I often find myself in discussions with friends about effects pedal order for guitar and bass. Now that my kid has started playing guitar and is getting into pedals, I realized that I didn’t have a good go-to resource for the topic. I decided to write my own article on the subject, not because I have something fundamentally different to say than other people, but because I think I have a better way of presenting the information.
Why should I care?
There is no actual rule for pedal order. These are guidelines. You can do whatever you want. Some pedals may not work exactly as you expect, but you’re not going to harm anything by running them in some atypical order. (Caveat: I suppose it’s possible there’s some combination of pedals that could harm one another in a certain order, but I’ve never heard of it. Usually, it’s only power issues that can damage pedals.) You can always experiment and find what works for you. However, some people, like myself, don’t have unlimited time to try out every pedal in every possible position. I like to learn what I can from others and grow from there.
How could order really matter?
While order of pedals doesn’t matter in most cases, there are some instances where order really does matter. For example, some older fuzz pedals are very sensitive to buffers being in front of them in the signal chain because of [insert explanation here about impedance that I didn’t really understand]. Because of that sensitivity, those old fuzz pedals need to be placed before any buffers in your signal chain.
Another example of this comes from a mistake I made recently on one of my pedal boards. Without thinking about it too much, I put an envelope filter after a compressor. In most instances, it probably doesn’t matter that much because you would rarely use a compressor and an envelope filter at the same time. But, if you did, you’d find out that your envelope filter doesn’t work that well. Why? An envelope filter works on the signal variation coming from dynamics in your playing. The harder you play, the greater the envelope is impacted. If you have a compressor in front of your envelop filter, all of your playing dynamics are evened out and your envelope filter only sees one signal level. You’re better off to put your compressor after the envelope filter so you don’t negate your dynamics going into the envelope filter.
Alright, I get it. Now tell me the rules guidelines!
As I said and as you’ll read in plenty of other articles on this topic, there are no rules per se, but here are the kinda-sorta rules—more like guidelines—to get you started:
- Buffer-sensitive pedals first! If you have an old Fuzz Face, you probably want that first in your signal chain. Some modern fuzz pedals, like the Wampler Velvet Fuzz, can be placed anywhere in your signal chain.
- Buffer. You want to convert your signal to a high impedance signal early in your signal chain in order to preserve high-end frequencies and maintain signal strength. Some tuners, like the Boss TU-2 or TU-3, have built in buffers, but if you have a dedicated buffer, you want that out front.
- Tuner. Your tuner should be early in your signal chain to act as a mute and so that you’re tuning a clean signal for more accurate tuning. Your tuner won’t work as well if it’s trying to tune a distorted, chorused, delayed, reverbed signal and you don’t want to have to turn off all those pedals in order to tune.
- Wah. Your wah should be next, but you really could put this wherever it is convenient toward the front of your board. Often times, a wah might be the very first pedal because you want it to sit on the floor instead of on your board. Think of the wah like the tone knob on your guitar, because that’s pretty much what it is. You want it close to the guitar.
- Envelope filter. This is similar to a wah or tone knob in terms of what it’s doing to your signal and you want it before any of your dynamic effects, like compressor (see above).
- Dynamics/EQ. Compressors, limiters, and equalization pedals probably go here in your signal chain, although some people like compressors after drive pedals if they are running amp overdrive as well. EQ pedals can go in multiple places, depending on what your intended usage is.
- Pitch shifter. Any pitch shifter or harmonizer pedals, like octave pedals, would go here because you want the least effected, but most stable signal (compressed) to hit these types of signal processors.
- Uni-vibe. This is a weird one. Usually, you want modulation pedals later in your signal chain after drives and before delays and reverbs. However, there’s something about Uni-vibe pedals that just work better before drive pedals. I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true. You’ll get a harder pulsing vibe sound if you put it in front of dirt. Some people like phasers in this position, but I find this is only necessary for Uni-vibes.
- Dirt/drives. This is where you’re going to start your gain staging from lightest to heaviest hardest drive. That is, clean boost (mild drive), overdrive, distortion, and then fuzz (if you didn’t have to put it out front because of buffers). You want to use increasing order of drive so you can stack them properly. If you have your heaviest drive first, then your other pedals after it won’t add anything. Also, I would add amp-in-a-box type pedals in the last position of your drive section. Pedals like the Wampler Plexi-Drive that simulate an amp would go after your other drive pedals because that’s how they would be ordered if that amp-in-a-box pedal was actually an amp.
- Modulation. Chorus, phaser, flanger, tremolo, and rotary are all modulation pedals. That ordering (chorus to rotary) is in ascending level of significance, in my mind, but I can’t really give you a reason why that ordering makes sense to me, so order them as you wish. Uni-vibe is also a modulation effect, but as previously discussed, it works better before drive pedals. Modulation pedals can also be put in the effects loop of your amp, if it has one.
- Time-based effects. Echos, delays, and reverb are all time-based effects that should go near the end of your signal chain because they emulate the environment in which your amp exists. I prefer to stage my delay pedals in order of shortest to longest delay and then put reverbs after all delay pedals. Time-based pedals can also be put in the effects loop of your amp, if it has one.
- Volume pedal or clean boost. Depending on the effect you desire, a volume pedal or clean boost pedal can go in multiple places in your signal chain. For example, I generally like to use my volume effects as just that, so I put my volume pedal or clean boost pedals at the very end of my signal chain so it is just an increase in volume (this might not be as true for you if you don’t use high-headroom amps like I do). If you want to use an increase in volume as a signal boost to drive the input gain of other pedals, then you can place it earlier in your signal chain. Note the multiple *V instances in the diagram for examples of where you might want to place your volume pedal(s).
Show me the…diagram!
To help visualize this ordering, the following diagram lays out the signal chain guidelines I’ve described above. You can click on the image to view it full-size or you can download the PDF of this diagram below (see the Files section at the bottom of this post).
Once you’ve absorbed the concepts here and have an idea of how your pedals might fit into this ordering, give it a shot! My advice is that you leave your pedals loosely mounted or not mounted at all on your board until you have your signal chain confirmed. This will allow you to experiment with placement and ordering without feeling like you are stuck. Also, consider which pedals you use at the same time. For example, if you are never going to use two pedals together at the same time, then the ordering between the two doesn’t matter, so if you need to bend the rules (“guidelines”) to make something fit, go ahead!
Breakin’ the law!
Start with the ordering documented here and make adjustments as needed based on sound and location limitations, such as putting your wah on the floor for easier use. This, plus further reading online, is how I discovered that my Uni-vibe sounded so much better in front of my drive pedals. Experimenting is also how I learned that the ordering of compression and envelope filters is so important. Don’t be afraid to make a change; you want your signal chain to work for your sound and your board. Break the rules if you have to as you strive for the tone you hear in your head.
Now go forth and make some awesome music with great tone! :)