Putting Together A Guitar Effects Pedalboard
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Whether you've amassed a collection of dozens of effects pedals or have yet to buy a single one of your own, you'll need to know how all of these effects will fit together. While you can always order your pedals any way you like, you might end up turning your guitar tone into a muddy mess in the process! This guide will answer a seemingly simple question: how do I create my own pedalboard? If you're a complete effects novice, then first check out our Effects Pedal Guide to get acquainted with the different types of effects and how they affect your sound.
In this guide, we're going to walk you through putting together a very basic pedalboard consisting of 7 pedals, a power supply, a pedal board, some patch cables, and a little bit of velcro! Here are the pedals we'll be using:
To get these pedals powered up and running, we'll be using the fantastic MXR Iso-Brick power supply. We'll attach everything to a fairly cheap and large pedal board for demonstration purposes. Thankfully, it comes with velcro and cable guides to make our job easier. To connect the pedals to each other, we'll need five 6-inch patch cables and one 3-foot 1/4" cable. Finally, everything will be plugged into an amplifier with an FX loop.
In this guide, we'll look at a standard way of organizing these pedals. Once we understand why this method works, we'll look at a couple of alternative ways of ordering your pedals. Then we'll learn how to attach pedals to a pedal board, choosing the right power supply to get these pedals powered up, and connecting everything to an amp (with and without an FX loop)! As a bonus, we'll even attach a volume pedal to the board and see how this affects our setup! We've got a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started!
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You might be wondering: what is the right order for my pedals? In this section, we're going to talk about the most logical ordering for your pedals and why. Once you understand the reasoning behind it, we'll talk about some more other common (and not so common) setups and why you may want to try them out. After all, there's no downside to experimenting! Just like in all things guitar, rules are made to be broken. However, unless you know what the rules are, you won't know if you're breaking them! In a later section of the article, we'll actually attach the pedals to the pedalboard. For now, let's talk about the theory behind pedal order.
If you ever get confused about pedal order, imagine being in the audience of a concert of your favorite singer. If the singer is off-pitch, they'll need to correct their pitch first. The singer might have an amazing voice, but if they're off-key, they'll sound terrible! Once the singer is pitch-perfect, they'll need to adjust their volume before anyone can hear them. If they're singing too quietly, no one will hear the music. If they're too loud, the audience is liable to lose their hearing! Once the singer is comfortable, they can add some flourish to their music with some techniques like vibrato or legato. Before their singing reaches your ears, it bounces off the walls and ceiling, creating echoes that add some flavor and ambiance to the music.
Now, think about this in terms of the guitar. First, your guitar needs to be in tune. Play while out of tune will make you sound terrible. Once you're tuned up, you want to make sure the guitar sounds the way you want it to - increasing or lowering the volume and adjusting the bass/treble. Next, you add some 'flourishes' like distortion and modulation effects and add some flavor to your music. Finally, you can apply some delay or reverb to give your music an open, spacious feel.
As you read, try and reason through each step of the signal chain. Pedal order is fairly logical if you stop and think about it. However, keep in mind that the order we'll talk about is just one way of organizing your effects pedals. As you experiment, you might find that you like a different pedal order better. Every guitarist has an opinion on the subject and that's ok! This is just a logical and easy place to start. We'll talk more about different pedal orders later in the article.
You'll want to put your tuner pedal at the very beginning of your pedalboard. The reason for this is simple: the tuner needs the 'purest' guitar signal possible to properly calibrate your guitar tone. If any other effects were in front of the tuner, then your tone would be affected by the other pedal! When the tuner reads this tone, it wouldn't accurately reflect the actual signal your guitar is producing, leading to poor tuning. Another convenient feature of having the tuner pedal first is a muting. When the tuner pedal is turned on, it doesn't output anything. That means activating your tuner pedal will mute your guitar rig. This is very useful in a live situation when you need to quickly mute your guitar for any reason, or for tuning in silence.
In our pedalboard, we're going to place our PolyTune3 first in the signal chain.
Dynamics pedals modify your guitar signal by changing the peaks and valleys of the signal. These types of pedals include noise gates and compressors. Remember, later on in your signal, overdrives and distortions will 'amplify' your signal. That means they'll also amplify any noise that you may not want to be heard. The noise gate will eliminate any unwanted frequencies below a certain configurable threshold, so it's best to put it at the beginning of your signal chain right after your tuner.
Compressors limit the dynamic range of your sound by making quiet sounds louder and loud sounds quieter. This has the added effect of 'boosting' the noise level of your signal. Each pedal, whether intentionally or not, will add some noise to your signal. By keeping the compressor near the beginning of your signal chain, you limit the number of pedals that 'contribute' to the overall noise floor. This way, you limit the amount of noise that you compress and keep your signal as tidy as possible.
Place your noise gate first and your compressor right after. That way, you're minimizing the amount of noise that the compressor boosts and therefore maximize the signal-to-noise ratio for cleaner tones. After our tuner, we'll place the ISP Decimator II. Next, we'll plug the output of the Decimator into our Xotic SP Compressor. Rember, effects pedals have their input on the right and their output on the left!
So, you've just cleaned up your signal and tamed the volume. You got rid of unwanted noise using a noise gate and reduced any unwanted volume variations with a compressor. Volume is just one aspect of your guitar signal. What if you want more bass? Less treble? This is where filter effects like equalization come in.
In the previous step, you created and shaped a nearly noise-free signal - a perfect canvas for shaping your sound. With filter effects applied on top of the dynamics effects, you're free to manipulate specific frequencies of your signal to your liking without having to worry about unwanted noise or unexpected volume shifts.
Our pedalboard doesn't contain any wah or EQ pedals, but if it did, we would put them here.
Gain pedals generally follow your filter effects. Why? Gain pedals like to be fed a consistent, predictable signal. If we placed any modulation/reverb effects here before the gain pedals, they would cause the signal to become swooshy and echoey. Swooshy and echoey signals are the exact opposite of consistent and predictable, so they will cause your distortion pedals to behave somewhat erratically. Generally speaking, you want to modulate a distorted signal, not distort a modulated signal. That's why we place the gain effects here before any modulation effects are introduced to the signal chain.
Let's clarify this a bit. Imagine you have a distortion pedal and a delay pedal. If you feed the distortion pedal into the delay pedal, you'll get a fairly predictable result: a distorted tone that echoes evenly and dies out as expected. However, if you run the delay pedal into the distortion pedal, things get a bit hairier. Because the delay echoes aren't all of the same level, the distortion pedal 'amplifies' them all differently. The result is an inconsistent 'swooshy' type of tone that most likely isn't what you're looking for. The nature of the modulation effect will be muddied up by the inconsistency of the distortion. This is why generally, you want to run your distortion effects before any modulation effects.
On our board, we have only the MXR Il Diavolo overdrive, so we'll place it here. However, if we wanted to, we could add a distortion and even a fuzz pedal for more versatile dirty sounds. In this case, you'll want to order your gain pedals from least to most gain: overdrive -> distortion -> fuzz. This way the gain 'stacks' predictably if you decide to run multiple gain pedals at the same time. If you had a boost pedal, you would place it first, just before the overdrive.
Now that our distortion effects have been applied, we can turn on our modulation effects. Modulation effects will thicken up our tone and add richness to the distorted tones that they're fed.
Adding on to our pedal board, we'll place our Boss CE-2W next in our signal chain right after the MXR Il Diavolo Overdrive pedal.
At the very end of our signal chain are two very similar effects: delay and reverb. They both create 'echoes' to varying degrees, repeating and reflecting our music as it trails off into the distance. These are arguably the most complex effects on your pedalboard. Feeding delay or reverb into other effects is a recipe for craziness, so it's best to keep them at the end of the pedal board, with reverb dead last.
Adding on to our pedalboard, we'll place the EHX Canyon delay next, followed by the TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 reverb. Finally, we'll plug in the output of the reverb into our amp's input! We've now completed the ordering for our pedalboard!
Now that we understand a very standard way of putting effects together, let's take a look at some ways that we can 'break the rules'. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to anything guitar. Trust what your ears tell you!
Putting a delay in front of your distortion pedals will create chunky, flabby echoes that can sound extremely muddy and uncontrolled if you turn up the gain. This type of tone was famously used by Eddie van Halen, who put a delay in front of his Marshall amp for his signature sound.
A reverb in front of your distortion effects will create a crunchy, almost howling sound that can quickly become out-of-control and muddy if you let it. Sigur Ros and other post-rock bands are famous for using a very slow, distorted reverb to create their soundscapes.
Placing your distortion effects first in the chain can give you more sustain and more harmonically rich tones at the cost of noise and possible muddiness. You'll need to spend time configuring your noise gate and compressors to effectively control the hissing, but you might get some interesting sounds this way!
Placing a noise gate after your distortion effects will reduce the hiss generated by the gain pedals. Some guitarists even use multiple noise gates in their signal chain - one at the beginning and another after the gain pedals - for maximum noise reduction. Placing a compressor after your gain pedals will smooth out the harshness of your distortion, but may create too much hiss if you neglect to use a noise gate.
We mentioned before how placing modulation/time-based effects before gain effects can cause some strange things to happen to your tone.
Remember, our amp's job is to 'amplify' the signal that it's receiving from the input jack. Whether we plug in just our guitar or the output of our pedalboard, the amp doesn't care. It's going to do its job of amplifying (and, by extension, distorting) our signal. We can basically think of our amp as one big distortion pedal.
In our case, the signal we're inputting into our amp has gone through our whole pedalboard, including both distortion and modulation/time-based effects. If we turn our Boss CE-2W chorus pedal on, the signal that the amplifier receives is a modulated signal that's been processed by the chorus pedal. When the amp amplifies this signal, it's actually amplifying/distorting a modulated signal. That's not good! This is precisely the situation we tried to avoid when we placed our modulation/time-based effects after our distortion effects. Oh no! Has our whole pedalboard design gone to waste?!
Not to worry! This isn't a huge deal at low volumes, especially if we're getting most of our gain from effects pedals. However, if we're getting most of our distortion sounds from the amp, we'll get some muddiness in our tone when we turn our modulation/time-based effects on. All our modulation effects will be amplified by the amp and create tonal chaos! To avoid this, some amps have an effects (FX) loop. The effects loop allows you to place certain effects after the amp's preamp stage, which means you're no longer distorting a modulated signal. With an FX loop, all your distortion is taken care of before your modulation effects are run.
Here's how it works: we'll take the output of our last gain pedal (the MXR Il Diavolo overdrive) and, instead of plugging it into our chorus pedal as before, we'll plug it into our amp's input. This way, all the effects from tuner to overdrive are placed 'in front' of the amp as expected.
Next, we want to put the modulation/time-based effects in the FX loop so that they come after the preamp/distortion stage of our amplifier. We'll plug a cable into the amp's FX Loop Send and connect the other end into the input of our first modulation/time-based effect. In our case, that's the Boss CE-2W chorus pedal. Finally, we'll plug our last pedal (the Hall of Fame 2 reverb) into the amp's FX loop Recieve. That's all there is to it! Now, our modulation and time-based effects are 'in-the-loop' rather than 'in front of the amp'. Now, our amp is no longer distorting our modulation/time-based effects!
We've already created a guide for choosing the right power supply, so we'll quickly cover just the basics here. For putting together our board, we've chosen the MXR Iso-Brick, a 10-output isolated power supply. Why is the iso-brick a good choice? Well, to pick the right power supply, you need to first make sure that there are enough inputs to connect each pedal on your pedalboard. The Iso-brick has 10 outputs, enough for our 7 pedals. However, we also have to make sure that the outputs of the power supply are of the right voltage and amp rating to support each pedal. According to the manufacturer's guidelines, our pedals' power requirements are as follows:
If we look at the wattage and current ratings of each of the MXR Iso-Brick's outputs, we can see that all of its outputs are rated at least 100 mA. The EHX Canyon is the only pedal on our board that requires more than 100 mA, so we should be sure to connect it to either a 300 mA, 450 mA, or one of the adjustable 250 mA outputs (set it to 9 volts).
Now that we know the order of our pedals and we have a power supply that supports them, we can create our pedalboard! While you always have the option of simply keeping all your pedals loose, you'll find that having an actual board will keep your pedals in order and make transporting them super easy. We'll be using the cheap and large Luvay Board for demonstration purposes. It will accommodate two or three more pedals, as well as a volume pedal (with some creativity). It will be a bit too large for only 7 pedals, so you might like a more compact board like the PedalTrain Metro 16.
First, we'll connect all the pedals 'in front' of the amp. Once we have it all connected and working, we'll use our amp's FX loop to correctly connect the pedals with only a few minor changes. Be sure to read the whole guide first before getting started. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions. Let's begin!
In a previous section, we talked about the correct order of the pedals on our board. Let's line up the pedals in the correct order so we can visualize how they'll fit onto the pedalboard. Remember, the first pedal in the signal chain is traditionally closest to you on the far right of the board. Why? The majority of pedals have their input jack on the right and the output jack on the left. Ordering the pedals from right to left makes it easy to follow the signal chain and seamlessly fits with the pedal's inherent design.
Using the what we know about effects pedal order, we'll organize the pedals as follows: PolyTune3 Tuner -> ISP Decimator Noise Gate -> Xotic SP Compressor -> Il Diavolo Overdrive -> Boss CE-2W Chorus -> EHX Canyon Delay -> TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 Reverb. On the row of the pedalboard closest to us, we'll place the first pedals in the signal chain: tuner, noise gate, compressor, and overdrive. On the next row (furthest from us), we'll place the chorus, delay, and reverb pedals.
Here are the pedals (in the correct order). The signal chain goes from right to left, starting with the pedal closest to us on the far right (the tuner). Before attaching them to the board, we have a few more things to do.
Let's get our pedalboard ready. First, should clean off the top surface of the pedalboard using some rubbing alcohol and paper towels. This gets rid of any oil or dirt that might negatively affect our velcro's stickiness.
Your pedalboard will likely come with a set of hook-and-loop adhesive velcro straps. On the board itself, you'll stick on the loops (the 'fuzzy' side). You'll probably end up covering the whole top surface of the board with it.
On each pedal, you'll stick on the hooks (the 'rough' side). To be sure you're not wasting velcro, place each pedal on the pedalboard and notice where it contacts the board. You'll only need to attach velcro to the points of contact between the board and the pedal. However, you can always attach velcro to the whole bottom surface of the pedal if you please.
Some guitarists prefer to use 3M Dual-Lock instead of velcro. They believe it's cleaner than velcro while still being very secure. What you choose is up to you!
The bottom of our pedalboard comes with a spot to mount a power supply. However, before we mount the power supply, we need to properly route the cables and mount the pedals to the board. Once we confirm everything is working well, then we can mount the power supply to the board.
Referring to the power requirements of we created above, find a spot on the power supply that will work for each pedal. Plug in that cable and label it using a piece of paper and some tape so you don't lose track of what cable is for each pedal. Supplying a pedal with the wrong power will damage, so this isn't the time to be lazy and guess! Note the voltage and current it supplies, along with what pedal it's supposed to be connected to.
Our pedalboard came with some helpful zip-ties and stick-on guides for cleanly routing cables so that they're taught and not liable to snag on anything. We route the cables on the bottom surface of the pedalboard to keep the pedalboard itself looking as clean as possible. You might figure out better ways of routing your cables, but this is the way we set up our board. If you think of better ways, let us know in the comments!
By using a large zip tie, you can secure the power supply to the board. On many boards, you can buy adapters that can mount directly onto the power supply for extra security. However, for demonstration purposes (and even home use), a zip-tie should work fine.
Be sure to route each cable to the proper spot that the pedal will occupy, taking into account the power needs of the pedal. Leave a little slack so that you don't have to pull on the cable when attaching it to a pedal.
Let's recap: we've attached the velcro attached to the board and each pedal. The cables are routed correctly for each pedal and its power needs. Now, we're ready to attach the pedals to the board.
We'll attach the pedals to the board using the layout we defined earlier. Before attaching the pedals, it will be a good idea to connect adjacent pedals to each other using the patch cables. This way, we don't set the pedals too far apart from each other and have to constantly reposition them.
Our overdrive pedal needs to connect to our chorus pedal, but it's pretty far away. No problem! We'll use the longer 3-foot patch cable to connect the output of the overdrive to the input of the chorus. Don't spend to much time routing this cable for now. Just connect the two pedals and forget about it!
Now, that all the pedals are attached to the board and connected to each other, connect the routed power supply cables to each pedal.
You've done it! You've prepared the board, routed the cables, attached the pedals, and connected them all up! Now, all that's left is to connect your guitar and amp. Simply plug your guitar into the input of the first pedal (the tuner pedal). Next, plug the output of the last pedal (our Hall of Fame 2 reverb) into the input of the amplifier. That's it! You've connected your guitar to your pedalboard and your pedalboard to your amp.
Connect the MXR Iso-brick power supply's AC adapter and plug it into an outlet. The power supply should turn on and glow blue. Turn on one or two pedals and they should light up, indicating they're being supplied with power. If not, then you'll need to do some troubleshooting. Be sure the power supply's AC adapter is firmly attached. Check that each cable is securely connected to the pedal and that the cable is securely attached to the power supply. Finally, make sure that the patch cables are connected to each pedal's respective input and output. If a pedal is not connected, it won't turn on!
If each pedal is turning on correctly, then your pedal board is working! Let's hear it in action. Turn off all your pedals, turn on your amp, and start playing. You should hear your playing as normal. Next, turn on the chorus pedal and play some more. You should hear the effect change your tone immediately. Congratulations! Your pedalboard works!
Our pedalboard is working! However, it's not perfect yet. As we mentioned before, all our effects are currently running 'in front' of the amp. This can cause some muddiness, especially if when running modulation or time-based effects like chorus or reverb. We'll now connect our pedalboard to the FX loop of our amp to properly handle our modulation and time-based effects for pristine tone. Best of all, we only need to change some cables!
Turn off the amp and pedalboard. Unplug the long patch cable that connects the overdrive pedal to the chorus pedal. Also unplug the cable that connects the output of the reverb pedal into the input of the amplifier.
Plug the output of the overdrive pedal into the input of the amplifier. This means that all the pedals in the first row of our pedalboard will be run 'in front' of the amp. This is fine! Distortion and dynamics pedals are made to run this way. If we turn on our amp and pedalboard now and play, everything will sound perfect and work as we expect. However, our modulation/time-based effects are no longer in the signal chain! Let's fix that next.
Let's put our modulation/time-based effects 'in the loop'. On the back of your amp, there is a 'Send' input for connecting to the FX loop. Plug a 1/4" cable into this input and connect it to the input of our first modulation effect: our chorus pedal. Next, plug a different 1/4" cable into the 'Receive' output of the FX loop and plug that into the output of the last pedal: the reverb pedal That's it! We've put our modulation and time-based effects in the loop.
Now, if we turn on our amp and pedalboard, all of our effects will be running optimally. With only a few minor changes, we've fully utilized our amp's FX loop and created the most noise-and-mud-free tone possible!
If you have a large pedalboard with dozens of effects, you need a buffer. A long cable or large pedalboard will cause your signal to degrade before it reaches your amp. The longer the cable or pedalboard, the weaker your signal will become. To combat signal degradation, you need a buffer. Buffers boost your signal so that any signal weakening becomes unnoticeable.
Lucky for us, we don't need to buy a separate buffer. The TC Electronic PolyTune 3 comes with a built-in buffer, so even if we have a 30-foot long cable connecting our guitar to pedalboard, things still work perfectly! Read more about buffers in our All About Effects guide.
Something a lot of guitarists like to have is a volume pedal, so let's add one to our pedalboard. Volume pedals allow easy, convenient volume changes with your foot. This allows you to focus all your attention on playing, rather than messing around with the volume knobs on your guitar or amp. Compared to the knobs on your guitar, volume pedals are much less noisy. They're especially useful if you play genres like post-rock or ambient.
You can choose to mount the pedal to your board or to connect it separately. For our purposes, we'll mount the pedal to our board using velcro - just like we did the other pedals. For our volume pedal, we'll use the Boss FV-500H. Not only is the FV-500H a volume pedal, but it can also be used as an expression pedal for changing the level of certain effects! Talk about versatile!
There are multiple options when it comes to connecting a volume pedal. Some players even combine these options by using multiple volume pedals on their board. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. Let's explore each option separately.
The first, most obvious option is placing your volume pedal at the beginning of the pedalboard. In this case, your signal chain looks like: Guitar -> Volume Pedal -> Effects -> Amp. The volume pedal will control the volume of the signal reaching your effects. Lowering the volume will cause effects to react differently. Gain effects will react differently to a weaker signal and won't drive as hard. Depending on the guitar part you're playing, this may be desirable or something you want to avoid. Think of this option as a replacement for your guitar's volume knob. Reverb and delay tails will still sound out as expected.
The second option is placing your volume pedal at the end of the pedalboard. In this case, your signal chain looks like: Guitar -> Effects -> Volume Pedal -> Amp. This makes it the volume pedal behave like a 'master volume' control. It controls the overall volume of the signal reaching the amp. You can quickly mute the sound of your whole rig by turning the volume pedal all the way down. Think of this option as a replacement for your amp's volume knob. Reverb and delay tails will obey the current volume setting. Muting the volume with the pedal will cause the tails to become silent immediately, which may not be desirable in some genres.
Placing the volume pedal in the loop allows us to control the volume of the amp, but without affecting the level of distortion that gets applied to the signal. Remember, the louder the signal that reaches an amp or gain effect, the harder it's driven and the more noticeable the distortion. By putting the volume pedal in the loop, you don't affect the signal reaching the preamp. You only modify the signal leaving the preamp, which has already been distorted.
For our pedalboard, we'll choose option 3 and put the volume pedal 'in the loop'. Putting it just before the delay will allow us to control our volume without negatively affecting the distortion created by the amp. We'll also still get the coveted reverb and delay tails for more ambiance.
Let's connect the output of our CE-2W chorus to the input of the volume pedal. Next, connect the output of the volume pedal to the input of the Canyon delay. That's it! Now when we play, we can smoothly control the volume, maintain a constant level of distortion, and enjoy the ambiance of our reverb/delay tails. There's only one minor problem: connecting the ISP Decimator to the Xotic SP Compressor. Thanks to the bulky volume pedal, they're so far away from each other. A standard 6-inch patch cable won't be long enough to connect them together anymore. We'll need a longer 12-inch patch cable to connect them together.
The final signal chain looks like this:
Guitar -> PolyTune 3 Tuner -> ISP Decimator II Noise Gate -> Xotic SP Compressor -> MXR Il Diavolo Overdrive -> (Amp Input) -> (Amp FX Loop Send) -> Boss CE-2W Chorus -> Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal -> EHX Canyon Delay -> TC Hall of Fame 2 Reverb - > (FX Loop Receive) -> Output to Speaker Cabinet
That was a lot of information! Let's recap quickly what we learned! We learned multiple ways of structuring a pedalboard. Next, we mastered the secrets of the FX loop. We put together our own pedalboard from scratch! Finally, we did some minor changes and put our modulation/time-based effects in the loop. At this point, we've become effects pedal experts!