Building a pedalboard can be exciting because it is the first step to creating your own unique sound and tones. But it can also be a little confusing and daunting at first. Today we walk you through how to build your first pedalboard.
Building Your First Pedalboard: Getting Started
Pedals can be a blessing when it comes to finding your own sound. There are thousands of pedals out there, and hundreds of companies. Some are mass-produced, inexpensive, and used widely. Then there are limited edition boutique pedals that can be awfully expensive.
There is not right combination of pedals, no real roadmap of what you need to make your setup complete. Like most things involving guitar there are no rules to what you need.
Slash is pretty famous for plugging directly into his amp, with the only pedal being a Wah. While people like Minus The Bear use tons of pedals in tandem. There’s no real blueprint or right way to accomplish your sound goals.
You’re going to need a few things to get started building your first pedalboard. Some of the you may already have, like the pedals themselves. Maybe you’re starting from scratch. Either way, let’s take a look at the basics:
- Pedals (Obviously)
- A Power Source
- Velcro Tape
- Pedal Board/Platform
- Patch Cables
It sounds like a lot of stuff to start with. The best way to build a pedalboard is to do it over time. It’s easy to by everything piece-by-piece over a period of time. I would start with the pedals themselves.
Building Your First Pedalboard: The Pedals
This is all going to be very subjective, because everyone has a different taste in pedals and brands. But we can definitely break down which pedals your board should have, based on the types of pedals. There are many different types of pedals that provide different effects:
- Noise Gate
Which ones you decide on using will be totally up to you. Over the years I have seen tons of highly effective pedalboards. Some of them had only a few pedals that were used to craft their tone. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have seen some absolutely massive boards as well.
The best way to get started with what you need, is to try out some pedals. See what you like!
Another good way to choose pedals, is to look at what some other guitarists are using. It’s easy to look up what your favorite guitarists have as part of their rig. If there is a specific sound you want to achieve, there’s nothing wrong with looking to your guitar heroes.
Building Your First Pedalboard: Know Your Amp First!
Know Your Amp: If you have a amp that you use, and you’re happy with the distortion sound, then that is one pedal you can cross off the list! This applies to reverb sounds as well. This can also include built-in chorus.
So get familiar with your amp before you even consider pedals. Find what is lacking in your sound, and use the pedals to supplement or color your sound.
If you have a digital amp like some of the ones on out beginner list, then maybe you don’t need pedals at all! Not only do these not usually take pedals very well, but you have pretty much every effect you need at your fingertips.
Let’s talk about the essentials briefly, and what they do individually.
While most pedals are not exactly essential, the tuner is the exception unless you have another means, like a clip-on tuner. Either way, a tuner is absolutely key. These usually go first in your signal chain (more on that later).
There are many brands of tuners out there, I personally like the Korg Pitchblack, since it has a large display that can seen easily on stage or in the studio.
Remember when I said to know your amp? Knowing your amp’s distortion will be a deciding factor in your decision to buy a distortion pedal or not. If your amp distortion just isn’t cutting it, then you can use a pedal to add gain.
You can also use a distortion pedal together with your amp’s distortion. This can add midrange or boost the highs, to “color” the distortion tone. Sometimes the only way to get the tone you want is by blending different types of distortion.
Fuzz works the same way, to color your sound. Doom Metal is usually based around a good distortion sound that is colored with fuzz, in varying degrees.
This can be a deep rabbit hole, though! Once you get started, it can be hard to know when to stop. Sometimes the Occam’s Razor approach is the best, and just stick to the basics. You really won’t know until try!
Overdrive does exactly what the name implies. It overdrives the signal of your amp, and adds gain in a more subtle manner than the distortion pedals.
In Metal, it is often used to “tighten up” the amp’s natural distortion sound. You hear about this a lot, and it’s a really cool technique.
You achieve this sound by running the overdrive through the distortion channels of your amp. You set the overdrive to zero gain, don’t worry it will still boost the signal. You then use the mid/treble knobs to dial in the “tightness” of your distortion sound from your amp.
You can also use an overdrive to boost your lead sound. Right when you are about to play a solo, you hit the overdrive to boost your guitar sound. This lets you not only be a little louder, but it changes the frequencies so your guitar sticks out more in the mix and is easily heard.
I don’t want to say that overdrive is as essential as a tuner…but it kind of is. Finding one that you really like, and using it frequently, you’ll see what I mean.
If you play Metal, then this one is a must-have. A noise gate does a couple of things, but the main thing it does is makes sure you don’t annoy the hell out of your audience.
A noise gate is another pedal that does exactly what it says. When you are playing Metal, you are using a lot of high gain tones, and with gain comes crazy amounts of feedback.
Now feedback is not always a bad thing. It can be used tastefully as part of your sound. But in between songs or in quieter parts of a song, you want the feedback to be absent. That’s exactly what the noise gate does.
Some more sophisticated noise gates also dial out harsh frequencies from your guitar’s distortion tone. These are listed as having a noise reduction feature.
Noise gates work great in the studio as well, for the same reason they work on the stage. But they also tighten up your stacatto notes, and quick chugs.
Modulation are your secondary line of effects. They include:
- Lo Fi Filters
- Pitch Bending
These are all similar, and lumped into the same category because they usually run off a similar circuit. The problem with these pedals these days, is they can easily sound very dated.
Often associated with the over-use in the 1980’s and beyond, modulation like chorus and flange can easily sound cheesy these days. But that doesn’t mean that they are totally worthless or not worth a look.
The trick with modulation effects is to use them sparingly and tastefully. Personally, beyond delay and reverb, I really don’t use any of these other effects anymore. I find it hard to use flange, as all I hear is Eddie Van Halen when I turn it on. Flange was a key part of his sound.
I honestly don’t mean to try and turn you off from using these pedals. The end result is up to your ears! Maybe you can do something with them that I cannot. The best way of course… is, you guessed it; try them for yourself.
Wah Wah Pedals
The Wah Wah pedal is one of the most popular pedals ever invented. They are still used today by artists everywhere, for good reason. They have an unmistakable, sweet sound.
While Jimi Hendrix certainly made the Wah popular, many other guitarists over the years have used it to color their guitar solos, and make them sound epic.
The Wah acts as a filter for your guitar signal, and the filter sweep is controlled by your foot using a rocking motion. The sweep can be wide or short depending on the brand of pedal.
This is a pedal you really need to play with a while to get the hang of using. It may be something you enjoy, or you may find it superfluous for your pedalboard. I suggest finding a used one, and test it out!
So now you know a little about the pedals themselves, let’s take a look at what else you need for building your first pedalboard.
Building Your First Pedalboard: Finding a Power Supply
If you have a few pedals already, you probably have noticed that they run on 9V batteries. This method works out fine if you have one or two pedals that you use. But if you’re building a full pedalboard, you’ll need a little more than 9V batteries.
A good power supply puts the correct voltage through all of your pedals simultaneously. Most pedals can be powered by an AC adapter, and that’s exactly what a power supply is, except it powers multiple pedals all at once.
Depending on how many pedals you have, will determine the size of your power supply. They come with as low as four adapters, all the way up to twelve.
Personally, I would buy the larger power supply since you never know just how your pedalboard is going to change over time. You may start with only a couple of pedals, but this can easily evolve after a little experience. I would rather have extra adapters, than to not have enough.
Your power supply is the “heart” of your pedalboard. Sure, you can stick to 9V batteries. But that would cost a fortune over time!
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The Actual Pedalboard/Velcro
There are many different companies that make pedalboards that are ready to go out of the box, provided you have the parts listed above. There are quite a few companies that make them in all different sizes.
A lot of these companies are pretty pricey, as they are custom made. I have also seen people make them at home with wood pallets and a few tools. This is going to be a choice completely up to you. I guess it depends how handy or creative you are.
I’m not handy at all. So I don’t mind buying something that is ready to go.
Gator is the only company I can think of that comes with a case, and everything you need to get started. maybe check out what they have on their website to see what suits you.
These Gator all-in-one cases and boards have always worked for me. They come with plenty of Velcro tape to hold your pedals. You’ll need the tape because most boards sit at an angle that helps you step on them accurately.
The Velcro also allows you to remove pedals, and replace them easily. You can always just take the pedal off the board and replace it with another if you decide to change up your sound.
So now you have everything right? Just one last ingredient…
I cannot stress this enough: You can never have too many of these. I don’t care if you have 200 six inch patch cables laying around the house. You still never have enough.
Like socks in a dryer, these just disappear into the Ether sometimes. Never to be seen again.
You’ll need two of these per pedal on your pedalboard, so it is always a good idea to have them around. Not to mention, always have a few extra at a gig. These things can break (even the expensive ones) for seemingly no reason at all.
So the more you have, the better. Treat them like guitar picks. have some hanging out wherever you play!
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Building Your First Pedalboard: Order of Pedals
Believe it or not, there is a pretty specific order of how to set up your pedalboard, when it comes to the order of your pedals. Every single thing you put between your guitar and the amplifier has the possibility to degrade/change the sound.
No one wants to degrade their tone. But putting your pedals in the proper order is a good way to ensure that your don’t change your natural sound too much. The rules are pretty easy to follow:
These go first on your board, and go directly into your amp input:
These all go first, with the tuner always being the first thing on your board. These are not the modulation effects that we mentioned earlier, as those have a different route.
These go in this order, as to no alter your signal chain too much. These pedals also plug directly into the front of your amp. This ensures the best tone. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
These types of pedals are the easy part of your pedalboard chain. The signal goes straight into the front of the amp. Modulation is definitely different.
The modulation effects follow the first line of pedals in order:
- Lo Fi effects
- Pitch Shift
- Noise Gate
If you look at the diagram above, you’ll see that modulation does not just go directly into the front of your amp. This could not only degrade the signal, but also change the sound of the pedals for the worse.
These are to be used in the effects loop on the back of your amp. there should be two inputs/outputs. One is the Send, the other is the Return. As you can see in the diagram, the first modulation pedal’s output needs to plug into the Send.
The pedals are then chained together, and the loop closes with the last pedal going from the input, to the Return. This completes the effects loop, and maintains two different signals.
Your first signal chain, going through the front of the amp will control your gain and distortions, while the effects loop acts as a second signal chain for your modulation effects.
Do you have to follow this 100%?
I think if this is your first pedalboard, then yes. I would follow these rules. There are some rare modulation effects out there that do sound better through the front of the amp. Likewise, there are distortions that go through effects loop well. But this is rare, and takes experimentation.
The noise gate could easily go through the front of the amp, but I have always preferred it in the effects loop. Try it both ways on your pedalboard, and see where you like it the best.
Building Your First Pedalboard: It’s Actually Pretty Easy!
Well we made it to the end! Now you know how to set up your own custom pedalboard. It may seem really daunting, looking at all the parts. But hopefully we have cleared things up a little.
While there are plenty of digital units out there, there is something satisfying about creating your own sounds with analog pedals. It’s like the difference between listening to an MP3 vs. a vinyl record. They both do the same thing, but one seems more personal and organic.
There are a few drawbacks to building a pedalboard, like the price. It’s easy to rack up the bucks when you start buying pedals. If that is a concern, then you can always go digital. The digital versions have really come a long way over the years.
Personally I use both. I think having a good pedalboard, as well as having some quality digital devices gives you more options. And more options is always a plus when you are crafting your sound.
Good luck with building your first pedalboard, and finding your special sound!
Now that you know how to build out a pedalboard, you’re going to need some actual pedals. Check out our guide to the best and most iconic guitar pedals ever created – from 1968 to 2021.