Signal Chain 101: Going Back To School On Pedal Order

Every so often I see the same question pop up on one of several guitar forums I frequent. It usually goes something like—which order should these effects go in?

Such an inquiry invariably creates dissention in my head. Part of my brain remembers a time when I first began experimenting with effects and probably asked a similar question on a similar message board. The other part screams “USE YOUR EARS! PLUG THE DAMN THINGS IN AND FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF!”

Now, it’s fairly safe to assume that if you’re reading this publication that you’re interested in guitar pedals. But too often, I fear, we here at Tone Report cater only to a certain type of reader—one with at least a rudimentary knowledge of effects. But today, for those of you who may be in the nascent stages of your pedal journey, I’m going to take a step back and offer some conventional wisdom and best practices on how to set up your pedalboard.

But be aware—this effort comes with a gigantic caveat: I might be wrong. And I’m completely okay with that. Sometimes best practices aren’t the best. Often, depending on the circumstances, conventional wisdom can be unwise. And since we all have different ears and different approaches to playing, I’d strongly encourage that you experiment and figure out what sounds best to you. That’s the truest test. But if you’re looking for the basics, well—here we go.

First Things First

If you have a pedal tuner, the best spot for it is going to be at the beginning of your signal chain. It doesn’t necessarily have to go there—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 you’ll have an easier time tuning with as little in front of the tuner as possible. Your tuning will be more accurate and, as a bonus, you won’t have to turn off a bunch of other pedals to get a clear signal to the tuner.

Play That Funky Music

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 followers. 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.

Main Squeeze

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

Like tuners, pitch shifting pedals such as an octaver 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. (Insert cartoon villain laugh here.) That said, I prefer to run certain polyphonic octave generators after my drives. Adding octaves to an already distorted tone is slightly less clunky than the opposite, in my experience.

Down And Dirty

Here’s where it starts to get fun. Most pedal junkies I know have at least two gain pedals on their board—often more. And 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. I’ve done it both ways with great success. But how you do it should depend on both what you want to achieve and what sounds best to you.

On my board, I run a Marshall-in-a-box type platform pedal for rhythm and then stack a fuzz pedal into it for the best lead tones I’ve ever had. Following those I have a low gain drive that I can use by itself, or for boosting and shaping the other two. It’s a pretty sleek setup, but I’ve done it several other ways in the past. Even with these pedals. I’ve stacked low-gainers into high-gainers for escalating gain tones—and vice versa—and most every other three-pedal combination you can imagine. And guess what? They all sounded good. So experiment. Find out what you can really do with what you’ve got.

Side 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

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. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Got 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. And 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?

Don't Treadle On Me

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. Of course, you could also 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

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. Now, I’m not a huge swirly modulation user, but when I do have it going, I prefer to run it after fuzz, distortion and overdrive pedals. This usually happens when I get an itch for that Van Halen-esque jet plane flanging—and you need to have distortion in front of the flanger for that. But there really aren’t any rules here.

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

Side Note: I want to take a second to talk specifically about tremolo, because there’s a solid argument for placing it later in the chain—which is where I like to run mine. 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 a amplifier circuit. So if you want that classic, Blackface opto-trem, you’ve got to run the tremolo later in the chain.

But again, whether it’s tremolo, flanging, chorus, phasing or vibrato—experimentation is key.

Got The Time?

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. I tend to like fairly spacious settings and ambient settings though, so the traditional method works best.

In The Buff

As my colleague Sam Hill said back in Issue 141, “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 I said in the opening and 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: I know I 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 work wonders though.

And that’s that. If you’re new to this stuff, I hope this little primer helps get you started on the path to pedalboard perfection. Or, if you’ve already started the journey, perhaps this will make you think a little deeper about where and how your pedals are working for you. Good luck!

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