-Commitment, not JUST equipment-
Before we dive into the gear, let me say this... Great tone starts with YOU, the player. It may sound obvious, but tone is created by your playing, your fingers, the voicings you choose and your attack. You create dynamics, vibe & feel, and you have the ability to create your style and a sound that is unique to you alone. How cool is that!?! Think about your favorite players, most of them probably have a unique style and/or sound, but this doesn't just happen over the weekend. It takes time and commitment, not just equipment. Quality gear is great, and can even be a source of inspiration, but there is no substitute for skill and technique, and nothing will help you develop tone and a great sound more than spending time practicing your instrument. So before we go any further, to state the obvious, yes a great rig plays a significant role when it comes to your sound, but remember, at the end of the day it will only accentuate and articulate YOU'RE PLAYING.
Now having said that, besides you, your guitar and amp are your biggest assets when it comes to your tone. Great tone starts with a good guitar and ends with an even better amp. If you're in the market for a quality guitar and amp, do some research and spend some time looking into what's going to help you achieve the sound you're going for. A good starting place for this is to find out what guitars and amps your favorite players or band use to achieve their sound. You may not be able to afford exactly what they use, but this will certainly help get you headed in the right direction. For example, if your favorite artist, whom you'd like your tone to sound like, is playing a Gibson guitar through a VOX amp, then start looking into Gibson or Epiphone guitars and VOX amplifiers. It doesn't have to be the exact models, but you won't reach the Gibson & Vox sound you're going for by playing through a PRS and a Mesa Boogie - trust me, I know from experience.
So where do the pedals come in? I know it can be fun, but don't make the mistake of pouring your money into pedals if you don't already have a good amp and a solid guitar. Why? If you start with a poor sounding guitar and end with a poor sounding amp it doesn't make much difference what you put between the two, your tone will still sound... poor. Trust me, I love pedals just as much if not more than the next guy, and yes, pedals are great tools for sculpting your tone, however, at the basic level, almost every good pedal is designed to accentuate or add to an already great sound. Some pedals are meant to provide an added dynamic, layer or sound to inspire you to create further, but none are truthfully made to be the sole source of great tone. Once you're ready to add pedals to your set-up, just like the guitar and amp, do your research before you spring for the most popular pedal on Instagram, or the cheapest pedal on the market. Check out pedal demos and comparisons on YouTube (check out the 'resources' tab), and find what fits your style and the sound you're going for before you make a purchase. This will help eliminate some poor buys and also give you confidence about spending top dollar for some pedals that truly are worth the price tag. Okay, now to the gear!
Disclaimer: I am, by no means, advocating or suggesting you need any of the pedals listed below or the guitars or amps listed above - you do not need to spend top dollar to achieve a great sound. There are a ton of great sounding guitar/amp/pedal options out there today, probably more than ever before, and there are far less expensive options than what I have listed here. Please keep in mind it has taken me nearly 15 years to acquire and create my set-up, it doesn't happen over night, nor should it. Also keep in mind, these are my 'preferences' and what sounds good to me. There is no 'right' or 'wrong' rig. Remember, if it sounds good, it is good!
listed in order of my signal chain
Starting from my guitar straight into the board:
Bondi Effects Del Mar: this is my always on Preamp (EQ/Tone Control) pedal. I run straight from my guitar into the Del Mar before my signal even reaches my looper. I use the Del Mar to push my signal to my amps so I drive the amps more (or less) when needed, and to make any slight EQ (bass & treble only) adjustments once I'm on stage. I also use it when I'm switching guitars to make up for any output or tone differences. I also keep this pedal on as it just adds a touch of 'sparkle' or 'life' to my tone. It's something you don't know you're missing until you turn it on.
then into my looper
RJM Mastermind PBC: this is my programmable, midi, true-bypass looper. This thing is basically a spaceship. It's extremely complex but at the same time incredibly easy to use and set up, even for guys like me that don't love reading manuals. It does too much to explain here, so check out the link.
the first pedal in my looper is the
Origin Effects Cali76 CD: this is my compressor. I've used quite a few compressors, including the Cali76 standard series, which is also great, but the compact deluxe (cd) is by far my favorite yet. Not only does it have a significantly smaller footprint than the standard series, but it also has the added 'DRY' knob, which is essentially a 'blend' knob between your dry and compressed signals, which sounds much more like a big great mixed album recording. I also really dig this compressor as it has one of the quietest noise floors of any other compressor I've used, which is great when using your overdrives for volume swells in sensitive moments. I also leave the Cali on at all times.
Klon KTR: this is my 1st stage overdrive. It's a revised/smaller/more affordable take on the original Klon Centuar by Bill Finnegan. This is really more of a boost and tone 'sculpter' for me based on the way I have it dialed in. I run the gain and volume pretty low so it doesn't push my amp much at all, it just adds a nice, but subtle grit to my clean tone.
EarthQuaker Devices Arrows: I purely use the Arrows as a tone 'sculpter.' as it does exactly what it claims to do! I use it when I really want to 'punch' through the mix, but not increase my output volume. I sit it between my 1st and 2nd stage overdrives in my signal chain purely because I like how it effects the KTR post and pre the Mayflower and Clarksdale - purely preference.
Walrus Audio Mayflower (Limited Edition): this is my 2nd stage overdrive. I've certainly gone through my share of overdrives, but I can't seem to get away from the Mayflower. It's somewhat transparent, full and warm, and it has bass and treble EQ knobs - this is something more and more overdrive pedals are incorporating which is a really great thing! I moved the Mayflower from my stage 3 to stage 2 overdrive (read below), and because of the warm full tone and EQ possibilities of the Mayflower it remains on my board. I increased the treble and drive while decreasing the bass and level which enables me to cut through the mix nicely. I use this for most of my rhythm or chord parts, sometimes stacking with the KTR and/or Arrows.
Wampler Clarksdale: this is my 3rd stage overdrive. The Mayflower was my long standing 3rd stage until I recently discovered the Clarksdale. The two sound very similar, however I now use the Clarksdale because I found I was able to get a fuller tone without as much of a volume increase as the Mayflower. So basically the full Mayflower sound but with more headroom. This is what I use for my single note lead stuff, sometimes layering with the KTR and/or the Arrows, but I never stack the Clarksdale and the Mayflower.
Vertex Boost: this is my clean boost. It's by far the most transparent boost I've used yet. It simply increases your volume without coloring your tone, it does exactly what it claims. I use this mainly for instrumental or solo sections. I will occasionally use it for some clean parts that I really want to stand out in the mix.
after all my preamp, compression, drive and boost (dry pedals), I run into my volume pedal:
Dunlop DVP1: this is my volume pedal. It's large, but I like to stand on it at times so it works for me. There's more to a volume pedal than most realize, but that's for another time. I've found for the price the DVP1 is a solid option. It doesn't cause any tone loss, and it has a wide volume range/sweep that increases smoothly and not exponentially, which is essential for volume swells. Dunlop upgraded the DVP1 to a new steel-band drive which now makes it much more durable - trust me I know, I went through two other DVP1s before this upgrade (Dunlop replaced both free of charge), but have had not issues since.
On my volume pedal is a tuner out jack, which only runs out to my tuner:
tc electronic PolyTune 2: this is my tuner. sometimes it has trouble recognizing the notes when initially tuning (especially the low E or A strings) but other than that I like it. The display screen is a huge upgrade from my old Boss TU-2, although the TU-2 is still a great tuner, the PolyTune 2 picks up on the predominant notes I'm playing during a set (chords and single note) and displays them clearly in the moment on stage, which I think is a cool feature.
After my volume pedal comes all of my 'effects' or 'wet' pedals:
Strymon Timeline: this is my first and main delay pedal. If I could only have one effect pedal on my board, the Timeline would be it. I may turn down the 'mix' or 'repeats' but I never turn it off (bypass it) unless I'm doing a hard stop or I use a crazy preset on the H9. I'd say my Timeline is engaged 98% of the time. It is incredibly versatile, stereo ins/outs, 12 different delay types, 199 programmable presets and is MIDI controllable - which is great with the Mastermind PBC. Now if you're all about analog and only analog then there are a few other great delays out there like the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man or the Chase Bliss Audio Tonal Recall, however I think the 'dtape' setting on the Timeline is still a great analog tape option, and for me the versatility of the Timeline is what really puts it over the top.
Strymon Big Sky: this is my one, and only reverb pedal. The Big Sky is atmosphere and vibe in a box. It's absolutely incredible! If the Timeline is my number one effects pedal, the Big Sky is an extremely close second. Just like the Timeline, the Big Sky is incredibly versatile with stereo ins/outs, 12 different reverb types, 299 programmable presets and is also MIDI controllable. I keep the Big Sky on 100% of the time. When I don't need a distinct or predominant sounding reverb I use a very low mixed 'plate' reverb setting that I keep on to add just a subtle natural sounding reverb to my guitar at all times. Some stock presets that I use on the Big Sky are 'carney hall' 'wishing well' 'stratus' 'nimbus' and 'perfect' (but darkened up a bit).
Eventide H9 Max: I'll be honest I haven't dug into the H9 very much. It's a cool pedal with some fun 'algorithms' (fancy way of saying presets). the H9 is an 'all in one' version of Eventide's TimeFactor, Space, ModFactor, and PitchFactor so a lot of the presets already have a blend of delay, reverb and modulation created. This is fun to mess around with, but I prefer to have these effects separated out so I can create my own specific blend of the three effects to my liking. You can adjust each preset, but I haven't dug in enough to be able to edit the presets as quickly as I can with the Strymon pedals. Some really cool presets on the H9 Max are 'streets' 'ghost hunter' 'leslie' 'seagulls' 'octaver' (with some tweaking) and 'reno.' I hope to dig into this pedal once I have some time.
Strymon Mobius: this is my modulation pedal. Much like the H9 I haven't spent as much time as I would like exploring the possibilities of this thing. I don't really use much modulation other than some light chorus (which is making a comeback!) or a phaser (I dig the the 'circles' preset, but darkened up a bit). However, I keep the Mobius on 100% of the time just like the Big Sky. I use the 'vintage trem' modulation on the whole note setting and dial the mix down so it creates a slight pulse to my signal. This is more felt than heard, but this creates a 'life' or 'movement' that I like to have on at all times. Just like the Timeline & Big Sky, the Mobius also has stereo ins/outs, 12 different modulation types, 199 programmable presets and is MIDI controllable.
the last pedal is outside of my looper. I engage this pedal manually:
Strymon DIG: this is my 3rd delay pedal and the last pedal in my signal chain. The DIG is a dual digital delay that I use for big ambient moments/swells or big 'trashcans' at the end of a song. It's also great for creating some cool feedback as well as holding out notes/chords to cover me in transitions. I have it set to the 'golden ratio' setting, which essentially means it doesn't repeat a pattern in time, which creates more of an ambient vibe. I have the the 'time' and 'mix' set at about noon, 'mix 2' at 2 O'clock and the repeats at about 2:30. The DIG does not have stereo inputs, however you can open the casing and easily move a jumper for TRS stereo input. The DIG is probably not essential to my tone, but it has a sound, and creates a vibe that i 'dig' (pun intended), and really like to use during certain moments, which is why it has remained on my board.
Out to my amps...