Guitar Effects 101
Choosing the Right Pedalboard Order
Last week we talked about choosing the right “Guitar Effects to Expand Your Sound” with sub-topics of “Guitar Effects Used By Your Favorite Pro Guitarists” and “Guitar Effects To Use For Each Music Genre”. Now that you’ve hopefully acquired some pedals of your own, there is another important topic that greatly influences the outcome of your tone – your pedalboard order.
At first this may seem trivial, but a little experimentation reveals that each effect reacts very differently depending on how the original signal has been altered by previous effects in the signal chain. Initially, this can seem rather frustrating; a pedal that sounds awesome on its own can turn your sound into a real mess when combined thoughtlessly with other effects. I’m going to go into the basics of signal flow and cover the fundamentals of setting up a great sounding pedal board. As you would expect, there isn’t any one “correct” way of doing things. You may find that changing the order gives you a completely unique sound, and that’s great. However, if you’re sorting it all out for the first time, this is a good way to start ordering your pedalboard.
1. Most Guitarists Put Their Drive Pedals First
Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz & Boost Pedals
Generally, guitarists with an array of pedals like to put their drive pedals first. This includes your overdrive, distortion, fuzz, or boost pedals. Some guitarists have more than one of these, and they usually go at the beginning of your chain. The reason for putting them first in your pedalboard order is because you will be distorting or boosting the purest version of your guitar tone. Putting a delay pedal before distortion means that the echoes from the delay pedal would themselves become distorted, resulting in an unnatural and messy sound. If you’re using an overdrive and a boost, it’s wise to put the boost first – that sends a stronger signal into the overdrive to get the most out of it.
2. Wah & Equalizer (EQ) Pedals
Second in your chain are usually wah or EQ pedals. These tend to do well when directly affecting a distorted signal, and without much else in the mix. If you plan on using a compressor you have a choice: for a more natural rock tone, the compressor works best right after the distortion or wah/EQ effects. If you’re going for that thick classic country sound however, try putting your compressor right at the end of the chain so that it squashes everything.
3. Modulation Effects
Phasers, Flangers, Chorus & Vibrato Effects
After the wah or EQ, try throwing in your phasers, flangers, chorus or vibrato effects. Because they’re following overdrive/distortion, wah and EQ, you will find that modulation effects gain a richer and more complex sound than they would have on their own or toward the front of your chain. But annoyingly, putting them right at the end of your chain can also be somewhat limiting because these types of effects tend to overpower others that go before it. Modulation effects work best right in the middle of the effects sequence.
4. Time Related Effects
Delay & Reverb
If you’re using temporal effects such as delay and reverb, these generally work best at the end of the chain. Putting a delay at the end allows the effect to give a more natural echo to everything that comes before it; the echo itself will not be altered by other effects. The same applies for reverb. Most guitarists leave reverb as the very last effect, occasionally using the amp’s in-built reverb over a pedal. Amps that have onboard reverb usually use a spring unit which produces a shimmery twang that works well for many types of music. However, if you’re looking for a roomier type of reverb that emulates a giant concert hall, a pedal based reverb is probably what you’re looking for. Either way, putting reverb at the end of the chain provides a spacious, natural tone that simulates a cavernous echo.
5. Experimentation is Strongly Encouraged
As always, experimenting with your pedalboard order is strongly encouraged. Given the countless effects pedals that are currently available, it can take quite a long time to figure out what works best, and in which combination. But this effect order should provide a great jump-off point for getting your effects to play well with one another.
I get a lot of questions from concerned effects enthusiast about “true bypass” effects and how important that feature is to your sound. In the next column I’ll spend some time discussing the pros and cons of “true bypass”, and why you should or shouldn’t care about it.
Still confused about pedal boards? Here is your best lesson and some words of wisdom from the God of guitar himself – Steve Vai.
If you are a DIY kind of guitar player and like to build stuff on your own, then check out this fantastic video from Guitar World on – How to Build Your Own Pedal Board at Home.