NEWS: I am now in the business of building and selling custom guitars. Please visit my new site at www.dupreguitars.com for details.
This article is aimed at people with a number of electric guitar effects pedals (a number greater than one) who would like some guidance about what order to put them in.
To start with, it must be said there is no definitive answer to this question, and neither should there be. Getting that unique and original tone is often about breaking the rules, rather than following them. However, this article provides a suggested framework, and an explanation of why that order works. The most important judge of whether your effects are in the right order or not is your ears. If you like the sounds that come out of your amp, then don’t listen to what anyone else tells you. Experiment by putting your pedals in all sorts of weird orders and you may stumble on something remarkably cool. This framework however, is a good place to start. Rather than listing every single model of effect available, I have grouped effects into families. These should be recognisable to most guitarists.
The order given starts at the guitar, and ends at the amp. For some reason, most effects pedals have the input socket on the right, and the output on the left. Therefore when you lay your effects out on the floor, the signal goes from right to left.
The theory behind this order is that first should shape your sound, then introduce effects that add colour or modulation into the sounds, and then introduce effects that take away from the sound.
These should come immediately after your guitar. This forms the foundation of your tone. The tone from your guitar and the overdrive form the basis of your tone. This goes first because you only want to be distorting or overdriving the sound of your guitar. The other effects in your chain are carefully sculpted, and if you distorted them, you would end up with mush. (That may be what you are after of course!)
Some people like to have an EQ immediately after their guitar, rather then after the distortion. Some people like to have EQ before and after the distortion. In an ideal world you would probably have an EQ after each effect, to fine tune the sound at each stage. In the real world that is not practical. Wah wah pedals are really a type of sweepable EQ that boost and cut the frequencies of the signal as you rock the pedal. In my experience, the wah pedal works best when placed after the distortion. This seems to be because the frequencies that are boosted and cut are those that contain the frequencies of the distortion. This means you get a very linear sweep, with one particular band of the distorted signal boosted at anyone time. Many people (Jimi Hendrix included) have the wah pedal in front of the distortion. This means you are feeding the distortion with different a particular frequency at any one time. The distortion pedal will react differently to differing incoming frequencies, so you will get a different “colour” of distortion tone across the sweep of the wah. However, this seems to give the wah a much more binary, on or off feel, with a narrow section in the middle of the that does most of the wah-ing, and any movements of the pedal either side of that narrow band having little effect.
Some delay pedals come with reverb built in. Unless you will never ever buy any modulation type pedals, avoid them. You don’t want your delay and reverb to be happening at the same point in the chain. Get a delay pedal and a separate reverb pedal. Now that you have built, shaped, and coloured your tone, you may want to repeat it using delay. Delay pedals simply repeat the sound that goes into them a number of times, normally getting quieter with each repeat. You want to have your delay before the modulation, because you don’t want your modulation effects to be repeated. Only sounds before the delay will be repeated. Sounds created after the delay will only be heard once.
Once the guitar tone has been created, overdriven or distorted and “shaped” with EQ and wah, and repeated as required with delay now is the time to start adding colour and drama to the sound.
In this section, I include phasers, chorus pedals, flangers, and envelope filters. These are all effects that add to the sound. They add colour, noise and often volume. These effects need to go after your distortion because if the distortion goes after then, you will then distort the subtlety of the effect. If you have a nice chorus effect for example, adding a lovely shimmer and sparkle to your sound, do you really want to then distort that shimmer and sparkle? Probably not. It would be like a painter going over the top of his fine brush strokes with a thick wodge of base colour.
There only seem to be two types of pedals that fall into this category: Tremolo pedals and volume pedals. Tremolo pedals slice up the sound much like someone quickly turning the volume up and down on your amp while you are playing. Volume pedals don’t add volume, they reduce it. A volume pedal on full volume would be the same as not having a volume pedal. These types of effect should come last, because you want the complete sound to be cut. If you put the volume pedal after the guitar, only the volume of the guitar would be cut. The volume of all the subsequent effects would stay the same. This would mean that when you reduce the volume on your pedal, the guitar sound would cut out, leaving all sorts of hissing and whooshing from your other pedals. By having the volume pedal last, you can control the overall volume of the signal going to the amp. The same applies to tremolo pedals. By having them at the end, they cut out all the noise, leaving you with silence in “off” periods. (Assuming the depth on your tremolo pedal as at max.)
Reverb breaks the rules I’m afraid. I just said that effects that add sound should come before effects that take away from the sound. Reverb is the exception, and I can justify this by imagining what happens to a guitarist playing in a big concert hall without a reverb pedal. (He doesn’t need one, the concert hall provides the reverb.) All the sounds are created and effects are added and blast out of the amp. Then the sounds bounce around inside the hall and get jumbled up. Any silent periods in the music are filled with the sound of the previous section still bouncing around. Therefore to emulate this, reverb pedals go after effects that cut the sound. However, if you want your tremolo and volume pedals to completely cut the signal, put your reverb pedal first.
Most boost pedals appear at the end of the chain, in order to increase the total volume of the signal going to the amp. If you have the boost at the end of the chain, and assuming it is a “clean” boost, the tone of the sound will not be affected, only the volume. However, it is also possible to use boost pedals in another way, by having them at the front of the chain, immediately after the guitar. If you put them here, the nature of the entire of the rest of the chain will be changed, as you will be pumping more signal though each of the effects, and effects behave and sound differently depending on how much signal you pump though them. For example, it is easy to see how simple distortion pedals sound different when you back off the volume control on your guitar. Imagine you start with the guitar volume on a low setting. The distortion sounds mild and almost clean. Then turn the guitar volume up to max. The distortion comes to life and starts screaming. Imagine then what would happen if you further increased the signal going into the distortion by whacking in a boost pedal before it! All hell will break loose, and this is a good thing. All the other effects will also sound different with more signal going into them. Therefore boost pedals can either be used at the end of the chain to increase the overall volume, or they can be used at the beginning of the chain to “goose” all the following effects in the chain.
The last thing to mention is effects loops. Effects loops are a “send” socket and a “return” socket on the back of your amp. These are normally used to add in modulation, delay and reverb effects. These exist because many people like to use the natural over drive of their amp to get their distortion, and therefore don’t want to line up modulation, delay or reverb pedals before the overdrive happens, for reasons I have already mentioned. The effects loop is a circuit that is in between the actual amplifier in the amp and the speaker, so is similar to having your modulation effects after an external overdrive or distortion device.
So there you have it. There is a limitless number of ways you can line up your effects, and all sorts of weird and wonderful noises are out there to be found. Hopefully this is good place to start. If you disagree, or have any comments or suggestions, please contact me!
Tom du Pré. 08th September 2005. www.masht.com