Tips on Achieving Stompbox Nirvana: Designing and Building Your Pedalboard!
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Doyle Bramhall II pedalboard
Pro tips from a pedal loving session guitarist on how to successfully set up your personal pedalboard. Setting up a pedalboard is a rite of passage for guitarists looking to get different tones under their feet, but many players make simple mistakes that kill their overall tone. In this blog, we will go over building your own custom board, tips on developing the best signal flow for your board, the importance of using high quality patch cables and measuring out their length, pedal placement for best access under your feet, and how to power everything up successfully!
Hello fellow gear enthusiasts, guitar students, and guitar lovers one and all! In this installment of “Tone Talk” I’d like to talk about building a pedalboard. It’s a highly debated topic amongst guitarists, with inevitably certain guitarists bringing up the point that running your signal through all your favorite stompboxes sucks tones, with others saying you can’t get enough stompboxes to inspire them creatively. I want to do my best to help you dear reader get through this weighty topic. As a professional session guitarist, I tend to have my own developed opinions about using pedals when you play guitar and I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years with you. I’d like to point out what I feel is my most important rule when dealing with pedalboards: If you aren’t getting a great stock sound out of your guitar amplifier, chances are adding pedals to the party won’t make anything better. So focus on getting what is a great tone for your with just a guitar and a amplifier before you start messing around with pedals!
Why You Need a Pedalboard:
Starting to think about building a pedalboard is a rite of passage for budding guitarists. For those of you who haven’t thought about why you need to build one, let’s go over some great pointers on what a pedalboard can do for you. First of all, a well-organized, durable pedalboard allows you to safely transports all your pedals to and from jam sessions, gigs, or recording dates. All your pedals are safely velcroed to a surface so they can’t move around in transport. In my opinion, successful pedalboards also have their own power supply mounted to the board so all your units can be guaranteed to have electrical power to work when you play. Nothing sucks more than hauling a bunch of gear to play only to find out that the 9-volt batteries in your pedals are dead and none of the pedals work. Some players have success with using a standard electronics power strip with tons of 9-volt plugs to power their board, but this isn’t the best option. I recommend investing in a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power DC power brick. Pedal powers are the professional way to power your effects. They give you “clean power” which ensures that there is no injected electrical noise into your pedal rig. Each voltage plug is isolated so none of your pedals have to share electrical lines. And the best part of all there is just a single plug that plugs into the wall to power your effects board! Another great reason to have a dedicated pedalboard is that all your pedals are pre-hooked up so you won’t have to spend a bunch of time hooking up a bunch of pedals every single time you want to play.
What to Do First:
The first thing you want to do when you want to build a pedalboard is make a mock up for what you want to do. Get all the pedals you want to use and lie them on the floor and begin to mock up the order of your pedals. This is a dedicated art form in and of itself. You want to have your pedals in a sensible order for what you use most, so your foot won’t have to hunt for the pedal underneath your feet, but you also want to have your pedals in a specific order for the best tone possible. This is a subjective process for most players. I’ve heard many players swear by very strict rules for pedal order and seen also many players have an improvised approach that works best for them. Feel free to experiment with different orders to see what works best for you. Experimenting with what you’re using will also help you diagnose problems with effects. Some effects don’t like working together in certain orders, and some applications change on whether you are in a live playing environment or in a recording session.
This is what is known as “Signal Flow” for those in the know! I make every pedalboard I’ve ever used with this order in mind. It is typically thought of that you want to start with gain effects first for the best tone in your signal flow. Work your way down the signal chain from highest gain to lowest gain, this will allow each effect to work to its fullest potential. After gain producing effects go with modulation effects like chorus, tremolos or flangers and then time-based effects like delays. Volume pedal placement is a preference with the player. Placing the Volume pedal at the beginning of the signal chain will reduce the signal going to the effects and cause inconsistency. Placing the Volume at the end of the chain will allow all pedals to see the same input signal and give you a consistent sound at any volume. Wah-Wah pedal placement is totally up to the player, try it in all positions and see what works best for you. I typically like my wah pedals to be first in my chain. I also recommend having your tuner pedal being the last in your signal chain so you can quickly troubleshoot if any signal is reaching the end of your pedal board. If you have enough pedals to make a double row of effects on your pedalboard, I usually put my gain effects/fuzz pedals in the front row because that’s what I toggle between the most. Once you have your pedal order and signal flow mocked up you can start getting your board set up. I recommend measuring your mock up with measuring tape at this point so you can get an idea of how big your board should be.
Getting a Pedalboard:
Now there are plenty of options to buy if you want a standardized board. Companies like PedalTrain make great durable products for the money. However, because they sell standardized products it’s way too easy to buy a premade board for speed only to get it home and find out that you’ll have to sacrifice a couple of your favorite pedals to save on space. I recommend instead going to Home Depot and buying raw supplies to make your own after measuring your layout. If you feel uncomfortable with this process I recommend calling Kenny Kranzow at the Texas Guitar Workshop and commission him to custom build a custom designed pedalboard for your needs. He will even cable it and design the signal flow custom for you!
A large piece of Plywood premeasured out to your mock up specs (you can have them cut it to your dimensions at the hardware store)
Some stain to stain the pedalboard wood. (a dark stain works great for live stage applications, but you can get really creative and make beautiful custom art choices here)
Metal Channel strips to go around the edge of the pedalboard (you can have them cut in to fit at the hardware store but try to get them in one single long piece so you can prevent the wooden pedal board from warping over the years. Cement the channel strip to the edge of the pedalboard so it can’t come off and then screw the channel strips to the side of the board. (when I had mine made I had to use a drill press to get through the channel strip)
Buy some cool handles so you can lift up the board whenever you need. I made mine look very modern.
Industrial strength Velcro to hold your pedals on the board. (You will need to cut the Velcro to fit each pedal individually)
Rubber feet for the bottom of the pedal board so it won’t move when you’re using it.
My Current Pedalboard!