One of the ultimate pleasures of being a guitarist is setting up your pedalboard. Whether you’re new to the realm of guitar or a veteran shredder, curating a solid set of stompboxes can pave the way for tons of creativity.
If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’ve reached a point where you feel you’ve plateaued with the sonic limits of your amp, and that you’re looking to expand your tonal horizons. The pedal realm is vast, to say the least. From the simplest of distortion pedals to the wild, wild west of boutique polyrhythmic modulators and pitch shifters, the sheer number of pedals can be overwhelming at first glance. Don’t let that stop you — dive in!
The first pedalboard I ever set up as a teenager was a true nightmare. I bought the few, random pedals that I could afford, placed them in my chain without rhyme or reason and watched my Fulltone OCD go up in smoke. And while I’ve learned a lot about pedals since that first fiery lesson in polarity, the one thing that I always tell new guitarists is to start with the essentials. Here’s a list of the seven pedals that have been the foundation of my sound for years, whether playing in large amphitheaters or small pubs.
Okay, it’s not exciting. But a good, dependable tuner is the starting point when building your pedalboard. Even if you’ve spent thousands on boutique, hand-wired pedals for optimal tone, you’ll still sound like a noob if your guitar isn’t in tune.
One of my absolute favorites is the TC Electronic Polytune 3 Mini. Not only does it provide incredibly precise tuning with bright, easy-to-read LEDs (perfect for the stage), it’s also ultra-compact so it won’t take up a lot of real estate on your board. One of the coolest things about the Polytune 3 Mini is that it uses polyphonic tuning. You can strum all of your strings at once, and the pedal will let you know which ones are out of tune.
Some amplifiers come with built-in distortion, which is fine unless you want more control at your feet. A distortion stompbox can raise hell if your amp cannot output tons of gain or has a single clean channel.
Distortion pedals typically come with gain and volume controls. However, most distortion pedals also provide guitarists with access to tone controls, which allow you to dial in more or less treble or bite. More expensive distortion pedals come with even more EQ controls, similar to what you might find on your amplifier.
One of my all-time favorites is still the Boss DS-1. I don’t use heavy distortion that often. When I do, I like to push my amp hard and kick in some overdrive (which we will get to in a minute). Though, for the times that I need a bit of extra growl, the DS-1 always gets the job done. Plus, it only has a few controls, including tone, distortion, and output gain, making it easy to use.
One thing to note with the Boss DS-1 is that it is definitely not the most versatile distortion out there. It’s wonderful for fat, driven, mid-range playing, including solos or heavy rhythm parts. However, when you get into ultra high-gain metal territory, the pedal begins to sound defective. In case you’re looking for high-gain distortion, I would go for something like Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion.
Many people like to group overdrive and distortion pedals together, though I’ve always felt that they are unique specimens. Distortion pedals dish out heavy dirt while overdrive pedals give you crunchier, low-gain tones. There are hundreds of overdrive pedals on the market, each with their own flavor. From the Tube Screamer to the Blues Driver, many of them are classics.
However, I’m a big fan of the Sweet Honey Overdrive from Mad Professor. The thing I love most about this pedal is that it works dynamically, meaning it will ease off when you play soft and unleash glorious amounts of gain when you begin to dig in. You won’t have to compromise your tonal flavor either, as you add some sweet blues sauce with this pedal.
With that said, it’s best-suited for a blues or classic rock tone. Metalheads might want to look elsewhere. If I ever need to get a bit more grit with this pedal, I’ll pair it up with my distortion. I suppose you could pair it up with the overdrive channel on your amp as well, if it has one.
Unsure what a wah pedal sounds like?
Just say the name!
Employed throughout history by the likes of guitar legends, including Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, and David Gilmour, the wah is one of the most expressive guitar pedals around.
Wah pedals may feel kitschy to some, though I still think they’re the best tool for accenting your tone and delivering animated noise. Wah pedals are operated via foot, allowing you to achieve round, nasally tones when your heel is down and sharp, articular wails when your heel is up.
While I most often see Jim Dunlop Cry Baby pedals out there, I prefer the Budda BudWah Pedal. It gives you all of the mid-range honk that you would want from a wah pedal without high-end harshness. The range is incredibly broad, and the roll-off is smooth as butter. Plus, the BudWah feels right under my foot, which adds an element of comfort when playing. The comfort level of any expression pedal is a HUGE consideration for me. Whether you’re playing live or rocking out in the studio, having a pedal that moves with you is a plus.
I’m not a big fan of multi-FX pedals. They have their benefits, including access to hundreds of different effects and presets in one unit for half of what you might spend on a single pedal. However, I’ve always preferred quality over quantity. Most multi-FX pedals have particular effects that don’t cut the mustard — or so I thought. Then I found the Mobius from Strymon. This legendary pedal comes with 12 different modulation effects, including chorus, flanger, vibe, phaser, rotary, filter, formant, vintage trem, pattern trem, auto swell, destroyer, and quadrature — the last two you simply have to hear for yourself.
While this pedal is great all-around, I like to think of it primarily as a studio weapon. You get access to pretty much any classic or new-age modulation tone you can think of and more. Having the ability to hear a guitar tone from your favorite artists, such as that lovely chorus tone on Prince’s “Purple Rain” or that sweeping flanger on Kevin Parker’s “Enders Toi,” and quickly dial it in, is an absolute godsend. The one thing it lacks is the ability to use multiple effects at once, which is a bit of a bummer if you want to craft unique modulation chains, but this pedal’s bona fides more than makes up for it.
I use this pedal more than anything these days. It sparks my creativity every time I plug it in.
If your amp has a nice, built-in reverb, you might not need a reverb pedal. However, if you want to give your guitar some extra richness with space, then adding a reverb pedal might be the way to go. The best reverb pedals are made to emulate the echo that you hear when you make a sound in a big space, such as a concert hall. I don’t often use reverb pedals in studio situations, as I like to add reverb in post for better control — though I love using it in live situations to create a cinematic space.
One of my go-to reverb pedals is the TC Electronic Hall of Fame. It contains a variety of reverbs, including plate, spring, hall, shimmer, and more. In my opinion, it is the only reverb pedal that you will ever need. Aside from its versatility, it uses the famous TC Electronic TonePrint feature, which gives you access to artist-created presets, a cool bonus.
I’ve had countless moments where a particular reverb tone has eluded me. Having the ability to search through a database of presets is an absolute game-changer and one reason I recommend this pedal to so many guitarists.
You can’t underestimate the importance of delay pedals in popular music. From The Edge to Jonny Greenwood, delay has helped history’s most iconic guitarists craft the signature tones we know and love.
Delays are similar to reverbs in that they are time-based effects, though they produce noticeable repeats instead of long trails of sound. I personally use delay to enhance my clean tones a bit and create walls of spacy echo.
I’ve experimented with plenty of delay pedals over the years, but the one that keeps bringing me back is the Catalinbread Echorec. Catalinbread is one of my favorite boutique pedal manufacturers — they deliver some of the funkiest, most out-of-this-world hardware replicas on the market. This particular pedal is based on the Binson Echorec, which is an old, tube-powered echo machine.
It’s not your typical delay pedal, and some players might think I’m crazy for recommending it over classics like the Boss DD-500 or the MXR Carbon Copy — though it’s wackiness and instability is what I love most about it. Dial in a touch of it for some surf-y slapback or crank the Mix knob to take your listeners on a sonic pilgrimage to the 5th Dimension.
Note that you won’t get crystal-clear repeats as you would with a digital delay, though that’s sort of where the fun lies. It’s as unpredictable as any analog gear, giving you warmth, depth, and versatile tones.
Of course, once you have your chosen pedals, there’s still lots to be done — assembling your pedalboard, finding the right configuration, using the effects loop on your amp — but these recommendations will give you a solid working foundation. You may be surprised how versatile your sound becomes with only seven pedals!