Signal Chain 101: Going Back To School On Pedal Order

"Which order should these effects go in?" is a common question that pops up on guitar forums fairly regularly. While our pedal content here on Reverb tends to get into the weeds for the established gearheads among us, we thought it would be worthwhile to zoom out and tackle this topic for those in the nascent stages of their pedal journey.

Below, we'll offer some conventional wisdom and best practices on how to set up your pedalboard. One thing it's important to note, however, is that best practices are general and might not always be the best order for your particular setup. We encourage you to experiment with your board to find out what sounds best to you, but these basics are a great place to start.

First: The Tuner

If you have a pedal tuner, the best spot for it is going to be at the beginning of your signal chain, though you can put it elsewhere. For instance, if you’re not using a noise reduction pedal, you could position it after your drive section to momentarily cut the noise from high-gain pedals earlier in the path.

But as a general rule, you’ll have an easier time tuning with as little in front of the tuner as possible. Not only will your tuning be more accurate, but you also won't have to turn off a bunch of other pedals to get a clear signal to the tuner.

Next Up: The Filter

After the tuner, most players will position any type of filter pedal next in the chain. This includes traditional wah pedals, auto-wahs, and envelope filters. Since pedals like these are extremely reliant on playing dynamics, slamming gain into one can yield a particularly unfavorable result.

Of course, some players have mastered the art of post-gain filter sweeps—which can be especially cool with the right fuzz and filter combination—but if you want to nail those iconic cocked-wah tones, the filter needs to be in front.

Your Main Squeeze: The Compressor

Next up is an ideal spot for your compressor. Since they’re squeezing the sound coming in from your guitar, most players prefer to have that tone going into the rest of the effects chain. Also, since compressors can accentuate any noise coming into them, placing them earlier in your chain can help mitigate that risk.

But again—it doesn’t have to be this way. Compressors placed later in the chain can act as limiters, keeping any unruly pedals in check. And they make excellent boosts, too, pushing the level and adding serious sustain to your leads and solos.

Get Shifty With It: Pitch Shifters

Like tuners, pitch shifting pedals such as an octave-shifter or whammy like to have a clean signal coming into them. This helps with tracking accuracy and makes sure that the desired pitch shift you want is what you actually hear on the other end, so you’ll want to run any kind of shifting pedal before distortion to avoid any confusion or glitching from your shifter. Unless, of course, that’s what you want.

That said, we suggest running certain polyphonic octave generators after your drives. Adding octaves to an already distorted tone is slightly less clunky than the opposite.

Down & Dirty: Gain

Here’s where it starts to get fun. Most pedal junkies have at least two gain pedals on their board, often more. Finding the right order comes down to personal preference. Some will swear that you should run low gain into high gain. Others will vehemently declare the exact opposite. How you do it should depend on both what you want to achieve and what sounds best to you.

One excellent way to get a killer lead tone is to run something like a Marshall-in-a-box type platform pedal for rhythm and then stack a fuzz pedal into it. After that, you can place a low gain drive to shape and boost that signal or that you can use by itself.

You can stack low-gain pedals into high-gain pedals (or vice versa) for escalating gain tones, or play with pretty much every other three-pedal combo you can imagine. Experiment to find out what you can really do with what you’ve got, but do note: some fuzz pedals don’t get along very well with any kind of a buffer in front of them, so that may change your placement plan a bit.

Kill the Noise: Suppressors & Gates

If a noise suppressor is an integral part of your rig, it’s a good idea to place it after the noisiest section of your chain. And odds are, that’s going to be your drive section. It’s important to place it there and not at the end of the chain due to the fact that the noise reduction will likely cut off any delay and reverb trails you have going.

Next: Boost

If you’re running an independent booster of some kind, this would be an ideal spot for it—assuming you want to increase your volume for leads and solos, that is. Of course, you could also run it at the very end of the chain to achieve the same result.

To make this even more confusing, you could also run it before your drives, slamming the front-end for increased gain saturation. Which is best depends on what you want to get out of it, but the choice is fairly simple—after, for more volume, or before for more gain.

Dial In Control: Volume

A volume pedal could go next in your chain, even though there may be a better spot in your setup, depending on how you want to use it. Placed after your drive(s) and boost(s), a volume pedal will give you complete control of your overall signal level.

You may instead want to run it in before your drive section as a hands-free alternative to the volume knob(s) on your guitar. Such positioning may yield more natural swells, if that’s your thing, but likely won’t give you the same control over your overall volume level.

Swirl, Chop, Repeat: Modulation

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably picked up on the theme that a lot of pedal arrangement comes down to personal preference. Modulation is no different. Whether it’s tremolo, flanging, chorus, phasing or vibrato, experimentation is key.

Generally speaking, if you want to retain as much of the lush swirl of your modulation pedals as possible, you’ll want to place these effects before your drive or fuzz pedals. Placing them after will yield more intense sounds.

But let's take a second to talk specifically about tremolo, as there’s a solid argument for placing it later in the chain. Running tremolo between your delay and reverb pedals is the key to getting the pulses to dominate your sound in the same way as they would in an amplifier circuit. So if you want that classic, black panel opto-trem, you’ve got to run the tremolo later in the chain.

Time-Based Effects: Delays & Reverbs

Finally we’ve arrived at the section of your chain where your time-based pedals will usually go. Placed toward the end of your chain, delays and reverbs will repeat and reflect everything coming into them. So if you want your distorted lead tone delayed or your harmonizer a little more haunting (and not the other way around), delays and reverbs need to go here.

The traditional approach is delay first and reverb second, but there are some who prefer reverb first. If you tend to like fairly spacious settings and ambient settings, the traditional method will probably work best for you.

Last (or First) But Not Least: The Buffer

As Sam Hill said back in old issue of Tone Report, “You can think of buffers as tone police: They exist to protect and serve your guitar’s core sound quality.”

Some people swear by buffers, loading one at the beginning and end of their chain to do their best to avoid the dreaded plague that is tone suck. Others aren’t as concerned. Where you land in the discussion is up to you, but if you’re running a lot of cable or have a packed pedalboard and find your tone a little lifeless, a buffer on either end of your chain might just help.

Rule Breakers

As we have reiterated throughout this article, sometimes it’s best to leave best practices and conventional wisdom in the dust. Here are five examples of when to break the rules and why:

  • Delay Before Distortion: Some of the most classic tones out there came from our heroes running delays into overdriven amplifiers. It might take some tweaking—and subtlety is advised—but sometimes you have to "mess up" the order to get the sound right.

  • Reverb Before Drive: Same idea as delay. If you’re looking for those classically gritty tones of yesteryear, you might just need a touch of spring reverb before your overdrive.

  • Tremolo At the End: We've made a big pitch for keeping it classic, but if you’ve never run a choppy tremolo after a spacious reverb or whacked-out delay, you’re missing out.

  • Looper First: Most players will position their looper pedal last in the chain to catch everything coming in. But if you move it to the front, only the dry signal from your guitar is recorded and then you can go nuts applying all different types of effects to it for lots of fun.

  • EQ Pedal Before Drives: I didn’t mention EQs above, but most players will run them after their drives to shape the curve much like you would an amplifier. Running EQ before your drives can also work wonders.

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