Back in the mid 1960s, guitarists had a choice of maybe three or four pedals, and the players who were far out enough to use them all at once connected them together with cables several feet long, and used 20-foot coiled cables on each side of the pedal chain to go between their guitar and amp. From a modern perspective, this was not an ideal arrangement, because the cable runs led to all sorts of noise and tone sucking. But that’s also how some players got those “classic rock” sounds that guitarists still crave after all these years.
Flash forward four decades, and pedal chains have become far more sophisticated than a few boxes arranged on a stage floor. Many players build their own pedalboards, and manufacturers service varied needs with simple carrying cases (that sometimes include Velcro strips to seat your pedals on a floorboard), pre-fab boards with tiered shelves, and rugged tour monsters with regulated power, tuner jacks, onboard headphone amps, and other goodies. And if you’re not the do-it-yourself type—and wield sufficient coin—you can have a pedalboard and effects system custom-built to your every whim by experts.
If you go the D.I.Y route, however, the road can be daunting. For one, you’re faced with a plethora of pedals—including multieffects units that offer dozens of effects, and state-of-the-art modeling units that emulate vintage stompboxes. And that’s not all. Besides having literally hundreds of pedals to choose from, there are dozens of different types of cables, and tons of associated products such as power supplies and buffering devices. If you get anything wrong—well, you may get lucky, and everything will sound brilliant to you anyway. Then again, your attempt at building the perfect pedalboard could be bedeviled by noise, annoying level inconsistencies between pedals, frustrating tonal anomalies, and other problems.
So to help unravel some of the mysteries confronting prospective pedalboard builders and purchasers, we consulted some noted system designers on nearly every aspect of their art—from power to wiring to buffers and beyond. You’ll find advice from the inventor of the pedalboard, Pete Cornish (Pete Cornish, Ltd.), as well as from Bob Bradshaw (Custom Audio Electronics), Dave Friedman (Rack System, Ltd.), Michael Piera (AnalogMan.com), and James Santiago and Josh Fiden (Voodoo Lab).
We’ve also included a mini-buyer’s guide on pedalboard tools, troubleshooting advice from Cornish (as well as his stance on true-bypass switching vs. buffering), some classic rock signal chains, a simple tutorial on effects ordering, and a photo gallery of pedalboards built for Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, John Shanks, Andy Summers, Pete Townshend, and other stars. Hopefully, after you digest this user-friendly arrangement of pedalboard science, you’ll know everything you need to correct any problems with your current rig, or build an effects system that precisely matches your performance style, technical desires, and creative approach.
Unless all of your pedals run on batteries—and you enjoy changing them—you’ll need some sort of power supply. Merely attaching a power outlet strip to your board, and plugging in a bunch of wall-warts would be one solution, though, thankfully, more elegant and efficient options are available. The first thing to determine is what sort of power each of your pedals requires: the voltage, whether that voltage is DC or AC, and what amperage the pedal draws (most pedals draw between 3mA and 60mA, though digital pedals may draw 150mA or more).
“There are all sorts of pedals out there with different voltages, including nine, 12, 18, and 24 volts,” says Dave Friedman. “And guitar players also tend to have a hard time with AC and DC. They’ll say, ‘I put this 12-volt adapter into this pedal and it should have worked.’ No, you plugged a 12-volt AC adapter into a DC pedal and poof!”
Once you’ve got these issues sorted out, you can look for a power supply that meets your specific needs (renegade pedals with unusual power requirements, including those powered by 120-volt AC, may simply need to be connected to an onboard or external AC outlet).
“Beyond having a regulated power supply that can handle all your pedals, it’s a good idea to have isolated power taps to prevent ground loops,” says Bob Bradshaw, “because then you’ll have less trouble interfacing a wide variety of different manufacturer’s pedals—especially old and old-style fuzz-boxes that use discrete transistors, rather than integrated circuits. ICs are relatively forgiving, because they already have circuitry within the chip that helps stabilize the circuits’ different power supplies. However, pedals that utilize bucket brigade circuits—such as analog delays and choruses—are particularly susceptible to coupling noise.”
“Power supplies such as Voodoo Lab’s Pedal Power have isolated taps with no common ground, so it’s like having multiple individual power supplies,” adds Friedman. “The problem with power supplies that daisy chain all the pedals together is that they connect all the audio grounds and all the power grounds together, leading to ground loops between the pedals. This can result in hums and buzzes, or even short circuits from mixing positive- and negative-ground pedals. I’m not saying you always have to have completely isolated power, but it’s the best way to ensure that everything will work perfectly.”
Friedman also cautions against testing your pedalboard for hum and noise using a clean amp.
“I always test into a really high-gain amp that enables me to hear every little noise imaginable,” he says. “That makes it easier to track down problems.”
Finally, how power is routed from the power supply to the pedals is also an issue, as there are not only several types of connectors—Boss pedals have 2.1mm barrel connectors, whereas older Electro-Harmonix pedals often have 3.5mm mini-phone connectors—but the polarity is reversed on some pedals (such as Moogerfoogers, which have tip-positive barrel connectors, as opposed to the more common tip-negatives). Most power supplies come with a variety of connecting cables, including snap-on 9-volt battery clips to power pedals with no power jacks. And speaking of 9-volt batteries, Pete Cornish reminds us that in terms of noise problems, “Batteries are best, as they can’t hum!”
Bypass, Buffer, or Both?
The topics of buffers and true-bypass switching are often addressed in the same breath, but they are only related when considered within an either/or context of maintaining the integrity of a guitar signal when using multiple effects pedals (see “Pete Cornish on True Bypass vs. Buffering” on p. 73). Put simply, a buffer is a device that converts a high-impedance signal—such as the one originating from your guitar’s output—into a low-impedance signal. The reason that you might want to use a buffer is that every length of cable—and every device connected between your guitar and amplifier—will result in additional capacitance, which will affect the sound in various ways, most notably reducing high frequencies.
Passive guitar pickups generate relatively weak voltages—as well as high impedance levels—that can be greatly affected by capacitance. Low impedance levels, on the other hand, suffer less from capacitance, and can more easily maintain signal integrity when running longer lengths of cable and routing the signal through multiple effects pedals. The resulting sound should more closely approximate what you hear when plugging your guitar directly into your amp.
True-bypass switches purport to completely bypass a pedal’s circuitry, eliminating the additional capacitance, and therefore also resulting in a sound that more closely approximates plugging your guitar directly into your amp. So what’s all the fuss about?
“I don’t care if pedals are 100-percent bypassed or not, going through a long chain of pedals and subsequent cables is going to degrade your signal,” says Bradshaw. “You still have connection issues from one pedal to the next, and even the highest quality cables and plugs are going to cause a slight degradation to the sound. It’s very necessary to address the problem with a high-quality buffer if you want to retain your tone, and there are a lot of them out there. In a pinch, you can use a Boss pedal as a buffer—even the company’s TU-12 tuner. Having said that, there are issues with buffers, particularly how they affect the response of some fuzzes and distortion boxes, which is why you may want to put those pedals ahead of any sort of buffer in the signal chain.”
“A buffer is often used as the first device on a board to get the signal from your guitar into good shape early on,” agrees Michael Piera. “But that’s a problem when using a vintage pedal like a germanium Fuzz Face, which needs to interact directly with your pickups for the magic clean-up effect to occur when you roll your guitar’s volume knob down, because the pickup and volume knob become part of the fuzz’s circuit. Similarly, germanium treble boosters such as Rangemaster-type devices get overly bright and nasty sounding when buffers or buffered pedals are placed before them. An exception to the rule would be wahs, which are usually placed before fuzzes in the signal chain. In order to keep a vintage wah from losing tone and sweep when placed before a fuzz, a buffer should be added to the wah, which will allow it to function better when it is on. Then, taking the wah out of the circuit with true-bypass switching—either internal or via an external loop—removes the buffer so that the fuzz still functions well. The Foxrox Electronics Wah Retrofit kit can be added to most vintage-style or boutique wahs, and Teese RMC wahs now include this ‘fuzz friendly’ buffer circuitry. Finally, I advise keeping the total number of buffers in your rig to a minimum, as slight tonal changes and noise are cumulative, and they increase with the number of circuits.”
All of our experts agreed that the cable from the guitar to the first pedal—especially if that pedal happens to be a vintage or vintage-style fuzz—was the most critical in the signal path. As to what percentage of your pedalboard budget to spend on cabling, opinions varied.
“I’ve been using Mogami 2524 for years,” says Bradshaw. “I like the way it works and the way that it sounds, though it certainly isn’t the most high-end cable available. But I’m a bit of a skeptic about a lot of this stuff until I hear it for myself. I don’t really believe in paying $100 for a ten-foot cable.”
Friedman has also used Mogami cable, and appreciates its durability, but he says that he hasn’t always loved the way it sounds. “I’ve used a lot of cables over the years, including some from Horizon that I like the sound of, but I’m currently using a lot of Belden cable of various kinds, depending on the application,” he says. “I tend to listen to the cable and decide if that’s what I’m going to use.”
One point about cabling, however, was not in dispute.
“I hate solderless cables,” exclaims Bradshaw. “I’m sorry, but if you want something done right, and you want the thing to last, then you have to solder your connections. If musicians don’t want to get into soldering, that’s fine, but they do so at their own peril.”
“For some people, I use George L’s cable,” says Friedman, “but I use soldered-on ends rather than George L’s solderless connectors. The cable sounds really good, but there is serious potential for failure using non-soldered ends—largely because the majority of people who use George L’s cable for their boards don’t cut the cable exactly right, and the ends don’t connect properly. Personally, I would say buy some short angle- to-angle soldered cables at a store, and save yourself a lot of trouble.”
If you want to consolidate your cable runs from your pedalboard to your amp, PedalSnake products allow you to combine audio, MIDI, footswitch, and power lines into a single cable.
Given that many amplifiers manufactured throughout the past 35 years have built-in effects loops, the question of which effects should be patched into them naturally arises. Generally, effects loops are designed to work optimally with non-pedal-type devices—such as rackmounted reverb, delay, and multieffects units—which utilize different input and output levels than pedals intended for use between a guitar and amplifier. Although some effects loops allow you to switch the level between -10dBu (for most semi-professional gear) and +4dBu (for most pro gear), and/or dial in the send and receive volumes, how any particular pedal will perform when inserted into an effects loop will be most easily determined by listening.
Perhaps more important is the question of which types of effects should be placed in an amp’s effects loop. As the loop is typically located after the preamplifier section’s tone-shaping controls, and before the power amplifier, it follows that if you want to place amp-generated distortion before a delay or other effect, that effect should be inserted into the effects loop. On the other hand, if you get your distortion by plugging a pedal into the input of a clean amplifier, from an effects ordering perspective it won’t really matter whether the other effects are connected to the amp’s input or its effects loop.
Mono to Stereo
Some effects pedals have stereo outputs, allowing you to play in stereo using two amplifiers (or record in stereo using two inputs on a recording console). If you only have one stereo pedal on your pedalboard, and you place it last in the signal chain, fine. But if you have more than one stereo pedal, you may have a problem, as quite often pedals with stereo outputs have only a mono input, and even those with two inputs are often not actually true stereo, as the two inputs are summed to mono before feeding the stereo processor.
“Every stereo pedal that comes after the first stereo pedal has to be true stereo—with discrete stereo inputs and outputs—otherwise you are screwed,” warns Bradshaw. “And even with true stereo pedals, you still have to watch out for phase and other imaging issues.”
Using a stereo pedalboard with two amps also gives rise to another issue.
“You can create a ground loop between the two amplifiers,” says Friedman. “A lot of times, people will use a ground lift on one of the amps to get around that, but, electronically, that’s not the safest or even the quietest way to do things. The best solution is to have a professional create an output box with a single isolation transformer to isolate one of the amps.”
Attaching the Pedals
Commercially available pedalboards generally come with specific materials for use when attaching pedals to them. If you are going entirely D.I.Y., there are numerous options—including nylon ties and mini bungee cords—but most people use a locking adhesive material of some sort.
“I’ve been using one-inch-wide 3M Dual Lock tape for years now,” says Bradshaw. “There are several densities, and I use the Clear type. I don’t use Velcro. Never have. It just doesn’t lock the pedals down very well.”
Friedman, too, uses 3M Dual Lock on his custom laminated pedalboards, but he recommends using Velcro on homemade boards constructed from plywood.
“The Dual Lock doesn’t stick well to plywood, and it also requires that you pull all the rubber off the bottom of the pedals, and clean the residue off with adhesive remover,” he says. “If you just slap some two-inch Velcro right on the rubber and mount it to a piece of wood you got from a hardware store, you will be fine.”
Pros on Pedal Order
How you order your effects pedals determines your sound. While conventional wisdom provides some basic guidelines (see “Pedal Order By the Numbers” to the right), and there are numerous tips scattered throughout these pages, here is personal advice from Bradshaw, Cornish, and Friedman.
Bradshaw: “I put the distortion devices early in the chain, then the filter-y and wah-type things and modulation, and then delays. I like the idea of a harmonically rich distorted signal being filtered, rather than filtering a clean sound going into an echo. You can also think of it as what the signal path in a studio situation would be if you were to plug your guitar directly into the input of your amplifier, and process that sound through outboard effects. You’re not going to have your echo first before going into your distortion boxes—unless you’re looking for a specific sound—because you want the echoes to die out naturally, and not with your distorted sound.”
Cornish: “Compressors should be first in line from the guitar. Do not use a volume pedal first, as this will defeat any compression, and leave the system with maximum noise if the volume pedal is reduced to zero. I tend to connect any distortion devices and high-gain pedals first in line, and the lower-gain pedals later. I have found that the higher-gain devices control sustain, and the lower- gain devices control the tone if they are connected in this order. Modulation devices can come next. Volume pedals work well just before any delay or echo effects, as you can fade in and out of delays smoothly. A volume pedal at the very end of the chain just before the amp input will control master volume, and can also be used as a mute. Reducing the signal at this point will also reduce any noise. I put clean boosts right at the end—also just before the amp input—to ensure that any effects earlier in the chain would not be overloaded.”
Friedman: “Pedal order is a very subjective thing, and I’ve had people do it all backwards because that’s the way they like it. Generally speaking, compressors come before overdrives, modulation things are kind of in the middle, and delays are at the end. The wah is kind of a personal preference. Sometimes it’s in front early in the chain, and sometimes it’s after overdrives. That said, I’ve had people do wahs after delays—and at the end of whole boards—because they like to use them to filter the delays and other effects. The bass player from Rage Against the Machine liked his wah last and his delay first!”
The Pete Cornish Method
For Eliminating Level Inconsistencies, Tone Sucking, and Noise From Your Pedalboard
- Disconnect and physically remove all effects from the pedalboard. Ensure that each effect is fitted with its own battery, and that the battery voltages have been checked for correctness.
- Connect your guitar directly to your amp using a good-quality cable that you know works perfectly, and has been tested for continuity and insulation resistance. I prefer not to use cables with non-soldered jacks.
- Set the guitar’s volume and tone controls to full, and do not change the settings.
- Set the amp’s volume and tone controls to a reasonable level, and do not change the settings.
- Remove the cable from the amp’s input, and connect it to the input of the first pedal in your desired routing order. Connect the output of the pedal to the amp input using a second cable of known good quality. Power the pedal by battery at this stage.
- With the pedal switched off, is there any change to the signal or volume? Without adjusting the amp, investigate the reason for any changes. If the pedal is buffered, there should be no difference, but if it uses so-called true-bypass switching there may be a slight change as the cable length is now probably doubled, and you should consider using a unity-gain buffer in front of the pedal.
- Now, add the second pedal in your desired routing order (be sure to always use the same guitar cable). Use a good quality patch cable to connect the output of the first pedal to the input of the second pedal. Connect the output of the second pedal to the amp input using the same cable you used previously.
- With both the first and second pedals switched off, is there any change to the signal or volume? If the second pedal is buffered, there should be no difference, but if it uses true-bypass switching, there may be a slight change, and you should consider using a unity-gain buffer in front of—or possibly after—the second pedal.
- Repeat with further pedals, remembering not to change the guitar or amp volume as you test the pedals in their off positions.
- If all is okay with pedals in the off position, then all bypass circuits and patch cables would seem to be okay. If a problem with tone or volume occurs, it will be within the last pedal or cable added.
- Now, begin to switch the pedals on, starting with the first pedal in the routing order, and adjust the effect volume so it matches exactly the “off” volume. Repeat with other pedals until all effects are individually matched to unity gain.
- Having level matched all pedals to the bypassed level, now connect the first pedal to your DC power supply, and check that it performs in exactly the same way as when it is battery powered. If there is noise or other problems, investigate. Consider substituting another DC power supply.
- If all is okay with first pedal, connect the second pedal to a DC supply, and carry out the same test procedure.
- Repeat with additional pedals until you find where the problem occurs. If noise is acceptable when battery powered, and not acceptable when DC powered, then the problem must lie with the DC supply. Several DC power supplies may be required, and, in extreme cases, a separate DC power supply for each pedal may be essential.
Pete Cornish on True Bypass vs. Buffering
“The true-bypass function can create dreadful problems with a system that uses many pedals,” says legendary effect and pedalboard designer Pete Cornish. “Take, for instance, a 20-foot guitar cable linked to ten pedals, each linked by a one-foot cable, and then onto the amp by a 25-foot cable. If all pedals have true bypass—and are off—then the total cable length hanging on the guitar output will be 54 feet. This will cause a huge loss of tone and signal level—particularly if the guitar is a vintage instrument with low output and high impedance. The amp volume is then turned up, and the treble control increased to compensate for the losses. The inherent background noise now increases by the amount of the gain and treble increase, and is usually, in my experience, too bad for serious work. If one of the pedals is now switched on, then its high input impedance—and usually low output impedance—will buffer all the output cables from the guitar, and the signal level will rise due to the removal of some of the load on the pickups. Consider the change to approximate using 22 feet of cable, instead of 54 feet. But the treble will rise, and the tone and volume will not be as before. If that pedal was, say, a chorus or delay—devices which are usually unity gain—then your overall signal level and tone will vary each time an effect is added. This is not a very good idea.
“My system—which I devised in the early ’70s—is to feed the guitar into a fixed high-impedance load that is identical to the amp input, and then distribute the signal to the various effects and amps by low-impedance buffered feeds. This gives a constant signal level and tonal characteristics, which do not change at all when effects are added.”
Why Don’t More Pros Use Floor Multieffectors?
Why is it that when you press up against the stage at your favorite band’s concert, the chances of seeing a multieffects pedal at the guitarist’s feet are up there with spotting Lindsay Lohan volunteering at the local soup kitchen? It seems that pros tend to favor custom switching systems or pedalboards loaded with a bunch of different boxes—even though the multieffects units by makers such as Boss, DigiTech, Korg, Zoom, Rocktron, and Peavey have many advantages. These very portable, all-in-one solutions save players from worrying about connecting cables between individual pedals, dealing with the horrors of Velcro, freaking out over a pedal that isn’t compatible with a multi-output power supply, and negotiating all the other challenges of assembling a viable pedalboard. You also get a dozen or more effects—often for the price of three or four individual pedals—as well as programmable signal chains.
The main reason may be due to the fact that guitarists are rugged individualists. You might like a few Boss pedals, but you want to be able to mix and match them with some DigiTech and MXR stompboxes, as well as the odd boutique effect. Then, there’s the programmability versus tweakability issue. Multieffect devices may allow you to go instantly from a clean wah/chorus/delay to a distorted octave/flange/tremolo, but should you find that all your reverbs are too wet for the cavernous room you’re playing, reprogramming everything between soundcheck and the gig could be a problem.
The lack of rapid workarounds could also be problematic for some pros.
“I bought a Boss ME-5 multieffects unit for the first Cassandra Wilson tour I did,” says Kevin Breit, who has also played with Norah Jones. “It was great for simulating some of the stuff I did on her New Moon Daughter album in 1996, but if it went down, I was stuck going right into the amp, and that meant no effects. On a pedalboard with a bunch of individual stompboxes, you can replace a bad cable, or just do without the misbehaving pedal for the evening. My current pedalboard starts with a Boss tuner and a Radial Switchbone A/B box. The ‘A’ chain is a DOD envelope filter and two Ibanez EM5 Echo Machines. The ‘B’ chain includes two Boomerang loopers, an Electro-Harmonix POG, an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and Moogerfooger FreqBox, Ring Modulator, Analog Delay, and MuRF pedals.”
Then, there are veteran sidemen such as Gerry Leonard (David Bowie, Duncan Sheik, Rufus Wainwright) who embrace both options.
“I have a Boss ME-30 that’s great for traveling light and doing radio-station performances, small gigs, and even some recordings,” he says. “I got it because it can be battery powered, and Boss pedals are super reliable. I tried to program the ME-30 to sound like the individual Boss pedals I like, such as the compressor, the overdrive, and the delay. I even got it to do basic looping. One of the big problems with all these boxes, however, is that the presets are generally horrible. They’re like fast food—salty and good for three minutes, but then you feel like crap. You tend to lose some definition and air around your sound, so it’s a good idea to A/B your multieffects programs with your individual pedals and tones for some perspective. For big shows, I use a Digital Music GCX switching system, a TC Electronic G-Force, and a bunch of analog pedals that are handpicked for the sonic needs of the gig. This system gives me a very flexible and killer sound with true bypass on all effects, and even amp-channel switching.”
As with many sonic decisions, one’s personal taste, budget, and musical and ergonomic needs tend to drive the choice of tools. Most multieffects units are certainly flexible and robust enough for professional tour applications, so the desire to assemble a collection of vastly different tonal options is likely the key factor that keeps pros from setting an integrated Boss, DigiTech, or Rocktron box on stage.
All About Loop Switchers
Pedalboard gurus such as Bob Bradshaw and Dave Friedman can design mind-boggling ways to incorporate tons of great pedals into your rig, with all the flexibility you want, and none of the tone sucking you don’t. The catch is, those rigs can be complex, bulky, and freaking expensive. Isn’t there some way that a pedal freak on a budget can harness his or her stompbox power in an intuitive and portable setup? As a matter of fact, there are several means of accomplishing exactly that.
Here’s the idea: You have six stompboxes—a wah, a vintage overdrive, a distortion, a phaser, a funky old flanger, and an analog delay. They all sound cool, but some of the old ones are a little noisy, and, when they’re all in line, your signal drops noticeably. In addition to that, you’re sick of doing a river dance all over them to go from a clean sound with delay and phaser to a dirty tone with wah, distortion, and flange (five separate stomps in all). You want to simplify your stomping, and clean up your signal. A loop switcher will do the trick.
Essentially footcontrollers with a ton of 1/4" send and return jacks, these handy devices allow you to put your pedals in loops, so if you’re not using the effect, it’s totally out of your signal path. Loop switchers are available from a variety of manufacturers (see “Pedal Gear Makers” on p. 92), and to figure out which one is right for you, you need to answer a few questions.
First, how many pedals are you using? You’ll need a switcher with enough loops to accommodate them.
Second, do you just want to kick the individual pedals in one by one, or do you want programmable presets where several pedals switch in and out simultaneously? If it’s the former, switchers such as the Pedal-Racks True Bypass Strip or Voodoo Lab Pedal Switcher will do what you need. If you normally just jump between clean and dirty—and maybe occasionally kick in a delay or a wah for solos—products of this type will let you do that cleanly and quietly.
On the other hand, if you’re a disciple of the Edge/Alex Lifeson school—where you want dramatic tonal changes involving multiple effects changing all at once—you’ll want to look into programmable loop switchers such as the Carl Martin Octaswitch, Voodoo Lab’s Pedal Switcher/Commander pair of devices, or the GigRig MIDI-8 or Pro-14. These ingenious products give you a tremendous amount of control over your stompboxes (while obviously keeping them out of your signal chain when they’re not in use).
The operation of the Octaswitch and the GigRig products is pretty straightforward. You place your individual effects in loops, and simply flick the little DIP switch for whichever effect you want to engage. So let’s say for button number 1 you select DIP switches 1, 3, and 5 (loops containing wah, distortion, and flange). Every time you hit that button, you’ll instantly get those three pedals—regardless of which effects were on previously—and with one stomp. You can accomplish the same thing with the Voodoo Lab gear by connecting the Commander to the Pedal Switcher with a MIDI cable.
So far, every setup we’ve discussed keeps your pedals on the floor, where you can see them (even if you’re no longer stomping on them). If you typically bring a rack on your gigs, however, you might want to put your pedals in a drawer in that rack, and incorporate a rackmount loop switcher and footcontroller, such as the GCX Guitar Audio Switcher and Ground Control from Voodoo Lab. This will greatly reduce your onstage footprint for a tidy and powerful setup.
Depending on your needs, you can find loop switchers that also switch amp channels, send MIDI commands (crucial if you’re also using rack gear in your setup), and provide tap tempo, expression pedal capability, tuner outs, lead boosts, buffering, and more. It might seem complicated at first, but once you get it all dialed in, you’ll have more control over your effects—and a cleaner signal—than ever before.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no cleaner signal path than to put all of your devices into a loop-switching rig,” says Bradshaw. “Buffers and true-bypass switching in pedals can solve a lot of problems, but a properly designed looping system is the best solution—even if you don’t want to get into MIDI and automated switching.”
How Effects Routing Produced Classic Tones By Hendrix, Van Halen, and Eric Johnson
Here are three examples of how pedal order can produce amazing sounds. It’s all about how the pedals interact with each other. As you will note, some of these classic sounds were crafted by following conventional effects-routing wisdom, and some were made by twisting the rules. When it comes to tone, experimentation may be your most valuable tool.
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Jimi Hendrix, “Bold As Love” Buffers and Vintage Transistor Fuzz
The creamy lead and punchy rhythm sounds that Hendrix created with his Fuzz Face are some of the most sought-after tones ever recorded. For tracks such as “Bold ss Love,” he achieved this by riding the guitar’s volume control with the Fuzz Face on the whole time. The problems start when you try to incorporate modern buffered pedals into this classic Fuzz Face to Marshall stack setup. The trick is to place your transistor fuzz as close to your guitar’s passive output in the chain as possible. Non-true bypass pedals that “load down” the pickups like a wah and Octavia are actually fine because they add no active circuitry when bypassed. Check out the differences when you have a pedal with a buffered bypass in front, and then after the fuzz. Without the buffer in front, your fuzz should go from raging lead when your guitar’s volume knob is on 10, to bright and clean when you back it off.
Eddie Van Halen, “Atomic Punk”
As a general rule for wiring pedalboards, effects such as chorus, phase, and flange are usually placed after distortion. But if you’re running into a clean amp, it’ll be hard to really nail the MXR Phase 90 sound on Van Halen’s “Atomic Punk,” or Hendrix’s Uni-Vibe on “Machine Gun.” On both tracks, their Marshall heads were set to a volume that would naturally overdrive and compress anything coming through the input jack. While it’s not really a good idea to show up to a session with a 100-watt head on 10 anymore, there are a couple of tricks you can use that will keep the volume down, while still juicing up your tone. If you have a multi-channel amp, you can switch over to a channel with a bit of light crunch. If you have a single channel amp, you can try placing a sonically neutral overdrive pedal such as a DOD Overdrive 250 after your mod units.
Eric Johnson, “Cliffs of Dover”
The BK Butler-designed Tube Driver has been a favorite of players like Joe Satriani, David Gilmour, and Eric Johnson. On its own, the pedal can deliver enough distortion to satisfy most solo tone applications. But, the trick to Johnson’s violin-like lead sound is to have multiple low-gain stages instead of a single high-gain source. For the track “Cliffs of Dover,” he ran his Tube Driver and Maestro Echoplex into a 1969 100-watt Marshall head with a Y-cable to jumper into both channels. With the amp’s volume controls at around 7, the preamp section and output tubes both add their own distinct type of overdrive. With the drive knob barely at noon on the pedal, there are now three stacked low-gain layers that add up to one giant lead tone. You can accomplish nearly the same vibe by using two overdrive pedals with moderate drive settings, and the delay of your choice sandwiched between them.
Pedal Gear Makers
Coast Pedal Boards, coastpedalboards.com
Custom Audio Electronics, customaudioelectronics.com
KMC Music & Sound, custompedalboard.com
Lee Jackson Designs, leejackson.com
NYC Pedalboards, nycpedalboards.com
Rack System Designs, racksystemsltd.com
Trailer Trash Pedalboards, trailertrashpedalboards.com
Dunlop, jimdunlop.com; products starting at $109
Gator, gatorcases.com; products starting at $79
Godlyke, godlyke.com; products starting at $39
Pedalgear.net, pedalgear.net; products starting at $299
Pedal Pad, pedalpad.com; products starting at $119
Rocktron, rocktron.com; products starting at $30
T-Rex, t-rex-engineering.com; products starting at $99
Visual Sound, visualsound.net; products starting at $25
Voodoo Lab, voodoolab.com; products starting at $139
Axess, axess-electronics.com; products starting at $259
Carl Martin, carlmartin.com; products starting at $343
Pedal-Racks, pedalboards.com; products starting at $40
Radial Engineering, radialeng.com; products starting at $74
RJM Music Technology, rjmmusic.com; products starting at $399
Sound Sculpture, soundsculpture.com; products starting at $1,000
The Gig Rig, thegigrig.com; products starting at $139
Voodoo Lab, voodoolab.com; products staring at $219
Boss, bossusa.com; products starting at $30
Core, coreoneproduct.com; products starting at $74
Electro-Harmonix, ehx.com; products starting at $49
Furman, furman.com; products starting at $199
Gator, gatorcases.com; products starting at $49
Lyt Pedalboards, lytpedalboards.com; products starting at $64
Pedalboard.net, pedalboard.net; products starting at $39
Pedalgear.net, pedalgear.net; products starting at $549
Pedal Pad, pedalpad.com; products starting at $179
Pedal-Racks, pedalboards.com; products starting at $219
Pedaltrain, pedaltrain.com; products starting at $99
Rock Case by Warwick, warwick.de; products starting at $269
SKB, skbcases.com; products starting at $159
Stompin’-Ground, stompin-ground.com; products starting at $55
Trailer Trash Pedalboards, trailertrashpedalboards.com; products starting at $269
T-Rex, t-rex-engineering.com; products starting at $269