Does the order in which you connect your electric guitar effects pedals matter?

Does the order in which you connect your electric guitar effects pedals matter?

Guitarists commonly use pedalboards consisting of several effects pedals, including distortion, delay, reverb and more. Does the order in which they are connected make a difference to the sound?

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass

Guitarists commonly use several effects pedals hooked up together. In fact, not only guitarists can use pedals, but any electric or electronic instrumentalist can too - and the studio engineer if he or she is feeling extra creative. There are so many different types available it's a great way to achieve creativity with sound. But does it make any difference if the guitar plugs into the distortion pedal first and then the chorus, or the other way round?

In fact it makes a major difference. With many combinations of pedals you will hear the difference easily. Let's first of all list some of the types of pedals that are available:

  • Distortion/overdrive
  • Waa-waa
  • Chorus/flange
  • Delay
  • Reverb
  • EQ

There are of course more, but this will serve for the sake of example. Let's take the distortion and reverb pedals - what will this sound like when connected in the order distortion>reverb?

This will sound like the proper sound of the distorted electric guitar, to which reverb is added - probably quite pleasant. But swap the order to reverb>distortion. Now not only is the sound of the guitar distorted, so is the reverb. In nearly all cases, this will sound absolutely awful. So if you want an absolutely awful sound, you know how to set about it.

Another interesting combination is distortion and chorus. In the order distortion>chorus, the distortion pedal produces a rich spectrum of harmonics for the chorus pedal to work on. This will sound great. In the order chorus>distortion, the chorus pedal can only work on the thin raw sound of the guitar, and the distortion pedal will probably disguise the fact that there is any chorus at all.

For some combinations, there is no obvious right and wrong. Delay and chorus, for example. Delay>chorus gives you one sound, chorus>delay another. Both might be usable, depending on the context. The same is true of waa-waa>chorus, although some waa-waa units produce distortion also, that will probably sound better if the chorus comes last.

The key is to experiment. Usually it is the position of the distortion or overdrive pedal that will make the greatest difference, and usually it will be best placed first in the chain.

What if you are a studio engineer. Does this matter to you?

It is actually great fun to play with guitar effects pedals, on all kinds of sounds. So get friendly with a guitarist and try some.

But also there is the situation where the guitarist plugs straight into the amp and is relying on the amp to produce distortion. Here, if any pedals are used, distortion comes last in the chain, where you probably don't want it to be. Even if the amp has an effects loop, the essential component of the distortion produced by the speaker itself must always be last in the chain.

One answer is to mike up the sound from the amp, then use the mixing console's insert send and return connectors to send the signal through the desired effects pedals. If you want to achieve the best or most creative sound from an electric guitar, sometimes you have to go the extra mile.

By David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Monday January 16, 2006

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Readers' comments on this article...

Kirk Niles, Lawrence, KS, USA
Thursday September 07, 2006

Please comment on the 'best' line-up for these FX pedals. I'm running my piezo pick-up (on my Peavey T-60 guitar) through a Nobels CO-2 Compressor >Behringer PB100 Preamp Booster > Aphex 1401 Acoustic Xciter > Carlsbro Sherwood Acoustic Amp.

I'm using the XLR out on the Aphex 1401 so as to reduce the noise level to the amp. Is it correct to place the Preamp Booster before the Aphex or vice versa? Would the 3 pedals be best in the FX loop of the amp?
Ben, Austin, TX, USA
Tuesday August 29, 2006

I run my guitar into an overdrive, into a wah pedal and then split the signal- one side goes into a three channel preamp modeler and into a stereo volume pedal. The other side runs into a chorus and into the stereo volume pedal, and then into a delay. The output of the delay is recombined with the output of the distorion loop using a stereo compressor/limiter. Reverb is at the amp. This is a great live setup for me... in the studio I'm more prone to record clean and then add effects later. I used to run a compressor at the beginning of the chain to "preload" my signal, but I need to find a good compressor to do that, and I just haven't found anything I like yet. Besides, that's what I'm using the overdrive for (vintage TS-808 I bought in 1980).
Joel, Detroit, MI
Tuesday August 08, 2006

I run Delay, Whammy/Wah, Wah, Muti-effect(Zoom 505), TalkBox. With the delay last, all the chorus /overdrive settings from the Zoom all get washed together. With the delay first..the delay is less pronounced on clean patches..and jumps out on louder settings..which I actually prefer. Am I missing something?? All the web posts for effects chains say the delay should come last!!!
steve, stowe, usa
Thursday March 16, 2006

I have two tube screamers, a wah, a delay and a eq. I have it set up as listed. Is this the best way? If I were to add a compressor, where would it go? How aqbout a phaser? Thanks
Pablo Esinclaire, MtTop, USA
Saturday March 11, 2006

I have found that most Compressor pedals suck. They are very audible , even with very low settings. I use the Keeley-- absolutely the best comp (MXR Dynacomp is good, too) I have heard in use.

The act of distorting a signal is a natural form of compression. Once an amplifier circuit runs out of gas, it starts to clip the signal. After this point, the signal doesn't necessarily get louder, just more distorted. (watch the levels when you are recording, dist. guitar tracks hardly move on a meter). I prefer to distort the signal(compressing it that way) first, then, adjust the comp pedal to it. I just think its better to beef up the signal first before the comp, as you will get a better frequency response from the pedal setup rather than putting in a lower level into a compressor first.

Having said that, to each his own-- Really, there are no rules--just guidelines-- It really is about what sounds best to you--------

check out: http://guitargeek.com
linda evans, your , ...dreams
Friday March 10, 2006

I always go from guit-pre-comp-dist-rest(mix to taste). The compressor being in the beginning of the chain allows better control over the source signal and does not effect the rest of the sound (nor is audible). In the end, I use another compressor (not pedal) to apply the overall compression.

I wonder why you guys haven't mentioned that.

Kisses
Pablo Esinclaire, MtTop, USA
Wednesday March 08, 2006

A signal can go thru the 'tone-sucking' process when run thru poorly designed pedals made from cheap components. Look for 'true-bypass' pedals to reduce this effect when they are turned off. As for volume reduction, the best way to check is by listening to the volume and tone before you plug into it, and then after. Does the sound/volume change significantly? As for testing for this loss; I suppose you could use a multimeter and test the voltage on the output, but the best test will always be what you hear. I would put the tuner first, then; (volume,)distortion, wah, chorus, trem, delay, and volume. (Volume could be in either spot, depending if I want it to control my distortion level, or regulate the volume for things like solos.)
Robert
Wednesday March 08, 2006

a few questions. does signal get lost or weaken in the chain of effects? i have tuner,distortion,delay,wah,tremelo,volume,chorus in my chain. i want to keep strong signal throughout. how do i optomize placement of effects for sound and no loss of signal? is there a way to measure signal coming out of pedals for strength and clarity?
Pablo Esinclaire, MtTop, USA
Tuesday March 07, 2006

I follow what makes most sense for studio equipment. First, vintage pedals should go first- they were not designed to connect to today's much hotter outputs (i.e. Dunlop Fuzzface). Preamps decide the tone, so distortions and tube pre's should go first. Eq's next, like wah and auto-wah. Then, compression to even the tone and volume out. If you have an unusually dynamic pedal capable of loud volume bursts, then it should be placed before the compressor, too. Next, modulations-flange, phaser, chorus, pitch. Then, delay, then reverb. At the end, noise gate. The idea here is to get the tone first, then smooth out the dynamics. Then the modulation type effects go next, because you generally want to modulate first, and put more time-based FX like delay and reverb last. I like to gate the end to take care of any noisy pedals. Mixing and matching the mod's and delay/reverb are OK. Last, volume pedals are sometimes used to boost gain before a distortion effect, but I like them after the effects.
Gary S. (Hoagie) trigg, Vancouver, Canada
Thursday January 19, 2006

Firstly, special thanks to David mellor for all the info you send. i enjoy all the quirky details that pry my creative mind into action. I spent alot of time in studios with producers and forget the guitar pedals and stuff I am a reformed effects junkie..on bedaracks esp. keep it simple.. pedals are too noisey sampled effects like vst sound the same less noise and hedache..live is always different,,Thanks David..Gary Hoagie Trigg
chris, olympia, usa
Wednesday January 18, 2006

Distortion, wah, distortion, flange, distortion, tremelo, delay, reverb (in amp). That way you can choose exactly what you need exactly when you need it. I've also got a really cool phasor built into my amp, which I use during crazy feedback bits to completely freak out the sound. Every song is different and so ever tone should be different to match.
E-mo, Brooklyn, USA
Tuesday January 17, 2006

It all sounds like ass...unless you pay attention to the monkeys flying out of your butt[Frippertronics, Lesson #96, One More Red Monkey Nightmare]
Jared Simons, Columbus, NE, USA
Monday January 16, 2006

The best place for things that are meant to regulate sound, like volume pedals or in your case a compression/sustainer, is after just about everything accept your delay. You dont want to change the way phase and distortion pedals mold your sound.
Barrie (Barru) Evans (Guitar Tech), London, U.K.
Monday January 16, 2006

Guitar, Wha, Distortion, Chorus, Delay, Reverb, Comp, Volume Pedal, Amp.

Try in Send / Return Sockets

This works very well.

Whacky pedals at the front end please.
Doug DeYoung, Austin TX, USA
Monday January 16, 2006

I would recommend putting the compressor pedal at the end of the effect chain because many effects work specifically with the dynamic qualities of the guitar like distortions and envelop filters. Also if you are using a volume pedal it should go after the compressor or the compressor will try to even out your volume adjustments and your volume adjustments will change your rate of compression and when the compression kicks in.
Steph Maffei, Mission Viejo, Ca., USA
Monday January 16, 2006

I didn't see any mention of effects in relation to the guitar preamp. The standard "rule-of-thumb," is that the tone based effects (wah, etc.) should go in front of the preamp (between the guitar and the the front of the guitar amp (in the case of a standard guitar head) or preamp (in the case of a rack system) and the time based effects (delay, etc.) so be plugged into the effects loop of the amp/preamp. Obviously, if your rig does not hav an effects loop, then all bets are off...
Alex, Lancaster , Lancashire
Monday January 16, 2006

I'd tend to use a compressor fairly close to the start of the chain, It tends to give a more natural feel, and in general you don't want the compressor to be acting upon your delay/reverb as that just sounds a bit weird!

That said there is something to be said for compressors coming after some types of modulation/filter effects especially if they have big resonant peaks, - to keep them under control, that said I tend to like that kind of unpredictibility.

One other thing, most real fuzz pedals like to see an un-buffered signal straight from the guitar, to get the best from them. Something to bare in mind.
Aki the moron, Alderholt, UK
Monday January 16, 2006

What would you consider best use of a Compression/Sustain pedal? At the begining of the FX line or at the end? Just curious...