How to Build the Ultimate Pedal Board
Are you a pedal-board dunce? Fear not!
In this illustrated tutorial, Guitar World shows you everything you need to know, from choosing a board to powering up and laying out your pedals.
The more effect pedals you use, the more you need a pedal board. Even the most basic unpowered board can provide a useful platform to hold your pedals securely, provide cable management and keep everything from sliding around onstage.
Powered boards have the added function of supplying electrical connections to all your pedals, thereby eliminating the need for power strips and multiple wall warts that can take up space and create a nest of dangerous wires around your performance area.
For more complex or specialized rigs, a custom pedal board can meet your specific switching requirements and make performance headaches a thing of the past. Unfortunately for those who have never had a pedal board, the prospect of building or buying one can be overwhelming. You have to determine not only what size you’ll need for your set-up but also make sure it matches the power requirements of your pedals, some of which might take require, 12, 16, 18 or 24 volts.
There’s also the matter of cables, of which you’ll need many, each cut to the minimum length to ensure signal integrity and keep your layout tidy. The confusion only gets worse once you go online and see the plethora of pedal board models and options available to you.
We wrote up this guide to make selecting and setting up a pedal board easier. In this tutorial, we’ll walk you through every step of the process, from choosing the pedal board, power supply and cables to laying out your pedals in the order that works for you and making it all work to meet your needs.
The choice of a small, medium or large pedal board comes down to one thing: the number and size of the pedals you’ll need to use. If you use five or fewer standard-size pedals and don’t plan to add to your setup, a small pedal board should suit your long-term needs. If you have more than five pedals but fewer than 10, you’ll want to consider a medium board. More than 10 and you should choose a large board.
And if you have only five pedals now but plan to add another two or three in the near future, it’s better to plan ahead and go for a larger board today. Remember, too, that pedals with large footprints take up more real estate, and even a small set-up consisting of a few oversized pedals may require a larger pedal board to prevent overcrowding. When planning, remember to leave enough space between the pedals to facilitate cabling and create a clean, uncluttered and easily accessible layout.
Which Pedal Board?
Pedal boards can be purchased off the shelf, custom-built to your specs, or even built at home using readily available building materials, cables and power supplies. Music stores carry a range of boards, including bare unpowered platforms and boards with built-in power supplies and power strips.
Other possible features include cable compartments, wheels, cases, heavy-duty corners and raised or pitched surfaces that make it easier to reach the pedals furthest away from you. Need something special? Many companies are available to build custom pedal boards to your specs, using the materials, power supply, hardware, wire and cables of your choice. If you have specialized switching, looping or MIDI requirements, a custom pedal board can meet your specific needs, though at a greater cost than an off-the-shelf unit.
For this demonstration, I’m using medium and large Pedaltrain boards: the Pedaltrain 2 and Pedaltrain Pro, respectively. I like Pedaltrain boards for their lightweight frames and strong construction. The boards are slotted for easy management of cables and power supplies, all of which can fit under the board and out of sight. Slotted boards are especially nice in clubs, where spilled drinks can make a mess of your pedal board; with a slotted board, spilled liquids drip off, unlike a solid board, which will allow liquids to pool. The Pedaltrain boards are also angled, which makes it easy to reach pedals that are furthest away from you without accidentally stepping on other pedals or knocking their control settings with your foot.
What Power Supply?
Whether you’re buying a pedal board with a power supply or choosing a power supply for an existing board, be sure that it meets your voltage requirements. Most pedals operate on nine volts of power, but many require 12, 16, 18 and even 24 volts. Before purchasing a power supply, check the power requirements of every pedal you’ll be using.
Then, choose a power supply robust enough to deliver the voltages you require and a sufficient number of outputs for as many pedals as you’ll use. Also be sure to choose a supply that has isolated output sections to eliminate ground loops, hum and undesirable interactions between your pedals. Some examples of power supplies include Voodoo Lab’s Pedal Power series, T-Rex Engineering’s Fuel Tank offerings, the MXR DC Brick power supply, the Modtone Power plant, and the Pedaltrain Powertrain 1250 multi-output power supply.
For this example, I’m using Truetone/Visual Sound’s 1 Spot power supply. The 1 Spot is a nine-volt adaptor that takes up just one power strip outlet, yet it can accommodate up to 20 guitar pedals. It works with more than 90 percent of the effect pedals on the market, including those that use popular adapters from Boss, Danelectro, Dunlop, Korg and others. In addition, as you add more pedals to any setup, it’s possible to introduce noise and hum by having too many effects on the same power source.
The 1 Spot makes it easy and affordable to expand your system and isolate noisier effects by placing them on their own separate power supply. What Cables? Two rules here: always use cables with right-angle plugs, which are more compact than straight plugs, and keep your cable lengths to a minimum in order to cut down on clutter and ensure the shortest and quietest signal path. For these reasons, I prefer to make my own cables, as this lets me choose the exact hardware and lengths that I need.
Planet Waves’ Cable Station pedal board kit is ideally suited for this. It features 10 feet of low-capacitance cable for signal transparency and 10 24k gold-plated right-angle plugs—pretty much everything you need for the average pedal board setup. The plugs are solderless, so you can create a cable in seconds, anywhere, to the exact length, and the kit even includes a cable cutter.
Before you start Velcro-ing pedals to your pedal board, take some time to think about the most efficient and easy-to-navigate way in which to arrange them. As a rule, you should lay them out left to right in order of how they connect together (more on this below). But pedal boards are typically deep enough, from front to back, to accommodate two and sometimes three rows of pedals, giving you yet another dimension to consider when planning your layout.
It’s best to keep your most-used pedals nearest to you, where they’ll be easiest to adjust and reach with your foot. Staggering the pedals between the front and back edges of the pedal board will also make it easier to navigate your set up and avoid confusion in the heat of performance.
There’s an ideal way to lay out effect pedals, and then there’s an individual way to do it. The ideal way is based on practical considerations, like placing a reverb pedal last in the chain rather than in front of the distortion pedal, where it will muddy up your sound.
The individual way is all about how you make things work for you. Some guitarists like to place their wah before the distortion, while others put it after for a more pronounced and dirty tone. While there is no right or wrong way to order your pedals, it helps to understand the basic guidelines. In this section, I’ll show you the most logical, efficient and least noisy way to chain together your pedals. In the most general sense, pedals that amplify should go near the front of the signal chain.
This includes filters (which can boost and cut frequencies), compressors (which reduce dynamic levels but can also boost the overall signal), and all types of distortion and overdrive pedals. Tone modifiers such as chorus, phase and flangers go next, followed by ambience effects, such as reverb, delay and echo. The effects in a signal chain can be arranged and grouped into four general categories:
• First: Filters, pitch shifters, harmonizers and dynamic pedals (such as compressors)
• Second: Distortion, overdrive, fuzz, boost and EQ pedals
• Third: Modulation pedals (phaser, chorus and flangers)
• Fourth: Time-based effects (echo, delay, tremolo and reverb)
For example, if your pedal board consists of a distortion, a wah, a compressor and a reverb pedal, you would probably connect them as follows: Wah > Compressor > Distortion > Reverb In the next section, I’ll explain the rationale behind the ordering of these categories to help guide you along.
Filters, Pitch Shifters, Harmonizers and Dynamic Pedals
These pedals typically work best at the front of the signal chain, where they act upon the pure signal from your guitar.
Filters include pedals such as wahs and low-pass filters. Pitch shifters and harmonizers also include the ever-popular Whammy Pedal, all of which benefit from having a strong and unaffected signal from your guitar so that they can track your notes cleanly and accurately. Dynamic pedals include compressors, which “squeeze” a signal’s dynamic range—its quietest to loudest values—by reducing signal peaks as they occur.
Compressors typically feature volume or make-up gain controls that let you boost the overall signal to compensate for the lower volume that results from compressing. For that matter, auto wahs/envelope filters are actually dynamic filters that allow a filter’s frequency cutoff to respond to changes in signal response due to variances in pick attack and volume.
Bear in mind that you should be careful of the effect order within these categories. For example, a compressor placed after an EQ pedal will be more responsive to the frequencies that the EQ is boosting, because the compressor seeks out the loudest part of the signal and reduces its volume.
It’s probably better to place the compressor before the EQ, where it can respond to your guitar’s signal rather than the frequencies boosted by the EQ pedal. Conversely, placing a compressor before an auto wah will reduce the guitar signal’s dynamic range of the and thereby impede the auto wah’s expressiveness (auto wahs thrive on dynamics). On the other hand, placing a compressor before a wah pedal can help you control some of the guitar signal’s inherent brightness that can make some wahs sound shrill and piercing at the top end of their range.
Of course, some of these considerations change if you raise your compressor’s make-up gain to the point that it’s actually increasing the signal like a gain boost (see the next section on distortion and overdrive). On the subject of wah pedals, it’s worth noting that some guitarists prefer to place wahs after distortion pedals, where they can be driven hard for a funkier sound. Again, none of this is carved in stone. Set up your effects as they work best for you, but try to be aware of the interactions that result from the order of pedal placement.
Distortion, Overdrive, Fuzz, Boost and EQ
Distortion, overdrive and fuzz pedals affect harmonic content by enhancing overtones and compressing peaks in the signal. Their purpose is to simulate the sound of a cranked amp through a speaker cabinet. In the natural order of things, these pedals go after filters and EQ, just like your amp’s output and speakers.
They also follow the compression pedal, whose purpose is to flatten peaks and ensure the entire signal is “hotter.” Which brings us to another reason why you shouldn’t put a compressor after a distortion pedal: they can add volume to everything that comes before them, including noise generated by effects like—you guessed it—distortion, overdrive and fuzz pedals.
Most modern fuzz pedals work very well after wah pedals, but the same isn’t true of some vintage fuzz units. If you have an older fuzz pedal that doesn’t sound good when placed after the wah, try moving it before the wah and see if it improves things. If you use boost or EQ pedals to give your tone a kick for solos, try placing them after the distortion, overdrive and fuzz pedals. This will help to raise your overall level without having an undue impact on the sound. As always, experiment to see what works best for the pedals in your setup.
These are tone modifiers and sweeteners, and they include effects like chorus, phase, flange and vibrato. Traditionally, these can be noisy effects, and placing them before gain-increasing pedals like distortion or compression will tend to intensify their noise. In addition, chorus, phasing and flanging all introduce time delays and pitch fluctuations that create a sense of spatial movement similar to what happens in the physical world. Placing them after amplification-style effects like distortions and overdrives produces results that are in keeping with naturally occurring sound.
Plus, the extra boost a signal gets from an overdrive pedal can help emphasize the oscillation of modulation effects. Of course, plenty of players like to put modulation effects like Uni-Vibes and phasers before distortion. Think Jimi Hendrix (Uni-Vibe) and Eddie Van Halen (MXR Phase 90). Doing this delivers more harmonic content to the distortion box and can result in more dramatic and animated effects.
This one is pretty obvious. Reverb, delay and echo are ambience effects that imitate how sounds are affected within room environments. Naturally, they go at the end of the chain. Tremolo, for that matter, is amplitude modulation—amp on, amp off—and therefore goes at the end of the signal chain.
Though they’re not effects, tuners are a part of every guitarist’s setup, so it’s important to think about where they’ll go in your signal chain. Some guitarists like to have them at the front of the chain, while others like them last or somewhere in between. If you place your tuner at the head of the chain, activating it will silence your guitar but not your pedals. This is fine if you want to allow time-based effects to continue trailing off while you tune up, but it’s not ideal if you want to silence your rig between songs.
For that you’ll need to place the tuner last in the chain, though doing so will require you to turn off your distortions and other effects prior to tuning. As you can see, there are trade-offs to either scenario. Pick the one that works best for you.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that pedal order is subjective and varies from player to player. If you’re trying to nail a certain guitarist’s tone, then it’s useful to know what effects he uses and the order in which they’re placed. But when it comes to your tone, you have to decide what works for you.
Experimenting can be fun, so start plugging away. And don’t worry, there is no right or wrong order. Besides, the best part about effect boxes and pedal boards is that you can always move things around as your needs and tone goals change.