I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Using Effects Pedals
Effects pedal are a great way to change the sound of your guitar. Famous guitarists use them to get the sounds that made them famous to begin with, and not-so-famous guitarists use them in an attempt to create music that will hopefully make them famous someday. Professional cover-band guitarists employ them to copy a variety of famous-guitarist sounds for different songs and styles. Even novice guitarists love effects pedals for the impact they can have on their fledgling tone.
If you only use one pedal it is pretty easy to figure out how to hook the thing up. Once you get two pedals you have to decide what order to put them in. When you have three, five, ten or thirty-seven pedals you have some serious choices to make.
The good news is you can do whatever you want when it comes to arranging your effects pedals. There is no reason to fear that the SBP (Stomp Box Police) will roll in and haul you away if you make the wrong choice. You can experiment with different orders, see how it changes your sound, and choose what you like best. However, even though there are no right and wrong choices, many guitarists have found there are certainly better and worse choices.
This article can help you figure out the best way to hook up all of those pedals your lead singer keeps tripping over, and make some kind of sense out if it all. The recommendations here are based on my own personal experience as well what can be loosely termed conventional wisdom. But remember: The ultimate decision is yours. Use this article as a guide, move pedals around in your signal chain and see what you think.
Let’s get to it!
The Basics of Pedal Arrangement
In this article I’ll go through a few of the most common pedals types and offer a little advice on where to place them in your signal chain. You’ll see one rule of thumb followed throughout: Each pedal in your chain influences the pedals that come after it.
Working off of that little gem of knowledge, guitarists have developed some basic ideas about what order different types of effects pedals ought to go:
- Filters: Pedals that filter different frequencies often go first in the chain. This includes wah pedals, compressors and EQs.
- Gain: Distortion and overdrive should appear early in your signal chain as well, before or after filters depending on your style and taste.
- Modulation: Chorus, phasers, and flangers should go toward the middle of your effects chain.
- Time-based: Save delays and reverbs until last in your signal chain, right before your amp.
Again, experiment and see what you like, but consider this general order of things one of those pieces of conventional wisdom I was talking about.
Of course if this all seems overwhelming you can go with one of the powerful all-in-one guitar effects processors on the market today. But, if you are up for the challenge, let’s move on to some specific effects and what to do with them.
Wahs, Compressions and EQs
Many guitar players put their wah pedal before anything else in their signal chain, and that includes distortion. The reasoning is that the sound is more subtle and more pure, and if you are looking for some chewy textures this is way to go. Players who use smooth overdrive as opposed to distortion may prefer this approach.
However, placing the distortion before the wah will exaggerate the wah effect and create a bolder, more aggressive sweep. Rock players looking for a more dramatic sound may prefer this type of setup.
Personally, I’ve always preferred the wah-first approach, even though I’ve been predominantly a rock and metal player. But then again I’ve never really leaned on a wah pedal much for my sound. Try both ways and see which you like better.
Same goes for compressors and EQ pedals. Like the wah, these pedals alter the strengths of different frequencies in your guitar signal, and because of that many guitar players prefer to put early in the signal. A compressor often works best right after the distortion, or between the wah and distortion, though some players will put them at the end and compress everything.
For me, the exception there is the EQ. I’d rather see an EQ pedal come after distortion. That’s because it seems more natural to me to shape the tone after you’ve created it. That just seems right to me, but you may come to a different conclusion.
Using the MXR Dyna Comp Compressor
Distortion and Overdrive
A distortion pedal is often the first thing a young guitar player grabs when they start building their effects collection, and before you know it you may have a few of them. Putting distortion early in your signal chain accomplishes a couple of things.
Firstly, distortion pedals will push your signal harder, and you want to push the signal from your guitar, not the noisy signal from a chorus or phaser pedal.
Secondly, those modulation pedals can sound a bit thicker and richer with overdrive in front of them. Of course you can experiment, but this is case where I think most players will prefer their distortion effect first.
So what if you have two gain pedals? If you simply kick them both on in order to get the most distortion shoved through your amp as possible it really doesn’t matter what order you put them in. However, if you have two distinctly different pedals for very different sounds you have to decide which goes first.
If you have something like a high-gain distortion pedal next to a vintage overdrive pedal, my personal preference is to put the overdrive first. That way I have the option of using the overdrive to add some thickness and color to the distortion.
Neither way is wrong. Experiment and see what you like best!
Chorus, Flanger and Phaser
These are modulation effects, and most guitarists employ them somewhere in the middle of the signal chain. Putting them after distortion means a thicker, more colorful sound, which is what we’re going for here.
Not all modulation effects are created equal. Some are subtle and gentle, where others are very aggressive. How you set your pedal also plays a big role in where you’ll place it in the chain.
Remember that pedals will influence whatever you put after them. Therefore, placing a modulation effect before a reverb (time-based) effect tends to be more effective than vice-vera.
If you have several modulation pedals, my approach is to arrange them from least aggressive to most. Therefore, you’d likely (but not always) go from chorus, to flanger to phaser.
That's my opinion, but remember there is no wrong answer. Some players even like to place modulation, especially phaser, before distortion. You never know until you try it and see what you think.
For Stereo Chorus Effects Consider a Pedal Like the Boss CE-2W
Delay and Reverb
These are time-based effects, and most players put them last in the signal chain. The reason is because both reverb and delay reproduce and repeat your guitar’s signal. You’ll get better clarity by placing these effects last so that the sound of every pedal that comes before them is impacted.
Placing them earlier in the signal chain means you now have a split signal that will go through every pedal after it. This can result in an odd, inarticulate, mushy sound. My approach is to keep the signal tight and save the reverb and delay for the end of the effects chain.
Using an Effects Loop
Instead of chaining your effect pedals together in front of you amp, you may instead choose to use your amp’s effects loop. This is particularly important if you rely on your amp itself for distortion or overdrive
Remember, we want our distortion to come before modulation and time-based effects. When you use pedals for distortion it’s no problem arranging things just how you want them. But, if you plug your chorus pedal into the front of your amp and then rely on the onboard distortion you're actually adding the modulation before the distortion.
This is because pedals plugged into the front of your amp impact your guitar's signal before it gets to the amp's preamp, which is overdriving your power amp and giving you that awesome distortion sound.
The solution is to run your chorus and similar modulation pedals through the effects loop. Your amp’s effects loop inserts effects into the signal after the preamp. This means gain is applied first, then chorus.
Most guitar players use the effects loop for modulation and time-based pedals. You can run a distortion pedal in the loop, but it’s important to the clear on what results you expect. Especially in the olden days, many guitarists used distortion and overdrive pedals to hit the front end of the amp harder and push it into overdrive. If that’s your goal, you want to use the pedal in front of the amp.
If you like the sound of the distortion pedal, and especially if you are using a solid-state amp, you may prefer the distortion pedal in the effects loop. Remember, the difference is where the effect appears in your signal chain: Plugging it into the front of the amp means it appears before the preamp; using the effects loop means it appears between the preamp and poweramp.
Experiment with Your Pedals
The info presented in this article is meant as a starting point. As I’ve said several times, try things in different ways and see what you like best. There is really no right or wrong answer, only ideas guitarists have come up with over the years. Some ways work better than others, but maybe not for you. It’s your sound and your music. Make it original, and if that means breaking with some traditions so be it.
I’ve always been somewhat of a minimalist when it comes to effects. I like a wah pedal, chorus and my Ibanez Tube Screamer for color and softer overdrive. I’ve always used high-gain amps like the Peavey 5150 (now the 6505) for my main distortion sound. I typically ran the chorus through the effects loop, and put the wah and overdrive pedal in front of the amp.
These days, I mostly play at home through, and for a long while I used my old Peavey Bandit. It has a button on the footswitch that turns the effects loop on and off. I ran a chorus pedal through the loop and leave it on, and then I can activate it using the footswitch for the amp.
Lately I've switched back to tube amps with the following pedals currently on my board:
Those are my pedals and my methods. You’ll find your own, to suit your own style and sound. Remember this guitar thing is a grand, never-ending experiment. Good luck on your journey, and don’t forget to have fun!
Your Most Important Effects
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Michael James (author) on November 08, 2018:
Hi Brian: Glad to help! There are a lot of great amps out there, but my favorite in the mid-level range is the Peavey Bandit 112. It is loud enough for a band, but also good for home use. It sounds great for a solid-state amp and you may not even feel like you need a distortion pedal. But if you do it handles pedals well, and it does have an effects loop.
Good luck with your decision!
Brian on November 07, 2018:
I have an ampquestion, but it relates to pedals. But first, a huge thank you for these helpful gear articles! I’m sort of an advanced beginner, and I’m thinking of choosing an amp for the first time to replace my beginner amp. I really like the idea of pedals. I read some of your amp recommendations for budget/ ambitious beginners. I am sort of concerned that the recommended amps don’t have effects loops. So, what are the best affordable combo amps that have can be used with effects loops? Thanks!