Pedalboards 101 and Beyond
Contributing Editor: Scott Kahn
As you develop your sound and style as an electric guitar player, your attention will at some point turn to making use of effects pedals to enhance your sound. But with thousands of pedals to choose from, deciding what belongs on your pedalboards can seem like a daunting task. And then, deciding in what order to place the pedals can open up a thousand debates. Even deciding on the right physical pedalboard can be a bit overwhelming. There are also choices to be made about complex things like pedalboards power supplies and whether or not to use a wireless system.
If only there were some hard-and-fast rules from which to start.
As fate would have it, there are, in fact, pretty common elements that you’ll find across the majority of pedalboards, and I’m going to outline some of them to help you get started. But what’s right on one player’s pedalboard may not be right on yours, so use this overview as a general starting point.
A typical pedalboard is going to start with a tuner, and what usually follows first on the most compact pedalboards is an overdrive, distortion, or gain boost pedal. They are all, pretty much, variations on a theme, and your selection will vary based on the amp you play and the sounds you need. If you have a high gain, multi-channel amp, for example, you may not need any of these. But maybe you play through a boutique single-channel amp and you need a simple volume boost for your solos. Or, you want to also add a little bit of grit to that solo boost – or you want to transform your clean-all-the-time amp into something that rocks heavy. You get the idea.
Following these gain-modifying pedals typically come modulation effects. Chorus, Flanger, and Phaser, are also variations on a sonic theme, and they can give you lush, swirling sounds that range from subtle vibrato and synth-like textures to jet airplane swooshing sounds.
After your modulation effects typically come time-based effects: delay and reverb. Whether your taste in delay ranges from classic slap-back delay for rockabilly tones to the syncopated rhythmic delays of U2’s The Edge or Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, a delay pedal is essential for players across many genres, and there are hundreds of analog and digital delays to suit your precise taste.
Reverb pedals typically appear last in the pedalboards signal chain, and if your amp has onboard reverb, you probably don’t even need this pedal. But there are some mighty reverb pedals that are miniature recording studio boxes on the floor, and they deliver everything from the sound of your classic spring reverb to cavernous halls and shimmering sounds from outer space.
If only your pedalboard were as simple as the one above. Sure, one pedal from each of the categories above will help you fit into almost any musical situation, but there are other pedals that you may want to consider in addition to the above:
Wah! No, I’m not crying, but you may crave that classic crybaby wah tone, and this effect type is typically placed immediately behind the tuner and before the tone shapers.
Whether you like to mix it up with quiet, fingerstyle arpeggios, violin-like leads, or high-gain shred antics, a compressor is another popular addition to the pedalboards, and this, too, is usually the first pedal following your tuner (and before the wah, if you must ask).
Pedalboards can grow quite complex from here, because in addition to special-purpose sound effect pedals, some players employ more than one pedal in each of the categories above. And then there are the tone purists who don’t want their signal passing through all of the pedals when the effects aren’t engaged. Audio looping pedals let you break up the signal path between pedals so that when an effect isn’t in use, the direct guitar signal never even enters the pedal. These loopers also let you save preset combinations of your effects, so that a single button stomp can turn multiple effect pedals on and off instantly. But clear some space, as an audio looper can take up as much room as three or four regular pedals on your board.
Saving the best for last: ditching your wires! Going wireless with your guitar opens up a world of freedom both on stage as well as in the studio, and today’s digital wireless products feature technology that makes your tone indistinguishable from that of an instrument cable. Gone are the biggest problems that plagued older analog systems, namely analog signal companding (compression) and signal dropouts.
I’m especially in love with the Shure’s new GLX-D® system, designed expressly for the guitar/bassist’s pedalboards, and I’m using it both in my own rig as well as on pedalboards that I design for other players. I am a tone purist, and my pedalboards utilizes an audio looper to isolate each of my effect pedals. With space on the pedalboards at a premium, the first thing I loved about the GLX-D system was that it’s the first wireless receiver for a pedalboards with an instrument tuner built in! This means I don’t have to sacrifice additional space on the board for a tuner (not to mention another jack on my pedalboards power supply), and there’s one less device for my signal to flow through. I love that the tuner is on all the time, constantly showing my tuning and note value, and stepping on the footswitch mutes the signal for silent tuning.
Of course the two-birds-one-stone functionality wouldn’t matter at all if the audio specs didn’t live up to Shure’s reputation for pro-level wireless systems, but I’m happy to report that the GLX-D sounds and feels like nothing, which is precisely how it should sound. But wait! There’s more! (You knew that was coming, right?) If you’ve hated the thought of dealing with limited capacity AA batteries or contributing to landfills, the GLX-D features a high-powered, Li-ION rechargeable battery pack! Just plug it in for a recharge that lasts for days, and you can also purchase a spare to always have one on hand.
So whether you’re looking to build your first pedalboards or just upgrade an existing one, there are thousands of options when it comes to your choice of effects and how you connect them. But when it comes to pro-level wireless systems on the floor, your options are far more limited. Happily, the Shure GLX-D fits the bill beautifully, and it comes in at a price point that should enable any serious guitar player to add one to their rig.
SCOTT KAHN is editor in chief of MusicPlayers.com, the free online magazine for serious musicians, and a pro guitar player for the melodic progressive rock band, Beyond Tomorrow. To learn more about building professional guitar rigs, be sure to read his popular book, “Modern Guitar Rigs: The Tone Fanatic’s Guide to Integrating Amps & Effects”, a Hal Leonard publication, available at Hal Leonard, Amazon and music stores.