The go-to question for beginners and some intermediate guitar players, when they have a set of effect pedals, they’re trying to use. There’s no wrong way of chaining your pedals, but there are ways in which you’ll get better sounds, and we’ll cover them in this guide.
Have you ever struggled for hours trying to tweak your amp and pedals to give up and try the next day again? If you’re a guitarist, you probably feel identified with that. I know I do. The latter is a very important aspect of achieving a good tone, and that’s why today we’ll explain everything you need. From the placement of a tuner pedal to compression, and timed effects, such as Delay and Reverb, and why they need to go in certain chain positions.
First, we must understand that there are two ways of processing audio: analog and digital. The analog way of processing is defined as a signal entering an analog circuit. It gets changed and modified by a collection of circuits designed to specifically mold the sound and harmonic characteristics of the original input signal.
The digital processing technique does the same thing, but this time it’s achieved by computer algorithms, or in the case of digital pedals, microchips that process the signal digitally.
In the last few years, you’ve probably heard the word plugin, DAW, or amp simulator. Digital audio processing has gotten so good that it’s quickly gaining territory along with musicians that seek flexibility, customization, and variety in their sounds. But the detailed explanation for this subject exceeds today’s article. The main idea is that what you can find as an analog pedal or effect is digitally simulated with plugins or programs.
Next, we have to differentiate the effects by general classifications to understand the next sections:
- Dynamics and filters
This category includes Compressors, EQ pedals, Wah-Wah, Envelope Filters, Whammy (pitch shifters). They are in charge of controlling the ratio between high peaks and valleys of the sound (compressors) and changing the signal’s frequency response.
- Overdriving or gain based
These pedals clip the signal at determined rates to produce a harsher, rougher sound. Some examples are Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz.
- Modulation effects
They change the characteristics of the signal, basically creating a phase difference between a dry and a processed signal of your guitar to create different sounds. We can include phasers, tremolos, choruses, flangers, and Vibrato.
- Timing effects
They alter the time component of your signal, creating repetitions or “expansions.” We can mention delay pedals and Reverb.
- Volume and others
They are like extras to your sound. They often go either at the beginning of the end of the chain, except for Noise Gates. Volume and tuner pedals are other examples that constitute this category.
Now that the basic information is covered let’s move on to the specifics to understand why and how you can place the pedals to achieve the best results.
Where to Put a Tuner Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Tuner pedals should always be at the start of the chain, before any effect pedal, connected straight to the guitar. This is the simplest and best way to utilize them, as they need the dry signal coming out of the pickups to work properly. Placing them after any other pedals could alter the tuning reading.
These pedals read the fundamental frequency of each note you pick, and by reading that frequency, it can detect if your guitar is out of tune, comparing the read frequency versus a predetermined one stored into the pedal. If the string is higher pitched than it should be, the frequency will be higher; thus, the tuner pedal will show that it’s higher on the screen.
Are Tuner Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they are very useful if you don’t own or want a clip-on or a microphone-based tuner. They are quite handy in terms of simplicity because you don’t need to make any sound to tune your guitar, and they’re quite precise. The Tuner pedals are also very easy to use, you just need to push a button and you’re ready to tune.
This is great in the case of live shows because they mute the output when you’re tuning, and since they read the guitar’s input signal, you don’t have to worry about extra vibrations generated by the bass or drums.
Where to Put a Noise Gate Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
They should be placed after any gain-based pedal and before the timing and modulation pedals. If you put this pedal before gain-based ones, you’d still have sound coming out of the amp if the Distortion is too noisy. This is because you need to mute the output sound when the strings stop ringing.
These pedals measure the input sound and compare it to a threshold usually available to the user to configure. If the signal’s input level is higher than that threshold, the pedal does nothing, but if it’s lower, it mutes the output. In the previous example, if the Distortion is too noisy, but this pedal is placed before it, there won’t be any sound coming out of the Noise Gate, but the Distortion will add noticeable grit that will be audible.
Are Noise Gate Pedals Necessary?
Definitely, specially in noisy amps, effects, and certain situations where you need the sound to be as clear as possible, they are completely necessary. If you’re in a live show and need your guitar to sound right, and you’re using a Peavey 5150 with the gain knob at 7, you will need a Noise Gate.
Noise is a big issue in certain applications, such as hard rock, heavy metal, or even other genres that use overdriven guitar sounds. If you need to record in a studio and your take is noisy no matter how clean you perform it, and the remnant of the fuzz pedal is noticeable in between notes, where there’s supposed to be silence, you’re going to miss the Noise Gate you left at home.
Where to Put a Reverb Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
It is recommended that Reverb pedals are placed at the end of the chain after the delay pedal. If your amp has an effects loop, that would be the ideal place to position this pedal. If you place it before a Delay, you might achieve a very muddy sound since the reverberated signal is replicated.
Sometimes placing it before the Delay can create a different and better sound, but you’ll need to test it yourself to check if your settings don’t cause a massive “sound ball” that is hard to understand. Usually, if the reverberation time is short, you should have no problems, but as a general rule, it’s best to place it after the Delay pedal.
Are Reverb Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they can really add up to your tone and are very important when you want to achieve a bigger sound, or maybe a softer tone, emulating the subtle echoing of a room. In many cases, Reverb pedals can distinguish between a shallow and boring sound to a massive and rich tone.
I’ve used the Spring Reverb effect in my amplifier for many years, and it makes a difference when you need a slightly softer decay at the end of a power chord. When using a clean tone with arpeggios and a bit of Chorus, a Reverb also comes in very handy.
Where to Put a Delay Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Delay pedals should be at the end of the chain, before the Reverb. They need to replicate the guitar’s full sound, including the Distortion modulation, and thus it should be close to the end. Same as with the Reverb pedal, if you have an effects loop in your amp, that’s the go-to spot to place it.
Placing the Delay before a tremolo, for example, will cause the signal to have increases and dips in the volume of the delayed signal, which might not be ideal when you need a consistent delayed sound. Another example would be with a Distortion pedal. If the Distortion goes after the Delay, you’ll distort the delayed (replicated) signal rather than repeating the distorted signal, which could create unwanted outcomes.
Are Delay Pedals Necessary?
Totally, delay pedals can be very useful in many genres, including pop, rock, metal, progressive, country, and electronics. Depending on the situation, you use them. It’s actually down to the specific cases. Sometimes you need a more immersive atmosphere that only delay pedals can create.
Listen to the opening riff of Welcome to the Jungle by Guns n’ Roses. That effect you hear on the guitar is a Delay, besides the Overdrive, of course, and it’d be a lot less full and interesting without it. The riff would sound completely different. Although the rhythm riff is awesome, it would take away a very good chunk of its tone.
Where to Put a Distortion Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Distortion pedals should be placed close to the input of the chain, after the Tuner and Wah pedal, and before any modulation pedal and the Noise Gate. Signal clipping, known as Distortion, should be put close to the start, but the exceptions are mentioned above.
If you place it before the Wah pedal, you’ll be applying the Wah filtering to the distorted signal, and the result won’t be as good as if you did it the other way around. It’s best if you distort the filtered signal. The harmonic content of the output will be completely different. As for the Noise Gate, we explained it in the Noise Gate section.
Are Distortion Pedals Necessary?
Of course, they are important if you are playing genres such as rock and metal, but sometimes amp distortion can achieve a better sound than a Distortion pedal. The main difference is the way the signal is clipped, affecting the whole sound. It’s up to your taste, but I recommend trying both options.
Where to Put an Overdrive Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
It depends on the use of the Overdrive. If you use it specifically for the overdriven sound, it should be placed in the same spot as the Distortion pedal. If you’re using them to boost your amp and achieve higher distortions, place them last in the chain, without any other effects in the input line.
Boosting your amp’s Distortion with overdrives is a technique very popular in high gain sounds. In this case, you should, at most, use the main input line in this order: Guitar->Tuner->Wah->Overdrive->Amp. The Noise Gate and the rest of the modulation and time pedals should go in the effects loop.
Are Overdrive Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they are, OD pedals are very versatile and can be used in many scenarios. Many popular amps have very good Overdrive and distortion effects. But in case your amp doesn’t, then the OD pedal will come in very handy. Most of these pedals are very versatile, so they’ll fit many different genres and styles.
Where to Put an EQ Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Normally it’s placed before the timing pedals, but it’s not a strict rule. You could need to EQ the delay-processed signal, and in that case, it should go at the end of the chain. The results will be as good as if placed before it, but the result will be very different.
Since these pedals are normally transparent, meaning that they do not modify the signal other than the level of different frequency bands, they can be placed in any spot of the signal chain. They’ll not clip the signal unless the levels are too high, and they’ll not produce any reverberations, delays, choruses, etc.
Are EQ Pedals Necessary?
They definitely are. Sometimes the other effect pedals’ EQ section is insufficient or you need to boost the high end for a solo. EQs can make a huge difference if you dial in the right setup, so I very much recommend you to sit down and tweak the pedal to emphasize the frequency bands you need.
Where to Put a Chorus Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Chorus pedals will go perfect after the OD and Noise Gate pedals and before timing pedals. This way, you’ll be applying the chorus effect to the overdriven and noise suppressed signal, and after the Chorus, your tone will get time-treated. Placing it after time-based pedals could make the tone seem unstable.
Are Chorus Pedals Necessary?
Yes. They were very popular in rock bands in the 80s and 90s and is still going strong in many genres, giving a distinctive sound that is easy to blend with a clean guitar. It’s not a strictly necessary pedal, but it’ll make an impact on your sound.
Where to Put a Flanger Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
If you apply the harsh and distinctive sound to a reverb or Delay, the outcome could be something you night not want. Modulating the reverberations with a Flanger might sound very robotic. It would be best to place Flanger pedals after Distortion pedals and before time-based pedals.
Are Flanger Pedals Necessary?
No, they are not crucial. Although, many guitarists use flangers in a lot of their songs and it sounds very well. These pedals could be very versatile in terms of where they could fit. It might cut into a mix pretty well, adding up to an already good tone and making it sound amazing.
Where to Put A Phaser Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Like other modulation pedals, except for the Tremolo, Phasers should be placed after the Noise Gate and Overdrive and before the time-based effects. It’s usually better to modulate with the Phaser the distorted signal and then apply Delay or Reverb than the other way around.
Are Phaser Pedals Necessary?
They’re not necessary, but they can add some character to your tone. Using it in a rock-vibe kind of solo will change the feel of it and make it more interesting. They are very versatile in applications so that they can fit anywhere. For example, you can use a wider phasing rate to play a guitar solo.
Where to Put a Tremolo Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Tremolos are traditionally placed at the end of the chain but before the Delay and Reverb pedals. Although they could be placed at the end of and make the delay replications or the reverberations oscillate in volume, it could sound good in specific applications.
Are Tremolo Pedals Necessary?
They’re not necessary, but they could add a lot of character to the sound. Audioslave’s intro riff to “Like a Stone” is the perfect example. One of the most notable things about that simple riff is the volume oscillations that a Tremolo pedal adds. It can turn a good sound into a great one.
Where to Put a Vibrato Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Vibrato pedals could be tough to place when you have both modulation and time-based pedals working. If you’re using it together with a delay, try putting the Vibrato after it. That way, you’ll make the replications of the Delay all move together with the tone variation that the Vibrato provides.
Using it before the Delay could make the guitar sound dissonant because the replications are not being shifted together at the Vibrato’s oscillation rhythm. If the rate of oscillation is very slow, that might not be a problem. I encourage you to test both results and hear what you like!
Are Vibrato Pedals Necessary?
No, they’re rarely used, given that if you are playing a long note or chord, you can use the whammy bar of your guitar to achieve a similar pitch oscillation. But if you don’t own a guitar with a whammy bridge, or you’re playing several quick notes, you might want to try a Vibrato pedal.
Where to Put a Compressor Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
It comes down to what you’re looking for. A Compressor pedal should be placed according to what you need, if you need to reduce the dynamics of the clean signal before the gain-based pedals. Otherwise, to even up the response of the distorted signals, place after the Overdrive or Distortion pedal.
Are Compressor Pedals Necessary?
Yes they are. If you’re a musician that plays many genres, you’ll need one of these. Using a Compressor can reduce spikiness and improve sustain. They can come in very handy, especially if you play clean guitars and need a bit of smoothing on the transients and levels of your signal.
Where to Put a Wah Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Wah pedals are filters; they’re best placed before gain-based effects and compression. Distorting a Wah-filtered sound will give you better results than Wah-filtering a distorted sound. The latter could produce very shallow and thin sounds if you use the Wah on the open side.
Are Wah Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they’re a good tool to have in your arsenal. But keep in mind that using too much Wah can be tiring, especially because the sound cuts very easily through the mix. They are very good at giving a different tone and emphasis to certain sections of a song, making a huge distinctive difference.
Where to Put a Filter Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
If you need a consistent and less “wide” filtering response, place it after the Compressor. If you want a wider response, it should go before the Compressor. Envelope Filters rely on the guitar’s dynamics to achieve that “Auto Wah” sound, and it won’t work as well if you compress the signal first.
Are Filter Pedals Necessary?
They’re not necessary. But they sound very good, matched with a funky groove, and they’ll add a lot of character to your tone. They are very good pedals, given that if you want a dynamic responsive Wah, they’re the perfect match. If you need to control the filtering, you might go with a Wah pedal instead.
Where to Put a Fuzz Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Fuzz pedals are Distortion based pedals. They clip the signal asymmetrically and quite a lot, matching the gain-based category. And like all the other gain-based pedals, it should go after filtering (Wah or Envelope Filter) and before modulation (Phaser, Flanger).
Are Fuzz Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they are, because they offer a unique sound that is used a lot in the rock genre, and it’s very distinguishable when listened to. You can’t get that same sound with Distortion or Overdrive pedals, so if the Fuzz kind of sound is something you’re looking for, definitely try one of them out.
Are fuzz pedals noisy?
Yes, they are the noisiest of gain-based pedals. They cause extreme asymmetrical clipping to the signal and might produce a lot of undesired noises when you’re not playing. If you are planning to get a Fuzz pedal or own one, I recommend you get a Noise Gate and set it up accordingly.
Where to Put a Volume Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Volume control is usually executed at the last stage of the chain. Volume pedals are generally the last ones on the chain unless you want to keep reverberations or Delay replications after you’ve turned down the volume, which can sound very good. It would be best to place it at the very end of the path.
Are Volume Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they’re very important. If you are a guitarist that regularly needs to control the volume level of your full setup and tone while playing, then these pedals will come in very handy to you. They’re especially good when you need to achieve a smooth fade in or out. They can also be used as a booster.
Where to Put a Looper Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
Since you’re probably going to need a recording of your full sound, including Reverb and Delay, the best place to put Looper pedals is at the very end of the chain. Placing them before a Delay, for example, will cause bleeding from one loop to the beginning of the next one.
Also, a good point to consider is that you might need to record a loop of a rhythm guitar with Delay and play a clean lead over that line. This won’t be achievable with the looper pedal before the Delay since there’s no way to focus the latter effect only on the rhythmic line.
Are Looper Pedals Necessary?
Yes, they are. You might like to improvise and try out riffs and leads, or if you’re a solo musician and like to play live with a looped rhythm guitar, this pedal will be extremely useful. Loopers are very commonly overlooked, but if you want to improvise on the go, it’s a very helpful pedal.
Where to Put an ABY Pedal In A Signal Chain? & Why?
ABY pedals, also known as A-B Box, should go at the end of your signal chain because they can completely switch a signal chain for another one. They’re the last step before entering an amplifier unless you want to share a determined effect between the two pedal chains.
There are a couple of ways to use them; one is with two guitar amplifiers and one signal chain, where you’ll only be switching amps. Another way is with two amps and two chains; you could also use them with two chains and one amp, in which case you’ll need a mixer to send the guitar signal to the two lines.
Are ABY Pedals Necessary?
No, they’re not. Not very commonly, a guitar player has several setups that need A-B switching. They will come in very handy if you do, but they won’t be necessary for the vast majority of us. In the most common scenarios, a guitarist will have a single chain where you can turn effects on or off.
Although, if you need more than one ready-to-use signal chain and push only one button to switch between full setups, then you’ll need one of them. Having more than five pedals and simultaneously switching multiple effects could make things difficult, and ABY pedals can ease the task a lot.
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
The previously mentioned points are general rules, not guides, that you must strictly obey. You’ll often achieve a better sound that matches your taste with different placements, and that’s fine. It’s great. Experimentation and analysis are the best ways of achieving the tone you’re after. You’ll get more familiar with the different functions of your pedals and ultimately become extremely versatile.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is that everything mentioned today applies to analog and digital sound processing. In some plugins, you can customize the order of your chain, which gives you a great deal of versatility. You can use this guide in that application as well.
Also, the most important thing is that you’re free to use this guide as much as you need, but always remember to experiment and try your pedals for yourself. Swap the order, test the overall response and understand why that response changes with different pedal orders.
Finally, here’s a general graph of the effect pedals order by category:
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Ignacio Ponce is a session musician, audio and electronics engineer, with a passion for rock, metal, electronics design, and video games. He specializes in instrumental thrash/groove metal songwriting.