The musician is asked this question once, and they suffer for a few days, before it all comes together. That question?
“What is the best place to put my guitar pedals?”
Realizing that you could be using six, twelve, or more pedals on a pedalboard is a problem. There are many ways to mix up your signal path.
It can sound daunting when you read statements like “There is no formal rule about how to do it. You should experiment because that’s art. And you’ll invent something.”
It is even possible to be told by people that you can figure it yourself. It developed over decades. It is not something that one person can do overnight.
No. This isn’t just art. It is at least half science and engineering, if not more. We are able to reduce the complexity of the situation from overwhelming to manageable and even sensible.
Let’s see how we deal with it. First, I will explain the five major types of effects and then show you how to order them. Next, I will explain how it works and show you why it is so.
You can make it as messy or as professional as you like. This is my goal: to make it as simple as possible and in as little time as possible.
Let’s begin with the ground rules of logic to set the stage for the order.
The 4 Rules of the Guitar Effects Order
These four rules quickly limit the options for the guitar signal chain. There aren’t any rules. Everyone follows a logical order for guitar pedals.
Rule 1: There is a logical sequence for effects. Some affects remove frequencies or change the basic shape. Others react to changes in the waveform’s shape and amplitude.
These are the three main effects that can be used in order other than what was just listed. Otherwise, you’ll end up with amateur results. This is explained in the following rules.
Rule 2: This order is determined by nature and physics. Take a look at this scenario. Your vocal chords, voice, and lungs will determine the frequency that comes out. To shape the waveform, wrap your hands around your mouth. This will affect the stereo width.
Your voice will then go out into the air, and into Grand Canyon. There it bounces around and returns to you with delay and reverb. You won’t sound good in a song if you don’t follow this basic order.
Rule #3 – Experimentation takes place within these major groups of effects. Although these three groups must be followed strictly, the effects within each group can be played with to create new sounds.
You can add reverb to an echo delay, or an echo to your existing reverb. This general group of time-based effects must be added to the end of your effects chain.
Rule 4. – Technology further defines the order. Your noise gate should not be used before the compressor. This will increase your noise volume, rendering your noise gate useless.
A harmonizer can be inaccurate if you send a signal that is not pure, such as a signal with heavy distortion. You should apply distortion to the harmonized signal, and not vice versa. You should not compress the signal before applying equalization. The compressor could act on frequencies that you do not intend to keep.
These four rules are the foundation for why you need a certain order for your effects pedals.
The Right Guitar Pedal Order
Let me now show you the five effects groups in the order that you want them to be used. Then I’ll explain why each group is arranged the way it is.
- Shifters & Filters
It is impossible to go against the established order. This order is defined by the four ordering principles and makes more sense when you know what belongs in each grouping. Let’s take a look at this and then I will show you an example signal path that uses as many effects as possible from the effects chain.
The dynamics group includes effects that alter the shape of the waveform by changing the variances in volume. This is what dynamics is all about. It is the changing of the waveform’s shape in terms of volume variances.
This group includes two effects pedals: the compressor and noise gate, as well as a volume pedal. Because compression results in a reduction in order, you don’t want it to be changed. It decreases the variation between the highest and lowest volume peaks.
If you don’t use the noise gate yet to remove the noise from your signal, the signal-to noise ratio will drop. This makes it harder to remove the noise musically.
It is important to mention that the tuner pedal should be placed at the beginning of your signal path ahead of all others. When not in use, it should be disengaged and put into bypass mode.
FILTERS AND SHIFTERS
The waveform is also shaped by the filters and shifters group, but not in the same way as the dynamics group. To adjust your tone, an equalizer is a good choice.
You might add bass frequencies to your mix and raise some high frequencies, while also dipping the middles. This is important before you start applying the more obvious effects to the next groupings.
You may also use other types or shifters after EQ. To further shape the dynamics and alter the frequency response, you can use an envelope filter (also known as an auto-wah or a pedal wahwah), This should be done after you have set your tone with EQ.
Shifters, such as harmonizers or standard pitch shifters are included here. Because they react to the audio signal, you need to ensure that pitch changes (I would argue even vibrato) are taken care of before adding other effects to your signal.
It is not a good idea to add reverb to your signal and then attempt to pitch shift. The signal you send will be too complex and inaccurate to achieve such an exact effect.
Side Note This is an example of how the wrong order of pedals can mess up your tone. You can get perfectly shaped notes that ring out and decay uniformly when you compress before you use delay.
You can lose volume and power if you wait before compressing, even normalizing with your make-up gains. This is because the attack sneaks through first. Your delayed notes will be compressed and your fine-tuned echo decay will be ruined.
The gain group includes effects that require or are associated with high gain. You might use a boost pedal here to increase volume, before feeding it into distortion pedals. They all belong here, regardless of whether you need a fuzz, overdrive or distortion pedal.
This is the first effect you need to apply before any other effects. You don’t want a delayed signal to be degraded, but a delayed signal that has been distorted. It’s possible to do it in the opposite direction, but the results will be different as the gain changes during decaying delay echos, reverb tails and crazy chorus effects.
These effects depend on gain so you need to give them a steady and high gain signal. Other effects will reduce their gain.
Modulation effects are those that cyclically alter the volume signature or place of your signal in the stereo field. This is done by whipping the panning back-and-forth.
These include flangers, choruses and phasers (and I would also add tremolo). Each of these require duplicating the signal one or more times. You should do this after adding all other dynamic, filter-based and gain effects.
It is not a good idea to try to get an equalizer or distortion pedal to respond to a series recombined signal when you can do that beforehand. This will result in a much better quality and more accurate modulation.
We come to the time-based and space-based effects group. Reverb and delay are two examples. Both can be used to create the same effect, with delay being faster.
They simply take the input and “smear” it while decreasing the volume over time. This creates a complex signal that other effects can’t respond to, and the volume variations would confuse previous pedals.
We’ve already discussed types of guitar pedals and how they are organized differently. You can do the same thing with additional sub-categories. If you are still confused, here’s a different angle.
Two Examples of Guitar Effects Pedal Orders
As you can see, our four logical rules almost require that our five pedal groups be in the same order as they came in. Even within these groups, there is not much room for change, with the exception of the modulation group.
Let’s take a look at two examples that show what this could look like in a real-world setup. The first example will have a linear sequence with no effects loop. The second will use an amplified effects loop.
You can have your own effects loop on many pedals. The pedal works the same regardless of how you set it up, as long as you can keep track of the order in which the guitar pedals are placed.
FIRST GUITAR PEDAL ORDER EXAMPLE
This is an example showing a linear signal path that runs from the guitar through the pedals to the amplifier.
Guitar > Noise Gate > Compressor > Equalizer > Fuzz > Chorus > Tremolo > Reverb > Amplifier
You’ll be able to see the four basic rules and five effects. The same example is shown in image form.
This is the easiest and most straightforward way to connect your guitar pedals together. They come in order without any additional effects loops. Let’s first discuss this and then look at another example.
WHAT IS A EFFECTS LOOP?
An effects loop can be added to a pedal, but it is most common to find one on the amp itself. Most amps have an output labeled Effects Send and Preamp Out. These are accompanied by inputs labeled Return and Power Amp in.
Both sets of inputs and outputs refer to the effects loop you can add between your preamplifier section and your power amp section.
This is due to the fact that some players prefer to use a pedal to emulate emulation of their amp’s preamp to create distortion, rather than using it with high gain. You can’t put time-based and modulation effects into the preamp as distortion will follow them.
You can do it, but it will sound terrible because it violates our four main rules. The effects loop is there to help you avoid a muted, washed-out, or muddy tone.
It is important to mention that there are series effects loops as well as parallel ones. This is because parallel splits your signal, while series extends the linear signal path.
This option is not important right now, and it doesn’t impact our examples. However, don’t be surprised to see it on your amp.
SECOND GUITAR PEDAL ORDER EXAMPLE
The second example shows an effects loop running in series at the amp. Since it is still a linear path, this doesn’t change the order of your guitar pedals.
Guitar > Compressor> Equalizer > Pitch Shifter> Boost > Amplifier(Send) Flanger > Vibrato
The send and return are the beginning and end of the effects loop. This visual representation should help you understand the concept better.
The entire purpose of the effects loop, again, is to allow you use your amp’s preamp for natural distortion, then apply modulation, time-based effects and finally, have distortion applied to them.
Your guitar pedal order matters!
That’s it. Don’t believe anyone who says there are no rules for pedaling. If you want to sound professional, there are strict rules. These rules reduce the number of options to a minimum.
Realists and honest people will tell you that you need to adhere to a certain order for your effects pedals. It’s important to order your guitar pedals!