I've gotten to the point with guitar that I feel like I can play most things I want to with a bit of practice. But that's just the notes. I want to be able to actually shape the way my guitar sounds coming out of an amp and into peoples' ears. The problem that I've run into with tone is that nearly every guitarist uses at least a few pedals, but pedals engage in complex interplay with the specific amp and guitar you're using. Short of carrying my guitar and amp to music stores and trying out each pedal individually, is there any way I can learn more about this stuff so that I can at least guide myself towards what I would like?
This is a great question. You're right that some guitarists get very specific about the type of guitar and amp that they use with specific pedals, but for your purposes, you won't need to get that in-depth about sculpting your sound right away. Once you start learning what different effects do, you'll know when you've outgrown the ones you have. So until that point, just keep an open mind and explore!
To that end, I would totally recommend going to your local music store and trying some pedals out! Most guitar stores will be very happy to help set up some pedals for you to demo, especially if you explain that you're just trying to learn what they sound like. It won't be necessary to bring your exact guitar and amp with you. Unless you have a very rare model of guitar or amp, they will likely have some that are close enough at the store already, just ask them to demo a similar setup to what you have at home and you can get close to how it will sound when you bring it home. (Strat vs Tele, single-coil pickups vs humbuckers, 1x12" combo amp vs amp head and cab, etc)
Thanks for asking, astrographie, and welcome to the site!
I agree with 3d12's answer. I just want to add that in addition to your local music store, one way to go, without totally breaking the bank, is to invest in a multi-effects pedal. Years ago, when I was starting off with guitar, I picked up a Vox Tonelab LE. It was a great, great tool for a long time. This sort of multi-pedal can be very customizable, I spent lots of time dialing in the sounds and experimenting with things until they sounded how I wanted. There are lots of different multi-effects pedals on the market, and many of them cost about what two regular guitar pedals might cost, but then you can get so many different combinations of sound from one thing!
After a few years of messing around with that pedal, I started to notice little things about it that weren't quite how I wanted them to be. I still continued to use the pedal, but I started looking around at various other pedals that were dedicated to just a particular aspect of the sound I was after. For instance, I recall that eventually, I noticed some of the settings in the Tonelab LE seemed a little notchy. Like I could adjust a setting by .1 (on an 0-10 scale) in one direction or the other, and it seemed like a very noticeable difference, when I maybe was looking for a gradual difference there.
Even after I started picking up other pedals to get closer to the sounds I was after, I still used that big multi-effects pedal. It was still useful, and a neat thing to be able to play around with. After many more years of less and less use, I eventually decided to sell it, as I had eventually built up a big pedal board that did just about all the things I wanted it to do.
My advice is, try to find a decent multi-effects pedal, and play/grow with it until you know you need something else. At that point, it'll be easier to look for x, y, z pedal and know that it is exactly the thing you were looking for.