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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.
This is my actual pedalboard, using the Pedaltrain Metro 24 as its foundation.
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
My tuner pedal of choice. Though you can now buy the newer Boss TU-3 tuner, I’ve owned this TU-2 for about 10 years and it’s been on countless tours with me and has never, ever let me down. You can also run a power cable from it to power another pedal.
Voodoo Lab Proctavia
Fuzz with Octave Up
This is my instant Hendrix in a pedal. This is a crazy fuzz with a soaring octave up overtone. Very hard to control, does not like multiple notes being played at once, but it sounds incredible. Switch this on and you’re straight in the middle of a Purple Haze.
TC Electronic Sub n Up
Octave Pedal with 3 Octaves: -1, -2 and +1
I change the settings on this from a POG style mixture of different octaves to a sound that replicates an organ (Very useful for texture in some situations where an organ tone is prominent in a mix).
TC Electronic Shaker Mini
This is used to accompany the organ tone of the Sub ‘N’ Up. I have this pedal set to replicate a Leslie style rotary speaker.
Klon Centaur Clone
I always wanted a Klon and rather than fork out $2000 (or more) to buy one, I decided to build my own clone. This is my always-on pedal. I run the gain on 0 and match the volume and tone to suit the room/amp I use. I use this as a clean boost to just enhance my straight signal
Blackstar LT Dual
Most of my favorite players use the Ibanez Tube Screamer, and I myself for years had one on my board. The Blackstar LT Dual does the same job, except it has 2 channels. I set the left side for a standard Tube Screamer style light drive and the right side for a more compressed, gainy drive (perfect for rock!).
MXR Shin-Juku Drive
My main gigging amp is a boutique amp by a Dutch company called Kool Amplification. The amp is called the Blue Sky and is a 35w totally clean, single channel amp. It shares a similar voice to a Dumble style amp (think John Mayer’s clean tone). The ShinJuku Drive was developed with one of the worlds leading experts on the Dumble amp to create a Dumble style drive in a pedal. This is the perfect accompaniment when I want to get gainy but retain my amps natural voice.
Les Lius Love Pedal Clone
Overdrive (tweed-covered pedal at the back)
I actually built this clone for a specific gig. I needed a real Fender style clean tone and this was my always on for that run of gigs. This pedal still lives on my board and it’s simple yet versatile. The left side is the on/off side, the right side is the boost. I leave the boost on and just engage the pedal when I want a gain lift. When mixed with my regular signal chain it takes on almost a fuzz-like character.
This is a very inexpensive but, to my ears, very tuneful tremolo pedal. I know there are more expensive models on the market, but this Marshall Vibratrem nails the tone for me. Great for getting that 60’s style tremolo. It also has a Vibrato setting, but as I already have another Vibrato pedal on the board this pedal only gets used for Tremolo.
TC Electronic MojoMojo
Overdrive (used as a lead boost)
Probably the cheapest pedal on my board (coming in at about $50), this is my lead boost. I keep the drive low, but this has a huge amount of volume on tap and I’ve never seen an overdrive pedal with such a big low end boost. This is perfect for lead lines when you don’t want to lose any fullness from your tone.
TC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini
I am a huge fan of the tiny TC Electronic pedals. I’ve used a lot of different TonePrints for this pedal but I’ve settled on a Spring Reverb style TonePrint. I tend to always end up purchasing single channel valve amps and most of the ones I own don’t have reverb so this pedal is always switched on just to create a little space with my tone. If you’re not sure what a TonePrint is, click here to learn about it.
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).
I use these Mogami pancake patch cables to connect my pedals.
I recommend only using the length of cable that you need to. If you have 2 pedals side by side and you’re connecting them with an 18 inch patch cable, you’re running your signal through extra cable unnecessarily.
There are many high end solderless patch cable kits available too. Personally I have not used any, though I do see them crop up on many pro boards. I like the peace of mind that a solid solder joint gives me.
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.
I use a Diago PowerStation to power my pedals.
This supply has very small footprint (so small that I actually have it underneath my TC Electrics Reverb pedal) and it puts out 3000mA, which is more than what I need.
Digital pedals have larger draws so if you use a lot of digital pedals, expect to need larger power supplies or even multiple.
Some power supplies allow for alternate voltages (12/18v) which some pedals require. Be careful here. If you plug a 12v supply into a 9v pedal, you’ll fry the pedal.
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:
Cable clips like these are one way to help keep your pedalboard cables neat.
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.
Written by Leigh Fuge
Leigh Fuge is Head of Content and music teacher behind the mgrmusic.com platform, the #1 online community for music teachers & students in the UK. 34,500 music students nationally and hundreds of music teachers from across the world use the platform. He is responsible for creating and managing content for the MGR platform and providing content for MGR partners. He is also a UK based guitar tutor and touring musician.
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Great article! I’ve owned many complex pedalboards in my life but now I tend to stick for minimalism. I have 3 pedals in my pedalboard: Wah, analog delay and a tuner. I realized that my tone has gotten better with less pedals.
A lot of us guitar players (and other musicians too) do this. Gear can be addicting, and so dang fun to try, that we accumulate a lot of stuff–and complexity–over the years. Then, one day we look around the room, question our own sanity, and then sell a bunch of it. I can only speak for myself, but it feels liberating to get rid of gear that’s really not necessary and scale-back to the bare essentials. I’d agree with you that it often sounds better too.
Most informative, been struggling with pedal tones for a year.
Glad to hear you found the article helpful John. Let us know how you get along, and feel free to ask any questions you might have.
Glad you found my article useful! I’ve been a big pedalboard user for years and I know how complex it can be getting started with that kind of thing. It was fun to write and hopefully it helps you get your tones in order! What sort of pedals are you running?