Pedal Week: Building a Pedalboard
Published on 06 June 2019
It’s no secret that we love pedals here at guitarguitar: boutique units with custom graphics, reissues of old classics, multi-coloured Boss compacts and gig-battered trade-ins: we love them all!
A big part of the fun of using individual stomp boxes is hooking them up in different orders and seeing how the combinations sound. We believe that some of the most creative sounds happen when you throw out the rule book and just experiment.
But what if you don’t yet know the rules? The notion of building a pedal board can be a little daunting. We understand! And yes, there is, within reason, an accepted way of hooking up pedals. We’ll go through all of this with you and we’ll also take a look at pedal boards themselves and methods for powering your set up. Sounds good? Let’s do this!
Order In Chaos
Before we delve into specifics, let us talk about the general order that a good functioning pedalboard should take. General wisdom dictates that, roughly speaking, it should go: utility (tuners, compressors etc) followed by drives, then modulations and finally ambience (reverbs and delays). This will give you a good basis to work from: modulations come after the gain in order to sound more present and ‘there’ whilst the ambient effects come at the end in order to keep your sound from being washed out.
It’s helpful to think about things in linear terms: do you want to distort your phaser or would you like to phase your distortion? Both will sound very different (try it and see what we mean) but neither way is ‘wrong’! Remember, Eddie Van Halen, whose use of MXR stomp boxes was legendary, stuck everything he had straight in the front end of his amp (as opposed to an effects loop, which we will get to) and he got a range of unique and phenomenal sounds from his rig! He was putting his MXR flanger INTO the distorted preamp section of his Marshall head which is quite against the ‘accepted’ way of doing things. To be fair, his exceptional volume levels played a factor in those sounds still having considerable impact so this may not work just as well at non-stadium volume settings. Our order of hooking things up will be for achieving the greatest good to suit the greatest number of players.
So: those ‘utility’ pedals we mentioned; what actually comes under that umbrella? Well, we would include this sort of thing: volume pedals, tuners, noise gates/suppressors, compressors and such. All of these pedals serve purposes that are more practical than sonic. For example, if you love playing metal and have a very hot signal with tons of gain, a noise gate at the front of the chain will effectively wipe out the unwanted hum and buzz, leaving your staccato riffs sounding as tight as a machine gun. If you put it at the end of your chain, you compromise its ability to do this well.
Tuners go at the start so that they get nothing but direct signal. Compressors need to be in control of your whole signal for them to be most effective. This is the rule of thumb at least.
EQ pedals are a slightly less clear situation since it depends on how you use yours. If you intend it for a solo boost, place it after the distortion. If you want to use it to dial out certain trouble frequencies, place it at the start just after your tuner and noise suppressor.
Drive pedals: these could have their own sub-article! With overdrive and distortion, it really depends on your sonic goals: normal behaviour dictates that you begin with your lighter overdrives, then chain in your high gain pedals and finally your fuzz pedals. Boost pedals can go in between any of these depending on how many options you want (hint, for the most options, put the boost last) and of course how many drives you use! Fuzz tends to eat up the frequencies so putting a further drive pedal after one often proves ineffective. By that same logic, a high gain metal pedal can happily sit sonically on top of a low gain overdrive but a low gain overdrive will often get lost coming straight after a huge metal high gain sound. It just gets swallowed up!
Another interesting method to try is to layer two (or more!) low to medium-gain drive pedals together: use the overdriven clip of one into the drive of the other to get your higher gain tone. You can achieve some very interesting and useful sounds this way and of course you can also enjoy two separate flavours of low gain tone by using the two pedals individually!
Your ambient effects really need to go at the end of your chain: delays, even set to mild levels, will really interfere with your playing when put first in a chain: they come out so loud that the distortion coming afterwards can make a real mess of things. Keep them at the end where they can do their ethereal job properly.
For reverbs, there is a small argument that, in the right hands (like Kevin Shields and other ‘sonic architects’), a carefully deployed reverb ahead of the overdrive can cause some massive and appealing soundscapes. You need to let the sound dictate how you play but that can be exciting too! For more traditional sounds, stick this at the end.
Whilst we are on the subject of ambient effects, should we have delay then reverb or reverb then delay? Good question! We’d recommend that, since delay pedals can have gain controls, we’d suggest putting them before the reverb, letting the reverb create some good sonic space at the tail end of the sound. Again, experimentation can certainly reap rewards but this order will give you a high quality, professional tone.
The Other Guys
Now, there are plenty of pedals that don’t fall into these categories so let’s go a little deeper and see what’s going on.
Wah is the obvious one: this is a pedal that most guitarists use at one point or another but where would that go in a chain? We say right up at the front, just after your utility pedals like tuners etc and definitely before the gain pedals. Wah pedals should be thought of, in this context at least, as really over the top sounding EQ pedals so they should occupy a similar space on your board. Putting a wah after your drive pedals makes you sound like a demented Donald Duck and there is a huge volume jump too, which just sounds wrong. Tom Morello may say otherwise (and who are we to argue with him?) but for 99.9% of the wah sounds you are expecting to have come out of your amp, put it in your chain early on.
Pitch effects like Whammy pedals, POGs, Harmonists and so on aren’t so rigid in terms of their placement. For example, putting a Whammy pedal right at the end of your chain allows you to change the pitch of your delay pedal's repeats in real time as they occur by just moving your foot. Pretty cool! But these effects can realistically go anywhere: we’d perhaps suggest having them in with your modulation pedals to get the ‘correct’ sound. The same goes for loopers: they will loop whatever they are fed so having them right at the start of your chain means the loops themselves will be affected by every effect change that comes after. This can sound cool and creative but often just sounds kind of clumsy and wrong! Putting your loop just before your ambient effects keep the integrity of your loop’s sound whilst giving you the option of adding some reverb or delay to sweeten the taste if required.
Now, FX loops. If your amplifier has one and you have a great drive channel, you should get busy with this feature! It basically allows you to run some pedals (or rack gear of course although that lies outside the scope of this article) in a separate ‘loop’ (your guitar does not directly hook up to the FX loop) between the preamp (where the gain is made) and power amp (where the tone is created) sections of your amp. The effects are ‘added’ onto your sound in the correct post-distortion section of your sound. Place your mod and ambient pedals in here (chain them together in the usual order within the loop) and you’ll get the best of the amp’s drive channel. It’s like swapping out gain pedals for the amp’s drive basically. If you also want to use drive pedals, definitely do NOT put them in the FX loop! Chain them up for going in the front via the normal manner. The FX loop chain is normally controlled via the amp’s footswitch so make sure it’s switched to the ‘on’ position!
Building the Board
Okay, let’s recap, using some real-world examples. we’ll put together a relatively modest 5 pedal setup for general use.
So, to begin with, we definitely do want a tuner (yes, we think octave fuzzes are more fun too, but no audience will tolerate an out of tune guitarist assaulting them with fuzz-tones, we know this through experience) so we’re going to go ahead and choose a BOSS TU-3 since it is familiar, reliable and is also the best-selling tuner pedal in the universe.
After that we want a light overdrive pedal and for this writer, it is hard to beat a Maxon OD 808 for that uber-classic low gain overdrive. It’s always going to be useful and always earns its pedalboard real-estate. Low gain overdrives are apparent in almost every genre of music that uses guitars, so it pays to get this one right! Everyone has their own taste (my 2nd choice would probably have been the MXR M294 Sugar Drive) but the OD 808 cannot be argued with!
We also want a higher gain sound, so we are going to choose the Friedman Brown Eye OD pedal since it provides one of the most ferocious monster-gain sounds in existence! It does medium gain and high gain like no other pedal. If Friedman's distortion sounds are good enough for Jerry Cantrell, they're good enough for us! The bonus here is that we have the option to perform the ‘808 trick’ whereby we keep the Maxon switched on with the volume up, tone up and gain all the way off. This tightens up the gain and adds a certain ’special sauce’ to the heavy tones from the BE-OD that makes the resulting combination sound out of this world!
Alright, we are in tune and our drives are sorted. Awesome! We have two more spaces so we are opting for a good modulation and delay pedal. We want some classic ‘whoosh’ that's simple, versatile and effective so we’re going for an MXR Phase 90. The Phase 90 works equally brilliantly with clean or crunch tones, so versatility is ensured. Whether you prefer Dark Side of The Moon, Fair Warning or Astro Creep 2000, this pedal will give you suitably psychedelic smoosh!
For ambience, we decided that delay is more useful and expansive than reverb. Delay also keeps your tones sharp and clear (used normally) where reverb has a habit of washing out your sound and putting it to the back of a mix. We love both but space is paramount so delay wins! Our delay pedal choice is a high-end Strymon Dig digital delay. Delay is integral to our sound so we are going to do this properly! The Strymon can sound pristine or vintage and is super-high in quality so it wins here. Strymon pedals, in general, are incredible sounding, intuitive and built to excessively high standards, all of which we wholeheartedly encourage!
There are our choices. We think this rig will sound superlative in any musical context, as well as providing a good balance between versatility and accessibility.
So: that is our choice of five, selected and ready to go in that order. Now, big questions: what will they all sit on and how will I power them? We’ve just spent hundreds on the pedals, let’s not be the kind of people who casually toss them into a gym bag! These pedals are instruments and they are investments: let’s treat them as such. We need something to put them on and something to light them up!
Five pedals isn’t too many, so a smaller pedalboard and power supply will be what we need. Because we can picture ourselves having to jump in and out of public transport, we need something with a more low profile design. Pedaltrain are the undisputed kings of this particular area and so we are going to go with the Metro 20 model. It comes with a soft case which is an infinitely easier proposition when navigating the urban jungle than a flight case. The Pedaltrain Metro 20 is a good size, too: we can get our five pedals in line along the bottom of the board, making stomping on them unfussy whilst leaving room for further expansion in the area above (maybe for future FX loop usage?). Tough velcro is included so fitting the pedals is simple stuff.
Let There Be Power
But we have no power! What to do? There are many power supplies on the market, both in the daisy chain style and also power boxes with isolated outputs. We feel that the latter is the way to go: regulated supplies are neater (you either velcro or bolt them underneath your board) and have the advantage of using separate isolated outputs so that in the event of any problems with one pedal, the rest are not affected.
With this in mind, we have chosen the innovative 529 Power Supply from Mission Engineering. This is small and light so we don’t have to start drilling our new pedalboard: some of that velcro will do fine! It has 5 inputs for 9v pedals including one for higher milli-ampage pedals like the Strymon Dig delay we selected.
Best of all, this power supply is charged by USB! Charge it up as you would do with your phone and then disconnect it from the wall (or your laptop, car or any other source of USB) and enjoy the benefits of a pedalboard that has no mains wire and NO MAINS HUM! This is a seriously good idea and it fits our needs here perfectly.
Now, here’s a curveball: we’ve thrown a tantrum and realise we cannot live without our beloved Fulltone Clyde Wah! What is the point of plugging in an electric guitar if you can’t wah it to bits? We have used all five of our available outputs from the Mission 529 and although you can very cleverly connect two 529 units together via USB and double the power and outputs, we don’t want to have to do that. We’re stuck!
Or are we?
Typically, we like to have the wah pedal off the board anyway. We’ve found that it’s easier to find decent ‘foot angles’ on small stages by keeping it free and placing it near the mic stand so we’re fine in that regard (plus we could simply pull the velcro’d pedals off the board and rearrange them to include the wah if we wanted to) but the Wah still needs power! What are we to do? Yes, we could put in a battery but that defeats the point of all of this hard work!
Thankfully, we were being slightly crafty earlier on: we know that the TU-3 tuner can also act as a power supply for a bunch of pedals so all we need to do is take a daisy chain cable from the top of the tuner and into the wah. We don’t want to do this with more than one pedal since power is at a premium but this should would just fine! Two longer patch cables will ensure we can have this after the tuner in our chain, even though we reckon having it first isn’t much of a problem here. For the pictures here, we went ahead and placed all of the pedals onto the board, so it can certainly be done, though if you do want to do this, you may want to opt for an ever-so-slightly larger pedalboard.
The Final Order
We now have a complete, working pedalboard that is efficient, tidy and free from hum! It’s portable and sounds incredible! We are happy. That final order, one last time, looks like this:
Boss TU-3 Tuner,
MXR Phase 90 & finally
We hope that has cleared some mysteries for you and also given you some inspiration for creating your own pedalboard combinations! As always, we are here to help on Livechat, social media and in our stores so please get in touch if you have questions!