Updated by Bobby
Updated on March 2nd, 2023
Updated pictures, products, links, and freshened everything up for a new era of rack gear, amps, and all the things. Enjoy it.
Most guitar players start out with a setup that goes something like this:
You have a guitar, a cable, a small (maybe mid-sized) combo amp and perhaps a pedal or two. But what you'll quickly realize is that the pros (and most who have been playing for an extended period of time) don't set their gear up that way.
In fact, their rigs look quite different.
Take this diagram of Marshall amps and effects processors:
This looks nothing like a guitar rig most of us would own. Fair?
Here's another example:
We don't see a combo amp running a simple pedal line. In fact, these setups look somewhat complex. Enough so that many might be turned off from even attempting to set up a similar rig.
There's also the issue of expense.
Rackmounted guitar rigs are, undoubtedly, burdened by a heavy price tag.
But if we can take some of the complexity out of these systems and boil them down to a few basic components, it becomes easier to see how we can set up our own guitar rack systems at an affordable price and benefit from their versatility.
The Difference between Combo Amps and Standalone Power or Preamps
To understand rack systems, it helps to know what a guitar amp actually is.
Let's say you buy a combo amp, like the Boss Katana 50:
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This "amp" is actually three different functioning pieces:
- Power Amp
While these three functions get throw into the term "guitar amp" the only actual amplification is the power amp segment.
The job of the preamp and the speaker actually have little to do with what is technically amplification. Thus, the act of throwing all three of those roles into one amplifier, isn't always the most optimal way to set up your guitar rig.
In rackmounted rigs, these roles are often split between devices:
- Preamp and power amp combined which is called an amp head
- Standalone preamp and power amp where the two units are separated
- At least one speaker cab
- Effects processors, power conditioners, wireless transmitters, and more
Which setup is better?
There is nothing wrong with going the combo amp route. Because, clearly, it has some major advantages in certain situations. It's cheaper, easily transported, and a lot quicker to set up and take down.
Moreover, many of the most popular guitar amps of our day are combo amplifiers.
Read more: Best guitar amps overall
Combo amps do have limitations and are not the method that most professionals choose to use.
In many cases, guitar players will at least separate the power amp/preamp from their speaker cab. This gives us the amp "head" I mentioned. Here's an example:
This can be, and often is, part of a guitar rack system as it can fit into most cases.
The real advantage is that amp heads give you a lot more flexibility and customization options with your rig. You can choose one brand for a speaker cab, another for a preamp/power amp.
The pros often take advantage of this because it allows them to leave their amp heads in one spot, while speaker cabs can be moved somewhere else entirely.
So, the question of which setup is better is situational.
I'll show you your options and help you set up a guitar rack system that isn't overly complex, is reasonably affordable, and works in your situation.
Guitar Rack System Signal Processing Options
Let's just take a minute to review your guitar rig options.
The first, and more obvious choice that we looked at earlier, is the combo amp plus a few effects pedals setup.
It's the "de facto" choice for most beginner guitar players:
Option 1: Amateur Hour
In this scenario, the power amp, preamp and speaker are all combined in the single combo amplifier, while some effects may or may not be added for basic signal processing between the guitar and amp.
Option 2: Separating the Preamp/Power Amp and Speaker
Mesa Mark V:25
Comparison for speaker cabs not available.
In this example, we have an amp head containing the preamp and power amp, with a separate speaker cab.
At this point we still don't necessarily have a rackmounted system, though we've taken the step of separating our preamp/power amp and speaker cab, giving us some flexibility with both pieces.
Option 3: Separating the Preamp, Power Amp and Speaker Cab
Now it should start to make sense why guitar players need a case to hold all of this stuff. We have a power amp, preamp, speaker cab and effects pedals all separated into their own unit.
As mentioned, the separation of the preamp and power amp isn't quite as common anymore, especially when compared to those who just go with an amp head, that contains both.
Option 4: Adding Rack Effects for Guitar
Line 6 Helix Rack
Now we have a digital rackmounted effects processor, which is how most professionals deal with basic effects.
You'll notice that many of them will run just a few pedals (wah is a good example) from the floor, while the rest of their effects are housed in a case.
How do they control rack effects from somewhere else?
MIDI foot controllers allow you to control a unit like the Line 6 Helix Rack or any other multi-effects rack processor, from the floor.
A few examples of good MIDI controllers include:
These units allow you to program and engage whatever rack effects you're using, which is why you almost always see a MIDI floorboard on professional guitar rigs.
It's just a much easier and more streamlined setup.
Adding the MIDI controller expands our guitar rack system to the following:
Voodoo Lab Ground Control
What you see here is the core of any guitar rack setup, with the preamp and power amp often combined into the amp head we showed you earlier.
It's how almost every professional guitar player sets things up.
While there are plenty of other rack mount units to discuss, let's review the core of our setup so far:
- Separate power and preamp or power/preamp combo
- Speaker cab
- Rack effects processor
- MIDI foot controller for effects processor
Getting a Guitar Rack Case that will Hold your Gear
Getting a case to hold all of this stuff is what's often the most confusing aspect of setting up a guitar rack system and knowing what to buy.
Though again, it's surprisingly simple once you know what to look for.
Rack cases will have either open slots or drawers where you can place pedals and/or rack units. The number of slots and drawers can vary, though most will have between five and 12 slots, with one or two drawers.
This example is a little smaller with just a few slots and no drawers, but also very simple.
Note that these can hold amp heads are as well, along with preamps, tuners, power conditioners, and effects processors. The case you buy will depend on how many devices you need it to hold.
Note that amp heads are often just put on the top of rack cases, or somewhere else entirely.
There are a wide variety of ways that you can set it up.
How do I install rack units in the case?
If you look closely at the front of the case, you can see lines of holes on either side:
Now, look closely at the front of the Line 6 Helix Rack:
These holes will correspond to the ones in our case, allowing us to attach the rack unit to the case, rather easily.
Once everything is in, the result will look something like this:
The number of rack units you want to run will determine what kind of case you buy.
The number of slots in each case will vary, while the vertical size of many rack units can also differ. However, getting a case that holds between eight and 12 rack units is fairly standard.
Other variables include the drawers I mentioned, which can be added and removed as needed, as well as the wheels on the bottom of the case.
It should be evident by now that this gives you a massive amount of flexibility with how you design your rig. Particularly for musicians who perform live on a regular basis, this setup is extremely useful and versatile.
Now that we've seen how to set up a guitar rack system, let's look at a few rig arrangement ideas and templates that might work for you.
Guitar Rack System Idea: The Modern Hard Rocker
In this rig, we have an amp head, speaker cab, effects processor, and MIDI controller, giving you all the basics. Note that this isn't necessarily the case that would be the most ideal, but just a placeholder. You'll need to do your own research to see what kind of case will be the best fit.
It's a great build for the minimalist hard rocker who wants to have effects and preamp functionality consolidated, along with the extensive control offered by the MIDI foot controller.
Line 6 Helix Rack
PRS SE Custom 24
Mesa Mark V:25
Voodoo Lab Ground Control
Guitar Rack System Idea: The Lead Electric Player with Pedals
Another simple setup with the effects processor and MIDI controller. All of this is pushed by an Orange Amps solid state head that runs into an Orange Amps speaker cab.
Fender Player Telecaster
Orange Super Crush 100
Line 6 Helix Rack
Nektar Pacer MIDI
Guitar Rack System Idea 3: The Classic Rocker
For the classic rocker, the amp head is a Marshall JCM800 paired with the Marshall slanted cab. Stompboxes and the effects processor can both be used in tandem.
Gibson Les Paul Studio
Line 6 Helix Rack
Nektar Pacer MIDI
Now, keep in mind:
All of these are just examples that I came up with to give you an idea of how you might piece together a guitar rack system that fits your specific needs.
Part of the beauty involved with putting this kind of system together is that it's uniquely your own and completely fluid. In other words, there's no right or wrong way to do it.
There are plenty of instances where "rules" can be broken.
Tool's Adam Jones has been known to use a bass cab with his rig.
It's easy to see that once you get this many pieces into a guitar rack system there's a lot of experimenting and mixing and matching that can occur.
To give you a few more ideas about how these systems are put together, I'll walk you through some real life examples.
Some More Real Life Examples
When trying to set up guitar gear, I find it helpful to look at what other people are doing, take a few notes, and then go do something similar.
The same is true of guitar rack systems.
Part of the reason I don't like doing it from scratch is because there is an infinite amount of ways it can be done. My personal preference is to look at a template, take a few ideas I like, then go make my own way, which is what we'll do with these examples.
Let's start with a guitarist you probably recognize.
Slash's guitar rack system
In Moshcam's rundown of Slash's (Saul Hudson) rig with Ace (Slash's guitar tech), we see a fairly simple setup consisting of the two Marshall JCM heads.
One is the Slash Signature, while the other is a traditional JCM800.
The two that sit to the right of Ace in the photo are backups.
Otherwise, Slash's rack system is just a pedalboard that sits atop the amplifiers where all the pedals are controlled backstage by Ace (wah pedal excluded).
For all his success, Slash has a remarkably simple setup. One thing that isn't showcased in the Moshcam video is a remote wah pedal processor, which allows Slash to use multiple wahs at different points on stage.
Otherwise, it's a basic Marshall amp outfit.
Joe Garvey of Hinder
Joe Garvey, Hinder's lead guitar player, relies heavily on a rack guitar system that's similarly structured to some of the examples we've provided.
First, his pedalboard is almost entirely controlled by a Voodoo Lab MIDI foot controller:
This floorboard is the control point for an Avid Eleven Rack effects processor, which is the heart of Garvey's tone and signal processing.
There are two of them in this picture (the two orange boxes):
All of Garvey's amp models and effects come from the Eleven Rack (the second one is a backup), which then runs directly into the speaker cabinets and monitors.
Garvey avoids the typical amp head setup in favor of relying entirely on has Eleven Rack which does all the preamp work, in addition to handling effects processing.
Dan Donegan of Disturbed
Disturbed's guitar player, Dan Donegan, runs his signal through a setup that looks complicated, though is actually quite close to the diagrams I showed you earlier.
First, his signal goes through Randall preamps and a DigiTech effects processor, which you can see in the picture below:
The signal is then powered by Randall RT2 tube power amps.
Finally, Donegan's signal lands at this speaker cab (not sure about the brand), which has four microphones total (one for each speaker) and is enclosed in a box before it's sent out to the mains at Disturbed's concerts.
A few pedals and the DigiTech effects processor are all controlled through a Voodoo Lab MIDI foot controller, which is the same model we saw being used in Garvey's rig.
- Voodoo Lab Ground Control
- DigiTech Whammy Pedal
- Randall RT2 Power Amps
- DigiTech GSP1101 Effects Processor
- Randall RM4 Preamps
What about wireless units?
In a lot of these rigs, you might notice wireless receivers, since the pros almost never go without them.
Usually that's not a necessary component for a small time rig, whether you're running everything into a rack case or not.
While you can get some cheaper wireless receivers, my advice would be to run a cable and put your money into some other aspect of your guitar rack system. Wireless just doesn't help you much if you're not performing in a larger capacity.
If you do decide to add a wireless receiver to your rig, they'll usually take up one or two rack spots, similar to the effects processors and noise gates.
Line 6 and Shure both make some solid wireless units that are decently priced.
We've reviewed the budget-friendly Xvive system as well.
Read the full review: Xvive Guitar Wireless System
How tricky is the wiring for all this stuff?
When you look at the pro rigs, you'll often see a lot of wires and what looks like a complicated mess.
The first thing to keep in mind is that this sort of thing always looks messier and more complex than it actually is. If you watch the Premier Guitar Rig Rundown videos, you'll notice that the "neatness" of a rig will often depend on the personality of the guitar player and their tech.
So don't assume that just because the wiring looks a bit chaotic that you can't do it yourself.
It's often quite simple.
Remember, your signal is linear, which means it runs in a straight line from beginning to end.
Linear signal processing in a guitar rack system
This means the signal is relatively easy to track.
Just like a conventional pedalboard, everything will still have one input and one output.
This is even easier to see in the TC Electronic G Major setup manual, which gives a simple reference graphic that applies regardless of which effects processor we might be using:
If you look at it this way, wiring and cables are fairly straightforward.
Make sure you separate all your wires into two categories:
- Electrical Currents
- Signal Processing
Electrical wiring would include pedal power (9V cables) and any kind of adapter or power plug that needs to be accounted for.
These should all be kept separate from signal processing cables, which would include MIDI cabling, instrument cables and patch cables between pedals or rack units.
Keeping them distinct makes everything much easier to manage.
I prefer to wire all the necessary instrument cables first, then come back in and do all the electric wiring, while taping down as much as possible to cut back on the mess.
What else can be mounted in a rack system?
For simplicity's sake, I've focused primarily on the core elements of a guitar rack system. However, you can migrate anything that has to do with signal processing to a case.
For example, you can get any of the following components in a rack form:
- Wah controller
- Channel switching
- Power sources/conditioners
At this point, it comes down to an issue of how much money you want to spend and how you want your rig to function.
Having a tuner and equalizer in a pedal form is cheaper, but there is a lot more versatility and flexibility to be had if you can migrate it all to a rack case.
I'd consider these items to be luxury inclusions, or fun additions for a later date.
If you have a rack system template to share, drop it in the comments section below.
This topic, while frustratingly vague, can often be made really simple by seeing what kind of rack systems other guitar players have been able to successfully build and set up.
Share what you know and others will benefit.
We'll talk then.
- Guitar.com/Rigs. A well-stocked archive of professional guitar player rigs that provide in-depth graphics and details that cover plenty of rack systems.
- Reverb. One of the largest music gear retailers also happens to be a great place to find used and boutique gear, like the Marshall 9100 power amp.
- The Eleven Rack quick setup guide. Even if you don't buy this particular preamp, the setup guide provides a quick and convenient look into how to include an effects processor in a guitar rack system.
- Premier Guitar's Rig Rundown's. The rig rundown series from Premier Guitar offers some of the absolute best insight into guitar rack systems and professional rigs. This is where I got most of my examples.