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Most guitar players tend to use pedals to enhance their guitar tone, or to give them access to sounds their amp simply cannot provide. When using pedals, you’ll face many challenges and have a million questions about how it all fits together.
If you’re building your first pedalboard, or you are a seasoned pedal pro looking to clean up your signal a little more, this article will give you everything you need. As an example for this article I will use my main gigging pedalboard to show you how I put it all together and the reasons behind how I’ve ordered my guitar pedals. I will also discuss the questions and hot topics that I get regularly asked in about pedalboards.
I play quite a lot of styles and regularly get asked to jump in and out of various gigs and sessions. I found at one point I was constantly re-building my pedalboard. One day I decided to build the most versatile board I could with the smallest footprint. I wanted a board that I could grab and get whatever sound out I need for whatever job I’m doing.
As you know, guitar pedalboards come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny boards that hold 3 or 4 pedals, right up to mammoth boards that hold more than you can even imagine owning. For my main pedalboard, I opted for the Pedaltrain Metro 24. This was the right size for me to easily move around, it came with a hardcase and being a Pedaltrain, it’s known for its durability.
My pedalboard is small, but it packs a punch. It covers a lot of ground with it’s tonal options. Next, I’ll give a pedal-by-pedal breakdown of all the guitar pedals I’m using and the order they fit onto the board:
My Guitar Pedals
I also use a wah pedal for some gigs (note the loose power cable next to the Proctavia in the pedalboard photo at the beginning). I keep my Wah on the floor next to my board as I don’t always need/use one. At the moment I am going back and forth between the Dunlop Crybaby BD95 Billy Duffy model and the Dunlop SC95 Slash Wah.
The first thing you might notice is that I have a lot of overdrives and you’re right, I certainly do. The reason for this relates back to my earlier point about versatility. I bounce between bands playing everything from Soul, Blues and Motown right up to Hard Rock and Classic Rock. I use my various overdrive pedals to give me different flavors for different jobs.
Most people would tend to stick to just a single overdrive to suit their needs but in the name of versatility, I have multiple to suit different jobs.
Common Guitar Pedal and Pedalboard Questions
When it comes to assembling a pedalboard that is clean, functional, and has the maximum interaction between pedals, there are a few rules to follow. Though these rules are not gospel by any stretch of the imagination, they will certainly help. I get asked a lot of pedal questions by students I teach, people I meet at gigs, or anyone who’s just interested in learning more about pedals. Here I’ll answer some of the most common ones I’m asked.
What order should I put my guitar pedals in?
Well, the truth is that the sky’s the limit with your potential to experiment here. Pedals will always react differently depending on what is before or after them, but here are some general rules:
- If you use a fuzz pedal, be careful. Some fuzz pedals like to see the direct signal from the guitar and will prefer to be first in the chain. Not all fuzz pedals like anything else before them.
- Wah pedals work best at the start of the chain. So, if you use a fuzz this could be a problem. If you look at photos of Hendrix, most will notice he ran a wah into a fuzz. Hendrix had his pedals modded to allow for this to work. Typically, the output buffer on a wah pedal would not play well with the fuzz. My recommendation would be to try it both ways. If your fuzz does not like the wah up front, put the wah second in the chain and see if it gives the results you want.
- Pitch based effects track the signal cleaner at the start of the chain. If you take a clean signal, manipulate its pitch then run it into a drive, you get more accurate and clean pitch tracking. If you distort the tone before the pitch shifting, the pitch shifting will also shift the drive and you will end up with less-than-clean note tracking. Neither is wrong, but both will yield different results.
- Overdrives like to sit somewhere in the middle of the chain after pitch effects and compression but before modulation. You can use multiple overdrives at once to get extra gain or tonal changes. I would recommend ordering your drive pedals in signal flow from lowest gain to highest. This is not essential, you can experiment with various overdrive orders. Each overdrive pedal will react different before or after others and produce different results. Experiment to find the one you like.
- Modulation pedals prefer to be placed after drive pedals. In my chain I do have a vibrato pedal before my drive pedals which I am aware is not ideal, however, as I use this in conjunction with the octave pedal to get an organ sound, it means I can hit both with one stomp!
- Boost pedals will react differently depending on where you put them in the chain, as will compression pedals. A boost before your drives will hit the drives harder and give you more gain, a compression before drives will compress your clean signal and then add drive once it hits the drive section. A boost after drive pedals will give you a more audible lift in volume, a compression pedal after drives can also provide extra volume but it will also compress your whole signal chain.
- Spatial pedals (Reverbs, delays) work best at the end of the chain. They take the tone you’ve crafted thus far and put it into a “space.” These pedals are also the most likely to run via the FX loop based on your amp (More on that topic below).
In a nutshell, split your signal chain into 3 groups:
- Noise making pedals (Wah, fuzz, pitch, overdrives, distortions – all things that create noise and create your tone)
- Modulation pedals (Chorus, flanger, tremolo, vibrato – anything that modulates your tone)
- Spatial pedals (Pedals that put your tone into a space)
Once you’ve grouped them in this way you should aim to link them as follows:
Noise Making Pedals > Modulation Pedals > Spatial Pedals
Experiment to your hearts content and try things in other places but just remember that the above orders will give you the safest results.
How many guitar pedals do I need and which ones should I buy?
How many do you want to buy? There is no right answer to this. Pedal choices are personal. The number of pedals, and what pedals you need are down to what you expect. A good starting point for buying pedals is asking yourself 2 questions:
- What do I feel my current rig/sound is missing?
- Am I chasing a specific tone from a guitarist/song?
Once you can answer those questions, you can start to research what you want. If you want more gain out of your amp, look at an overdrive. Perhaps you want to make your volume louder for leads–so you’d want to look at a clean boost. Maybe you’re trying to sound like Slash. In that case you’ll be needing a good delay pedal and a wah pedal.
What guitar pedalboard is the right size for me?
If you already own a bunch of pedals that you know you’ll want to regularly use, lay them out on the floor in a rectangular area. Measure the space they take up. Keep in mine you’ll have to leave a little space between pedals to account for the patch cable jacks and power cables. All the big pedalboard manufacturers list size specs on their websites. Compare this with your measurements until you find the perfect board.
Do patch cables matter?
Yes, they do. You can use cheap, moulded cables if you wish. However, some of these are susceptible to electrical interference and noise issues. You could also question their durability when it comes to gigging. I prefer to use pancake jack patch cables due to their low profile, meaning I can cram my pedals closer together. I also know the cables will stand up to heavy use. You should always use the most expensive cables you can realistically afford. Cheaper cables are usually of a higher capacitance which will affect your tone. When you use a lot of pedals, your guitar will go through a lot of processing which does affect tone, you can ease the signal through the chain by using better cables. I use Mogami pancake patch cables (pictured below).
What power supply should I use?
The world of power supplies is almost as daunting as the world of pedals. Take note of the mA Output reading of all power supplies. This tells you the maximum amount of milliamps it can put out to power the equivalent pedals. Each pedal you own should have a mA reading either on its base or, at a minimum, in its instruction manual. If the total amount of mA your collection of pedals will draw exceeds what the supply can put out, you’re power supply won’t be able to cope. You should always over compensate where possible. I use a Diago PowerStation supply, which unfortunately are no longer available, though they do appear on eBay from time to time and some stores also still stock them. As of the time of this writing, UK readers can find them at Andertons.
As with patch cables, you should aim to spend as much as you realistically can on a power supply. You will want one with isolated outputs. Lower price supplies tend to be non-isolated which can lead to various noise/interference issues especially on stage when you’re cranking everything loud! Isolated outputs provide each pedal with its own individual power stream. My Diago supply is actually a daisy chain style power supply, which typically I would not recommend, though I find this particular one to be exceptionally low noise. I have a separate isolator housed under the board which converts the current to match what the Voodoo Labs Proctavia requires.
Buffered or true bypass?
This is one of the most debated questions in the pedal world. True bypass pedals claim to allow your tone to pass through with no tonal change when the pedal is off. Buffered pedals have a buffer which adds a slight boost to the signal as it passes through, which many will claim alters the tone. My board is made up of pedals that are both true bypass and buffered. My advice here is don’t get hung up on one or the other. Use your ears and you’ll know if it’s right or wrong. Don’t fear buffers. Especially if you use a long cable or you have a lot of pedals. Your tone will suffer some degradation passing through large runs of cable or lots of pedals, a buffer will keep that signal fresh and give it the lift it needs.
Should I use the FX Loop?
This is very dependent on your amp and how you set things up. If you run into an amp on the clean channel and get all your drive from your pedals, then going in the front end with everything should be fine. When I gig with my Dumble or Tweed style amps, everything goes in the front. I have a very high-end clone of a 1969 Marshall Plexi which does not like reverb in the front end. When I use this amp, I have to run it via the FX loop.
The FX loop works by placing certain effects after the amps preamp section. If you use an amp on a distorted setting you might find it difficult to get a good tone running something like a reverb into the front end. What you would essentially be doing is running a reverb into a distortion which will cause the reverb itself to distort. By placing it in the loop, you take the distorted signal and place that into the reverb’s “space,” resulting in a more usable reverb. Other effects that you might want to experiment with in the loop are delay and other modulation effects like chorus. Some players like to play an EQ or a boost in the loop for post-preamp tone shaping too.
How do I keep my wiring neat?
Cable clips are a great way to keep the underside of your pedalboard looking neat and professional. These are stick back pads you can purchase from Amazon:
You can use these little clips to neatly group cables under your board. Remember: the neater your pedalboard wiring, the easier it will be to quickly trace any faults.
While we’ve covered a lot of ground here, the most important element in your pedalboard tone quest is you. Listen to your tone and how each pedal affects the signal. Trust your ears. If something sounds better before something it typically shouldn’t be before, don’t worry. There are no rules for pedalboard building. My gigging board changes on a regular basis and it is probably on its 4th or 5th build in 2018 alone. I have no doubt that in a few months it’ll be looking very different.
Experiment, try different pedal combinations, mix it up and just have fun.