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Think Sonically! A Ground-Up Guide to Building a Pedalboard that Evolves Your Playing

Ted Drozdowski
|
10.25.2013

There’s more to life than technique. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing, but some of the coolest guitarists around think texturally instead of technically. Consider The Edge and Jonny Greenwood, both highly influential and innovative guitarists who are as instantly recognizable as monster technicians like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, but not so much by hot licks textbook standards.



Of course, a balance of both is spectacular. Look no further than Jimi Hendrix.

A good way to begin striking that balance is to build a versatile pedalboard. I’ve had at least a dozen different boards over the years, from simple wah, distortion, delay combinations to multiple sampling pedals and pitch changers run through a variety of effects loop blends. And they’ve all served me well.

Generally speaking, if you’re new to thinking in terms of sound rather than notes and chords, or you’re a beginner, it’s good to stay simple from the ground up. That means thinking about the “board” part of your pedalboard first. I’ve seen everything employed from an old school cafeteria lunch tray to an Ouija board, but when you stomp on various boxes you don’t want your entire pedalboard sliding across the stage, so something substantial like the laminated shelving sold in your local Home Depot or Lowe’s is best. Basic black looks great and discrete on stage, too.

A number of manufacturers make ready-to-go boards. The problem with some is that they are only geared to one manufacturer’s stomp boxes, and that’s too limited for the serious sonic adventurer who will by nature mix and match brands and sizes. A few companies make flat Velcro-receptive boards that already come fitted inside a road case, and if those fit your needs and budget, they are a good short cut.

But the size of the board should be based on the amount and variety of pedals you want to use, not vice versa. My current mounted arsenal of stompers — tuner/distortion one/distortion two/pitch change/phase shifter/vibrato/delay/sampler delay plus power supply — fits nicely into a used keyboard road case with a foam-lined interior for a cushy ride to gigs in the van. Remove it from the box, plug in a few cables, and it’s ready to fire up. Takes about a minute, and that’s what you want to achieve.

Try laying your pedals out on the floor and connecting them with the shortest appropriate cables before you finalize your design. When you’ve got the effects array and layout you want, check the dimensions to be sure it will all travel in a container that’ll work for you — whether that’s a keyboard gig bag, an old suitcase or something more formal.

There is only one correct material for sticking your boxes to the surface of your board: Velcro. That allows for redesign (as the impulse comes) and removing boxes for replacement and repair. And it’s plenty stable.

Before sticking everything in place, use your floor plot to practice activating the pedals with the kind of shoes you prefer to wear on stage. Generally speaking, flat soles are easier for manipulating pedals in tight spaces than boot heels and bottoms — especially walking heels, which can smack into surrounding boxes, skewing pots and accidentally turning things on or off as you reach to activate switches. 

Try to stomp gracefully instead of like Godzilla whomping Tokyo. That will increase the lifetime of the switches in your effects pedals. Considering that some boutique pedals cost more than $300, consciously tempering your stomps into light presses is a strategy worth considering.

And don’t depend on batteries. It’s a pain to have to replace them in pedals pasted to a board, and if you keep removing and replacing the same pedals, their Velcro will give out and you’ll need to replace it regularly. Why bother when you can invest in a power supply by Voodoo Labs or another manufacturer for less than $200 and keep juice running for eight pedals at a time. You’ll save enough on 9-volt batteries for the power supply to pay for itself. And they’re durable little buggers with attachments that come for all kinds of plugs, from mock 9-volt battery heads to male and female adaptors.

Now, putting your effects in order is a matter of taste and priority. It’s possible to make multiple loops within one pedal array, alá the Edge and other sonic warriors, but, to quote the great soul singer Solomon Burke, “the best road is always the straight road” — at least for most of us. If something on your board goes down on stage, you want to be able to identify the culprit and correct the problem or patch around it a.s.a.p. Overly complex boards make that a challenge, as I’ve learned the hard way.

When it comes to ordering your boxes, here are a few suggestions. Put the tuner in line first. Tuners need a nice clean unaffected signal to register best. Pedals that work as filters should come next, before distortion, unless distortion is your AAA priority. Wah-wahs deliver their best tonal range before a distortion pedal colors the signal. Which leads us to distortion pedals. If you’re using more than one, try them in various orders and see which sequence delivers the sounds you want before pasting them down.

Next up: choruses, pitch changers, octave splitters, flangers, phase shifters and the like — the modulation family. And then delays and reverbs; you’ll want them to treat your whole signal. Tremolo last, since, if you were using an amp’s tremolo, it would hit your signal after the pedalboard. And then a volume pedal, if you’ll be going for steel-like effects or simply want to reign in the beast from time to time.

Again, this order isn’t set in c-ment, but if you’re just getting your signal “wet” for the first time, an effects chain along these lines will keep you from getting into sonic waters that are over your head. Happy stomping!

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