Pedalboard Buyer's Guide
By Keith McGee
As guitar players, many of us are not content to stand idly by while keyboard players have access to so many cool sounds. Fortunately, a new guitar sound effect pedal is born almost daily. Unfortunately, the dizzying array of products can make it seem overwhelming to the pedal neophyte. So, where does one start? If I use my own experience and start at the beginning, it was one pedal, a Kent Fuzz-wah. For someone who only wanted to modify their guitar sound occasionally with one effect, the idea of a pedalboard sporting a dozen (or more!) different tonal possibilities almost seemed like too much bother. At least that’s what I used to think. I was a guitar-straight-into-the-amp guy. I have since changed my ways. A real pedal geek may have no less than 50 pedals-I lost count at around 60. How do we start the process of assembling one or more pedalboards? Let’s start simple, and work our way up.
For many people it can start with 2 pedals, maybe an overdrive or distortion of some sort, and a delay or reverb perhaps. Let’s grab a popular overdrive, perhaps an Ibanez TS9 or Xotic EP Booster. Both will push more volume into the front end of an amp, the TS9 will exhibit more available internal distortion, the EP is cleaner, more subtle. Just the thing to kick it up for a solo or melody line, or maybe some heavier chords (my preference is to use both!). Now we add a popular delay pedal like the MXR Carbon Copy and a nice reverb, in this case we'll use a TC Electronic Hall of Fame. There you have it: the beginnings of a nice pedalboard!
To keep things simple, we’ll stop right here for a bit. If your amp already has a reverb built-in, you may consider dropping the Supernatural. Either way, let’s hook it up! I have introduced these basic pedals in the order I would wire them up: my guitar cable would go from my guitar into the overdrive’s “IN” jack. From there you could hook a short “jumper“ or “patch” cable (more on that shortly) from the overdrive’s ”OUT” jack to the delay’s “IN” jack, then another “patch” from the delay’s “OUT” jack to the reverb’s “IN” jack. Lastly, a regular cable will carry your signal from the Reverb’s “OUT” jack to the input of the amplifier. As we go along, I’m suggesting a good working order for your pedals to go in, but there are no rules. Many have suggested that you should initially start with tone-modifying devices, like wah-wah and/or overdrive, then into more modulation-based effects like a chorus, phase-shifter or flanger, and then finish up the end of your run with time-based effects, as we have done here with the delay and reverb.
A word (or two) about “patch” cables: Keep them to the length you need, and make sure you test them. A tester like the Hosa CBT500 will check about anything. If you enjoy building and switching around pedalboards, a cable tester will eliminate the frustration of a bad cable messing up the works. Use a good quality cable as well; you are amplifying your signal though the pedals you use, making good cables mandatory so as not to pick up extraneous noise. Dimarzio and Hot Wires make problem-free patch cables that are color-coded as well. You can build-your-own to the exact length needed with kits from George L and Planet Waves, among others.
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer Distortion Pedal
Xotic EP Booster Clean Boost Pedal
MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay Pedal
DOD Looking Glass Dual Gain Overdrive and Boost with EQ Pedal
At this point you have your pedalboard ready to rock (or jazz?) and everything is running off of the internal battery. No problem, unless your gig is more than one set. A digital delay can gobble up some serious power, which will have you replacing the battery hourly. Not good, and not terribly economical. So now we talk about power supplies. Perhaps one or more of the pedals you’ve hooked up came with an external power supply. You can run your power supplies individually to each pedal, then to a power strip. Look to Furman for a wide variety of power strips that condition the line signal and offer different configurations. Running your guitar amp off this same strip is a good idea, helping to control ground loops (more on that later).
So now you are powered, connected, and rockin’! But it’s a bit of a mess to transport, and has to be disconnected and packed away. Here’s where the actual “pedalboard” comes into play!
Furman PST-8 Power Station Series Power Conditioner
Furman SS6B Pro 6 Outlet Surge Suppressor Power Block With 15' Cable
Furman PST-2 Plus 6 Power Station Series Power Conditioner
A manufactured pedalboard can be something home-built, like a piece of plywood with a blanket to wrap it in. One thing all pedalboards might have in common is some way of fastening the pedals to the board. Velcro is the most popular way to do this, although some other options exist, like the Godlyke Power-Grip. A couple of manufacturers like Lehle make a provision to screw the pedal right to the board. The best thing about that is it never moves, the bad thing about that is it never moves.
Besides our homespun blanket-around-the-cutting-board, many options exist for nicely manufactured boards. Gator, SKB, Pedaltrain, Boss and others make boards in different shapes and sizes to accommodate from the smallest setup to something resembling an aircraft carrier. Some have their own built in power supply with distribution to your individual pedals, eliminating the need for multiple power supplies. Others can accommodate a single multi-tap power supply mounted on top or underneath the pedalboard. Voodoo Labs makes the popular Pedal Power 2, which comes complete with multiple isolated power jacks and an assortment of cables. For the aircraft carrier that requires a lot of different types of power, the MXR CAE MC403 is the big daddy.
Boss BCB60 Pedal Case
Gator GPBBAKOJ Orange Aluminum Large Pedal Board with Bag
Pedaltrain Classic 2 Pedalboard with Soft Case
Pedaltrain Classic PRO Pedalboard with Soft Case
Without going too deep into ground potential and a bunch of other technical stuff, sometimes a bunch of pedals in a line can make weird noises. The same pedals will run quietly on their own batteries, but as soon as they share two different grounding points (one on the patch cable shield and one on the negative line in the power supply) things can get unpredictable. I’m a big fan of multiple isolated power points when I have 6 or more pedals. This rears its ugly head even more when you get into using effects loops to run some pedals through. Let’s touch on that quickly.
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus Universal Power Supply
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power ISO 5 Isolated Power Supply
MXR MC403 CAE Power System Pedal Power Supply
This can get deep, and can be fun to experiment with. A lot of modern guitar amplifiers have effects loops, which are basically a place where you can break into the amp circuit between the preamp and the power amp. Why do this? Certain things sound better (to some ears) if they are wired into the effects loop. Time-based pedals seem to like it. To use an effects loop, you would run a cable from the jack on your amp labeled “Effects Send”, “F/X Out”, “Line Out”, or maybe “Preamp Out” to the “IN” jack on a pedal, say the aforementioned Carbon Copy, then run another cable from the pedal’s “OUT” jack to the “Effects Return” or whatever nomenclature is used on your amp. Try this with different pedals to experiment- there are no rules, just time-tested suggestions. Refer back to the “Ground Loops and Isolation” section when it comes to powering pedals that are “in the loop” versus pedals that are “in front” (direct to the input) of the amp. Putting some pedals in the loop add yet another ground to the circuit, increasing the possibility for weirdness.
TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay Looper Pedal
MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay Pedal
Wampler Faux Tape Echo Delay Pedal
Boss DD7 Digital Delay Pedal
Source Audio Ventris Dual Processor Reverb Pedal
A little tidbit I learned recently: some pedals get along better with some amps than others. What does that mean? It means that your favorite overdrive that you love, in front of your Marshall, may not sound the same in front of a Fender. This is probably due to the differences in the front end design of these amps. This applies to pedals used in effects loops as well. The loop may be too “hot” for certain pedals, causing the sound to become a bit fizzy. If the loop has level controls, this can be corrected.
Different Boards for Different Needs
There is no one pedal arrangement to satisfy all needs. If your needs are for blues jams on Thursday nights, you can probably keep it simple (which I’m sure the host will appreciate). I bring a Pedaltrain Metro with a Budda compressor and overdrive and Catalinbread chorus and that’s it. I have a Boss TU3 Chromatic Tuner Pedal on there as well (put that before everything in your arrangement). Conversely, in the Steely Dan tribute band I play with, I break out the aircraft carrier and 3 amplifiers. It’s called a wet-dry-wet setup, which we can delve into another time. Most of the time I bring a medium-sized board with a (in patching order)Boss TU3 Chromatic, Dunlop Mini Crybaby Wah, Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive Mod, Wampler Dual Fusion V2 Overdrive Pedal, MXR EVH Phase 90, and a Retro-Sonic Analog Delay. I power all of them with a Voodoo Pedal Power 2, and suffer zero noise problems. I also use a wireless with this setup, and it works very well.
Get Out and Play!
By now you should have opened your web browser to americanmusical.com and have begun perusing all things pedals. The most important take-away here is to have fun! Go to local blues jams and open mic nights, start a band, or just crank it in your basement! One pedal or ten- it doesn’t matter. But I’ll bet you can’t stomp just one…
EarthQuaker Devices Sea Machine V2 Chorus Pedal
MutronIII Plus Envelope Filter Pedal
Boss TU3 Chromatic Tuner Pedal
Dunlop CBM95 Crybaby Mini Wah Pedal
Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive MOD Guitar Overdrive Pedal
Wampler Dual Fusion V2 Overdrive Pedal