Once upon a time, no guitarist used any pedals at all. In fact, even now, there are plenty of players who plug their guitar straight into the front of their amp and that’s their sound. It might take a little searching to find the right guitar and amp combination, but once you’ve done that, you’re ready to roll.
That’s fine for some people, but if you enjoy the experimentation and the strange thrill that comes with exploring new and different pedals, soon the time will come to build a pedalboard. This usually begins with a set of three or four pedals, loosely daisy chained on the floor. Maybe you get a bag for them, or maybe you attach them to a piece of wood with some Velcro. As your collection grows, so does the need for organization and easy transport.
Taking the leap to having a dedicated pedalboard firmly entrenches you in the world of pedal obsession. Even if you keep your rig small, you’ll be tempted to switch one of them out from time to time, or to add one. We’ve all seen the small boards with the single pedal linked off to the side, be it an expression pedal or that new drive you’re trying out. Pedalboards, as a format, are just fun to mess around with.
When you finally invest in one, though, you’ll want to spend some time setting it up properly. This will not only protect your investments, but will also get the most out of them. A really great pedal might sound suddenly terrible when improperly installed on your board. Once you’ve got everything dialed in, you can get back to focusing on what’s most important — the music.
Once you’ve set up your board, you’ll need something to plug into, so have a look at our top ten best small combo amps. If you decide not to build a pedalboard, you could always opt for a multi-effects unit. We’ve collected the top ten best cheap multi-effects pedals here.
Whether you’re a bedroom rocker or an arena star, a proper pedalboard setup will inspire you to ever greater guitar heights.
1. Pedal Order
The order of the pedals on your board can make a huge difference in the end result. If you look around the internet, you’ll find lots of theories, generally all pointed roughly in the same direction, about the “right” order your pedals should follow. There’s not really a right or wrong order, necessarily. You have to use your ears. You’ll know your sound when you find it, and if that means ignoring all conventional wisdom, go for it.
Still, there is a fairly well-established starting point to try. This order will give you the best representation of the sound of your guitar, each pedal, and amp without needlessly muddying things. Start here, then begin making substitutions to find what you like best.
- Tuner >
- Wah >
- Pitch Shifting >
- Boost >
- Light drive (most overdrives) >
- Distortion >
- Fuzz >
- Compression >
- Equalization >
- Modulation (phaser, chorus, flanger, vibe, etc.) >
- Delay >
- Tremolo >
- Reverb >
This is a good order for putting all your pedals straight into the front of an amp. You might find yourself switching the Boost and the Compression, depending on when and how often you play clean tones, as well as what style of boost you’re using. In fact, it’s common to start with compression before anything else. This is the normal setup for gain staging by using the boost to drive the front of your light drive, which in turn drives your heavy tones. You might use a midrange booster, like the EarthQuaker Devices Arrows, in front of your drive pedals to make them dirtier, but you might put a treble booster like the Electro-Harmonix Screaming Bird after to step out ahead of the mix for a solo. You have to see what works with your setup.
If you’re using an effects loop, however, you’ll need to separate your pedals into two banks — otherwise known as the four-cable method. Generally speaking, you want your dirt pedals going into the front of the amp where they can drive the preamp into breakup, while your modulation effects go in the loop to alter the signal before the power amp. Here’s (roughly) what that looks like:
Into front of amp:
- Tuner >
- Wah >
- Pitch Shifting
- Boost >
- Light drive (including most overdrives) >
- Distortion >
- Fuzz >
From effects send:
- Equalization >
- Modulation (phaser, chorus, flanger, vibe, etc.) >
- Delay >
- Tremolo >
- Reverb >
into effects return.
This will give your modulation effects the clearest version of your guitar signal to effect and result in excellent tone. One notable exception might be the Tremolo. If you have a hard, choppy tremolo you might want that to go after your drive pedals into the front of your amp, since it can be driven by increased gain and act as a gain stage itself. Of course, Prince liked his flangers before the drive, so really, if this doesn’t apply to you, feel free to ignore it. For super high-gain situations, it’s not uncommon to put delay before the drive into the front of the amp.
The placement of the Equalization pedal depends on what you’re using it for. There are so many options, so we won’t get into detail about that here, but the above is just an example. The same is true for Volume, which I’ve left out of the signal path so far. Some people like it in the front, some at the end. That’s much more about having finite control over your sound in a given moment, so experiment with what works best for you.
Just for fun, here’s my signal path so you can get an idea of a practical application. (Plus, who doesn’t love a good pedalboard tour?) I very rarely play clean, so I have lots of gain stacking options going into the front of my amp. My clean tones are ambient inspired, so it’s pretty swimmy.
- MXR Custom Comp >
- TC Electronic Sub N Up >
- EarthQuaker Devices Arrows >
- Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini >
- Malekko Sloika MkII >
- DOD Boneshaker >
- Mooer Lofi Machine
into front of amp.
From effects send:
- EarthQuaker Devices Hummingbird >
- EarthQuaker Devices Grand Orbiter >
- EarthQuaker Devices Disaster Transport Jr >
- Boss DM-2W Waza Craft Delay >
- Boss DD-2 >
- EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath >
- DigiTech DigiDelay
into effects return.
And because one board isn’t enough, I’ve recently put together a mini-board of all orange pedals. Just for fun or for situations where I can’t take my big board, which are admittedly rare.
- Mosky Dyna Compressor >
- Joyo Vintage Phase >
- Boss DS-1 (with the JCM Wampler Mod) >
- EarthQuaker Devices Monarch >
- ModTone Analog Delay
One final note: If your fuzz or drive pedal uses germanium diodes, it has to go before anything else in the chain. You have to feed it the impedance directly from your guitar in order for those diodes to work their magic. If it sounds weak and fizzy in your chain now, that’s a pretty good indication it needs to move up to the front of the line.
2. Signal Buffer
In the simplest terms, a buffer converts your guitar signal to a lower impedance. Lower impedance signals are less impacted by interference, which thereby drives the full spectrum of tone into the next pedal and makes up for the so-called tone wicking in many non-true-bypass pedals and wahs. Even having several true-bypass pedals in a row may require a buffer since they are, after all, adding cable length.
In terms of your pedal chain, a buffer is pretty optional. Begin with your guitar plugged straight into your amp. For better or worse, this is the truest sound of your rig. (If you don’t like it, you’re due for a change.) Pedals should really only enhance, color, or mangle that inherent tone. You can’t wholesale replace that sound with a pedal and expect it to give you good tone.
Next, put one pedal at a time in the chain, either directly into the front, or using the effects loop, depending on how you will ultimately set it up. As you add pedals and cord length, listen especially to your treble. If your tone suddenly gets muddy or all the highs are sapped out of it, you need a buffer. If you have an enormous pedalboard, you’ll want a buffer right at the front and one right at the end. Most amp effects loops should be buffered, but if you’re hearing tone roll-off with only your pedals in the loop and nothing out front, you can still stick a buffer at the end before the effects return.
There are dedicated buffer units, such as the TC Electronic Bona Fide. Stick it in your chain and you’re good to go. If you want something you can control, the J Rockett SOS Line Driver allows you to control the amount.
As a final tip, some Boss pedals are buffered even when they’re off, like the GE-7 Equalizer. Be careful, though, because Boss pedals are the cause of a lot of tone wicking. The equalizer is a good choice because the pedal itself will let you tune out some of the harshness that can come from over buffering.
3. Power Supply
Broadly, you have about three-and-a-half options for powering your pedals. What you choose depends on many factors, including number of pedals, power requirements of each pedal, and, as with anything, how much you want to spend.
Powering your pedals requires paying attention to three key elements: voltage, current, and polarity. The vast majority of pedals use the Boss-style center-negative inputs, so polarity isn’t too much of a concern. Older Electro-Harmonix pedals have some pretty crazy inputs, while the Line 6 DL4 and Eventide pedals use specific, non-Boss inputs. Most of the time, you’re set on polarity.
Voltage is easy to identify, and therefore easier to match up. Most pedals are 9V, or at least can be run at 9V. Much of the time, this will be clearly marked near the input, and if it isn’t, consult the user manual. Some pedals can be run at higher voltages optionally, and in drive pedals, this will increase the headroom and frequency response. Be warned: Do not run any pedal at higher voltage unless you’re absolutely sure the pedal can take it. This will destroy your pedal immediately if you’re not careful.
Current, on the other hand, is the opposite of voltage in this case. You want as much as possible, as a general rule. For each pedal, your power supply needs to provide at least double the mA that the pedal draws to ensure full voltage. In isolated power supplies, each outlet will indicate the mA output and voltage. If you’re going the daisy chain route, total up all the pedals and compare to the output of your adapter.
The first option, which we’ll pretty much skip right over, is 9V battery. To some extent, this is becoming less and less of an option as pedal makers opt for the nano and mini bodies for their pedals. Unless you’re planning to use it for the aforementioned germanium diodes, which will sputter in a fun way on a low battery, don’t use batteries. They need to be replaced constantly and they’re not great for the environment. Even in cases where you don’t have a choice on some older pedals, get yourself a cable converter so you can plug in.
Option two is to use a series of 9V power supplies to individually power each pedal. I prefer the Snark SA-1, but there are a few different makers. By assigning each of your pedals their own power source, you avoid ground loops that add unwanted noise to your signal. That’s option two-point-five: you can save some money by using a single adapter and a daisy chain. This is an okay option for beginners and while you’re building your board, but it won’t work in the long run. These daisy chains don’t deliver quite enough current to each pedal and they drive noise into the power ground that will ruin your sound.
That brings us to option three, the best option: the universal, isolated power supply. This is a box that requires only one wall plug, but generates power for a number of pedals in a variety of outputs, depending on the model you choose. Some pedals can benefit from using 18V power as opposed to the more standard “Boss style” 9V. Probably the most popular unit is the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2, which gives you up to eight isolated power outputs. This will ensure that every pedal has ample power to work at its peak, while also removing hum and other noise artifacts that daisy chains create.
As with pedals themselves, the Chinese makers are catching up. You could try the Donner DP-1, which offers more outputs for a shocking fraction of the cost. It should be noted that the reason this style is so cheap is because they aren’t isolated. They’re independently regulated and filtered, but true isolation requires a transformer inside the power supply itself, which also explains the difference in size. As they say, everything’s worth trying once.
If you want to read more about power supplies in excruciating detail, check out this roundup at Guitar Chalk, which will definitely help you choose one.
4. Patch Cables
Depending on your switching selection (we’ll get to that), you may need any number of patch cables. You’ll have to lay out your pedalboard to know exactly how many and what length they need to be, but once that’s done, you can begin making selections.
If your pedals are all the same brand, you might be able to get away with one of a couple different styles of direct couplers. There are straight and staggered ones, depending on your need. These are great because they don’t add any cable length, which always threatens to degrade your tone.
You could also try buying a kit and making your own. Lava Cable makes a good example of a solder-free pedalboard kit that should give you enough to wire up virtually any board. This is especially good for pedalboards with lots of differently shaped pedals or for unique signal routing, something more than just looping to the pedal sitting next to it.
There are, of course, very many inexpensive patch cables out there. They’ll get the job done, but listen for tone loss when using these. If you’re happy with the sound, you’ll save a lot of money. These cheap cables can be prone to noise, so you might end up spending that money later on something like a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor to knock down the hiss on stage. What works at home might not always be the solution elsewhere.
If you want the best of the best, you’ll have to shell out for it. The Mogami Gold 1/4 inch right angle plugs are extremely expensive for what they are, but if you find everything else to be lacking, this could be the option for you. Some people swear by them.
5. Pedal Switching
You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon of tap-dancing as it applies to playing guitar. This is when a guitarist has so many pedals that need to be changed at similar times that they’re constantly dancing around on switches as much at they are actually playing. Some players dig this, believing it adds an element of feel to the playing.
If you don’t, though, and you have a million pedals, you could consider a pedal switching controller. These work by building loops with your pedals in them, creating the combinations you need for various song parts so you can switch to them at moment’s notice. You can have all your presets laid out so you never have to miss a cue.
The vast majority of these solutions are hand built by guitar techs for specific uses. Besides these, the G2 GigRig might be the leading non-custom option, but it will certainly cost you. For a bit less than that, you can get the TC Electronic G-System, which allows for the use of up to nine single effects in combination with 25 on-board effects. The new Boss MS-3 allows you to use six internal Boss effects in combination with three external effects.
For much less, you can grab the Joyo PXL-PRO, which will give you eight loop channels, a tuner, and an independent mute switch. In the video below, he uses two of them to make a pedalboard no one would ever possibly need. If it works for this, it’ll surely work for your rig.
Those are all pretty intense options. A much simpler route would be the Boss LS-2 Line Switcher, which allows you to select between two completely different effects loops as well as bypass both of them. As I mentioned above, I use one of these to switch between my clean sounds and driven sounds. It’s fantastic.
Ah, yes. The main event. The reason for this article in the first place. The body of the pedalboard itself is simply a platform, whether wood, plastic, or metal, on which the pedals sit. There are a few variations on this theme depending on your pedal needs. Before you buy, go through the steps above to get your signal chain and arrangement right. Then layout your to-be board on the ground to get an idea of how much space you need. Write down your signal path and your measurements and then shop below based on your discoveries.
For the minimalists, the Gator G-Mini-Bone holds three essential pedals. If you have a wah or an expression pedal, you can also upgrade slightly to the G-Bone. Both feature hook and loop surfaces so attaching pedals is easy, and both are small enough to use a flight boards or backups. Most people really only use an overdrive, a single modulation pedal, and a delay or reverb, so this is a good option.
Next are the manufacturer-specific boards. While you certainly can put any pedal on these, they really shine at using all the same form factor. If you like the value Behringer provides, their PB1000 holds up to 12 of their pedals, and an equivalent number of Boss pedals. The Boss BCB-60M includes power for up to seven pedals, and looks especially satisfying when they’re all Boss type.
Gator also offers the G-Tour, which satisfies the need for a rugged case with some extra storage. Like the ones above, the bottom tray of the case serves as the pedalboard.
If you want something innovative, Chemistry Design Werks offers the Holeyboard Std M3, which foregoes the need for hook and loop fastening altogether. The curved layout and the two-level design make it easy to get to all the pedals.
I favor the Pedaltrain Classic 2, which is the straightforward, aluminum-bodied, lift-out style. The power supply safely fastens underneath and you can easily run all your cabling along the underside of the rails. This one comes with the rugged tour case, but for a little less, you can get the soft case version. That’s the one I have, as I don’t tour overseas or anything like that. The gig bag is more than tough enough for my needs. It comes with all the hook and loop material you’re likely to need.
As with the rest of it, the Chinese manufacturers have their own dirt-cheap versions, as well. The Donner DB-2 is a $58 version of the Pedaltrain, while the Joyo RD-B costs $79.95. The Joyo isn’t aluminum, though, so it weighs quite a bit more.
Once you have your pedalboard ready to go, you can contemplate adding to it by perusing our list of the top ten best reverb pedals, top ten best tremolo pedals, top 15 best modulation pedals, or try our list of the top ten best delay pedals. If you don’t see anything you like, you can browse more guitar effects pedals here.
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