Let’s be honest, we’re all pedal geeks here. We love checking out photos and rig rundowns of monstrously huge and complex boards that weigh more than the guitarist using them - you can never have too many pedals, right? Well, not always. In this article we’ll explore the idea of the “minimalist” pedalboard and how to approach tone without plugging into something resembling NASA mission control.
Why Go Small?
While we love big boards for the variety of tones they can provide, there are plenty of good reasons to use a small and simple pedalboard. First and most importantly, it helps put the focus back on playing guitar. Yes, you CAN make your guitar sound like a rich, ambient synthesizer if you so desire, but that doesn’t always mean you should. Ditch the embellishments and let your guitar work shine through. Secondly, it makes things a whole lot simpler when playing live. No more tap dancing or balancing on one foot to reach that awkwardly placed pedal way at the top of your board! Next, transportation is a breeze. Small boards are the definition of grab-n-go and make that gear lug from car to venue a whole lot easier. Good luck with your back breaking, fully laden Pedaltrain Grande! Finally, there’s the Philippe Herndon philosophy. Can the audience hear the difference? No? Then cut the fat! People are there to hear you play, not be impressed by your goliath pedal rig with sixteen transparent overdrives!
The Key to Success
For small boards to work well, you need to have a very good idea of the music you’ll be playing to know the essential sounds you should be aiming to create. Generally speaking, small pedalboards are going to suit playing within a similar style for most of the gig. If you want to play a diverse set of covers across musical genres and eras, a small board may not quite cut it. Once you know the requirements for your particular musical application, you can begin taking the “bare essentials” approach to populating your board.
Vital to the success of small and simple pedalboard setups is a good foundation. This may be stating the obvious, but the first step is having a quality electric guitar, set up and intonated properly with a fresh set of strings. Then of course your amplifier - know how it reacts to pedals (especially gain pedals) and find a setting that sounds great on its own but serves as a blank canvas on which to build tones.
Set Some Boundaries
Pick a pedalboard size and commit to staying within its boundaries. The Pedaltrain Mini is a good place to start - one row of pedals, no mucking about. For some of you big board gluttons this might be too challenging, so perhaps something like the Pedaltrain Jr may be more suitable. Setting this initial size limitation is a big part of the fun and makes things that little bit more challenging.
Recruit the A-Team
So you know what your essential sounds are and you’ve got your foundations sorted. Now it’s time to find the pedals that will act as your colour palette. A word of warning, with small boards, there’s nowhere to hide for average performing pedals. Your Boss DS-1 might have sounded good mixed with 2 other drives and a compressor, but it’s probably not going to cut it here. Only the strong survive! Try as many pedals with your rig as possible to see which ones work best - borrow from friends, pick up some second hand pedals, or just go all out on some new gear if you feel so inclined. You’re looking to create the A-Team here, so be sure that each pedal performs not just for its initially intended purpose, but has sufficient sonic range and features to cover a lot of ground.
Here's One We Prepared Earlier
To give you a little inspiration, I’ll briefly explain my current pedalboard (pictured below), for which I have copped many a snide comment from big board bullies (you know who you are!). First in the chain is the TC Electronics Polytune Mini. It’s small and it tunes my guitar - simple. From there I run into the Emerson Custom Em Drive and Bondi Effects Sick As. These two play VERY well together - easily the best gain stage I’ve had in a long time for my purposes. Then we go to delays, I’ve recently added the MXR Carbon Copy - its modulated analog delay sounds are simply to die for! The TC Electronic Nova Delay is one of my oldest and dearest friends. It’s simple, but feature rich and sounds great. Finally, I run the Strymon Flint for some ambient reverb and a nice vintage tube tremolo sound. And that’s it! The rest is up to my creative ability, guitar and amplifier.
The Moral of the Story
Bigger is not always better. With so many amazing sounding pedals out there these days, less truly can be more. If you've become too reliant on your big, complex pedalboard, then give the bare bones minimalist approach a try. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much fun it can bring back to your playing!
What's your approach to pedalboards? Do you like to have every possible sonic option available or do you just use what you need?
Written by Chris Strutt
Marketing Guru and Music Geek at Signal Chain