Determining the correct order of your effects pedals can be tricky business. One misplaced pedal can be disastrous to your tone. While it is necessary to experiment, we have tips and tricks to get you started off strong.
The proper placement of pedals has been argued for years, and there will always be exceptions to any rule. I can’t stress how important it is to play around with the order. This is about finding YOUR tone, not necessary what people say is the one true way. That said, it’s good to learn the rules of effects pedal order first, so you can learn how to break them.
Effects Pedal Order
You do have a tuner on your pedalboard, right? If not, you need one, and the KLIQ Tiny Tune is a fine piece of equipment. Anyway, your tuner must come at the front of the pedalboard chain. Order after this doesn’t matter quite as much, but this is essential. The tuner needs a fresh clean signal that hasn’t been colored in any way, and it’s a good idea to look for a tuner with true bypass.
2. Pitch Shifters
Where the pitch shifter goes is a common source of contention. Some shifters sound great after adding some dirt, some sound great after compression, and others work fine in the beginning of the effects loop. I will say that the Digitech Whammy causes me loads of problems if I place it later in the chain. The note tracking gets all garbled if I feed it too much colored signal, which leads to all kinds of goofy shit going on. So if you have a Whammy, put it here. If you have a pedal with excellent note tracking, try it in the effects loop. Experiment!
The third spot in the pedalboard is heavily argued about. Some folks say that your Wah pedal should come after distortion, and many guitarists have done it this way. Other folks think it sounds better before distortion. I prefer it to come before, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
A compressor, which is used to fatten up your tone, or to increase sustain, usually sounds best right before distortion or overdrive. Again, however, it comes down to personal preference. Many guitarists place the compressor directly after distortion or overdrive. Because compressors work by squashing the signal then bringing up the level, noise is often introduced. If you’re hearing a lot of noise being amplified by your distortion pedal, try putting the compressor directly after distortion.
5. Overdrive / Distortion / Fuzz
This is where the real meat of your tone begins. For many guitarists, this is the most important part of the entire chain. Distortion can make or break your tone, so it’s vital that it’s placed correctly. You want the overdrive to begin as early as it can, because the pedals that come afterwards will be able to play upon the beautiful harmonics they introduce.
Ah, the EQ. This is where a ton of people let their tone go to shit. They don’t understand exactly what they’re boosting or cutting, they don’t understand why they’re boosting or cutting, or they don’t understand the limitations. EQ is a powerful tool, and it very commonly is used wrong. Just remember, whenever you’re using an EQ to boost, the signal coming out is going to be louder, and it some cases, it can clip. This will affect every other pedal down the line, so be extremely careful.
I seem to be in the minority when it comes to using an EQ pedal. A large portion of my musician friends tend to think of an EQ as a glorified booster. When they’re ready to take a solo, they boost the hell of the their mids to cut through the mix, and their tone turns to garbage. When I think of an EQ pedal, I think of it as a shaping tool; level boosting is just a small feature. I have a rule which I try to follow at all times. Always cut first. Only boost when cutting’s not enough.
So, when I solo, I cut my lows and highs. If I’m not loud enough, I use a volume pedal to bring my level back up. Once again, personal preference.
Note: From this point on, if you have an effects loop, use the rest of the pedals here.
7. Modulators (Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, etc)
Modulators like to be right in the middle of the effects pedal order. They benefit from the tone coloring from the distortion’s harmonics, while still allowing themselves to be affected by level, reverb, and delay. Distortion really makes modulators come alive, and using these on a clean signal can feel boring and lackluster. At this point, your tone will be getting pretty thick. After this it’s mostly finishing touches and shiny bits.
8. Volume Pedals
Most pedals that change the volume (Volume pedals, limiters, noise gates, tremolo) should go here, right before delay and reverb. You want these before delay/reverb so that your tails continue after you’ve muted the sound. It sounds very unnatural for a lush reverb to suddenly go silent. You want these after everything else so you can control the level of all your previous effects, or to correctly use a noise gate.
This is where you’d take the tone you’ve carefully crafted and, if you wish, add a little slapback or echo. If you place the delay too early in the chain, it can cause weird things to happen. Especially before distortion, as it causes jarring differences in the level as the gain takes effect. Of course, if you like those effects and think you can put them to good use, by all means experiment!
Now is when it all comes together, the last stop, reverb! If your amp has onboard reverb you can use this, or plug a pedal in. Either way, this should come last. Reverb is mostly used to give the impression that the music was created not in a dry studio environment, but out in the open. You can change the location that the guitar was played as well. Maybe you want to give the impression that you’re playing in a deep canyon, or maybe a concert hall. This is your chance to give your music a space to live in.
There is No Wrong Pedal Chain Order
Now that you’ve learned the rules, you can break them. Try switching things around. Take out an effects pedal, order it any way you please. You want to put the Wah at the end and the flanger in the beginning? Give a shot, it might give you some great inspiration for a new tune. There are a staggering amount of combinations to play with. Remember, finding your tone is a life long journey. Never stop experimenting!