What Order Do I Put My Pedals In?
So you've got a few pedals and you want to wire up a board, but what order are you supposed to put them in? Hopefully, this will help you get started.
First things first, don’t believe the message boards! It is all opinion. There is no “best.” There may be “better,” but “best” is always evolving (or I like to think it is). What works for 7-string low-tuned chugga-chugga, probably won’t work in your Lumineers cover band.
Delay before dirt? Why does my fuzz sound different when certain pedals are plugged into it? What is that awful screeching? Signal chain, or pedal order, can be a real head scratcher, and often overwhelm those new to the colorful world of effect pedals. Think about it like an assembly line. As your signal moves down the line, you are “stacking” effects on top of each other. So, if your choppy tremolo is after a thick reverb, your reverb trails will be chopped, with significant “on/off” from the tremolo. If you wire it the other way, tremolo into reverb, that “on/off” will be smeared or softened by the reverb trails. Make sense?
Sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes and then remembering them (that’s often the hard part for me). In my years of pedal trial and error, I think this chain is a good general place to start and experiment from here.
Guitar > Filter > Fuzz > Compression > Dirt > Modulation > Delay > Reverb > Amp
My personal pedalboard looks a little different, but that is due to my tastes, the desired effect, and perhaps some quirky pedal limitations. Maybe we will talk about that at some point, but for now lets look at the different categories and a few thoughts on them.
“Guitar > Filter > Fuzz”
Right off the bat, this is a tricky one. What I mean by “Filter” are Wah Wahs, Envelope Filters, Auto Wahs, Octave, Pitch Shifters, or any thing that is dynamic/responsive to your playing. Because of this, the pedal needs to see the cleanest signal possible in order to achieve the intended effect. However, a lot “Fuzz” pedals, especially vintage ones, can be finicky seeing anything but your guitar’s pickups first. Here comes your first dilemma. We could talk about the science of it, but I don't really want to. Thats just how it is, and this is where you have to make sacrifices or keep flipping pedals until you find a combination that works.
“Compression > Dirt”
I hear people say they don't like “Compression,” but they do, they just don't realize everything they’ve ever heard on record was sent through a compressor at some point in the production (probably multiple times, even). I’m not suggesting you need a compressor on your board, rather highlighting why someone would maybe want to run “Compression” after dirt or even the whole board. The sustain resulting from “Dirt > Compression” is really pretty amazing, just ask Trey Anastasio or your local Phish fan. However, you will likely experience more hum with this setup (but thats kind of what a compressor is supposed to do).
Finding the optimum signal chain for multiple “Dirt” pedals will take a bit of trial and error. For the longest time, I ran lowest gain to highest gain, but over the past couple years, I’ve preferred high to low. Reason being, having my clean boost last gives a volume bump to the dirt pedals before it. Preamp boosts, or “Amp-In-A-Box” pedals, are another thing to keep in mind. Think about it, if you have a pedal that emulates The Beatles or a Vox AC-30, wouldn’t you want everything running into that to have a “British” tone fingerprint when the signal moves on to the next stage? Which is…
“Modulation > Delay > Reverb”
For the sake of brevity, let’s lump anything that “wiggles,” “moves,” or “chops” in the “Modulation” category. As far as what order you want your “wiggles,” that’s where things can get real fun. There are so many different directions you could go. Generally, running them all into Tremolo seems most user friendly (PRO TIP: If you are running two modulations at the same time, try one slow and subtle while the other is fast and intense. But, two modulations at the same time is risky business. Good luck).
Traditionally, “Delay” comes next because that’s how it would have happened in the studio, but also because running some “wiggle,” like a phaser, into “Delay” is really pleasing once the delays start to overlap on each other. That said if you think about it, a lot of famous players got “Dirt” from their higher-gain amps (a la Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, etc), so you could make the argument that “Delay” should be before “Dirt,” and you wouldn’t really get a rebuttal out of me.
Again, “Reverb” makes sense at the end because this is how most of the music we listen to sounds, but “Reverb” into “Fuzz”… pretty awesome! Or, using a Wah Wah after a super-washy 80’s “Reverb” as a shape-shifting filter-y thing can be a ton of fun, too.
Still stuck looking for a certain tone? Look at what your favorite players have on their board. Maybe try to figure out what order it is in. After all, there’s a reason you like them. Buy pedals. Flip pedals. There are so many amazing tones waiting to be discovered!
Moral of the story, there are no “wrong” sounds. Trust your ear. At the end of the day, a lot of those “wrong” sounds wind up being the exact tone needed to transform a regular riff into a memorable hook (have you ever listened to Radiohead or St. Vincent?). It can be frustrating because what sounds good in your bedroom may not sound good on stage, and what sounds good on stage might sound like crap in your bedroom, but always remember this is supposed to be fun! Experiment! Take chances! Piss off your roommates and neighbors! Rock out!