I’ve experimented with uncountable effect pedal chain orders, and thought I’d do a bit of writing about what seems to have worked out well for me.
Coincidentaly, in the middle of putting together this article, my Finnish Amigo and Guitarist Extraordinaire Elmo Karjalainen published an excellent YouTube video on the subject. He kindly gave me permission to include it here, which you can find at the end of this post, or if you’d prefer click to jump straight there.
Back on subject, the answer to this post’s title is simple: When it comes to effect pedal chains, the word “Best” in almost no way applies.
There’s no “magic bullet”… As with all things music, the order in which you place your pedals is almost entirely subjective, depending on your personal tastes. However, there are a few widely-accepted ground rules, which I adhere to for the most part.
As you can see, my pedals are nearly all low-end models… AZOR, EX, Pigtone, and SONICAKE, to name just a few.
I receive them from Amazon in exchange for reviews which costs me zip, then test identical effects to determine which is best. Though many are inexpensive, some perform surprisingly well. Naturally, those are the ones which find a home on my pedal boards, at least until something better comes along!
Note: I won’t be covering the use of effects pedals in series or parallel “effects loops” in this post.
The reason for this is simple: My current amp doesn’t have send and return connections, and I’ve been too tapped to get the Marshall tube combo I want! So, the honest truth is I don’t have any hands-on experience in setting them up.
If your amp is so equipped, the benefit of using a loop as opposed to connecting your effects to line-in is that they only influence the sound once it has passed the pre-amp stage. Elmo gets into that in the aforementioned video a bit, so I refer you there for some basic information regarding effects loops.
From my personal experiences along with many articles I’ve read on the subject, I find pedal order is most easily understood by separating them into what I refer to as “Chain Sections”.
Obviously, I don’t have every type of pedal listed in each of the sections which I’m about to describe pictured here on my board, although I do own one variety or another of them all.
Dynamics – Chain Section 1
As a rule of thumb, I usually place these at the front of the chain since they have the most dominant impact on sound as it relates to the other pedals further down the line:
- Auto/Manual Wah, and Volume Pedals
- Pitch shifters
Some points of particular importance regarding Compressors
It’s a bad idea to place Compressors after Overdrive/Distortion effects (discussed in the next section), since the latter by their very nature introduce what could be termed as “noise”. To be clear, I’m not speaking of “line noise”, but the very sound those pedals are designed to produce.
The usual reason I engage a Compressor pedal is to achieve increased sustain. However, if placed after Overdrive/Distortion pedals it will tend to accumulate and combine Gain “noise”, which can really muddy up the waters.
Note: As you may have noticed, there’s currently no tuner pedal on my board (which is always the very first), in order to conserve real-estate. I’ve been using small clip-on tuners for a while now, which are remarkably accurate and serve my purposes just dandy.
Gain – Chain Section 2
Next come the pedals which influence your entire chain most.
For those who activate these at the same time, order isn’t critical. However, if using them simultaneously and also individually at other times, placing lower gain pedals first seems to achieve a good balance for both scenarios.
- Noise Gate
While not an effect per se, I’m including Gating here as it has a close and very useful relationship to Gain pedals.
A Noise Gate pedal functions just as its counterpart DAW Gate plugin does, that being to attenuate a signal that drops below a certain threshold (in dB). This provides the ability to reduce/eliminate hum and other line noise generated by Gain pedals between notes or chords, since those are typically the “noisiest” of the bunch.
The trick here is finding a happy medium between that threshold to rid the chain of line noise, while at the same time not totally squelching the chain’s signal when the Overdrive and/or Distortion pedals are disengaged. Of course, you can always disable the Noise Gate along with them to avoid that, but once everything is set properly I often find it to be unnecessary.
I only just recently added a Gate pedal to my board, and after doing so I don’t know how I ever lived without it. Believe me, it’s well-worth the investment and I felt like a dummy for not doing so long ago.
Modulation – Chain Section 3
These belong close to the end, as they provide ambient sound which produce a sonic “spaciness” that you wouldn’t want lost by placing them in an earlier chain section. Once again, their order isn’t a big deal as most guitarists don’t activate more than one of these pedals at a time, unless you’re a psychopath like me.
Time-based – Chain Section 4
I place these in the last section of the effects chain, in the order above.
Reverb by its very nature tends to smear sound in general. If overdone, it can totally destroy the clarity and definition of all effects before it.
As for myself, I never use Delay and Reverb at the same time for precisely this reason. Applying both simultaneously can make the output signal sound like a distorted mess.
I do own an interesting combination Delay/Reverb pedal which I sometimes substitute in place of these two, as it’s designed to subtly blend and prevent them from clashing with one another.
Utilities – Chain section 5
Considering their intent (described below), you’ll likely want these optional pedals in the final section of the chain. By using an input of any of the preceding effects, this allows selection of whichever of those you’d like to apply to them, or none at all.
Generating a sort of “backing track”, they record and repeat the chain signal. Their most common use is creating a looping rhythm guitar section, then playing lead guitar along with that.
In essence, sampling pedals allow you to simulate different target guitar models, using a single source guitar. The way sampling pedals function would be confusing to describe in just a blurb here, to say the least.
For details, please refer to a previous review I wrote about one particular model which is extremely flexible and while not perfect (what sampler is?) performs the task quite well. It’s almost a “magical” piece of electronics, especially for those who don’t own a large variety of guitars:
General Frequency Balancing – Pick your poison!
I’m sure you’ve observed that I skipped right over this pedal earlier, but nope, I haven’t forgotten about Equalization!
The reason I’m discussing EQ last is, its placement is probably the most controversial subject of this entire affair. Ask 10 different guitarists, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers.
Example locations, and corresponding purposes:
- Front of chain
Allows overall shaping of the original signal before any further effect processing. Likewise, while using a DAW it’s often advisable to always place an EQ plugin first on a given track, to avoid having to make adjustments to it after adjusting other plugins which receive its output.
- Middle of chain (somewhere!)
Enhances the ability to achieve boosting of bass/mid/treble from other pedals earlier in the chain.
- Rear of chain
Allows final tweaking and frequency shaping of the entire chain’s overall output.
In the end, the placement of an EQ pedal obviously has a very direct effect on the overall tone you may be going for, in my opinion more than any other.
As I touched on at the beginning of this post, there’s certainly no specific pedal order that everyone on the face of the Earth will be happy with. Nonetheless, personally I’d recommend at least sticking to the general order of the “Chain Sections” I’ve just finished discussing, but again that’s also totally up to you .
I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but most definitely don’t be afraid to experiment…
If your board mounts pedals using a Velcro hook/loop system as most do, that makes it a snap to switch things up without a mess of cables all over the floor, especially if there are a lot of pedals in your chain. My board currently has 12 along with 2 power supplies, so I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
By the way, as I cited earlier it’s totally home-made, but every bit as rugged as those you’d shell out big bucks for. If interested in a build of your own, check out this previous DYI post:
Not only can all of this experimentation be a lot of fun, but highly educational as well. On top of all that, it’s also a great way to piss off your pain-in-the-ass neighbors… Crank it!
I also highly recommend you subscribe to his YouTube channel, for absolutely everything guitar!