If you’ve ever wondered in which order you should place your effects pedals, look no further. Granted, there are no rules – just because something is common practice, doesn’t mean there won’t be cool sounds to be had by thinking outside the box. But as someone said – you need to know the rules in order to break them. So here’s a starter guide, as well as some tips on what can happen when you move stuff around.
Note: I used the Pedalboard Planner from Pedaltrain to create the example images. I mostly used Boss and Dunlop/MXR pedals, simply because they are easily recognizeable. The examples below will of course apply to any pedal brand.
By dividing the pedals into groups, based on what they do, it will be easier to get a starting reference. I normally think of three main groups:
- Gain and filter effects – this type creates or changes the basic tone of the guitar, either by compressing, distorting or otherwise altering its tone. This effects group is where your basic tone is created.
- Modulation effects – this type of effect adds to the basic tone. The term ”modulation” comes from the swirling, sweeping action of a chorus, phaser or flanger.
- Time/room effects – this is the kind of effects we use to give the tone some space and air. Delay and reverb are the prime suspects here.
Incidentally, the above order is also the basic order I’d want to place the effects in. Use the gain/filter effects to create the basic sound, add modulation effects to taste, and run it all through a delay and/or reverb to add some ”air” to the sound.
There are also effects that don’t fall neatly into these categories (case in point: tremolo is a modulation effect, but it modulates the main volume, so it might as well fall into the ”gain” category. But in amps with tremolo built in, it sits dead last – even after reverb…). We’ll cover those later, but for now let’s concentrate on the basics.
Let’s assume you have a distortion pedal, a delay, a chorus and a wah. The distortion and wah belongs to the ”gain/filter” category, so those two would normally go first (closest to the guitar). By far, the most common practice is to place the wah first, then distortion. This makes the wah change the tone of the guitar, which is then distorted. Some like wah after distortion, in which case the wah will change the tone of the distortion, which makes the wah effect much more pronounced. Try it both ways, if you want.
The chorus would then go after distortion, and then the delay. The reasoning is the same here – the chorus is added on top of the distorted signal, and the distorted signal with chorus is then fed into the delay. This means we’ll end up with something like the pedalboard on the right.
Adding more stuff
Now, let’s assume you’ve gone shopping, and has come home with a compressor and a phaser pedal. The compressor alters the fundamental tone, so it belongs in the ”gain/filter” category. The phaser is a modulation effect (remember the ”schwoop-schwoop”).
We’ll start with the compressor. What it does is basically even out the signal, by lowering the level in the attack phase (when you hit the strings) and raising it during the decay phase (while the chord you just played is ringing out). I would place it after the wah (so it can even out some of the peaks the wah produces), but before the distortion (to help with sustain, if you happen to use both at the same time).
The phaser would go either before or after distortion, depending on your taste. It is one of those effects that sound good both ways. Phaser -> distortion gives a deeper ”schwoosh”, while distortion -> phaser is a little smoother, more like a studio effect added on afterwards. I like it before distortion, but do experiment. The internal order within the ”modulation” group (for instance, whether phaser should go before or after chorus) is often irrelevant, as you’d rarely use both at the same time.
Anyway, here is the pedalboard in its current state. As you can see, there is still room for a couple more pedals…
Adding yet more…
Now, let’s say you’ve bought an equalizer pedal. Where to place it will of course depend on what you want to accomplish. If you want to match your Telecaster’s output level and tone to your Les Paul, place it before the compressor. That way, the compressor will ”see” the same output level from both guitars, and react the same to both of them. But if you want to use the equalizer to boost the guitar signal to get more distortion, place it right before the distortion pedal. The compressor will not go crazy by the level boost, and the distortion will behave like you just turned the ”drive” knob up. If you want to boost the volume for solos, you need to place the equalizer after the distortion.
Now, you may find that things are starting to get noisy. Time for a noise gate, perhaps? The biggest culprit (unless there’s a problem) is usually the distortion, so the noise gate needs to go right after it. In the picture, I’ve added the equalizer after distortion, to boost the level for solos, and also after the noise gate (boosting the level before the gate would force you to set the gate harder than needed).
Oddball (or at least hard to define) pedals
Some units don’t let themselves be defined as easily as the ones we’ve worked with so far. But keep applying the same logic to them, and you should figure them out too. What do you want it to do? Which signal do you want to do that to?
- Octaver – this is a pedal that basically adds one or two octaves below the input signal. It would normally be placed before distortion, as it tends to track better with a clean guitar signal. Also, you will probably want to use it to drop the guitar one or two octaves (as if you’ve switched to a bass), and then distort that.
- Harmonizer/Whammy – a pedal that can add harmonies to your playing. For best results (i.e. cleanest harmonies), place it after distortion. Placing it before distortion can sound cool too, but will sound more like you playing chords on the same guitar (as opposed to two guitarists playing harmonies).
- Tremolo – this pedal is a modulation effect, and also affects the core signal (which would make it a gain/filter effect). And – just to complicate things further – in a Fender amplifier, the tremolo sits dead last (even after reverb). So the ”correct” position for a tremolo is very much where you want to have it. I like my tremolo to be last in the chain (even after reverb, if possible).
- Loop pedals – Boomerang, Boss RC etc. With one of these, you need to look at what you want to record, and what you want to add to both the recorded signal and the stuf you play live. As a ground rule, I’d place it somewhere after distortion (once the core signal is complete), so I can record clean passages and play distorted leads on top of it. Keeping delay/reverb after the looper will help you get smooth edits and transitions (as those effects will smooth over the gaps), but some like to add the looper dead last (to record the entire pedalboard).
- Leslie/rotary – this effect is intended to mimic a leslie speaker cabinet, so I’d place it dead last. But you can also try it before delay – that will sound more like you’ve added delay to a recorded leslie cab.
Distortion is the great divide
As you may have noticed by now, the ”before or after distortion” question seems to be the main one. There’s a reason for that – distortion changes the fundamental tone so much, that it truly is the great divide. It compresses the signal so much (remember, distortion is basically what happens when you try to amplify the signal beyond what is possible), that it changes the effects in front of it quite much. What happens if we place a delay in front of distortion, for instance? If you’ve ever tried, you know that the delay repeats get much louder with the distortion on than when it is off. This is the compression doing its thing. While it can be a cool sound – there are no rules, so feel free to experiment – you’ll get much more consistent results with the delay after distortion.
Anyway, keep in mind that ”before or after distortion” is the main question. If your amp has a distortion channel, that question will help you decide which pedals to run in the amp’s effects loop (as the loop will let you patch in effects after the amp distortion)… But I’ll go into more detail on that subject in another article.