Guitar effects open up an entire world of tone-shaping capabilities at your feet, and they’re the ideal way for guitarists to elevate their playing and send their sound into the stratosphere.
When you see a beautiful pedalboard, the last thing on your mind is the order of effects pedals. You’re thinking about the sick tones you’d be able to coax from those beautiful effect pedals at your feet, not the optimal order for setting them up.
The bottom line is that for a pedalboard to hit its stride and sound its best, there’s some important work that goes into organizing the pedal order. Any guitar player who’s ever thrown a haphazard arrangement of pedals together can tell you, placing stompboxes in the wrong order leads to tons of noise, and pedals revealing unwanted quirks that you can’t seem to wrap your head around.
Thankfully, there are some foolproof ways to help you optimize your guitar pedal order so your pedals behave exactly how they’re supposed to with less noise and greater reliability. Read on as we cover everything you’ll need to know about how to arrange guitar pedals.
Common Organization of Effects Pedals
Without further adieu, let’s dive in and examine each type of effect and discuss everything you need to know about the proper order of guitar pedals and the reasons for the order of pedals.
Often forgotten, but always necessary, a tuner is perhaps the single most important stompbox on your board. It’s also one of the most versatile effects concerning guitar pedal order, and there are several different technically correct ways you can place a tuner. Depending on your setup, you’ll find one configuration that makes the most sense to you.
Guitarists who don’t use a volume pedal will often place their guitar tuner first in their chain. This configuration allows you to use the silent output which acts as a killswitch for your entire sound. If your tuner employs a buffered bypass, placing your tuner first is a smart way to ensure that the rest of your pedals receive a strong and consistent input signal.
Meanwhile, guitarists who use a volume pedal will most often sidechain their tuner to the volume pedal, since most VPs offer a tuner out. This configuration removes the tuner from your signal chain completely, ensuring tonal transparency while allowing you to keep your tuner on at all times. When it’s time to tune, bring the volume pedal to the heel down position to tune silently.
One rule you may want to adhere to is not placing your tuner last in the chain, especially if you use true-bypass pedals. Tuners will often have difficulty detecting your signal if your guitar has already run through a lengthy signal path to get there.
The category of filter pedals includes things like wah pedals, auto-wah, envelope filter, and graphic EQ or parametric EQ. These effects are typically put at the beginning of a single chain. If you’re sidechaining a tuner, your filter effects are usually the first stompboxes in the chain.
Placing a wah and other filters in front helps ensure consistency and reliability. Filters are expressive effects, and they can respond differently depending on your picking attack and the strength of your signal. Placing other effects, such as distortion or compression before a filter will restrict its dynamic range and its ability to produce a full sweep through its filter range. So, keep these effects in front to ensure top performance.
Feel free to experiment with the signal path order of your filter effects to find which sounds best for how you play. As long as your filters are the first piece in your chain, you shouldn’t have any issues with noise or poor performance.
Many guitarists, especially those who play country, blues, funk, or R&B employ a compressor as part of their boards. If compression is part of your sound, you’ll want to place it after your filter effects. This way, your filters will be able to respond correctly without being held back by your compressor.
Some guitarists choose to place a compressor just before their gain effects. This configuration compresses your signal before it enters your overdrive or distortion, which can make your tone sound rounder with more focus. But, compression before gain tends to create loads of additional noise, which is why many guitar players add their compressor after their gain effects.
Boost & Buffers
Some guitarists like to have a boost just before their gain effects to supercharge the response of their overdrive, distortion, or fuzz. Adding a boost here provides additional compression while allowing gain effects to clip your signal harder. Think of it as a cup of coffee in the morning for your gain effects to help them put some extra pep in their step.
Lead guitarists will often place a clean boost after their gain effects instead of before it. In this position, the boost doesn’t provide more compression or clipping, but it will increase your volume so your leads and solos are at the forefront of the mix.
Guitarists who like to use true bypass pedals exclusively will sometimes place a dedicated buffer in this location instead of a boost pedal. This area of the board represents a logical “halfway point”. If you’ve already run your guitar signal through four or five true-bypass stompboxes, your signal strength decreases, and adding a buffer here can give your signal the extra “oomph” it needs to feed a strong, uninterrupted input signal into each stompbox.
Many guitarists who employ a buffer will place it at the very beginning or end of their signal path in addition to the middle. It isn’t uncommon for guitar players who exclusively use true-bypass stompboxes to place buffers in multiple locations throughout the signal chain.
Adding buffers is more of an art than a science, and many guitarists find them to be entirely useless, particularly if some of their stompboxes employ a built-in buffer. If you’re happy with how your rig sounds, there’s no need to add additional buffering. But, if you’re experiencing excessive noise, a weak signal, or if your guitar sounds reminiscent of a tin can, that’s your rig’s way of telling you to add a buffer.
The family of gain pedals includes overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Unless you exclusively play jazz or acoustic music, you probably employ at least one gain pedal, and most guitarists have two or more.
It’s helpful to think of gain pedals as two separate groups. Overdrive pedals and distortion go together, with fuzz by itself.
Fuzz effects are known for their wild and unpredictable response that makes you feel like they have a mind of their own. For fuzz pedals to work optimally, they need a direct line to your guitar.
Some fuzz pedals, especially those with a buffered bypass will respond just fine if you place them just after your other gain pedals. Still, many of the most popular fuzz pedals, such as the EHX Big Muff tend to sound their best when they’re the first or second in your effects chain. There’s no hard and fast rule; if you notice your fuzz pedal is noisy or weak sounding, try moving it to the front of your signal chain.
Overdrive or a distortion pedal tends to occupy the middle ground of a pedal rig. These stompboxes come after tuners, filters, compressors (most of the time), and volume pedals, but before modulation or time-based stompboxes like reverb and delay.
This configuration ensures that the distortion pedals or overdrive won’t squish your dynamic response which will negatively impact filters, while also eliminating the noise and muddiness that is a given when you place gain effects after modulators, delay, or reverb.
While they aren’t for everyone, a noise gate or suppressor is a critical piece of equipment for hard rock and metal guitarists who rely on distortion for their sound. These devices are also quite useful for players who use single-coil pickups or those with an elaborate live rig that often gets noisy underneath the bright lights of the stage.
Most guitarists place a noise gate after the stompboxes in their signal chain that generate the lion’s share of signal noise. Most commonly, this is after compression, overdrive, and distortion. Many guitarists will also place a noise gate towards the very end of their chain, before time-based stomps.
Placing a noise gate in this spot ensures that the pedal will quiet down everything that’s in front of it without getting in the way of delay or reverb trails, which don’t play nicely with noise gates. Musicians who are serious about delivering their audience the best show possible will want to quiet any unnecessary noise that gets in the way of their performance with a noise gate.
Stompboxes that shift the pitch of your playing include things like vibrato, pitch shifters, and whammy pedals. These unique effects are notorious for compressing the hell out of your sound and adding some unpleasant artifacts in the process. The best way to mitigate these unpleasantries is to place pitch shifter effects before gain effects.
This configuration allows the gain effects to smooth out some of the additional artifacts from the pitch shifter while adding back some of the harmonic content that your sound may be lacking.
One of the most popular families of effects is modulation pedals. These effects include chorus, flanger, and phaser, and they all function in similar ways to affect your tone. Modulation effects take your original signal and make a copy of it. The pedal applies modulation to the copy and then mixes it back with your original signal to produce the effect.
Most guitarists place modulation effects together just after their gain effects. The reason for this is that a modulated signal can cause gain effects to behave strangely, creating more noise and feedback in the process. Meanwhile, placing gain effects before your modulation effects adds a pleasing harmonic richness to any modulation pedal.
Volume pedals are especially interesting when it comes to signal chain management because they’re at home virtually anywhere on your board. How the pedal behaves will also change depending on where you place it.
Place the volume pedal at the beginning of your chain and it will function like your guitar’s volume knob. Place it at the end of your board and it will perform like a master volume for your entire sound. Or, place the volume pedal after all but your time-based effects for a master volume-like response that still allows the trails of your delay or reverb to shine through.
Whichever way you slice it, there’s no wrong place to add a volume pedal to your chain, so feel free to get creative.
Time-based effects like delay and reverb are always left to the end of your chain, as the effect these pedals produce trails off into space whenever you aren’t playing. This effect is the coolest characteristic of delay and reverb, and it’s an effect that can transform into a muddy and unruly mess if you place delays and reverbs in the wrong order.
Placing delay at the end of your chain ensures that the trails from the pedal are clean and pleasant without adding additional muddiness to your sound.
Delay and reverb effects go hand in hand, but the two aren’t interchangeable. You want to place your reverb dead last in your chain after your delay pedal. Putting your reverb last ensures that your delay can generate crystal clear and clean repeats without mudding up your delay sound.
How to Use the Effects Loop
An effects loop can be an incredibly useful tool for guitarists who use expansive pedal rigs. This feature allows you to place some or all of your stompboxes after the preamp section of your amp but before the power amp section.
When you run all your pedals in front of your amp, they are adding color to your tone before your signal reaches the amp. Not only does this change how your amplifier responds, but it can also lead to muddiness and a lack of definition when you use the dirty channel on the amp.
Effects loops allow you to circumvent this issue, enabling your input signal to reach the preamp section of the amp with as little additional color as possible. This allows your amplifier to dictate how it responds to your playing, so you can enjoy all of the richness and character of your amplifier without your pedals affecting your amp.
Most guitarists leave the majority of their pedals out in front of the amplifier. The pedals that tend to clash with gain effects, like pitch shifters, modulators or time-based pedals get run through the effects loop.
To use the effects loop, run an instrument cable from the send jack on your amplifier’s effects loop to the input of the first pedal you’re placing in the loop. Connect your remaining pedals as you usually would, and run a second cable from the output of the last pedal you’re adding to the effects loop to the return jack on the amp’s effects loop.
Exceptions and Special Cases
The general suggestions above will ensure the best tone possible for guitarists who use lots of pedals. Still, there are always exceptions to the rules, and instances where there are a handful of places a pedal would fit nicely. We’ve covered a few of the most common exceptions below.
- Place a Whammy pedal or pitch shifter with an expression pedal after delay, using the expression pedal to create far-out sci-fi effects with the delay repeats.
- Move a wah pedal or auto-wah to the end of your chain to restrict the filter’s range for a more subtle, phaser-like effect.
- Place a phaser or flanging effects before any gain pedals in the style of Eddie Van Halen.
- Make your guitar sound like a dark, brooding (and somewhat muddy) masterpiece by placing time-based stompboxes in front of your gain pedals.
Guitar Pedal Order Examples
For many of us, the easiest way to understand guitar pedal order is to see an example. There are no rules you need to follow, but some guidelines you’re likely to adhere to. Let’s take a look at two solid pedal order setups, one feeding directly into the amp and one using the effects loop.
Signal Chain Example 1
Guitarists who rely on overdrive and distortion pedals instead of their amp’s second channel will benefit from running their effects pedals directly into their amp without the effects loop.
Here’s one example:
Guitar > fuzz > wah > graphic EQ > compressor > overdrive > distortion 1 > distortion 2 > chorus > flanger > volume pedal > tuner (connected to volume pedal’s tuner output) > delay > reverb > amplifier
Signal Chain Example 2
Let’s say that the guitarist from our first example wants to ditch their distortion and start getting more use from the overdrive channel without their pedal’s muddying up his drive tone.
Here’s how you would arrange the pedal order in this scenario.
Guitar > fuzz > wah > graphic EQ > compressor > overdrive > distortion 1 > distortion 2 > volume pedal > tuner (connected to volume pedal’s tuner out) > amplifier
We’ll add the remaining pedals that are left out of the chain above through the effects loop.
Effects loop send > chorus > flanger > delay > reverb > effects loop return
Arrange Your Guitar Pedals Correctly!
Now that you have all the information you need to set up your pedalboard order, there should be nothing that gets in between you and the legendary tone! While the rules of thumb above are the perfect jumping-off point to ensure your rig sounds its best, keep in mind that these are merely guidelines and there are no rules.
One of the most fun aspects of playing with effects is experimentation. Sit down with your guitar, amp, and all your pedals, and spend hours experimenting with different pedal chain order arrangements. Not only will this help you achieve the best sound possible from your pedalboard, but you’ll also learn important lessons on how your pedals interact with each other.