Today’s market is better than ever when it comes to diverse guitar pedal options, but believe it or not, there was once a time where pedals were completely unheard of and even laughed at.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the world would see the first standalone guitar pedal, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So what was the first pedal, what is its background? Was it the first effect? Let’s find out.

The First Effect?

For those who may not know, the first guitar pedal was not actually the first guitar effect, the earliest effects were built into the instruments themselves.

One early example of this comes from the 1930s. This was the decade that Rickenbacker had installed a physical, mechanical tremolo effect into their instruments. The Vibrola Spanish guitar created the effect using a system of pulleys that would physically move the bridge, warping and bending the pitches manually.

A small company named DeArmond would be the first to crack open Pandora’s box and spark what we now recognize as a multi-billion-dollar industry.

The History

During the same decade as built-in guitar effects came to be, DeArmond created what is widely acknowledged as the first guitar pickup. The popular story is that Harry DeArmond – the founder of his self-named company – had a brother, John, who made the prototype himself using parts from an old Ford. His brother is said to have been only 10 at the time.

While not a pedal, it was an even more iconic invention that put DeArmond on the map, with pickups being installed in countless guitars made by Gretsch, Rickenbacker, and more. This incredible breakthrough heavily aided the success of their pedals further down the line.

Shortly after the events of 1939, they created their first volume pedal known as the Model 600 (catchy, isn’t it?). However, this doesn’t quite classify as an “effect” in the traditional sense, unless one would classify a guitar’s volume knob as an “effect” as well. They had started on a journey that would further the mark they had already left in the history books…

The First Standalone Pedal

Shortly after World War II, DeArmond released the first ever standalone guitar effects pedal. The DeArmond Tremolo Control was a large tremolo pedal constructed using a small bottle of sealed mercury that would move back and forth in the enclosure to produce the effect.


While the effect remains popular to this day, tremolo was a bit of a confusing term back then as many musicians didn’t understand the term or simply couldn’t picture the effect being created by a pedal.

Any educated musician back in the 1940s might have known the term tremolo as the effect of repeatedly actuating a note quickly, such as in the term “tremolo picking.”

However, the effect pedal actually modulated the volume of the signal, lowering and raising it again to achieve a similar idea, despite being distinctly unique sounds.

What’s quite impressive about the design is that it still had the same two controls that we see on every tremolo pedal today: depth and speed. A good design will last for decades!

While the tremolo effect itself was not DeArmond’s creation, simply packing it up and putting it in a box you can operate with your foot changed the way we approach guitar tone forever.

Careful Operation

As mentioned earlier, the enclosure contained a bottle of mercury that was essential for the operation of the device. Unfortunately, a problem that permeated many of these is that the fluid would evaporate over time.

Mercury wasn’t an easy material to source, and probably isn’t something you have (or want) kicking around your house.

As a result, the liquid was often replaced with other substances, with a popular one being Windex. Yes, Windex was around back then, kids!

Future Impact

Only 10 years later would the world see amplifiers starting to implement the tremolo effect into their circuits, a feature that was seen well into the ’60s with the Vibrolux and even today. We also saw the introduction of other effects such as spring reverb in amps.

In the 1960’s many more effects were put into stompbox formats using tubes. Into the 1970’s they evolved into primarily transistor designs to save significant money on manufacturing, and in the 1980’s we started seeing the very first digital effects.

If it wasn’t for Harry’s invention we may not have much of the products we have today.

Fast Forward

The few units that remain today are worth a small fortune (and Billy Gibbons probably has first dibs on them all), but if you want to own a piece of effect pedal history a DeArmond volume pedal – especially the Model 602 – can be had pretty easily for just a couple hundred bucks, even one from as early as the 1950s.

Today we have our pick of the litter with both digital and analog effects; we live in a world of AxeFXs and Kempers, of delay and distortion.

In a time where we can tailor our sounds so minutely that we can choose from tens of thousands of effects (probably just in overdrive variants alone), we will never forget to tip our hat to Mr. Harry DeArmond, a man who had no idea the impact he would have on music for generations to come.