Essential Effects for a Live Pedalboard

It’s time to go back to basics. We’ve whittled down the most important effects that we believe every guitar player should have on their pedalboard, especially those who are intending to play live!

Elliot Stent

Elliot Stent

Huge pedalboards that can host a wealth of cool guitar effects are amazing. In fact, they’re a dream for some guitar players! A large pedal setup can keep you entertained for hours on end; offering up various sonic flavours not only for recording, but for inspiring new ideas too. I know this — as I have a big, ostentatious guitar pedalboard myself (you can click here if you want to see it).

However, as a musician who has recently joined a covers band and is regularly rehearsing and gigging again, I’ve realised that owning a gargantuan pedalboard is just a logistical nightmare. I mean, mine weighs over 20kg for goodness sake! Not only that, but the signal chain is incredibly complicated. So if one cable conks out and kills my tone, then it would probably take hours to figure out which one is the culprit.

To therefore save both my back and my sanity, I endeavored to put together a far more practical and easy-to-use performance pedalboard. One that boasts all of the essential stompboxes I need to achieve my favourite sounds, but on a much smaller scale. And so far, it’s working brilliantly! In this blog, I’ll share my experience to help you create your perfect plug-in-and-play, live pedalboard — regardless of style. You could also think of this as a “desert island” or “greatest hits” board, if you will.

Portable Pedalboard

Before we start looking at individual effects, it’s important to find a compact pedalboard that you can mount them all onto. Of course, you’ll want something small and light, but also make sure to consider the real-estate you’ll require to fit your favourite pedals — just check the board’s dimensions and so forth.

In fact, now that I think about it, it might be best to choose your pedals first and then find a board that can accommodate them. Or, consider this a challenge by getting yourself a petite pedalboard first — as it will restrict you from buying too much! Remember, this is an “all-essentials” board after all…

Top guitar pedalboard brands Pedaltrain and Ordo make some fantastic mini pedalboards, with the former’s Nano and Metro Series’  consistent best-sellers. Don’t forget to also check out our selection of pedalboard power supplies and patch cables too. Your stompboxes will need some juice and to be connected together in order to work! And if you’re a complete stompbox novice, you might even want to read our ‘How To Set Up Your First Pedalboard’ blog first too.

Tuner Pedal

Yeah, it is obvious. But it’s pointless having a bunch of awesome effects pedals if you’re out of tune! There are loads of contenders to consider here, but I’d probably recommend going for a mini tuner pedal that will save some valuable space for other stompboxes.

TC Electronic’s PolyTune tuner pedals have become something of an industry standard over the last decade, and their latest 3rd generation units even include a switchable buffer circuit — keeping your signal strong and crisp with long cable runs. To learn more about that, check out our ‘True Bypass vs Buffered Pedals’ blog. There are more affordable options from Electro-Harmonix, Landlord FX and Mooer too, which are great if you want to save some money for your other effects.

But wait, there’s another option too! You could completely forgo using a tuner pedal to save pedalboard space, and just rely on a clip-on headstock tuner instead. We have various clip-on guitar tuners available, but one of the big benefits of an actual tuner pedal is that it will mute your signal when you engage it and, generally, it’ll be more accurate.

Overdrive / Distortion Pedal

Owning a live pedalboard without an overdrive is sacrilege. You have to have one, or two… or three. I mean, are you just going to play clean the whole time? Of course not, you need to spice things up occasionally with some gain for a rockin’ riff, a big solo, or a loud Nirvana-style chorus.

On my board, I have two overdrive/distortion pedals. Why? Well, for the music I play, I like to have a low-to-medium gain crunch tone that’s appropriate for the softer rock numbers in our setlist, and a high-gain distortion sound that can handle the heavier tracks. So, when I’m plugged straight into the front-end of a clean amp, this arrangement essentially turns it into a versatile 3-channel beast! It works great for me, and it means that you can still get your favourite drive tones out of almost any amplifier.

You can also “stack” two overdrives together in order to create an even richer gain tone. One common method, which is particularly popular among metal guitarists, is to plug Tube Screamer style overdrive pedals into distortion pedals to “tighten” how they sound. This is because TS circuits typically cut low-end and boost mid-range, while also yielding a more saturated gain tone. But on the other hand — if you want a really simple, no-frills live pedalboard — you could probably get away with just one distortion pedal and roll the volume back on your guitar in order to attain a lighter crunch/overdrive sound. It’s up to you, and of course, the dimensions of your small pedalboard!

Boost Pedal

Have you ever played a gig, left the stage, and then asked your friends what they thought about your amazing solo — only for them to say “what solo?” I have, and it kind of makes your heart sink. A good boost pedal is the cure to this lack-of-volume problem, which if set right, will help your solo jump out in the mix so that it’s impossible not to hear!

On my board, my low-to-medium gain overdrive pedal has a separate footswitchable boost circuit built into it. You don’t have to buy this of course, but these types of 2-in-1 pedals are becoming even more common and are ideal for saving space and, depending on what you go for, saving money too. But standalone boost pedals can work nicely, just make sure to place one after your overdrive/distortion pedal(s) to achieve the desired volume-increasing effect.

Wah Pedal

If a boost pedal doesn’t do enough to make your solos stand out, then a wah pedal will definitely do the trick! This expressive, vocal-like effect is used by guitarists of all styles — from smooth contemporary jazz cats to heavy metal hell-raisers.

If you’re not that familiar with what wah pedals do, a wah is essentially a foot-operated filter which works as a moveable peak in your signal’s EQ — dramatically altering your tone. You can physically control the position of this peak via the rocking plate, which you freely move forward or backward with your foot. Pressed all the way down, and you’ll achieve a lairy treble-boosted tone akin to an animated cry or scream. Heel down, and the sound is somewhat nasal and similar to the timbre of a rolled-down tone knob on your guitar.

It might not be that essential for some players, but if you’re playing in a cover band, a wah pedal is probably something you should have. It’s an effect that’s used in many well-known songs, and it hides your mistakes nicely too!

Chorus Pedal

What good is a clean sound, if it doesn’t have a chorus effect on it? That’s what every guitarist in the ‘80s said. But seriously, you really ought to have some magical modulation on your all-essentials board — whether that be chorus, phaser or flanger. These effects just embellish and “wetten” whatever they’re applied to, creating a cool sense of movement in your playing.

But to me, chorus is just a bit more flexible compared to phaser or flanger and is definitely the more common of the two — used on countless recordings since the late ‘70s. It adds a gorgeous richness and “sheen” to your tone; almost emulating the sound of a 12-string guitar. This is because a chorus pedal works by splitting an instrument’s signal into two — leaving one unaffected, while slightly delaying the second signal and modulating/detuning its pitch. That’s how the rich doubled effect is achieved. It’s a killer effect with overdrive and distortion too, just ask Dean DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots!

Delay Pedal

Using all of the aforementioned effects pedals should form a nice, simple, and easy-to-use setup with some inspiring, flexible sounds. However, there’s one missing ingredient that you should definitely have — a delay pedal! These nifty little things are great for thickening up your tone with, especially lead parts, by adding ambient wetness to your guitar signal.

What do delay pedals do though, and how do they work? Delay pedals are designed to repeat the notes that you feed through them, just like when you hear an echo in a cave or a reflective space. Most delay stompboxes allow you to dictate their speed and amount of repeats (often labelled ‘feedback’), as well as the level of the echoes. By using a delay on your lead tones with subtle settings (about 4-6 low-volume repeats), then you’ll notice how big a difference it makes. The idea is to prevent the delay from being too obvious, but to use just enough to make an audible difference. What you’re ultimately trying to attain is a sound that’s similar to a studio-recorded, double-tracked guitar!

You might be asking yourself: “why delay, and not reverb?” Well, in my opinion, I don’t think reverb pedals are that necessary when you’re playing live. The acoustics of a venue should create some natural “room” ambience, and a reverb pedal can actually just make your tone sound muddy — meaning that it’s more likely to get lost in the mix. Plus, many guitar amplifiers have built-in reverb anyway!

Honourable Mentions

In this section, we’ll take a look at some not-so essential effects… that you might like too! These are just some extras to consider if you have the room left on your live pedalboard, and if you need certain other sounds for the songs in your setlist.

On my own personal, portable live pedalboard — the first unit I plug into is my Digitech Drop detune/pitch-shifter. I love this thing, and I wish I’d bought mine years ago! If you’re in a covers band like me, it can be a pain bringing multiple guitars to rehearsals or gigs in order to play certain songs that were recorded in alternative tunings. With the Drop pedal, all you need is one guitar. That’s because it transposes your signal down in half steps all the way down to a whole octave below standard tuning. So if you need to play Queens of the Stone Age tracks in C standard tuning, no problem. Just use the setting that takes your signal down by four half steps!

Another pedal that you might need, particularly if you’re using lots of gain, is a noise gate. These ingenious devices are designed to drastically reduce audible hum and hiss coming from your rig. While they can’t cure the cause of the buzzing or interference, noise gate pedals can help to mask it very effectively! I use the Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor not only because it’s inexpensive, but it also has its own loop section. This means that it applies noise reduction only to the pedals placed within its loop instead of your entire signal, so that you can isolate the stompboxes causing the most hiss and hum — like your overdrive or distortion.

My Ultimate Live Pedalboard

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Elliot Stent
Elliot Stent
Elliot is a Senior Digital Product Marketer at Andertons, and at least the 7th best guitarist in the company's Web Team. He's exactly one day younger than Harry Styles, and believes that this "head start" is the only reason why Harry's more successful than him.

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