by Jay Hale
If you do any gigging as a pro, semi-pro or hobbyist guitarist, you’d probably like to be able to reproduce the recorded tones of the tunes you’re playing as closely as possible. But if your gig involves traveling and you don’t have a tech or a production-sized budget, you don’t want to be plugging a zillion cables into half-a-dozen pedals before every gig, so constructing a pedal board might be the best way to go.
In addition my own guitar playing/building thing, I lucked into guitar-teching from meeting some known musicians I admired when I briefly put my gearhead nature to use in retail guitar sales in early 2000s. It was great getting to know and talk gear with them occasionally. At one point someone needed a tech and my name came up. When someone that influenced you as a guitarist thinks enough of you to call and say “Hey, our tech quit/had an emergency, can you help out?” and you can, of course you do!
It’s an invaluable learning experience on many levels. Plus I made great friends along the way. But seeing what total pros used first hand was great. It also came with the responsibility of learning that gear well enough to set it up for them every night correctly. Getting to pick their brains was a huge bonus. Still is, actually!
Some guitarists (like Carlos Cavazo when I had the honor of teching for him and Rudy Sarzo with Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health” line-up for a summer tour in 2002) favor a single modeling and/or multi-effect unit combined with a few pedals for versatility and portability. (Carlos was using Jackson guitars then – no clue what he’s using besides his Gibson Flying Vs with RATT these days). Others opt for custom or off-the-shelf boards with individual pedals and power-supplies. If you plan correctly you can build a versatile, portable rig that shouldn’t cost you any more than a regular checked bag to fly with and that can cover pretty much all the sonic bases for most gigs. If you’re really crafty it might fit in the overhead as a carry-on!
I’ve seen it done with great success (and capable of either mono or stereo operation depending on the backline amps) by a few more Quiet Riot guitarists and bassists I had the pleasure of being asked to work for as substitute guitar tech: guitarist Alex Grossi (also of Hotel Diablo), Sean McNabb and later Chuck Wright on bass. Once I even teched at a one-off charity gig for an all-star band Sean was doing with Doug Aldrich of Whitesnake (another personal guitar influence). Great opportunities and always fun hangs.
Alex Grossi of Quiet Riot/Hotel Diablo’s touring board: Morley Bad Horsie Wah, MXR Distortion, Boss DD-5 & TU-2, Line 6 MM-4 and wireless receiver. Board made by A&S cases.
All the people mentioned are cool guys as well as great players and musicians who’ve done it all. Been there, done that, large and small clubs, festivals, arenas. They know their stuff forwards and backwards and they love to talk shop when it comes to guitars, basses and amps and what works for their needs. And they’ll offer recommendations for yours too.
How cool is that?
Again, I’m lucky to have hung out with these guys and find out about their rigs and to also have the opportunity to ask them “Hey, I’m playing (x) kinda gig. I see what you use, but what do you think I should use for getting from (y) to (z)?” questions is so cool.
Each time, I hand-drew schematics of each of their setups to learn them for the tech gigs, and I later patterned my personal board based on what I learned from talking shop with those guys. It helped me build something that would suit my needs, but was also capable of running even larger rigs than I normally use. It’s served me well for many a local gig in the last few years, and one cross-country fly-out gig thus far. It works for home recording with Pro Tools and speaker emulation plug-ins like Recabinet as well, but let’s talk live usage. It’s my hope with this article something I learned from them just might help you, too!
There are various theories on the best order to place your effects. Really whatever works for you is best, but for demonstration purposes we’ll stick with the tried-and-true model of gain-altering effects in front of the amp, time-altering effects post-gain. This concept will work with most amps that have a built-in effects loop (or not), for guitarists who are dependent on supplied backlines for gigs as well as those using their personal amps for local gigs.
A few years back I came up with a fairly simple pedal combination that covers all my chorus, flange, phase-shifting and delay/echo needs as well as a wah for added flavoring. It’s expanded a little over the years and it may again. There are a variety of prefab pedal boards available if you don’t want to get too adventurous, but for those not faint of heart there are a plethora of custom builders out there that will create a board to your exact specs.
You can get flight-case style ones that are still checked-bag size, or modular boards that fit inside attractive Tweed and colored Tolex outer cases. Whatever style you’re into that in this size/weight scenario that will work as a checked bag or carry-on. Here’s what I’m currently using:
The first thing in my chain is an older Boss TU-2 tuner pedal for fast onstage spot-tuning. With my personal setup all of my gain needs are (mostly) taken care of by my amp’s three gain settings, so I don’t have multiple dist0rtion boxes. If I did, they’d go after the tuner, in front of the amp but after a wah or even a Whammy Pedal for maximum effect.
Even though that’s covered, to maintain overall signal integrity there’s only an MXR Micro Amp and a Vox Wah in front of my amp’s input after the tuner. The Micro Amp provides a slight boost to my amp’s mid-gain setting. This way I still don’t have too much going on to mess up my tone or clutter my signal.
In the amp’s FX loop I have a trio of time-delay and modulation effects: an MXR EVH Phase90 for a VH-flavored lead boost and a Line6 MM-4 and DL-4 handling the modulations and delays. I have four emulation presets I use as “stock” settings on the MM-4: Chorus, Unvibe, Flanger, and Vibrato, and 3 on the DL-4: A Tube Echoplex, a digital delay, and a reverse delay.
The hidden beauty of pedals like the Line 6 (or say, a TC Electronics Chorus/Flanger ) is I could conceivably split my signal (as Alex does) into stereo at the pedal board to run to a second amp in a rented/supplied back line scenario (channel-switching issues notwithstanding, but there’s workarounds for that, too).
All of my pedals are powered by a VoodoLab Pedal-Power II, and my board also includes the two channel switches for my Mesa-Boogie Mark III – though I’m thinking of purchasing a custom single-pedal switcher unit to handle that. They’re relatively inexpensive, and would potentially free up space for another pedal on my current board, like say that MXR Carbon Copy Delay I’ve had my eye on.
The only drawback to my current setup is including channel switching for my personal amp. It takes at minimum six cables to run, but they still fit in a small gym-bag in my second checked bag. If it became an issue I suppose I could have a custom loom-cable built that would be a 7-in-1 (just in case I needed to run stereo…always thinking…).
None of the bassists I’ve teched for thus far used pedal boards. Chuck, Sean and Rudy usually just had tuner pedal, a Whirlwind Direct Box or a SansAmp Bass Driver DI to the front-of-the-house, and a chorus pedal of some sort to split the signal to the dual Ampeg SVT stacks specified for backline amps. In both cases the units remained on top of the bass amp heads.
The pros have contingency plans to deal with the logistics of traveling with more elaborate setups on full tours, and the option of traveling with additional rack gear, etc. But the idea in both cases here is that you don’t get hit with any surprise up-charges if you’re flying with your board or pedals, be it as a carry-ons or as a checked bag. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of extra charges when traveling. Since these days I’m mostly traveling for fun rather than paying gig$ my guitar gear is going with me at the regular price if I can help it, thank you! Always check with your airline for checked baggage dimension restrictions before constructing a board, or traveling with your gear.
Hopefully this article has provided some basic templates you can start with to imagine your ideal traveling effects rig/pedal board. What pedals would be on your dream board?