Mar 302018

A Newbie’s Guide to Pedal Selection

A Mono medium pedalboard with my “hybrid” setup of Velcro and zip ties. I was on a short tour, and I didn’t want the pedals to come loose in the van, so I added the ties to some pedals for ultra security. This band required a sparse rig of a wah, a boost pedal, a distortion, a Mellotron simulator, and a tuner

Even if you’re just beginning your journey with the guitar, you probably already know that many guitarists are obsessed with little boxes of joy and noise called effects pedals. But you may not be aware of why more experienced players choose certain pedals, or which types of pedals may be most appropriate for the style of music you play. As you’ll see, technical strategy and plain old gut feelings can drive a player’s pedal choices. But, for now, let’s simply dial back any confusion factor you may have, and offer an easy and straightforward menu to pedal selection.

For more sonic diversity, I made a Mono Suitcab pedalboard with two fuzz pedals, an organ simulator, a reverse delay (notes sound backwards—trippy!), a boost, an echo box, a wah, and a tuner—all Velcro’d to the top panel.


Whatever style of music you are playing, there are a couple of boring but critical essentials every pedalboard needs. First, get a chromatic tuner that’s small enough not to devour valuable space on your board, yet with a display big and bright enough to see on dark stages and in direct sunlight (if you play outdoors). Find one that mutes the output signal when you tune, so that the audience isn’t treated to a “tuning concerto” at performance volume.

Getting juice to your pedals—rather than depending on 9-volt batteries or individual (and messy) power cables—requires a pedal-power supply with enough outputs for your chosen stompboxes. Of course, you’re going to need short ¼” cables to connect your pedals together, as well as some method (Velcro, plastic ties, etc.) of affixing the boxes to whatever size pedalboard you’ve either purchased, or made yourself from a piece of wood or other material. Finally, don’t forget to include at least a 20-foot extension cord, as you never know how far away a club will put its power outlets from your stage position.

The Chemistry Design Werks Holeyboard is all about zip ties, and it provides a top tier—a good alternate landing strip for when you’re wearing Doc Martens onstage!


Once the essentials are nailed down, you can begin the real fun stuff—choosing the effects. It’s extremely important to note, that while I’ve provided some very basic menu recommendations tailored to “appropriate” or “typical” pedals for specific musical styles, there are no right or wrong choices. Whichever pedals fire up your creativity are the right ones for you, and, in any case, fearlessly messing with so-called convention can be liberating and inspirational. Use a filthy fuzz for supper-club jazz, or experiment with The Edge-style delays for a bar blues band. You should also research which pedals your personal guitar heroes have in their rigs.

Rock: Wah, Distortion, Fuzz (with or without octave effect), Chorus, Flanger, Delay, Reverb.
Blues: Wah, Overdrive, Tremolo or Vibrato, Rotary Speaker/Uni-Vibe, Reverb.
Jazz: Compressor, Overdrive, Volume Pedal.
Metal: Wah, Pitch Shifter or Whammy, Distortion, Flanger, Chorus, Delay, Reverb, Noise Gate.
Country: Compressor, Overdrive, Delay, Reverb.
Starship Warrior: Wah, Compressor, Pitch Shifter, Distortion, Fuzz, Flanger, Phaser, Chorus, Tremolo, Noise Gate, Volume Pedal, Delay, Reverb.


If all of this pedal selection and pedalboard order is daunting or bothersome, you can always chuck it and go for a multi-effects floor processor. There are tons of them at all price points, and the whole effects-order thing is pretty much done for you, because the effects options (and their on/off switches) are laid out on an integrated slab of plastic or metal. These devices can also be small—some can even fit in a gig-bag pouch. If there’s a downside, there may be a slight learning curve to getting comfortable with parameter menus and LCD screens, as you’ve upped the technology level somewhat from a few pedals with a couple of control knobs each. There are a lot of tonal options in an all-in-one multi-effects floorboard, and, best yet, you didn’t have to build it yourself.


If you aren’t totally clear on the sonic differences between an overdrive and a distortion, there are many educational resources about different pedals you can peruse online. Here are some quick and super-rudimentary definitions to get you started.


Effects Group: Modulation
All You’ll Care About: Makes things all shimmery and sexy.
Audio Example: “Come As You Are,” Nirvana (verses).


Effects Group: Dynamics
All You’ll Care About: Keeps the volume level of all of your notes and chords consistent. Puts everything right in the listener’s face.
Audio Example: “Saved By Zero,” Fixx.


Effects Group: Ambience
All You’ll Care About: Your parts come right back at you like echoes across the Grand Canyon.
Audio Example: “I Will Follow,” U2.


Effects Group: Distortion/Overdrive
All You’ll Care About: Ferocious, saturated grittiness with sustain.
Audio Example: “Mr. Scarey,” Dokken.


Effects Group: Modulation
All You’ll Care About: Swooping, sweeping ray-gun sounds.
Audio Example: “Barracuda,” Heart (main riff).


Effects Group: Distortion/Overdrive
All You’ll Care About: Buzzy, fuzzy majesty—usually a funkier noise than a typical distortion or overdrive pedal.
Audio Example: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Rolling Stones (main riff).


Effects Group: Distortion/Overdrive
All You’ll Care About: A natural, organic grind—like an overdriven amp (hence the name).
Audio Example: Anything by AC/DC.


Effects Group: Ambience
All You’ll Care About: Super-sensual ambient soundwaves. As vibey as it gets.
Audio Example: “Pink Orange Red,” Cocteau Twins (intro).


Effects Group: Filter
All You’ll Care About: Messes with tonal frequencies to produce soaring or staccato vocal and horn sounds.
Audio Example: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” Jimi Hendrix (solo).


> You will meet people who insist there is a “correct” order to positioning your pedals from your guitar to your amp. They may even be right, as there are certain technical strategies to putting some pedals in front of, or behind other pedals. You can Google that stuff all day. Then again, some noted pedalboard builders will say a few of their pro clients have them construct rigs in very idiosyncratic ways—or, in other words, “wrong.” I’d defer to the late recording-studio madman Joe Meek here: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

That said, Steve Vai has counseled running your basic signal path this way: tuner, overdrive, distortion, modulation pedals, delay. In GP’s “Ultimate Guide to Pedalboards” issue in May 2008, we suggested this order: tuner, filters/wah, compressor, overdrive, distortion, modulation, volume pedal, delay, reverb. Do some research, pick a path, and if something bothers you, don’t be afraid to change it up.

The Effects Menu
Source: Guitar Player