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The Almighty Guitar Rack

Happy new year! I can’t believe its 2003 already. Where does the time go? Well, unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve probably noticed all the changes that have been implemented at this site over the last 2 months. I’m really excited about 2003. We have a whole new crew of writers, a whole new site design, and a bunch of new things to explore on the site. I’ve got some really big things planned for the site… but I’m not telling! haha!

This month I wanted to set the record straight on rack gear. If you are like I was, you probably don’t have a clue what in the heck goes into the making of all those monster guitar racks. These days, it seems everyone is going with pedals and amp modelers, so why should you care about building a guitar rack you ask? Because, if you want to sound like a professional, you had better invest some serious cash into some top of the line gear. Racks are extremely versatile, and if you get the right components, then you will always have good tone, no matter what style you play. Now, some of you guys are hardcore amp purists, or hardcore pedal junkies. This is fine. But, lets face it, racks may be confusing and intimidating, but a good rack set up sounds incredible! So, I thought it would be cool too take a look at the different things that can go into a rack, and what they do. I also wanted to talk about how to properly build one. I remember looking at John Petrucci’s rack (go to www.johnpetrucci.com and have a look at that beast!!) and going… WHAT THE HECK DOES ALL THAT STUFF DO!!! If you don’t know the first thing about rack gear, your in trouble. So, lets talk about what all those cool lights really do. This stuff isn’t just for show.

The Case

Any mighty rack starts with the case. They come in all shapes and sizes. Rack mountable gear has screws that screw into the rack rails. You can get cases in many sizes. When picking one out, make sure you know exactly what you are going to put in it, or else you may find yourself out of room, or stuck with a case the size of a tank, that only has a small effects unit in it. It is the size that matters isn’t it anyways?

Preamps and Power amps (or amp head)

If you were to go to the store and buy a half stack, here is what you’d be getting. An amp head, and probably a 4×12 cabinet. Inside of every amp head there is a power amp and a preamp. A preamp generates your tone. It gives you distortion, eq, effect sends, and all that good stuff. The power amp powers the guitar cabinet so that you can hear sounds come out of the speaker. Basically, its a giant volume switch. If you go with a rack unit for a preamp, your going to have to buy a separate rack mountable power amp. This is the advantage of buying an amp head, its got both in it already. But, this is also a disadvantage as a rack lets you pair up what ever power amp your heart desires, with which ever preamp you want. So, if you love the Marshall sound, but you think that Mesa makes a superior power amp, then you can get a Marshall pre amp with a Mesa power amp.

So, what should you look for in a preamp. Well, each brand has its own distinct tone. First know your manufacturers. There is massive difference between the way Mesa Boogie, Marshall, VHT, Soldano, Ect… are going to sound. Know which manufacturer suits your style the best. A good preamp will have EQ, volume, effect sends, and more. A preamp is the corner stone of your rack. So, choose wisely! Know exactly what you want before you buy it. Remember all those wretched research projects ya did in school. Well, now is a good time to do some research. Besides, the quest for good tone is definitely a lot of fun.

Once you get a preamp, you need something to power your speaker with. Now it is time to go out and buy a power amp. Usually you are going to want to pair up the matching power amp to your preamp. For example, the Mesa Boogie Triaxis goes best with the Mesa Boogie 2:90 power amp. In my opinion, a tube power amp is always going to sound better than a solid state one. The problem is that re-tubing anything can be expensive. Who said good tone was cheap? Again, choose your power amp wisely. DO lots of research, because in the rack world a good preamp and power amp will run you easily over $2,000 US.

Another cool thing about racks is that you can have multiple preamps hooked up to your power amp. You can use an simple a/b floor switcher to have completely different tones at your discretion


There are many different kinds of effect units for the rack world. You can get processors that can do just about anything. Again, it is all about picking your favorite one. When you buy one, place it in the effects send of your preamp. In a little bit, I’ll talk about how to use midi switching to change channels live. Basically plug the effect send on your preamp into the input on the processor. Then have the output go to your effects return. On your preamp there should be a some sort of switch that turns the effects loop on and off.

Other odds and ends

Racks have many cool accessories. As of now, we have just covered the basics. I suggest getting a power conditioner for your rack. What it is is a rack mounted surge protector/power strip/light source. Its got lights on the front of it that can light up your rack in dark places. It will also protect your rack from getting electrical shocks that can damage gear. The sheer amount of accessories you can buy for a rack is ridiculous. you can even buy drawers, mount actually amp heads, put in mixers, ect…. It gets nuts. Especially when you have a rack for your PA, your recording gear, and your guitar. I’m telling you guys, racks are fun stuff! You can also get wireless units for your rack. Guitar cables get in the way live anyway!

Hooking it up and making it work

I’m going to use a sample configuration for demonstration.

The rack has these elements:

Power Conditioner – Sennheiser G2 Wireless – Digitech Effects Unit – Line 6 Pod Pro – Mesa Boogie Triaxis – Mesa Boogie 2:90 Power Amp

You plug your guitar into the wireless. That goes into the preamp’s input (Triaxis).

You connect the Triaxis to the power amp (Mesa 2:90).

The power amp’s speaker out goes to the Mesa 4×12 Guitar Cabinet. Note that everything in the rack is plugged into the power conditioner. This is the the power source. The power conditioner is plugged into the wall outlet.

The Pod Pro Not used as a preamp anymore, but as a midi foot switch controller just for illustration. The Pod Pro is also used as a tuner. (You could use the pod as your preamp, however since we have a Triaxis, why waste time)

The Digitech effects unit is hooked up to the effect send in the Triaxis. All the units are set to act on the same midi channel (read your manual for instructions how to do this).

The midi foot controller goes into the Pod Pro. When you step on the floor board, the channel changes. A midi cable is sent from the midi out of the pod to the midi in on the midi in of the Triaxis. Since they are both on the same midi channel, when you step on the floor board to make the channel go to a different one, it will make the Triaxis switch channels. We also have a midi cable going from the Triaxis midi out/through into the digitech’s midi in. This way when you switch channels on the pod via the foot controller, it switches the Triaxis and the effects unit. Pretty cool hey? Now on the Triaxis we have it set up so only certain patches actually turn on the effects loop. This is great because you can have a dry rhythm tone and then step on the floor board to a lead tone (with engages the effects loop) with delay and chorus.

Pretty cool hey? Here is a picture to show you what everything is. Note that the wireless is not in the rack, its in the shop being repaired right now.

<—-Power Conditioner

<—Pod Pro used as tuner and for midi switching (also a good preamp)

<–Effects unit


<—Power Amp

Cabinet (out of view)

Foot Controller (on the ground)

I’m hoping this will shed some light on how racks work. At first glance they seem really complex and confusing. But, as with anything, if you take a close look at them, you will find out that they aren’t that confusing. Personally, I’m a big fan of rack gear. The only thing that sucks is that power amps are very heavy and a big rack equals a big pain in the butt when climbing many flights of stairs. But hey, who said having good tone wasn’t wroth a few back surgeries and herniated discs (don’t try this at home kids). I suggest getting a small rack case for your power amp and having a normal one for everything else. Either that or clone your biggest and strongest friend for that world tour you’ve been planning. Roadies are a wonderful thing.

With that I will leave you. Have a great start to the new year. I’ll see ya all next month. Take care.

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