While effects pedals are an important part of any contemporary guitarist’s equipment rig, many bass players I’ve talked to on tour are a bit lost when it comes to effects pedals. Some bassists don’t use any pedals at all, and many others use quantity-over-quality multi-effects pedals like the Boss ME-50B. If you’re really lost and want to try out a number of effects before you invest in individual pedals, multi-effects pedals can be a decent starting point, but I’d recommend beginning with some essential pedals and building your rig from there.
If there are bassists you’d really like to emulate, I’d recommend checking out EquipBoard. You can find detailed (though incomplete) lists of many professional bassist’s pedal boards, amplifiers, and cabinets. I also recommend aiming to purchase pedals which have “true bypass”, which means there is no signal degradation when the pedal in your chain isn’t being used. Take my recommendations with a grain of salt; your sound is unique to you, and there’s a lot of great stuff out there! I’ve divided this article into three sections: the essentials, the extras, and the hardware.
The Essentials // Pedals Recommended for Every Electric Bass Player
- Pre-amps aren’t necessarily required, but they’re very useful for dialing in your specific tone. A pre-amp will help shape your EQ, and it’s nice to have something right at your feet if you need to make a quick adjustment during a performance. Some pre-amps have built-in low cuts/hi-pass filters (to reduce the mud and rumbliness you get on your E string). You’ll want a pre-amp with an effects loop in and out (for your pedals), and ideally a tuner out (if you want to keep your tuner out of the normal pedal chain). I use the RE ToneBone BassBone OD because it’s the one product on the market that is perfect for bassists who “double” (i.e. play upright and electric bass in the same set). It has two separate inputs and EQs for instrument-switching and tone-shaping without needing to change any cables on stage, and both inputs are run through the effects loop. Pre-amps usually have XLR-outs to run to the mixing board, if you’d like, so they also serve as a DI box. If you don’t get a preamp, it’s good to have a spare DI box on hand just in case the venue doesn’t have one.
- While compression is often very subtle and difficult to hear, it is an absolutely essential part of any bassist’s pedalboard. A compressor will reduce the gain of your volume “peaks”, giving you a more even presence in the mix and generally giving your bass more sustain. Compression pedals are primarily used at the beginning of your pedal chain to send a stable signal to the rest of your pedals, but some choose to put compression at the end of their pedal chain to send a more consistent signal back to the pre-amp or amplifier. Try it in both places and see what works best for you! I use the MXR M87, along with prolific bassists Billy Sheehan, Felix Pastorius, Marcus Miller, and Adam Neely.
- This one doesn’t need much explanation, does it? You’ve got to be able to stay in tune! I like the TC Electronic Polytune 3 because it’s accurate to +/- 0.02 cents, responds well to lower bass frequencies, and has a built-in buffer. There are also several visualization options.
- A buffer helps push your signal over a longer distance without generating any noise. These are particularly useful if you’re using a lot of pedals! I use the Radial Engineering SB-15 because it also helps power my BassBone OD pre-amp, but most buffers are created equally, so no need to overthink it. If you’re only starting off with a few pedals, a buffer may not be necessary. If you’re getting any pedal buzz from your pedal rig and you’re sure it isn’t an electrical issue, a buffer could solve your problem.
- Is an envelope filter actually “essential”? I think so! If you’re playing anything remotely similar to funk music (e.g. rock, jam, jazz, r&b), these pedals will help you get that “mwaaaww”, “mwaaa”, or “bwooow” sounds characteristic of the genre. Envelope filters work by only allowing certain frequencies of the tone to pass through the pedal chain into your amplifier. Envelope filters have some combination of low-pass, hi-pass, and band-pass filters, which “envelope” your sound by attenuating or completely eliminating certain frequencies. There are some really high-end, vintage, and/or complicated envelope filters out there, but the pedals listed above are all relatively easy to use and sound fantastic.
The Extras // Pedals Which Add a Bit More Flavor to Your Sound
- Octave pedals will either double (to create a higher octave) or halve (to create a lower octave) the frequency of the note you’re playing on your bass. Mixed with a bit of dry signal, octave down pedals can add more power to your melodic lines and octave up pedals can bring out melodies played in a lower register. An octave down pedal is generally going to be used more than an octave up pedal, believe it or not! That said, I really like the TC Electronic Sub-N-Up because it offers octave up, octave down, and even two-octave down, although the two-octave down is a bit of overkill on the bass.
- You don’t want to overuse reverb on your bass, but just a touch of quality reverb can do wonders for your tone. For delay, I recommend pedals which have a tap delay. Analog delay sounds great, but it’s best to be able to match the exact tempo of a song when you’re using delay on a bass melodic line. Sometimes you can find semi-analog pedals which have tap delay, like the Avalanche Run (which is both a reverb and delay pedal).
- I honestly don’t use any distortion pedals or overdrive in my music at the moment, but these are useful for getting more grit or punkiness out of your sound. Distortion (also referred to as fuzz or overdrive) adds higher overtones and hard clips to create a growling, fuzzy tone. Combined with an envelope filter, distortion can be pretty useful, especially in punk and metal music.
There are a lot more effects out there! If you’re looking for high-end digital effects, the Eventide H9 is absolutely fantastic and does just about everything. There are all sorts of wild sounds you can create with pedals; just remember you need to be the foundation of the music for most of the time you’re on stage.
The Hardware // Making
Item: Power Unit
Recommended Unit: Varies; I use the Truetone 1 SPOT PRO CS12.
- Every pedal has their own power requirements, and most come with their own adapter. However, if you have more than a couple of pedals, this can mean a lot of wires, a longer setup at every show, and an increased chance of breaking or losing your adapters. Instead of using an adapter for every plug on your pedal board, I recommend purchasing a power unit which can power all of the pedals. Each power unit is different, so it’s important to consider all of your pedals’ power requirements before finding the right power unit. Conveniently, most power units can be bolted under angled pedal boards to take up very little space. Some bassists choose to daisy chain their pedals, but this can sometimes cause unpleasant pedal buzz.
Type of Current: Alternating/Direct (AC/DC)
- Most pedals use DC. Do not send AC current into a DC pedal, or vice versa. Some power units have AC and DC outputs; others just offer DC outputs.
- Most pedals use 9v, though 12v and 18v are also somewhat common. Like AC/DC, the voltage from your power unit must match the voltage needed by the pedal. No more, no less. Many power units have outputs for multiple voltages, and some even have outputs with switches to change the voltage. Most Boss effects pedals use 12v. 15v pedals are the least common; the Canadian company Radial Engineering makes most of the 15v pedals on the market, and even offers a “Stage Bug” pedal, the SB-15, which can turn two 9v outputs into one 15v output.
Amount of Current: Generally Measured in milliamperes (mA)
- 1A (Ampere) = 1000mA
- Most analog pedals have a consumption of 100mA or less, some digital effects use upwards of 400mA. Unlike voltage, more current than required by a pedal is 100% okay! The pedals will only take as much current as they need. For example, a 9v 500mA output from your power unit is fine for any 9v pedal rated up to 500ma, whether it’s rated for 10mA, 100mA, or 500ma, but will not work with (and potentially break) any 12v or 18v pedal. However, not enough electrical current from the power unit to the pedal can underpower the pedal and create buzzing or unpleasant artifacts, or simply cause the pedal to not work at all.
Notes on power units:
- Some cheaper power units claim to be “isolated”, but actually aren’t. Isolation of each power output is important, because unisolated power outputs can cause electrical issues and buzzing on larger pedal boards.
- Many pedals (especially Boss pedals) have a statement along the lines of “Use ONLY with the BOSS PSA adapter”. As long as you match the exact specifications of the pedal, you will have absolutely no issue using a third-party power unit.
TL;DR – Make sure AC/DC and Voltage matches the exact pedal requirements. Make sure current (mA) is at least enough for the pedal, but more current is ok. Make sure your power unit has isolated outputs.
- The pedal board is the physical board upon which you attach your pedals. Usually, you’ll need some velcro tape and zip ties to secure the pedals to the pedal board. There are many shapes and sizes of boards, so the best board for you depends on the size and number of the pedals in your setup. You’ll want some “head room” ( extra space on the pedal board in case you come across another pedal to add to your rig), but not too much! These things can be heavy. You’ll also want a quality hard-shell road case. I cannot stress this point enough! The last thing you need is for your pedals to get damaged in the van on the way to your gig. Some musicians choose to build their own pedal board out of wood or something similar. In my experience, most of these musicians never get around to it! But if you do decide to build one yourself, make sure it’s the right size for a hard-shell case. Unless you really know what you’re doing, don’t build the case yourself!
TL;DR – Make sure all of your pedals will fit on your board with a little extra room to spare, and get a heavy-duty travel case.
About the Author: Brian Roy is a Charlottesville-based musician who was born and raised inside the D.C. beltway. He moved to Charlottesville in 2011 to study music and history at the University of Virginia, earning his degree in 2015. Despite being over 98% chimpanzee, Brian plays bass and sings backup vocals in the band Kendall Street Company and teaches bass with Taylor Robinson Music Lessons.