For most of my guitar playing career, I’ve schlepped my stompboxes and cables in a paper bag like some digital-age hobo. But last spring, a local singer-songwriter Jill Cohn asked me to join her band, and I decided to upgrade to a rig that would make it easier to get to rehearsals and gigs, and frankly, looked a little less ghetto.
I looked into buying a pre-fab pedalboard, but decided that they cost too much, are overbuilt, and don’t have enough room. It’s not like I need one of those bombproof flightcase jobbies—maybe if I were gigging three times a week instead of once a month.
All I needed was a way to transport all my pedals without having to set them up and break them down every trip. Also, I’d shelved some of my effects—a wah, a volume pedal—because I couldn’t be bothered to fool with them whenever I wanted to move my rig. The pedalboard would finally give me the excuse to dust off those really useful effects and integrate them permanently into my signal chain.
One major change I made when I decided to build a pedalboard was to invest in a switching system. I’d gotten tired of doing a frantic tap-dance routine whenever I needed to switch more than one effect at a time. A switching system enables you to program what combinations of effects you typically use, and assign those combinations to individual switches. Also, effects that aren’t being used are left out of the signal chain, which means they won’t suck tone out of your signal. SWEET!
So the following are instructions for building an awesome, pro-quality switch-system pedalboard, using the best materials and construction with the least amount of effort. I kept cost down where I could, but I didn’t skimp on electronics. I spend too much time playing to want anything less than awesome-sounding gear.
The only part that took time and skill (mostly time) was soldering custom-length guitar cables, which was a blast but is by no means necessary if you’re averse to soldering. Having used my pedalboard for a year now, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Note, however, that this pedalboard will not protect your pedals at all. I feel fine just putting it on the back seat of my car, but I wouldn’t put it in the back of a van next to a Marshall stack, ready to topple onto my $250 fuzz pedal.
Step 1: What size?
First, you need to decide how much stuff you want on your pedalboard. If you’re a seasoned electric guitar player, you probably know what you like. But most people reading this article are probably still assembling their arsenal, learning what sounds they like, and developing their own distinctive sound. So before you build your pedalboard, peer into the future. Consider that most guitarists use AT LEAST the following three items:
While most electric guitarists building a pedalboard own a distortion pedal, I would guess that many do not own either a volume pedal or a single power supply that will fuel all your pedals. Volume pedals are practically worthless when you’re practicing by yourself (unless you’re into volume swells), but they’re indispensable for hands-free control of your volume when you’re jamming or performing with a band. And power supplies are better for the environment (less 9V batteries in the landfill) and will ensure that you never get caught on stage with a dead stompbox. If you don’t have a volume pedal or power supply, consider getting them, or at least making space for them, on your pedalboard. If you don’t get a power supply, leave room for a power strip.
Lay all your pedals out on the floor and arrange them into a rectangle. Make sure that expression pedals (wah, volume) and your switching system (if you use one) are in front for easy access, of course. Leave room for cable jacks and power supply jacks to poke out of the sides of your pedals (think about whether you’ll be using straight plugs or right-angle—in most cases, right-angles are the way to go). And if there’s any chance Santa might bring you a fab new fuzz pedal in the next five years, leave room for a couple unforseen additions.
You’ll want to, as much as possible, line up your pedals in the order that you want your guitar signal to pass through them, called the “signal chain.” This is less critical if you’re using a loop-based switching system, but otherwise, people typically make a sideways U-shaped path through the two rows of pedals. There’s been lots written on which order is best. Google “guitar signal chain,” or here’s a good guide.
Measure the dimensions of your pedal arrangement. This will be the size of your pedalboard.
Step 2: Building the Board
Your pedalboard doesn’t need to be made of tank armor to be durable. 1/4″ plywood works just fine, and when you’ve got 20 lbs. of electronics stuck to it and you’re lugging it three city blocks to your friend’s house to rehearse, you’ll be glad you got the thin stuff. One thing to consider is that tape and velcro will stick better to smooth surfaces than rough, so invest in the fairly high-grade plywood. I went to Home Depot and had some kid cut my wood for me because the service was free, I’m lazy, and I gave up my dream of being a DIY ninja long ago.
I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to protect my plywood from getting all bashed up–I even considered covering it in tolex, the material that covers guitar amps–before I realized I could just use duct tape. Of course! Not only would duct tape prevent the edges from splintering, but its rubbery surface would grip smooth floors, it’s cheap and easy, and most importantly, one should abide by this fundamental law of nature: Always use duct tape when given the opportunity.
Another thing to consider was how to attach the pedals to the board. Some meticulous folks who don’t want to desecrate their vintage gear strap their pedals to the board, but most people use velcro. 3M Dual-Lock is the running favorite, but I couldn’t find it at the store, so I took a risk and got Velcro-brand Industrial Strength that came in a 15′ x 2″ roll. My worry was unfounded. This stuff uses the same adhesive that Peter Parker has in his spider web formula. It’s never coming off. Because the velcro adhesive is more solid than the duct tape adhesive, I covered only the bottom and edges of the pedalboard with duct tape, leaving all but about a 1-inch perimeter of the top of the board bare, so that the velcro would adhere directly to the wood instead of to duct tape, and only barely overlap the duct tape to look nice and keep the duct tape from peeling. I suppose if you’re having trouble with adhesion, painting the plywood first would provide a better surface.
Here are the steps I took::
1. Sand rough edges of plywood.
2. Wipe down with damp cloth to remove all sawdust and let dry.
3. Cover bottom of pedalboard with duct tape. Choose the rough side of the plywood if there is one—you’ll want the velcro to bond to the smoothest side. Lay down strips of tape so that each edge overlaps the next, and make the strips long enough so that the ends wrap around the edge of the board and extend about an inch onto the top of the board.
4. Tape edges of board with duct tape by running long strips of tape along the length of the edge so that equal amounts of tape overlap the top and bottom of the board. At each of the corners, I cut slits in the tape where it made a bend so that instead of making a fold, the extra tape overlapped and lay flat.
5. Cover top of pedalboard with “loop” velcro (the fuzzy side). Make strips long enough so that the ends overlap the edges of the duct tape (to keep it from peeling off), and lay them down side by side. Easier said than done, but you’ll get the hang of it.
Step 3: Sticking the Pedals to the Board
This part’s technically easy, but about as much fun as putting down a lame horse if you’re as attached to your effects pedals as I am. See, in order to attach the “hook” velcro to your pedals, you’ve got to peel the rubber off their base. I know I’m a sentimental sap, but it was tough ripping apart the BOSS DD-3 I’d gotten for my 16th Christmas. Charlie Bucket has his golden ticket, Citizen Kane has his Rosebud, Ralphie Parker has his official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and I have my DD-3. Like a band aid, it’s best done quickly.
Scrape all the residue off the base and stick a rectangle of “hook” velcro on.
Step 4: Connecting With Cables
If you’re not using a switching system, you can probably get away with just using store-bought patch cables (medium or high quality). Make sure they’ve got right-angle plugs so that they don’t take up too much space. If you are using a switching system, or have a pedal arrangement that requires cables of many different lengths, you’ll need to make custom cables.
The more time-consuming way is to solder your own. After a lot of poking around, I went with the advice of a fella named Lord Valve, mostly because of his name, and because he recommended using hot glue, which is almost as much fun as duct tape. Soldering all the cables for my board took about 12 hours, but it was fun knowing I was probably making the most awesome patch cables in the universe.
Here are Lord Valve’s instructions:
For guys what rolls their own, here’s the best combo I’ve found: Canare GS-6 cable and Switchcraft 280 plugs. I know the temptation is to use the snazzy-looking Neutrik plugs; they are hard to solder to without a *really* powerful iron, and the strain relief system is bogus. They cost twice as much, too. Stick with the Switchcraft; they were good enough for Grampaw and they’re *still* the best. (I sell both kinds, in case anyone is wondering.) If you want to make a cable that is damn near indestructible, use a piece of 3/8 HST over the inner part of the plug; fill the inner portion with hot-glue and slide the shrink over the glue while it’s still hot; it’ll begin to shrink immediately. Finish shrinking it with your heat- gun (or a 1000W Par-64 can, or a propane torch set on low, or a cigarette lighter, or a hot-air popcorn popper [all of which I have used successfully in the field]) and wait for it to cool before removing any glue that squished out the edges while you were shrinking it. This is the *best* termination system that I’ve been able to devise; I have guitar cables in the field that are still going strong after more than a decade of use.
Once you’ve got your cables, that’s it! Plug those puppies in and let ‘er rip.
Here’s a list of all the ingredients, with links to stores if you’re going shopping. Note that the cable-building gear is about twice what I’d need if I wasn’t using a loop-based switching system, and even then I had some left over to make a few 10′ cables.
15″ x 30″ 1/4″ plywood
Scotch Heavy Duty All-Weather Duct Tape
Velcro brand Industrial Strength Black Tape, 15′ x 2″ roll
I’ve linked much of my gear to zZounds.com, which I like to shop at for their rock-bottom prices and quick delivery.
Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808 Reissue, modified by Robert Keeley – Most of my guitar heroes use effects that are so obscure or expensive that I’ll never own them. But the Tube Screamer is one of those pedals that you see in several pro’s signal chains: Steve Ray Vaughn, Carlos Santana, and Trey Anastasio to name a few. Even the cheap TS-9’s sound great.
BOSS DD-3 – This was the first effect I owned, back when I was obsessed with U2 and, specifically, The Edge’s guitar playing on The Joshua Tree album. Got it under the Christmas tree when I was 16, and spent a couple frustrating weeks trying to sound like The Edge before putting it in storage for 15 years. Now, aside from occasional nostalgic U2 jam sessions, I mostly use it for a slight slap-back effect along with reverb for a spacey, atmospheric sound.
AnalogMan Sun Lion Fuzz/Booster – This is a boost and a fuzz pedal in one package. I haven’t fooled around with the boost much, but the fuzz gives me a great Hendrix tone. Sounds great with my wah.
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb – I had reverb in the old solid-state Fender Deluxe ’85 I used in high school, but it sounded so lame I convinced myself that I didn’t like reverb. But I recently decided to give in and buy a Holy Grail–the most popular reverb pedal around, and found in many pro’s rigs–and now I can’t imagine playing without one. One minor bummer was discovering that I can’t hook it up to my power supply–the instructions emphatically state that you need to use the accompanying wall wart adapter because of the Holy Grail’s unique power requirements. So it takes 10 more seconds to set up and break down my pedalboard. A small price to pay for awesome reverb.
Dunlop Original Crybaby Wah – I’ve had this thing since high school. It hasn’t weathered the years too well–the tone pot crackles sometimes–but I figure I can just replace it without buying a whole new pedal. Sounds great with my fuzz pedal (when it’s not crapping out on me).
Ernie Ball Volume Pedal – Solid construction, perfect action, never had a glitch.
Keeley Compressor – I only started using compression recently, but I love it. It smooths out my sound, and adds sustain and volume when playing quiet, delicate melodies and arpeggios. Very subtle effect when the sustain knob’s set to 9:00. The only time I turn it past that is when I want feedback, which I can get at very low volumes when the sustain knob’s cranked. A cheaper, and still awesome, compressor is the MXR dyna comp.
BOSS TU-2 Chromatic Tuner – This is the industry standard, and it works perfectly. One of the great side-effects to having a pedal board is being able to tune quickly. Previously, I couldn’t be bothered to add a tuner to my signal chain when I was gigging, and would just tune by ear while onstage. But now the BOSS tuner is a permanent part of my signal chain, with no hassle. I’m in better tune, and the audience and my bandmates are spared the whiney sound of me tuning after every song.
Rapco AB-100 A/B switch (works OK, but if I could do it over, I’d get the Radial Bigshot because it has true bypass) – Lately I’ve been using a two-amp system when I’ve been gigging. This box splits my signal, sending it to both my little Fender Vibro-Champ, which has clear highs, and my Marshall 18 clone, which provides mids and bass. With the amps miked separately and panned into the left and right channels of the PA, I get a huuuge sound.
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus power supply – This wonderful box powers all my pedals except my A/B switch (which has a battery only to light the LED’s), and my Holy Grail Reverb, which requires its own power supply. I love it that I don’t have to dispose of any more 9V batteries or worry that a battery will die while I’m performing.
Carl Martin Octa-Switch – This slick piece of Danish engineering has been worth every penny. There are two main benefits to using a switching system. First of all, you can program the eight switches to use any combination of pedals, eliminating the need to stomp on multiple pedals when you switch between your favorite combinations. Secondly, each effect has its own send-return, which means that the guitar signal only passes through the pedal when it’s being used. Why does this matter? All pedals suck at least some tone and add noise to your guitar signal when they’re not being used, if for no other reason than that they’re making the path from your guitar to your amp longer. Try playing your guitar through 50 feet of instrument cable, and you’ll see how much of the high’s you lose–your amp will sound like it’s got a pillow over it. What’s worse, many cheap or vintage pedals suck tone like a leech. With a loop-based switching system, your pedals are only part of the signal path when you’re using them.
I did quite a bit of poking around, and decided ot go with the Octa-Switch because Carl Martin is a highly respected name in guitar equipment (he was interviewed in a recent Guitar Player article about pedalboards), and the Octa-Switch got accolades in the reviews I read.
My only concern is that if I were ever to spill something on it, liquid could easily get into the little toggle switches on the top of the unit. Don’t use the Octa-Switch if you have a permanent gig at a waterslide park or your fans like to dump a cooler of Gatorade on you after your encore.
Guitars and Amps
2000’s-era Les Paul 1957 Custom Historic Black Beauty (actually, mine has a cherry finish). Gorgeous, incredible feel, quite heavy. Sounds great distorted through my Marshall, but a little muddy through my Fender. I got it cheap(er) on eBay because it had a big gank in the back of the neck. One person’s blemish is another person’s mojo.
1990’s Gretsch G6118 Anniversary w/a post-production-installed Bigsby tremolo – Great looks, twangy tone. Awesome feedback.
1964 Fender Vibro-Champ – Bought for $400 on eBay. Best music gear purchase ever. These old blackface Fender amps (1964-1967) really do sound amazing. I record with the volume at about 9 for a little crunch.
Have fun building your pedalboard, and let me know how it goes!