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How to Set up a Pedal Board for Bassists

Pedal chain order and how to set up a pedal board are the biggest questions among bass players and musicians looking to take their tone and performance to the next level.

It only makes sense. Whether we’re embarking on learning a new musical skill or something completely different like model making or website design, we want to know what are the best practices. What are the essential guidelines for how to make this thing the best thing I can make it.

In this post we’re going to examine:

  • Pedal chain order including what is it and the key terms associated with it
  • How to set up a pedal board and what to think about when setting one up for you
  • Some examples and recommendations of the pedals boards of expert players and how they set up their effect chains.

“Clean Signal”, “Effect Chain” and Other Terms Worth Knowing:

When doing research in your quest to understand effect pedals and how they work, here are some key terms worth bearing in mind:

    • Clean Signal: the unaffected sound. Take your bass, plug it into an amp and turn it on. There’s your clean signal. Nothing is between your bass and amp and what you’re hearing is the sound your bass makes as it is (plus or minus some EQing from the bass’ controls and the dashboard of the amp)
    • Signal Path: the path that your bass sound must travel before it comes through the amp and makes a sound. This might also be called a Signal Direction or simply ‘the signal’.

 

  • Dirty Signal: what happens to your  instrument’s signal once it starts passing through pedals.

 

  • Pedal Chain: the arrangement of pedals on your board and how they are ‘chained’ together using patch cables.
  • Patch Cables: the short (usually less than 1 foot in length) that are used to connect your pedals together.

Let’s Explore Pedal Chain Order

How you arrange your pedals and develop the pedal chain order is more preferential than you might think.

Heck – do a quick Google search for ‘pedal board diagram’ and you’ll get hundreds of hits for pedal board diagrams and they all look kind of different:

 

There isn’t a hard-and-fast science that dictates how to and how not to set up your pedals to suit your needs.

Frankly, you could arrange your pedals however you desire on your pedal board and the end result will probably give you something that you’ve been looking for.

While you might get the distortion-plus-wah-plus-flange effect that you wanted, the signal might not as appear as optimal as it could be.

Sometimes, some pedals function better when arranged a certain way versus others. What you hear might not be that different, but how the signal from your bass to amp travels will be processed differently.

Rule of Thumb: When ordering your guitar pedals, you want to do so in such a way that preserves the function and tone of each guitar pedal.

Changing the placement of a guitar pedal in the signal chain of your guitar rig can drastically change your guitar tone when you stomp on that bad boy, and can be good or bad depending on the sound you are trying to achieve.

All Effect Pedals Fall in 2 Groups (Usually)

When looking at effects for your bass, all effects can be broken down into 2 groups: signal reshapers and signal augmenters (this article from Georgia State gives a great rundown of this)

The Reshapers include:

  • Overdrive
  • Distortion
  • Compression
  • Ring modulation
  • Pitch shifting

The Augmenters include:

  • Flanging
  • Phasing
  • Chorus
  • Delay
  • Echo
  • Reverb

Reshapers affect how the signal is actually being processed. Take this visual for example:

In the first visual, you can see a clean, natural signal. Below that, you can see that once distortion has been added, the signal becomes much more jagged and wonky looking. The distortion pedal actually changed that signal’s appearance and therefore how it’s final output is going to sound.

Augmenters on the other hand, don’t actually change the appearance and shape of the signal. Rather, they simply modify the signal’s frequency. Wah pedals, for example, don’t change the signal like how a distortion pedal does. Rather it just sweeps across the signal’s frequency spectrum.

 

Flangers and phasers work by making a ‘copy’ of the signal and having both signals run slightly out of phase from one another.

Reverb, echo and delay pedals work by making copies of the signal and then returning them back at different speeds and times and for different durations.

Other writers and musicians have broken up pedal classification in different ways including the people at Humbucker Music who break down pedals into the 6 groups:

  1. Signal Conditioners (preamp, overdrive, boost, distortion, fuzz and compressor pedals)
  2. Filter Effects (wah, envelope filter, and EQ pedals)
  3. Volume and Level Effects (volume, tremolo, and noise gate pedal)
  4. Modulation Effects (Includes chorus, flanger, phase shifting, and rotary simulating pedals like a vibrato pedal)
  5. Pitch Effects (octave and pitch shifting pedals such as a whammy)
  6. Echo and Time Effects (delay, reverb, and echo pedals)

How to Set Up a Pedal Board: The Ideal

First thing first: make sure your clean tone is where you want it to be. Make sure your amp is set to your liking as well as your on-bass controls.

As the old saying goes poop in, poop out, after all.

Next, now that you’ve got some pedals (2 or more) we can begin examining how to set up a pedal board and setting up the order of your pedal chain.

As I covered before in my other major post about bass guitar effects and setting up a pedal board, his is the most commonly seen order for guitar pedals, starting with the guitar side of the signal chain, and ending at the amplifier:

  1. Your Bass >
  2. Tuners > : Tuners can be placed anywhere in the pedal chain because they don’t affect the signal in any way we covered above, but try to make it the first pedal in the chain. When tuning, it helps to have a clean, unprocessed signal to work with in your pedal set up.
  3. Filters > : Next up comes your filters. These are the effects that rely on the dynamics of the signal in order to have an effect. Because these tend to be very responsive to clean signals, it’s ideal to have them early in the chain.
  4. Compressors > : After your filters come your compressors and signal shaping effects. Placing a compression pedal here will even out the dynamics, and provide a smoother, consistent tone for the rest of the effects in the chain to work with. Here’s a great demonstration of how compressors work. Compressors help to even out the peaks and valleys of your signal and improve the sustain of notes.
  5. Distortion and Overdrives > : Now that your signal is compressed, enter your distortion and overdrive effects (also known as fuzz to some). Putting your fuzz effects before your time-shifting effects like echo and reverb helps to prevent against muddy super spacious fuzz effects and helps to retain the clarity of each note you’re playing.
  6. EQ > : EQ pedals, like tuners, can go anywhere in the effect chain but it’s important to remember that were you place them is going to affect the signal up to and after that location. Having an EQ early in the chain will affect all sounds and effects after the pedal. Having it towards the end of the chain will affect the final output of the signal. Having an EQ right after the distortion helps to reign in some of the wiley signal play that comes with using a fuzz pedal and prime the rest of your signal for the pedals to come.
  7. Pitch Shifters > : Here comes the pitch shifters. Pitch-shifting pedals work best with compressed signals, so it should certainly appear after your compressors and distortion pedals.
  8. Modulation Pedals > : This is where you should place your choruses, flangers, and (sometimes) phasers. Modulation pedals seem to function best anywhere after the distortion/overdrive pedals in the signal chain.
  9. Volume Pedals > : Any pedals that alter the volume level of your guitar signal (volume pedal, noise gates, limiters, tremelos, etc) should be placed towards the end of your signal path, so it affects the levels of all previous pedals simultaneously.
  10. Reverb/Echo/Delay Pedals > : The purpose of delay pedals, much like reverb, is to simulate an environment’s response to your guitar sound. Therefore, it should be placed at the end of your chain so it can capture all the different effects that are going on.
  11. Finally – Your Amplifier

If you find yourself at a loss trying to remember what the ‘ideal’ arrangement of pedals is, remember this acronym from Robert Keely of Keely Compressors:

Which Chain Of Effect Pedals Makes Life Easy?

Which (Wah) Chain (Compressor) Of (Overdrive) Effect (EQ)

Pedals (Pitch) Makes (Modulation) Life (Levels) Easy (Echo)?

Beware of Tone and Volume Suckers

Now, all pedals are created with equal outstanding quality, right?

Wrong.

Be on the lookout for pedals that have a reputation of tone sucking and volume cutting.

  • Tone Sucking: some pedals, usually low quality or suspiciously low priced pedals, can be tone suckers. That means that rather than providing you with the tone you wanted from adding that effect into your chain, your tone changes dramatically for the worse. The issues can range from missing top end, missing bottom end and everything in between as well as more subtle things that only you could notice
  • Volume Cutting: this is the biggest problem I’ve encountered, far more than tone sucking. Nothing is worse than activating a pedal somewhere in the chain only to have your volume noticeably drop out.

These kinds of problems, again more common with cheaper pedals of dubious quality, should be avoided for the sake of your pedal board.

Pedals are investments and should be treated like them. Your local big box music store likely will stock the most trusted and reputable brands of pedals that tend (usually) to avoid these problems. Moreover, do a search to make sure that what you’re thinking of adding to your pedal board doesn’t have a track record of these problems according to users from around the world.

Pedal Setups from Famous Musicians:

Now that that’s all out of the way, my hope is that

Flea’s Pedal Board:

Justin Medal-Johnson’s Pedal Board:

Charlie Hunter (part guitarist, part bassist)’s Pedal Board:

More Resources on Pedal Chain Order, and How to Set Up A Pedal Chain: