Few instruments are as versatile as the electric guitar. From the folksy licks of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham to the two-handed tapping of prog metal outfit Scale the Summit to the otherworldy soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine, there’s almost nothing an electric guitar can’t do.
Much of this functionality is thanks to the wide range of guitar effects that can warp the tone of your guitar into something entirely unrecognizable.
But creating the perfect tone isn’t easy. Most guitarists spend years (and a small fortune) in search of the exact sound. Not only that, but effects pedals can be combined in an infinite number of ways, each with different results.
Over the last eight years, I’ve been collecting, assembling, honing, and perfecting my perfect guitar tone. In that time, I’ve learned a thing or two. If you’re trying to put together a guitar rig and don’t know where to start, take a look at these tips.
First Things First
Any conversation about guitar tone has to start with one thing: the guitar.
No matter how many boutique pedals, vintage amplifiers, or fancy modelers you run your instrument through, nothing can cover up the tone of your guitar.
You might be able to hide a poor sounding guitar through EQs, compressors, and overdrives, but it will limit your sonic palette significantly.
If your guitar sounds great, your rig will sound great. Dial in your tone by playing the guitar directly into the amp without any effects. Once you get that taken care of, tweaking your tone will be easy.
Individual Pedals, Multi-effects, or Digital?
Buying individual guitar pedals aren’t the only way to get a great sounding tone anymore.
Multi-effect units that combine many effects into one package have been on the market for decades. Historically, they have sounded far inferior to individual units and have been severely limited in functionality. But in the last few years, there have been a number of multi-effects units, such as the Line 6 M series that sound great and allow endless tweakability.
Similarly, software modelers have become very sophisticated. You don’t even need to have a physical unit to get the tone you want. You can download a digital effects pack from the cloud and create endless combinations of effects. Most of these programs even include amp modelers with virtual microphones that you can place anywhere you want.
Before you dump thousands of dollars into individual guitar pedals, look at these options. You might find that these suit your needs more than a heavy road case filled with pedals. But personally, I’ll take the road case.
Getting Everything In Order
You might think that you can just chain your pedals together in any random order. This couldn’t be more wrong.
Each effect has a unique way of manipulating your guitar’s tone. If your tone has already been run through another effect, that will affect your pedal’s signal.
For example, you will get very different sounds depending on whether you put a pitch shifter before or after a fuzz pedal.
Tone is subjective, but the general rule of thumb is to put your effects in this order:
Tuners operate best with as little interference as possible. Send the direct signal from your guitar to the tuner first.
These effects add a frequency sweep to your signal.
Volume pedals, compressors, and boosts.
Overdrives, distortions, and fuzz. Going from lowest to highest gain or highest to lowest will also make a big difference.
Chorus, pitch shifters, flangers, envelope filters, etc.
Delays repeat your original signal.
Reverb adds a sense of space to your tone.
At the end of the day, there are no hard and fast rules to pedal order. Even writing out this cheat sheet, I’m making a mental note of how many times my own signal chain diverts from recommendations. To be honest, I break almost every single one of these rules somewhere. For instance, I have a ProCo RAT distortion after an Electro Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb in the middle of my signal chain.
Experiment with your pedal order to find out what tones capture what’s inside you. It’s no one’s tone but our own.
Power! Unlimited Power!
Effects pedals need power. And the more pedals you add to your rig, the more complicated it becomes. And if you want the classic tone of vintage pedals, be prepared to deal with high-maintenance power needs.
Using the wrong power supplies can cause nasty buzzes, tone suck, or even damage to the pedal itself. For instance, the Line 6 DL4 is one of the most popular delays on the market, but many players ignore its odd power needs, which results in hundreds of DL4s spontaneously combusting.
The OneSpot 9v daisy chain is an easy option to power many pedals with one outlet, but it’s not a foolproof solution. Pedals with digital processors often add noise to your audio signal when they’re added into a daisy chain.
A better option is a power brick, such as the Joyo JP-02. These are much more expensive than a daisy chain, but they provide clean, isolated power to each pedal. Many power bricks also allow you to vary the voltage sent to each pedal.
But rule number one of powering pedals: regardless of how you send the power to the pedals, always, always, always pay attention to the power needs. Most of these will be printed on the pedal itself or in the manual. Ignore them at your own peril!
Building to Suit
If you’re putting your pedals on an actual pedalboard, you need to consider your needs.
If you only have a few pedals, you might be able to get away with putting some velcro on a piece of shelving or an old suitcase and going to town. If you’re always traveling around and playing shows, portability and protection are going to be of the utmost importance. Also, think about how often you switch effects. If your board is too flimsy, it might not stand up to effect a lot of tap dancing.
Your pedalboard should also contain all of your power supplies to make your rig easy to move around.
When used correctly, effects pedals can take your guitar playing to the next level. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up with just a bunch of noise…but maybe that’s what you’re going for.
In either case, I hope this guide has given you a good idea of how to turn the sounds in your head into sonic reality.