I’m sure I’m not the only one who goes to see a band or hears a song and obsesses over how on Earth the guitarist managed to create that insane tone, or with just one chord sent my mind flying into a whole other dimension.
As a guitar player, pedalboards are beautiful things.
That colourful collection of little metal boxes at your feet can be a gateway to a new sound that is synonymous with you and only you… If you do it right.
I have been playing in bands for seven years now and have been building pedalboards for around five.
Because I’m a lame guitar geek I have no shame in saying that I love to scour YouTube for the newest tour of my idol’s rigs, so I can steal the secret to how John Frusciante of Red Hot Chilli Peppers got that amazing Chorus sound in ‘This is the Place’ or what new noises Mike Einziger from Incubus’s leviathan of a board can make.
It’s the best education you can possibly get as a touring guitar player.
By all accounts, I’m just an idiot with a little pedalboard.
It’s not like I’m running three whole racks of effects controlled by a midi switching system filled with bank upon bank of presets, that can help me change from my Peavey 5150 to a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier whilst also switching five different pedals, all at the touch of a single button.
My effects collection is much more modest than that and because of this I believe, a lot more relatable for the common touring guitar player.
That being said, I have made every mistake under the sun; buying poor quality pedals, cheap cabling, bad power supplies, ordering my chain wrong and regardless of what some say, a small touring musician can definitely have too many pedals.
Pedalboard visionary and owner of Custom Audio Electronics, Bob Bradshaw says that although there is no ‘right’ way of ordering your effects, there is an order that he believes compliments each effect best.
First of all, pedals like the Dunlop Crybaby work best when facing the cleanest signal possible, therefore it should be the first pedal in the chain from your guitar.
Of course, your tuner also would like to receive the cleanest signal possible.
You can’t tune when your tone I basted with distortion, chorus, phaser, delay and anything else you’ve got in your arsenal.
That’s sort of logical.
After that, overdrive and distortion pedals should be placed next in the chain. This is because when later in the chain they tonally weaken and become a lot harder to manipulate.
I place chorus, phasers, octaves and any other modulation pedals bang in the middle of the chain, this is simply because of placement of other effects. I literally don’t know why, but it just works that way.
Lastly for sure, delays and reverbs should be the last in the chain, they can soak up every effect you have in your chain and gracefully let your sound fade into the distance.
Now I’ve explained that, here’s a few more things I’ve noticed from trial and error: I personally keep my pedalboards as clean as possible on the top face. If you can avoid it, make sure there’s no cables or wiring hanging out on that top face. That’s going to stop you accidentally kicking things out of place which on a dark stage, is an embarrassing nightmare to rectify.
When it comes to what gear you buy, I believe the key rule of thumb is to buy the best quality products you can afford. There’s no point in buying four cheap, plastic nasty sounding pedals coming out of God knows where in the world that buzz all the time and will certainly die within 6 months, simply because they’re cheap imitations of a classic pedal Boss, EHX or Dunlop have already released.
A phrase you should always look out for on a gear shopping spree is ‘true-bypass’. A true bypass pedal is guaranteed to cancel out any buzz and won’t colour your regular amplifier signal whatsoever when not engaged.
When it comes to analog vs. digital, nobody is right or wrong as to what is better. But, in my opinion the one effect that bucks the trend is delays and echoes. There’s nothing like the swirling warmth of an analog delay’s repeats eroding with such a dark tone that floats beneath your lead or fills your chords with flavour, still lightly harmonising with notes of the chord you stroked before.
As a guy who doesn’t play heavy music, I like my drive tone to be quite clean sounding. I have probably gone through over 10-15 different drive tones in the past few years.
Blending pedals, using amp distortion and just using different types of drive and distortion pedals.
My go to pedal now would be the Boss Blues Driver (BD-2). That pedal is a tried and tested classic.
I know it will give me the exact tone I want. If anything, the BD-2 simply accents the natural sound of your guitar and brings it up a gear. Put that with an EHX POG with the sub-octave set at 12 o’clock, you have a monster sound that will definitely turn some heads (Literally just given away my drive tone).
A big personal rule I abide is if a pedal sounds great set at 12 o’clock and I don’t need to mess with it, it’s a great pedal. Getting the tone you have in your head is a case of trial and error, and it’s not always the biggest brands that are the best.
Look through the pre-owned or B-Stock section of your local guitar store, check eBay and any other auction sites you can buy gear from.
Most of my favourite pedals are old school discontinued products or the circuits of the pedals are individually hand-wired by a tiny company you may have never heard of before.
It’s not about being niche or different, it’s about finding what makes you excited to play your guitar.
When it comes down to it, the basic principle of pedalboard building is that you invest in the best quality hardware your money can buy.
You also have to accept that you will make mistakes, whether that be with your chain, the cabling you buy and a lot of the time, the actual pedals you put on that board.
I’m still making errors with my sound now and know there’s things I want to change and build upon.
If and when that time comes along, I’ll probably send out another long winded update preaching why you need to take care when building your board.
Until that time comes, have fun and get building.