Guitar effects pedals can do wonders for improving a guitarist’s (or bassist’s) tone and sound. Pedals are fun to collect; experiment with, and ultimately make music with. It’s tempting to show off all our cool gadgets by using lots of pedals together but this may be counter-productive if we’re looking to improve our sound with pedals.
How many guitar effects pedals is too many? The number of pedals, in an acceptable-sounding rig, can be limited by the amount of tone degradation; ergonomics; physical space; price of equipment; cables; the order of pedals in the system and the type of pedals in the system. It also depends on the subjective end goal of the guitarist’s sound.
Rather than attempting to solidify a single number of pedals (which would be futile), this article will focus on the limitations of guitar pedals that affect the overall number of pedals we can chain together.
The Issues Of Having Too Many Pedals
The maximum number of pedals in a player’s rig is ultimately up to the player. However, there are a few limiting factors that come into play when it comes to determining the maximum number of pedals a play “should” use.
These factors are:
Tone suck is the degradation of a guitar’s signal, typically heard as a reduction or filtering of the high-end.
Tone suck happens for a multitude of reasons.
Most commonly, it’s an issue of cable length. Guitar patch cables are unbalanced. They essentially have an inner conductor wire insulated from an outer conductor shield (ring-shaped if seen in a cross-sectional diagram).
The inner conductor carries the signal and the outer conductor acts as a shield and return path for the signal. Together, the two conductors act as a capacitor and the cable, in its entirety, acts as a distributed capacitor.
This effectively means that the longer the cable, the greater the capacitance. More capacitance leads to a lower cutoff frequency in the low-pass filtering causes by the cable.
This destroys tone by filtering out the top-end and muffling the sound.
But tone suck can also happen when impedances of units are not properly bridged. For optimal voltage transfer (signal strength transfer) from a source (an output) to a load (the connected input), the load impedance should be much greater (ideally 10x or more) than the source impedance.
Most modern guitar pedals have relatively high input impedances and low output impedance and will connect with other pedals, guitars and amplifiers just fine. However, if there happens to be a connection with unbridged impedance, the result could be a rather severe degradation of the guitar signal.
As we’ll discuss shortly, a buffer pedal can help in this impedance bridging situation.
Tone suck can also happens when too many pedals are engaged at once. The result of too much signal processing can lead to a muffled/garbled sound that lacks definition, clarity and high-end. This is, of course, subjective but worth mentioning.
Ergonomics & Functionality
When I write “ergonomics and functionality” I am referring to the actual usage of or “playing of” the pedals.
Having too many pedals, put simply, is just a hassle to control.
Let’s say 5 unique pedals are required for a particular section of a song. There’s no way to hit all 5 pedals at once. Of course, clever routing (with the addition of a line-switching pedal or two) could make this simpler but will ultimately isolate the 5 pedals from the rest of the board.
Shoegazing and tap dancing can be fun to do but is it really all that functional to have 30 pedals to continuously be turning on and off? Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t.
However, ergonomics (the comfort of playing the pedals) and functionality (the effectiveness of playing the pedals) should be a consideration when choosing the pedals for your board.
Similar to ergonomics and functionality is the actual physical space the pedals (with pedalboard and power supplies) take up. This seems obvious but depending on the size of stages you’ll be playing, the number of pedals you use can quickly eat up precious real estate.
Pedals can be expensive. This may or may not be of concern to you.
Budget is certainly a limiting factor for many and can play a role in determining the maximum number of pedals in your rig.
So How Many Pedals Is Too Many?
Again, this is a difficult question to answer.
My philosophy is that the number of pedals in my rig should not exceed what is absolutely needed. This will minimize tone suck while making the pedalboard more compact and, thereby, easier to maneuver.
When setting up a pedalboard, it’s important to test various stages and listen for signal degradation. Start with the pedal you plan on having first in your rig and test the sound of the pedal in both on and off positions. Then add the second pedal, repeating the process. Follow that pedal with the third and so on.
If the signal happens to really degrade after a pedal, we have an issue that will be prevalent in each pedal after the problem pedal. We can either remove this pedal from the system or add a buffer after the pedal.
Experiment to see how many pedal you can string together and in what order. If the signal really starts suffering, you likely have too many pedals.
Once set up, practice with the positioning of the pedals. Is it comfortable and playable? If not, then you may have too many pedals.
Sorry, again, for not giving a straight answer like “you can only have 4 true bypass pedals” or “8 buffered bypass pedals is the maximum number you can have without your signal dropping off”. Things are just not that simple and I’d rather arm you with pragmatic knowledge that out-of-a-hat numbers.
Tips To Get More Pedals On Your Board
If you feel like you’ve maxed out the number of pedals on your board, there may be some strategies to help get a few more pedals in your rig.
Here are a few tips to help get more pedals on your board(s):
- Order the pedals correctly
- Choose the right pedalboard(s)
- Choose the right power supply
- Use buffer pedals
- Use the guitar amp’s FX loop
- Ensure cable quality & minimize cable length
- Switch to a multi-effects unit
Ordering The Pedals Correctly
To get the most out of your pedals (and maintain the best tone possible), it’s best to order the pedals correctly.
In general, the best tone is achieved when the pedals are ordered as follows:
- Utility Pedals: tuners, buffers, and switcher pedals.
- Dynamics pedals: compressors, filters, pitch shifters, and volume pedals.
- Gain-based pedals: preamplifier/boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals.
- Modulation effects pedals: chorus, flanger, phaser and other modulation pedals.
- Time-based effects pedals: delay and reverb pedals.
*Volume pedals can go anywhere in the effects chain.
Of course, this is not absolute and pedals can be arranged anyway you like. That being said, the above-listed order is generally the best bet to maintain signal through the chain and achieve the best results from your pedals.
Choosing The Right Pedalboard(s)
It’s important to choose the proper pedalboard when putting together your guitar rig.
First and foremost, the pedalboard must be capable of hosting all the pedals in your rig (unless you’re using multiple board).
I would advise getting a pedalboard if you’re running any more than 3 pedals. It will make setup and teardown so much easier and faster for you and the other musicians you play with.
So the main thing to look for in a pedalboard is surface area for the pedals.
Next is to look for the most efficient way to place as many pedals as you need on the board. Sometimes fitting an extra pedal is impossible but you’d be surprised at what a little rearranging can do.
I personally use a Ruach Fox Lady pedalboard (link to check the price on Amazon) to host my typical 5-7 pedalboards. The pedalboard is a must-have for performing live. When experimenting with other pedals in my home studio, I typically do away with the pedalboard.
Choosing The Right Power Supply
Choosing the right power supply is essential when running a significant number of pedals.
We can get away with daisy chaining two, three, four or potentially more pedals. However, daisy chaining can quickly become noisy and ass significant distortion to our signals if we demand too much power from the single power source.
If you’re running three or more pedals, I’d strongly recommend getting a dedicated power supply with isolated sources for each of your pedals.
I personally use the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power Mondo (link to check the price on Amazon) power supply to power my board (which typically contains 5 to 7 pedals). We can see the Mondo Pedal Power at the top right of the pedalboard pictured below:
Using Buffer Pedals
Buffer pedals can help tremendously in maintaining signal strength and integrity in long cable runs and extensive pedal setups.
Buffer pedals effectively convert the impedance of a guitar signal to combat the capacitive reduction in high-end and drop in signal level over long cable runs and low-output pedals.
A dedicated buffer pedal put in front of a series of true bypass pedals can work wonders in preserving tone while maintaining the original tone of the guitar.
The JHS Little Black Buffer (link to check the price on Amazon) is a great example of a dedicated buffer pedal:
JHS Pedals is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Buffered bypass pedals will have some buffer effects. This is why it’s ill-advised to run nothing but true bypass pedals in a larger pedal system.
However, buffered bypass pedals are unlikely to yield the same quality of buffer circuit as dedicated buffer pedals.
Using A Guitar Amp’s FX Loop
Guitar amplifiers will have two main sections:
- Preamplifier section: the section (whether tube or solid-state) amplifies the guitar signal, from the guitar or the pedalboard to a level and impedance that can then be amplified by the power amplifier. The preamp offers much of the amp’s “character” in the form of gain, saturation, compression, distortion, and, sometimes, other effects.
- Power amplifier section: the section than amplifies the preamplified signal to a level and impedance that will properly drive the cabinet speaker.
The input jack of an amplifier will send signal through the preamp before the power amp.
Many modern amplifiers will have an “FX loop” that can effectively put the pedals between the preamplifier and the power amplifier in terms of signal flow.
Why is this important for increasing pedal count?
Well, stacking all our pedals before the guitar amp’s preamplifier can really hurt our signal. Think of all the nice effects we can get out of our pedal board (including overdrive, distortion and fuzz).
Now imagine running that effected signal through the guitar amp preamp set to add more colouration/distortion to the signal. The result of setting our rig up in this fashion could be detrimental to the signal.
Running our pedals through the FX loops of the amp with put them after the preamplifier and before the power amplifier. This allows the amp’s preamp circuitry to do its thing, colouring the signal before it hits the nice modulation and time-based effects of the pedals.
This means the ultimate output signal of the pedals not be subjected to any significant distortion or overdrive. This may seem like a small change really allows for a cleaner signal (and potentially an additional pedal or two due to the added clarity of the final signal).
Cable Quality & Length
Upgrading and shortening our cables will play a role on improving signal integrity whether we hear it or not.
As mentioned earlier, patch cables have distributed capacitance. This means that longer cables will cause a lower cutoff frequency in the inherent low-pass filter they produce. In other words, the longer the patch cable, the worse the high-end or “treble” of the guitar signal.
The interconnecting cables between the pedals add to the length as well. As do the circuit paths within each pedal.
So then, using shorter cables can help reduce the ill-effects of high-end reduction. Choosing higher quality cables will also help to preserve more tone and signal quality.
Switching To A Multi-Effects Unit
Okay, sure, this isn’t really a strategy to get more pedals in your rig. In fact, it’s the opposite.
That being said, if you’re really having a difficult time getting all your pedals to play well together, consider a multi-effects pedalboard in which you can load in all your effects and have them available in a compact format.
The Boss GT-1000 (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of a multi-effect pedals. This unit hosts each and every one of Boss’s 500-series pedals in one compact unit.
Boss is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Do true bypass pedals drain battery? True bypass pedals, even when in off-position, will drain the battery so long as a cable is connected. The switch for the battery is typically located in the input plug (most common) or output plug (less common) of the pedal. Power is constantly required in order to engage the effect without any lag as soon as the pedal is turned on from the off position.
To learn more about true bypass pedals, check out my article What Does ‘True Bypass’ Mean In A Guitar Pedal?
Do you really need guitar pedals? Guitar pedals are not absolutely necessary. Plenty of superb tones can be achieve by plugging a guitar directly into an amplifier. However, some effects are only made possible via effect pedals. Therefore, it depends on the sound that you’re going for when determining whether pedals are needed or not.
For more information on whether pedals are right for you, check out my article Are Guitar Effects Pedals Necessary Or Worth It?