How to Build the Awesome Pedal Board for Guitarists
Are you a pedal-board dunce? Fear not! In this illustrated tutorial, we show 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.