A question that I get asked often is, “What’s the best order for my pedals?” The easy answer is, “Whatever order you think works best for you,” because there are no hard-and-fast rules, only results. Any pedal order will work, but every combination will yield specific results. But let’s dig a bit deeper; there are some guidelines that I find work well. I will offer my standard, go-to pedal order with explanations and alternatives. Please keep in mind that this is what I’ve found works best for me. This is a good place to begin, but experiment and rearrange to find what may work best for you.
Here’s a list of basic pedal classifications and the order I would arrange them in my signal flow:
If the amp has an effects loop, I connect the following pedals to it, especially if I’m using amplifier distortion. If you’re not using an effects loop, these pedals follow the volume pedal in the chain:
You may not have all of these pedal categories on your pedalboard, just skip the ones you don’t use and follow along to the next category in the chain. For example, if your entire rig consists of an overdrive and a delay pedal, the overdrive will come first in the signal chain and the delay will follow.
The placement of any type of gain pedal is the most flexible, especially if you’re using multiple gain pedals in your rig. A gain pedal’s overall sonic profile will directly affect whatever comes before it. Wah, then overdrive, will give a mellower, more vocal quality. Overdrive, then wah, has a much wider sweep with more dramatic wah sounds. Distortion, then compressor, will result in a more even sound with less dynamic range. Delay, then distortion, will give messy, splatty repeats that probably won’t work in every case, but could be the perfect sound you need for a particular situation.
Tuners are another category for experimenting. Some people like their tuner first in the signal chain. That way, they can be used like a mute for guitar changes and silent tuning. If this is your preferred method, let me say that using the best possible tuner with the highest quality components is essential because your entire sound will be directly impacted by your tuner. Since I use a volume pedal and place my tuner on a separate signal path, it has no bearing on my tone. Also, the volume pedal becomes my mute and the tuner can stay active, which makes quick tuning easy.
Speaking of volume pedals, the placement I prefer is after any gain pedals and before modulation pedals. This way, I can blend myself dynamically with the band without affecting the amount of input going to my gain pedals — the basic sound remains consistent. This placement also facilitates swelling in and out of delays and reverb while keeping the tails intact. An option for volume-pedal placement is to put it first in the chain; it’s like having your guitar’s volume knob on the floor. Another option is to have it last in the chain so it acts like a master volume control. Any of these can work, it depends on what you want to do with your volume pedal, how much you use it, and so on.
A Word on Buffers
Do you notice that when you introduce pedals to your signal chain, the sound of your guitar and amp is different, even when the pedals are bypassed? There’s less high-end, the bass is looser, the mids are cloudy, and the overall level is lower? This effect multiplies with more pedals, some even seem to make it worse than others. All of the cables and circuitry involved change the impedance of your signal, which directly affects the input that your amp is seeing. This is where a buffer comes to the rescue. A buffer or buffered pedal will ensure that the impedance stays true through all of your pedals and cables, so the signal going into your amp is as if you had no pedals plugged in.
Your ears will tell you if you need a buffer. If the aforementioned scenario sounds like what you’re experiencing, you need a buffer. Where you place it depends on many things. If you have three or four pedals, placing a buffer or buffered pedal in the front of the signal path will be best. If one of those pedals happens to be a buffered bypass — as opposed to true bypass — place your buffer at the end of your signal chain. If you have eight or ten pedals, you may need a buffer at the beginning and one at the end of your signal path.
All buffers are not created equal, especially buffered-bypass pedals. A mix of buffered-bypass and true-bypass pedals is often optimal, but if you have a lot of pedals, you’ll probably need a separate, high-quality buffer regardless. The best cables and power supply you can afford will also make a difference in your sound, which is even more apparent as you add more pedals to your signal chain. As always, the best gauge for what you need is your ears.
If your amplifier has an effects loop, take some time to experiment with it. The reason I chose to put my modulation, delay, and reverb pedals in the amp’s effects loop is because those effects sound cleaner and clearer, especially if you’re using your amp to get preamp distortion. What an effects loop allows you to do is patch into your amp after the preamp section — where the normally lower output of a guitar signal is shaped and beefed-up — and before the power section of your amp. The power section can take more input level than the preamp. Modulation, delay, and reverb all benefit from that, plus an effects loop is usually after the amp’s tone controls, which can result in better tone from these effects, which generally don’t need to be shaped by the tone controls. It’s perfectly fine to plug those pedals into the input of your amp but if you have the option of using them in your amp’s effects loop, try it out to see which you prefer.
I can’t stress enough how important experimentation is with pedal order; each of our guitars, amps, pedals, expectations, needs, and thought processes are different. But this guide should give you a place to start, and get you thinking about it how you want to approach wiring your own rig. Ultimately, this is all about getting your gear to help you achieve the sound you want so you can make music.