Normally, when I refer to “power” with my guitarists, I’m talking about feeling empowered as a player – the idea that you can execute whatever is required of you on the fingerboard. This power comes from dedicated study and ongoing, productive practice.
There’s another kind of power that guitarists need, too. It comes from electricity.
Here’s a recent message from a student:
I bought some new guitar pedals for myself and was wondering if you could share some tips on powering them up. What are my options? Do people still use batteries? Help!”
This desperate cry for AC and DC prompted me to put together a basic guide to powering your pedals. Perhaps you too have some pedals and would like to know your powering options.
Note: Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC are famous for not using guitar pedals. Ironic, huh?
I want to be clear about one thing, though: I’m giving you some tips based on my own personal experience. I don’t pretend to know all of the options available in the stores; I know what has worked – and continues to work – for me. Let’s power up, people!
Old School Power
The old school approach to pedal power is simply to use batteries. Open the hatch on the pedal, pop in the new battery, and you’re ready to rock. However, there are a few things that pro players know about batteries that the average player may not, such as:
1 – Make sure to use a quality 9-volt. Think Energizer or Duracell. I vote for Energizer ’cause it looks cooler with its shiny silver casing (I’m not kidding), but I’m guessing Duracells are just as, er, energizing. The point here is not to trust your sound to a cheap battery that you find at the dollar store. Spring for the good stuff.
Interesting Factoid: Guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson famously claimed that he could hear the difference in brands of batteries. I personally think this is a load of nonsense, but the story has been around forever. So it must be true.
2 – Batteries all die. It’s a fact of life. But batteries die much more rapidly in digital units, such as delay, chorus and reverb, than they do in distortion/overdrive devices. All that Matrix-level technology* saps the bejeezus out of your batteries, so please know that before you power up for your next Battle of the Bands.
If your batteries start to die in the middle of your song, you’ll notice because your volume will start randomly fading up and down until it finally gives out. You may also hear odd noises, but as I recall (’cause it’s been FOREVER since I’ve powered my pedals with batteries) it’s mainly a volume issue.
Distortion-type pedals have been known to rock on for weeks on the power of one battery. The only way you’ll know is to try it, preferably at home and not on stage.
Lastly, I’ve never met a pedal – distortion or otherwise – that didn’t drain the battery with a cable plugged into the input jack. So if you’re using batteries, definitely disconnect from the input between sets at a gig or during rehearsal breaks, and always when you’re finished playing. It’s a hassle and you’ll probably forget from time to time, so keep plenty of spares.
3 – Good batteries are crazy expensive, given their relatively short life. And since they die, they need to be replaced constantly, and even sooner than their actual expiration, since you don’t want to be surprised mid-song by a failing Duracell. And when you really need a new pack of 9-volts, Target will be sold out.
Bottom line: There are more reliable and cheaper (in the long run) options available than batteries. And I don’t like to trust my sound to things that I know will die…only I’m not sure when. Batteries can and will embarrass you in front of lots of people.
Poor Man’s Power
The next best option is to use an AC power adapter. My personal fave, and one that is popular far and wide, is the Visual Sound 1-Spot. It’s a small, “wall wart”-style adapter with a connector cable. If you only have one pedal to power, just get the single adapter and you’re done. Plug the end of the cable into the open jack on the back of the pedal. Then plug the adapter into a working outlet and instant powered pedal!
What if you have multiple pedals? Good question.
The 1-Spot also has additional accessories, such as a daisy chain. Using the daisy chain means you can power up to 8 pedals with one adapter, all for a very reasonable price. As long as your pedals are compatible with the One-Spot (meaning 9V) you should be fine. By contrast, there are some pedals that balk at this type of adapter, such as Line 6 units and others that require greater voltage (your pedal and/or its instructions should be marked accordingly).
A lack of functionality or an audible hum are good indicators that the adapter is NOT compatible with a pedal. Disconnect immediately and read the pedal’s manual!
I found a sweet Visual Sound 1-Spot Combo Pack for as much as you would spend on about 5 packs of Energizers. It’s got everything but the kitchen sink. Of course, you can always buy the components separately.
The highest-quality and cleanest power comes from an external power supply, which is almost always the professional’s choice. For anyone with at least a handful of pedals that need power, I would recommend the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2.
According to the manufacturer:
“The Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 is a universal power supply for all battery-operated guitar pedal effects. New features include two outputs that will power Line 6 modeling pedals and two outputs that can have a variable voltage “sag” to emulate dying carbon batteries. Like the original Pedal Power, each of its eight outputs are completely isolated, short circuit protected, regulated and highly filtered. The Pedal Power 2 comes complete with cables, detachable AC power cord, is hand made in the U.S.A. and carries a 5-year warranty.”
At a street price of $169, it’s not cheap, but it’s rugged, full-featured and high quality. It also received Guitar Player Magazine’s prestigious Editor’s Pick award. If you’ve got a wicked pedalboard, don’t skimp on the power.
Another popular power supply is the Dunlop DC Brick, although I have no personal experience with it. It looks like a nice unit, though, and is a bit cheaper than the Voodoo Labs model at $119.
According to the manufacturer:
“The Dunlop DC Brick lets you run your pedalboard efficiently, giving you a clean, reliable power source for your pedals. You can power up to 10 pedals with the DC Brick, which also functions a a power conditioner. A Feedback Current Limiting Circuit (FCLC) onboard the DC Brick protects your investments against overloads and shorts, while its 1000-milliamp output capacity ensures that your pedals get the juice they need. As you’d expect from a roadworthy Dunlop product, this reliable power box is durable and compact. A versatile AC adapter is also included with the Dunlop DC Brick.”
Powering the Power Supply
One last bit that’s often overlooked: if you want a more professional setup, don’t use a drugstore-model power strip to get AC from the wall to your pedals and your amp. Get a box that’s heavy-duty and can stand up to getting thrown around, especially if you play in a band. My choice is the Furman Power Block.
The Power Block features a metal casing, six outlets, a 15-foot cord, EMI and RFI noise reduction, and a brightly lit on/off switch. Highly recommended! (I’ve got one in my gig bag and three more in my home studio.)
I hope these “pedal power” tips have been helpful!
*Just DSP chips.
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