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.