How To Start a Pedalboard: Pedal Essentials

So you’ve been hitting the practice room hard with your band and you’re starting to think about playing some gigs. But you can’t bring your jumbled mess of cables, pedals, and power supplies to a venue – how unprofessional!

Pedalboard organization that keeps in mind live performance functionality is essential to having a smooth show. So we took some time to lay out the bare bones essentials for your live pedalboard rig. Now, the key is finding a configuration of these effects that works best for your tone and band, but the thing to keep in mind is that this list is to help you have the most functional, versatile, and useful pedalboard.

We’re not talking fuzzes or noise boxes in this column. These pedals are just what you absolutely (probably) need to pick up in order to have a good show. 

The Board

Now, you can choose the actual board unit yourself, according to how many pedals you anticipate using. The sorts of questions you want to ask yourself are, how many sounds do I need to play my songs live? Am I going to be using pedals that require an external power source, and therefore need to build something that makes room for extra cabling? How unwieldy will this thing be when I actually have to lug it out to the show?

While the choices are endless, I recommend checking out some of the independent pedalboard-makers who are doing really interesting things, like Stompblox‘s Lego-style pedalboards. These really allow you a large amount of room to rearrange, subtract, and add to your board without having to start over from scratch every time. And plus, playing with Legos is fun!

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I’d also recommend checking out Holey Pedalboards (get it?) who make some easy-to-build boards, whose physical layout still allows you to flexibility to move things around easily. Check out a demo of one below:

The Tuner

This is where it all begins. How many shows have you been to where the guitar player stops to tune and you hear that most annoying of sounds, a flat open string being tuned up?

Tuners are essential not only for staying in tune (duh) but also for staying in tune without creating unnecessary noise in between or during your songs. That’s why a tuner with a mute, which therefore works while ALSO killing your guitar signal is absolutely essential.

Although you can’t go wrong with anything (this is a functional pedal, not a stylistic one), the TC Electronics Polytune is a staple of metal guitarist pedalboards, including Scott Ian from Anthrax, Ben Weinman from The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds from Mastodon. What’s nice about this pedal in particular is that you can strum every single string at the same time, and it will show you which ones are out of tune.

The Gate

Now, if you have a good amplifier, or even a good amp modeler, you might think that you don’t need a noise gate. But 9 times out of 10, you’d be wrong. Particularly if you’re playing heavy metal with a tube amplifier using high-gain settings.

Every single venue that you play (particularly if you’re touring in multiple countries) is wired differently, and is within varying distances of radio interference (or if it’s tightly packed and everyone in the audience has their cell phone turned on), the flow of electricity varies, etc. So you are going to need something that just cleans up a bit of the hum and hiss from your distorted guitar.

Like with the tuner, function is the most important thing, but you also have to be careful that you get (and configure) a pedal that doesn’t take away too much of the meat from your tone. I know lots of people are fans of the Boss Noise Suppressor, which can clean up that annoying amp hiss sound without disemboweling that perfect analog djent tone you dialed up.

An alternative to the noise gate, if you’re paranoid about losing certain aspects of your tone, is adding a pedal switcher, which can allow you to kill the signal from particular pedals in your chain (thus reducing pedalboard dancing). The Voodoo Labe Pedal Switcher is an industry standard for this technique. Something to keep in mind, however, is that these things can take up a lot of the real estate on your board, so if you also have an amp switcher on your board, you might run out of room real fast.

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Overdrive

A couple months back, we brought you the most comprehensive overdrive pedal shootout ever made. One of the main points we tried to emphasize when we dropped that sucker was that metal guitarists need to think of overdrive pedals not as their primary distorted signal, but more like the equivalent of a noise gate to your amplifier: a good overdrive will clean up even the best amplifier’s tendency to veer towards the flubby.

Now, since we’re talking about bare-bones essentials here, you don’t want to think of this pedal as creating some sort of special effect. This isn’t a fuzz or a standalone distortion pedal. It’s all in the name: over drive. The name of the game here is clarity.

This piece of your pedalboard combines function and style. You obviously want a pedal that is going to just get the job done, but you also want to find something that works for your particular sound and guitar-amp configuration.

Many of the top guitar players in heavy metal and rock, like Brent Hinds from Mastodon, augment their amp distortion with a standalone pedal. You don’t need to crank the thing, or find the craziest most expensive pedal on the market, but a well-placed and well-dialed-in distortion pedal can make all the difference in the world for making sure your riffs come through as clean and clearly as possible.

The Boost

If you’re going to be playing solos, you’re probably going to want to have some kind of decibel-booster to kick your tone over the edge. An overdrive or distortion pedal can often do the trick, but there are also plenty of standalone clean boost pedals on the market that are designed with this in mind.

For many people, the MXR Micro Amp is considered the standard straight gain pedal. But there are also plenty of specialized boost pedals, which you can use to have make your leads or solos sound even more unique. I myself, along with people like Kurt Ballou of Converge, are fans of Lone Wolf Audio’s Outsider, a lead boost modeled after the super-rare Systech Harmonic Energizer. That pedal was famously used by Frank Zappa (see “Black Napkins”), and it takes the concept of the clean boost and ships it over to Mars.

The Wah

No pedalboard is complete without a good wah pedal. I’m not saying that you need to go all Kirk Hammett over every solo, but a well-utilized bit of wah-wah in solo-ing can add real expressiveness to your playing.

The Dunlop CryBaby is basically the beginning and end of the wah story (although there are plenty of great other wahs out there, including by Vox, Fender, and Dirty Boy Pedals), and is a great place to start because of the variety of wah pedals they offer. I’d personally recommend checking out the Dimebag Darrell signature CryBaby From Hell. Whether you’re a fan of Pantera or not, Dime and Dunlop really came up with a versatile take on the classic sound that allows you to control functions not normally included in most wah pedals, including distortion, sweep, and scoop depth.

The Delay

You might think that this is the least essential of all of these, but a delay pedal can really add a much needed sparkle and depth to your tone, in particular for leads and clean parts. You can also use the delay to add a bit of unpredictability to your tone, particularly if you run it towards the front of your chain, so that you send a delayed signal closer to your guitar through other effects.

Remember that wherever you place it, you are going to add a delay effect to any other pedals that you have running before it. You can mess with the placement of your delay to achieve interesting sounds with your other pedals.

There are all sorts of tap-delays on the market, but the T-Rex Tap Tone is held in pretty high esteem. This delay lets you create a “ping pong” effect in which you can time your delay relative to the song you use it on, but also allows for flexibility to create weird and spontaneous noises.

What pedals do you consider essential? Do you prefer a reverb to a delay? A distortion to an overdrive? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.