus now, would it?! Don’t be afraid to max out the “Depth” and “Width” controls (where applicable) on your chorus pedal but keep the “Rate”/”Speed” control low. For a truly 80’s lead tone, you don’t want to be subtle with the effects! “Less is more” is not what you’re going for here… “More is more” is the way to go!


So there you have it…the perfect ‘80s guitar tones at your feet without needing to hire a road crew to set up your rig! As with anything, experimentation is key, so don’t be afraid to mix and match different pedals and mess around with the settings. In this writer’s humble opinion, ‘80s guitar tones are some of the most fun and satisfying to play with, and isn’t that the main thing? So embrace your inner ‘80s and have some fun with it!

Our Ultimate '80s Pedalboard!

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Chris Toft
Chris Toft
Chris is a Senior Digital Product Marketer at Andertons and a self confessed guitar nerd. With a love of all things 80s Rock and Hair Metal, Chris favours humbucker equipped guitars, high gain amps and plenty of chorus and reverb! Clean tones and spandex leggings are optional!

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