Effects pedal remain a mystery to a lot of guitar players. Frankly, the market is oversaturated with different brands and types of effects to choose from. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to find the right pedal(s) to complete your rig.
It all comes down to what you play and what you’re looking to accomplish with your tone. Many players have a minimalistic setup, while others have rigs that resemble the control panel of the USS Starship Enterprise.
Whichever road you decide to go down it’s best to understand to only use what you need. Don’t overdo and get a bunch of pedals you don’t understand. The more you add the more signal loss you get. Signal loss equates to your tone diminishing significantly. Imagine signal loss as if someone draped a heavy blanket over your amp and cabinet. That blanket will deaden the sound dramatically and not allow your sound any air to breath. Sound needs air and room in order to be heard significantly.
Too many pedals, without the proper setup and power will do you more harm than good often times. Any player you see with a huge pedalboard most likely has it setup to where they won’t lose any tone, either by having whats called as “true bypass” pedals or a “buffer” in their chain to increase gain. If you’re looking to build an intricate pedalboard with a lot of pedals, I recommend researching further into true bypass and buffers.
The best way to look at the signal flow of your setup is going right to left from your guitar, into your pedals, and out straight to the amplifier. There is an order for in which each pedal should be laid out in your signal flow, as this will allow for the best overall performance and quality.
However, this rule is not set in stone. It is simply a reference as to where to begin setting up your pedals. It can be very beneficial to move a few pedals around here and there in your chain after setting them up properly, to hear the overall difference in quality and sound.
Below is a list put together of different pedals in a basic order, allowing for proper, clean, and beneficial signal flow that won’t suffer and loss in tone.
First and foremost, start with a tuner. Not only does this prevent you from sounding like a potato but it keeps you in tune, and when placed first is not affected by previous pedals allowing for a more accurate reading.
A good and reliable tuner is the classic Boss TU-2. I have used many different tuners (including the new Boss TU-3, and the TC Electronics Polytuner) and all have failed on me. My trusty TU-2 I have had for over 10 years, and not one problem with it. They no longer make them, but the good thing is they’re not hard to find. You can easily track one down for anywhere between 40-50 dollars.
FILTERS (Envelope Filters, Wah Pedals, and Auto Wahs)
It’s best to add these next as they are triggered by the signals (guitars) attack. Adding these before at the beginning will allow it to sound as pure as possible, without it being limited by any pedal before it.
I personally have not used an Auto-Wah or any Envelope filters in my setup. Occasionally I use a Wah pedal but often not for it’s intended use. It can create some really cool sounds when used in conjunction with a lot of delays and reverbs.
Many players (myself included) are easily confused with the overall purpose of a compressor. A compressor either increases or decreases the noise level. In recording compressors are used almost everywhere, rather if its subtle and barely noticeable; or the quite the opposite, sounding thick, dampened, and squashed.
With guitars, it allows for every note to be played at the exact same volume, often resulting in a very articulate sound. It also can dampen each pluck of the guitar allowing for that “squishy” or over compressed sound. The discussion of what a compressor does is very in depth and can go on for hours.. My advice is to try one out and if it doesn’t do anything for you, move on to something that grabs your attention.
Should you decide you want to have a compressor on your board than this is the most common place to put it. However, remember that this is just a reference point. Wherever you put this it will sound different, as each pedal affects the others performance. Many players put this last on their board to allow the compressor to alter every pedal on the chain.
FUZZ, OVERDRIVE, & DISTORTION
Now here is where things get a little complicated, but fun nonetheless. This is where you decide what fits better in what spot. Some people like their fuzz pedals first allowing any pedal after to be altered by the fuzz’s response and vice versa. You can really get some neat sounds when messing around with the order of your overdrive and fuzz pedals. Have fun with it and find what works best for you. Below are some great pedals I recommend giving a try.
- Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (if you play hardcore or metal and just need that extra boost for solos, this is the go to pedal.)
- Zvex Box of Rock – this really is two pedals in one. First is a classic distortion resembling that classic “Marshall” tone. On the other side is a boost allowing you to get extra volume and gain for leads.
- Xotic EP Booster – if you just want a clean boost to give your amp a little more life, this is the pedal. You’ll never want to turn it off.
- Electro Harmonix Big Muff – this is the starting point for all things fuzz. There are so many different fuzzes out there to choose from, it’s almost a whole other world of pedals separate from anything else. If you have never used one before I recommend this. It’s simply, big, and just the go to for so many players.
- Chadderbox Loud / Louder – I have to share this because it’s my favorite new pedal I own. If you like handmade, boutique pedals, check this out. Its two boost pedals in one. So if you like to have a boost on at all times to alter your amps tone, but need something else to make it a bit louder, then this is the pedal for you. I have never turned this off since getting it.
MODULATION (Phasers, flangers, chorus, and tremolo)
Well, now it’s time to add all of your crazy sounding effects that your band members probably despise and never want you to turn on. Now they probably don’t hate all of them. It depends on what your going for and the what type of music you’re playing (as with anything). I like things that sound weird, quirky, and sometime outright obnoxious. A lot of people discredit phase and chorus pedals a lot. When used properly they can be very cool and add a unique tone to a song. Just dont be that guy that can’t ever seem to shut it off though, there was only one Nirvana.
- MXR Phase 90 – Should your bandmates grant you permision to use a phase on some leads, this is a great starting point. One knob to control the speed. Can’t get any easier than that.
- Boss TR2 Tremolo – Boss makes easy to use, dependable pedals and this is one of their best. Not many functions, no tap trem. Just warm, smooth, and just the right sound.
- Electro Harmonix Small Clone – If you are passionate about ripping of Kurt Cobain, this is the pedal he used and swore by. Reason being is because it’s an all around great Analog chorus and not over the top.
A good spot for volume to go is right here, as it won’t alter the signal level entering the overdrive pedals. Placing it here before delay will also allow them to finish doing their job of ‘delay-ing’ when the volume pedal is all the way pushed back. Some player won’t need this pedal if they don’t do a lot of volume swells or simply use the volume knob on their guitar all the time. There is quite a skill to be had using your hands instead of relying on your feet for swelling.
DELAY / REVERB
Finally to my favorite part, delays and reverb pedals. It’s best to put these last as oppose to before your overdrives as they will spike the signal and upset the overdrives. Its best to have all time based effects hit the amp first.
Analog or Digital?
As with anything it’s all preference. I like both analog and digital. Analog has a much warmer sound and you can adjust each parameter easily. With if you want to have your delay in sync with the tempo, it’s best to get a digital delay with a “tap” function, allowing you to tap your foot to to the tempo of the song. This will make all of your delay tones in sync with the music.
- Boss RV5 Digital Reverb – If you want options with reverb this is the perfect pedal. It includes many different types from spring reverb, to plate, hall, gate, and room. A great choice to check out if you don’t have a reverb pedal and want many options in one.
- Electro Harmonix Holy Grail -It’s called the “Holy Grail” for a reason. A simple and easy to use analog reverb with a warm and lush sound. It has three analog reverbs, spring, hall and flerb (a unique sound mixing flanger and reverb).
- Line 6 DL4 – The end all be all of delay pedals. This has many digital and analog delays allowing you for endless options. A tap delay function, as well as looping to do some “Minus the Bear” style sampling.
- TC Electronics Flashback – A competitor to the DL4, a little more updated with more digital and analog effects. Longer built in looper and a few more knobs to fool around with.
- MXR Carbon Copy – Hands down my favorite pedal. A warm and rich sounding analog delay with only three knobs and a modulate button. You can really get some classic delay tones out of this as well as some insane feedback delay sounds when tweaking with the knobs.
- Building a pedal board is not easy. There are a lot of factors and a lot of opinions as to what the best ways are to put your board together. Just remember that it’s all preference. By all means I recommend you take pedals out of your chain and move them around and see how differently they react to one another. You may come across something you like, and you might not. That’s the fun behind experimenting with effects, you never know what new and interesting sounds you’ll end up finding.
Many people don’t need a lot to achieve their desired tone. Nobody wants to see a guy tap dancing with his pedals while messing up a guitar riff, or worse yet a lead. The more gear you have doesn’t make you a better player, in some cases it hides you. Often times less is more, and if you have too much stuff it tends to act as a blanket being draped over you while you play.