Pedalboard Primer

October 1, 2010

This space has been reserved for rock and metal stylings for a few months now, but I want to get into something more universal. Whether I’m doing a big metal show or a tiny coffeehouse gig, I can usually distinguish the bassists in the audience, because they’re standing over my pedalboard afterwards and staring down. I do the same thing when I see someone else’s board. What’s he got on there? And why?

Pedal and effect choices are a very subjective thing, as well they should be—you’re personalizing your sound with every box. But for those who haven’t yet built a pedalboard, and are wondering where to start, I think a generic pedalboard conversation will be useful.

bp1010_woodpedalboardFor simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that our pedalboard is going in front of the amp’s input, and not in an effects loop. Let’s also understand that this is just my two cents on the topic, and some will find it worth every penny. Finally, we’re not talking brands, just the type of pedal. Brands and models are up to you. OK? Good.

Here we go, in order:

Volume pedal with side-chain tuner out, connected to tuner pedal. This enables silent tuning onstage and goes before everything. It’s basic, but some people skip it. I wouldn’t. Who wants to hear you tune between songs? Certainly not the bandleader. It’s invaluable when your headstock gets knocked, or you forget to detune at the top of a song. Five seconds of silence beats four minutes of out-oftune- ness any day.

Octave. It’s a great all-purpose beef-adder, and can do hipster synth-y things when you boost just the sub-octave. Why do I put it first? Because you want the cleanest possible signal feeding the octave generator. It’ll track better that way.

Overdrive. If you’re using a tube amp with overdrive built in, you may not need this. But if your basic amp sound is clean, this is an essential option. Mind you, we’re not talking about full-on creamy distortion. A nice overdrive adds just a touch of dirt, or two touches. The extra harmonic distortion changes the way your bass sits in the live mix, and also affects the other effects accordingly.

Distortion. In days gone by, only guitarists had different stages of drive. Not anymore. This pedal should kick the dirt up several notches, and it should be a reliable, stock, fully driven sound. It may work best while the overdrive is still on, or not. Either way, put it right after the overdrive.

“Wildcard” Drive/Distortion. Time to personalize. Make your stock overdrive and distortion something recognizable so you get hired. The “wildcard” is so they remember you. There’s a lot of really strange, new, unique drive and distortion pedals out there. Find one that speaks to your freak, and put it here.

Envelope Filter. Or, in layman’s terms, something that goes squawk or wah. I’m of two minds on the placement here. It could either go at the very end, after everything (that’s where my bass wah is), or right here. Either way, here’s a big tip: Make sure it’s after your overdrive. I find that filter effects on bass, even great ones, don’t bite as hard as they should on clean tones. Adding a little drive before the filter really makes it bark and cut through. Some bass filter pedals have a little drive built in to rectify this. As always, your ears are the judge.

Chorus. An old standby. Enhances harmonics, changes atmosphere, and works great during melodic breakdowns in metal. In my opinion, this should be the last toneshaping effect in the chain.

Reverb or Delay. Now that the tone-shaping is complete, let’s add some depth. These effects can either give your note a warm reverberation, or, with certain delays, a slapback effect. It’s not so much tone-shaping as it is tone-extending. If you’ve never tried striking a note with the volume pedal down, then swelling it up with the delay pedal on, you’re in for a treat. But don’t overuse this—wet bass can muddy things up quickly in the wrong situation.

Compression. After tone shaping and tone extending, we need “tone recovery.” Unless you want to get into true-bypass loops for each pedal—and I don’t—your signal is passing through a bunch of little boxes. There will be some minimal tone degradation and maybe a slight loss of gain. Using a good, moderately-adjusted pedal compressor at the end of the chain will squeeze and boost your tone back to life. For anyone with a healthy pedalboard, I would leave it on all the time.

Power. This is tough, and could be an article all its own, but I’ll be brief. You want to be on AC power so you’re not relying on batteries, but you need to do your homework and eliminate ground loops. Purchase a quality multi-pedal AC power source (most have eight outputs and come with generic AC connectors). Check the power requirement on all of your pedals. Hopefully they’re all 9V and the standard jack fits (BOSS, Digitech, etc.). Some pedals require 12 volts. Some AC sources have 12V options for the wacky pedals, some don’t—do your research, don’t guess! Once everything is powered, if you hear a ground loop, it’s time for old-fashioned troubleshooting. Start with bypassing the pedals completely to make sure it’s not your bass. Then, reintroduce each pedal one at a time from the beginning of the chain. Eventually your problem child will surface. Try running that one alone on batteries—it may solve the issue. Ideally, well-designed pedals and power sources won’t create unsolvable problems. If just one pedal makes everything difficult, a cost/benefit question is in order.

We could go on—cables, board surface, casing—but hopefully this is enough to chew on for those at the beginning of the process. And for those who already have pedalboards, you’ll know all too well what I mean when I say there are no “complete” pedalboards. There are only stopping points between revisions.


Bryan Beller is the touring bassist for the metal “band” Dethklok from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, and has played with Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Dweezil Zappa, Wayne Kramer, and more. His most recent solo album is Thanks in Advance [Onion Boy]. Follow him on Twitter (@bryanbeller) and find out more at


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