NOTE: This introduction to pedals and pedal boards guide was written for a workshop I gave as part of Girls Rock! Melbourne, a week-long music camp for girls, trans and non-binary young people between the ages of 10–17. It is a mere introduction and the workshops went for 90 minutes including playing time, so I didn’t touch on the amp/pedal/pickup relationship, amps with effects loops, gain staging, true bypass etc. Please don’t hammer me about your personal preferences regarding velcro and/or where the delay pedal must go. Here is an endorsement by professional famous musician Dave Le’aupepe from Gang of Youths:
Effects pedals — also known as stomp boxes — are small boxes with a computer chip or an electrical circuit (or both) inside them and a switch you step on to turn it on or off. You plug the lead from your guitar (or bass, or synth or microphone) into one end, and the chip and/or circuit alters the signal before sending it to the amp, where you can hear it. You can change the order you arrange pedals to change the sounds, and use knobs, sliders and buttons on the pedal to change them as well.
In the early days of rock music, many amps came with built-in effects such as reverb and tremolo/vibrato. When the guitar signal into the amps was pushed too loud, it would cause the signal to be distorted, or overdriven. These early amp features inspired the development of effects pedals, particularly the overdrive and distortion ones.
Effects can make your guitar sound louder, further away, or not like a guitar at all. You can use effects pedals to help spark new creative ideas, improve your playing or simply because you think they sound cool.
Types of effects pedals
Distortion, Fuzz, Overdrive and boosts.
Gain pedals make your guitar sound louder and/or dirtier.
Chorus, pitch shift, flanger, phaser, vibrato
These pedals alter your guitar signal to make it sound less like a guitar. Think Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, Nirvana, The Smiths.
These pedals make your guitar signal sound further away, or have echo-y repeats.
Tuner, noise suppressor
These don’t make cool noises — they stop uncool noises from happening.
You need to know the rules in order to break them — we’ll get to the breaking them bit later. A general rule and a good place to start is setting your pedals in the following order:
Tuner, Gain, Modulation, Time.
The reasoning for this is that you want the strongest part of the signal to go through the tuner first so you get an accurate reading to see if your guitar is in tune. Then distortion, so the signal can be accurately overdriven. Then modulation, then delay as the signal degrades.
If you have a wah pedal you can put it in between the tuner and the gain, or between the gain and the modulation, depending on what sound you want. Place your pedals in the order you want them, making sure the tuner goes first.
Next up: flow. Your pedals need two things to work: a guitar signal running through it, and to be plugged into electrical power.
Your pedals can’t alter your guitar signal if there is no signal running through it! When you set up you will need two regular guitar leads and a selection of smaller guitar leads, which are known as “patch cables”.
Connect the output of your guitar to the input of the tuning pedal with one of the guitar leads. Then, connect the output of the tuner to the input of your gain pedal. Continue plugging the output of each pedal into the input of the next until all the pedals are connected by patch leads. Then, using a long guitar lead, plug the output of the last pedal into the input of the amp.
Don’t worry, we’re nearly at the fun part!
Some pedals can be powered by batteries but this is becoming less and less common, particularly for mini pedals. Many pedals come with their own power adapter, but if the ones you have do not, there are ways around it.
This is a power cord supply with a breakout cord called a “daisy chain”. This allows you to power multiple pedals from the same power source. This method is fine if you only have a few pedals and they are mostly small stomp boxes.
Power supply (ie “power brick”)
As your pedal collection grows, I’d suggest getting a power source such as a BBE Supa Charger or a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power or similar. I wouldn’t bother getting one of these until you get to the stage where you have so many pedals you need a board to keep them together.
Hook your pedals up to the power. If you have a power brick, you will connect the power outputs of the brick to the power inputs on each pedal. If you’re using a one-spot/daisy chain, plug the one-spot into the “input” power socket on the Boss TU-2 pedal, then plug one of the outputs on the daisy chain into the “output” socket of the Boss TU-2. Then connect all the pedals using the little outputs on the daisy chain.
Turn on each pedal by either pressing or stepping on it. If the little light on the pedal turns on when you step on it, congrats — you have power and it has worked! If it hasn’t, go back along your signal and check to see if everything is plugging in properly.
Now turn on the amp and turn up the guitar. Strum. If you’re hearing noise, you’re in business! If it’s not working, go along each pedal in the chain and make sure that the patch and guitar leads are plugged all the way in to the socket, that all pedals have power, and that the tuner isn’t on (that mutes your guitar).
Now go play! Everyone should try at least one pedal from each category of gain, modulation, time and utility. A good combination is a tuner (utility), a Big Muff fuzz (gain), Chorus (modulation) and Delay (time).
The board itself
Having a board means you’ll save heaps of time in setting up your pedals every time you play. Pedaltrain make specific boards that are set up in a rail configuration, which gives you space to mount a power brick underneath. There are knock offs of these as well. This is pretty expensive though, so I recommend buying a cheaper case and making a board yourself out of wood and velcro strips, which you can get from Bunnings. When applying the velcro, put the fuzzy side on the pedal itself and the scratchy side on the board. Of course, people disagree about this too, but I stand by my advice.
Breaking the rules
Now that you understand the basic rules and signal flow, you can get down to breaking the rules.
Do you want to delay the distorted sound or do you want to distort the delayed sound? It’s up to you. Generally I prefer to delay the distorted sound, but that is just me and the music I play.
When it comes to guitar pedals, you get to decide what sounds good to you. That will be different to everyone. Some people get very passionate about certain brands and pedals and will be very keen to tell you that you have to do the same. but in the end it is really about what sounds good to you, and if the pedals are helping you make the sounds and music you want to make. If you want to have five fuzz pedals and a delay, that is totally fine. I have a friend who has a board with nearly $5000 of pedals on it and there is not a single gain pedal on there to be seen or heard.
There are so many options! What are some good brands to start with?Boss pedals are fantastic. They’re well priced, easy to find, easy to understand and almost impossible to destroy. TC Electronic and MXR make great pedals too in a range of different sizes and configurations. Electro-Harmonix is the brand behind the famous Big Muff pedal and their pitch, modulation and delay pedals are great too. However, they are more expensive than Boss and TC Electronic and use a different kind of power adapter. Mooer’s mini-pedals are good for trying out different sounds without having to pay much money for them, although their quality can vary and their re-sale value won’t hold as well as Boss or TC Electronic pedals.
Can you use guitar pedals on bass?
Yes! There are some made specifically for that purpose, but many guitar pedals will work well too. Fuzzes, choruses and delays are good on bass, especially if the fuzz is really thick and heavy.
What is the first pedal I should buy?
The first pedal you should buy is a tuning pedal. I know it’s boring, but it is important. I’ve used the same Boss TU-2 for 13 years and counting. I like the Boss tuners because you can easily use them to mute your guitar and also to power other pedals using a daisy chain. The TC Electronic PolyTune and PolyTune Mini are also good choices.
Ok, what pedals should I buy that will actually affect the sound?
It depends on what music you like, but I reckon a gain pedal and a delay pedal are a great place to start. Stomping on a gain pedal is just so satisfying. There are some good multi-effects units too that you can use to start experimenting, like the Mooer Mod Factor, any of the BOSS ME-series pedals or the Zoom MS50G or MSCDR. Loop pedals are fun too.
I don’t have a big budget for any of this. Any tips?
Good news! The second-hand market for pedals is very healthy, particularly if you’re looking for any of the brands I just mentioned. 65% of the pedals currently on my board plus the board itself, its accompanying hard case and one of the two power supplies I use are all second-hand. Before I buy anything new, I always check on Gumtree, Reverb, eBay and Facebook Buy/Swap/Sell groups to see if I can get it second-hand. If you do buy brand-new pedals, make sure to keep the box and manual in case you decide to sell the pedal at a later date.
To begin with, you can power your pedals using a power adapter (such as a One-Spot) and a daisy chain, or by using a power adapter to each pedal and plugging it into a regular powerboard like the ones you use around the house. You can make a board by getting some wood from your local hardware store and sticking velcro onto it, or buy a cheaper case and house them all in there.
You can also connect your guitar into an iPad or laptop using an iRig and use the stompbox designer section of GarageBand.
What are your favourite pedals?
Have I mentioned that I love the Boss TU-2? I’ve always used Boss delays — I currently use a Boss DD-500 multi delay unit that I control using an external MIDI pedal, but before that I used a Boss DD-20 and before that, a Boss DD-3. Mucking around using looping pedals is fun. If I could only keep one of my current pedals other than my TU-2, I’d keep the Crowther Hotcake.
Dive into utility pedals
Compressors, noise gates/suppressors, amp switchers, EQ, etc. They’re not crucial when you’re starting out, but they can really help shape your sound further down the track.
If you want to experiment even more (and get sucked into an expensive but fun wormhole), there are many boutique pedal makers making interesting and high quality pedals. Generally these are made in smaller quantities with more expensive components, which is why they tend to be more expensive than Boss, TC Electronic etc. Some of my favourite boutique/high-end pedal builders include Earthquaker Devices, Old Blood Noise Endeavors, Tym Guitars and Strymon.
MIDI control and routing
This requires another whole article, but opens up some cool sonic possibilities. On my current board I use MIDI to control all my delay and pitch presets on three different pedals at once. It rules.
- Reverb.com’s beginners pedal types rundown
- Effects Pedals Explained (Gibson.com)
- Roland (the company which makes Boss pedals) explains why you put certain pedals in certain points in the signal chain
- Angel Olsen’s pedalboard rundown, with illustrations (Reverb.com)
- Build a mini-pedal board to suit the genre of music you play (Reverb.com)
- Five essential metal pedals that aren’t distortion (Reverb.com)
- Solving effects pedal power issues (Reverb.com)
- Gear reviews/demos on YouTube can be great (or tedious). Andy from Pro Guitar Shop/Reverb does fantastic demonstration videos. The YouTube channel Knobs does great reviews of weird pedals.
- $10 pedal vs $100 pedal — can you hear any difference?
- I really liked this rig rundown by Taylor York from Paramore, which was filmed by Earthquaker Devices. He has so many pedals that he has gone beyond the board setup and has a literal filing cabinet of them backstage.
You can hear my pedal collection in action here and here. If you’re a grown adult with disposable income and would like to show your appreciation for this story, feel free to send a small donation to Girls Rock! Melbourne, or do some Googling to find a Girls Rock! camp closer to wherever you are located.