Best Order For Guitar Pedals, Get The Perfect Effects

If you play guitar, there’s a good chance you might have at least a smidgeon of interest in guitar pedals. In today’s age, it’s more common to see guitarists with pedalboards than guitarists that plug directly into an amplifier.

You may have a vague idea that those crazy sounds and delicious tones you love are caused by pedals. And, there’s a good chance you probably have an inkling as to what each pedal does.

But, you might find yourself apprehensive about using guitar pedals if you’re unsure of their order. Follow this guide and you’ll have a better understanding of where each pedal works best within a signal chain.

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How Important Is The Order Of Guitar Pedals In A Signal Chain?

Each pedal has a specific task in how it affects the guitar’s signal. This is pretty obvious, right?

You could think of this sort of like how each human has their own personality traits and set of quirks. Even those who come from a similar background are unique in their own way.

If you’ve ever spent time around a group of people, you quickly realize that some people do not get along. But, generally, if each person is in an ideal location in a room, there isn’t a problem.

Does this sound familiar? We can apply this analogy to guitar pedals and how they should be ordered within a signal chain.

Plain and simple, some guitar pedals just do not work or sound that great when placed in different positions. Knowing the general framework for the ideal signal path will help you to avoid some sonic mishaps. 

Before we begin, it’s important to understand that signal chains go from right to left. If you’re used to reading text from left to right, this could seem a little bit off-putting at first. 

However, if you were to plug pedals in backward, you wouldn’t have any sound coming out at all. Plus, most pedals have their input and output jacks conveniently labeled to prevent this mishap. 

But, if it should happen, don’t feel too bad or embarrassed about it. It’s something that happens from time to time, no matter how long you’ve been playing. 

What Is The Conventional Way Pedals Are Placed In A Signal Chain?

What Is The Conventional Way Pedals Are Placed In A Signal Chain?

Not every guitarist is the same when it comes to how they are able to conjure up their tones. With that being said, applying the generalized ideal framework can give you some familiar and recognizable tones. 

So, how are these pedals supposed to be put in order? The following list is written in chronological order, beginning with the guitar to the first pedal, to the amp:

  • Guitar
  • Any vintage pedals with impedance sensitivities, fuzz
  • Tuner
  • Input buffer
  • Dynamic/Filter/Synth
  • Wah (filter)
  • Volume
  • Compressor
  • Overdrive/Distortion
  • EQ
  • Boost
  • Modulation (Tremolo, Phaser, Flanger, Chorus)
  • Time-based (Delay, Reverb)
  • Looper
  • Output buffer
  • Amplifier

As an example, let's take a look at the pedalboard image above, which has been numbered and labeled for convenience. Each of the pedals on this simulated pedalboard fits into the criteria previously outlined.

Vintage Pedals/Fuzz

From the start, you’ll see that the signal plugs directly into a fuzz pedal. This might seem a little strange, given that overdrive/distortion appears so much later in the chain. 

The reason for this is that the fuzz is essentially one of the first guitar effects to ever exist. It was actually discovered on accident during a recording session when a malfunctioning preamp distorted the recording.

Eventually, that sound became extremely popular throughout the 1960s. But, its primary components are extremely basic and sensitive to electric current.

It’s for this reason that the fuzz pedal is placed before the input buffer. Fuzzes generally do not react very well when placed after an input buffer in the signal chain.

Similarly, other vintage pedals may need to be placed at the front of the signal path. Vintage pedals weren’t exactly designed to handle a guitar signal that’s already saturated with guitar effects before hitting the pedal. 

Tuner

After the fuzz pedal (#1) in the simulated chain is a tuner pedal (#2). Now, if you don’t use a fuzz pedal, it’s usually common practice to have the tuner at the front. 

Having it at the beginning just gives a good amount of convenience, especially when it cuts the signal during use. If desired, you could easily have a signal generated via time-based pedals during the tuning process when placed here. 

However, having it at the front serves another purpose. Many tuners have a buffer, eliminating the need to have a dedicated buffer input.

Input Buffer

Have you ever plugged in a bunch of pedals and wondered why your signal just doesn’t have any presence? If the signal is fine when plugged into the amp directly, you could be experiencing signal loss via tone suck. 

Having a buffer at the beginning (and again at the end) of the signal path can eliminate this. Buffers essentially condition and prep the guitar signal to be delivered to its fullest capacity. 

Again, if some of your pedals have buffers, you might be able to get by without having them. However, it’s a nice safeguard against excessive cabling and a large number of pedals in your rig.

As you might imagine, the more things your signal travels along/through, the more loss it experiences. Buffers act as a sort of preventive method to preserve the tone in its entirety. 

Dynamic Effects

Electric guitars are incredibly sensitive to touch, especially regarding the intensity of vibrato and the attack from the pick/finger. In a way, this sensitivity is what helps the guitar sound more organic and like a living thing. 

Certain guitar pedals are also quite dynamic in nature. The sound that dynamic effects produce is reliant upon the actual dynamics of the guitar itself. 

In this classification, you’ll find pedals such as:

  • Octave
  • Synth
  • Filters

These types of pedals typically work best when the signal isn’t already affected by another effect. Some of these pedals (such as the octave) track the actual guitar pitch to produce the affected sound.

Other things, such as an auto-wah, are heavily dependent upon the actual attack of the picking hand. With auto-wah pedals, this relates to the unique and diverse quack that characterizes its sound. 

In this simulated pedalboard example, you can see that both #4 and #5 are pedals within this category. Many guitarists will have multiple dynamic effect pedals in their arsenal. 

To better explain dynamic effects, it’s almost best to think in terms of food, and in this case: soup. You can easily find soups that have a base of chicken stock, beef stock, tomato juice, etc. 

Dynamic effects are similar to the bases (whether chicken stock, etc.) of the soup that is your guitar tone. Any ingredients added afterward will make the soup unique, but as you know, it really depends on the soup’s base. 

Would you cook the ingredients of a soup without the broth? Any meat aside, everyone knows you cook a soup directly in its stock for the best flavor possible. 

As such, you want to make sure that you have your tone soup stock prepared before adding extra ingredients. Is anyone else getting hungry or is it just me?

Wah

Now, you might be wondering why the wah pedal has its own category. If you want to be semantic about it, the wah is actually just a filter pedal with manual control.

However, it does tend to sound better when placed in this position. It affects everything that came before with wah, allowing the wah to be distorted (rather than wah-ing the distortion).

The wah has its own classification because it can be placed in different locations. There will be more on this topic later in this article.

Volume

Volume is another pedal that could technically be classified as a dynamic effect. But, rather than be affected by the guitar’s dynamics, it actually controls the guitar’s dynamics. 

Compressor

Depending on how many pedals you actually have in your chain, this is where people conventionally put compressors. Putting them before overdrive and distortion pedals affect the tone before clipping, giving a cleaner and more-thorough compression. 

Overdrive/Distortion

After the compressor, it’s generally best to place your overdrive and distortion pedals. Common consensus says that it’s better to place the high-gain pedal before the low-gain pedal.

However, if you only have one pedal for distortion/overdrive duties, then you don’t have to worry too much. Simply place the pedal in this location and move on to the next part of the signal chain.

EQ & Boost

EQ pedals can come in handy for shaping the tonal characteristics that the guitar’s sound produces. Depending on the settings, the EQ can produce a very dramatic result, which is surprising for such a basic pedal.

Have you ever been in a car that has a graphic interface attached to the radio? If so, you’re probably familiar with how the position of the frequency band sliders can affect the sound.

These EQ pedals are essentially no different in design. More often than not, they will have at least 3 (but more commonly 6-10) frequency bands for adjustment. 

Boost pedals, on the other hand, simply serve to raise the overall volume of the guitar’s signal. This is ideal for when your guitar needs extra volume to soar to the forefront of a band’s overall mix.

Now, the EQ pedal can actually provide a boost to the signal. More often than not, the pedal will have a slider, allowing you to add additional gain. 

However, general consensus here says to place the boost pedal after the EQ pedal. That way, you’re boosting the EQ’d signal, as opposed to EQ-ing the boosted signal.

If it was the opposite (boost before EQ), the EQ would have to work much harder at completing its task. As such, it’s almost a guarantee that employing the EQ could add even more clipping to the tone. 

This additional clipping might not be such a bad thing for some people. However, it seems counterintuitive to spend time fine-tuning a distortion level, only to have it altered when using another pedal. 

Putting the boost after the EQ ensures that only the volume of the distorted and EQ’d tone gets louder.

Modulation

After the EQ and boost section is where you will place any modulation pedals you might have. There is quite a large group of pedals that fall into this category, sometimes spilling into the next section’s characteristics. 

For the most part, this will include pedals from the families of phasers, tremolos, flangers, and other motion-inducing effects. Having modulation here allows for the ideal level of overlay tonal coloring without muddying up the tone in any fashion. 

Modulation seems to work best toward the back of the chain when affecting the entire signal. Putting them toward the front of the chain tends to produce less-than-favorable results that dictate the tone too much.

Time-Based Effects

After modulation, and toward the end of your chain, you’ll want to put your time-based effects. This includes things such as delays and reverbs. 

As the name implies, time-based effects rely on the usage of time intervals to achieve their sounds. Delays feature a repeating function based on a set amount of time while reverbs produce a single echo. 

Time-based effects can actually get pretty crazy and probably offer the most drastic results in certain settings. For instance, you can’t oscillate an overdrive pedal like a delay pedal, which makes the guitar sound bonkers and unrecognizable.

Having these at the end of the chain will in turn affect the entirety of your signal. That means that your distorted and modulated tone will be properly repeated/echoed.

Depending on how intensely you use them, time-based effects can be wonderfully subtle. Placing them at the beginning of your chain often causes too much variance and width.

Think about it…would you want an echo to be filtered, compressed, distorted, and modulated? Or, would you want a filtered, compressed, distorted, and modulated tone to be echoed? 

You really do need to think in granular terms like this when it comes to orienting your pedalboard placement.

If you have both a reverb and a delay pedal, it’s usually preferred to place a reverb after the delay. Having it this way allows the delay to affect the tone with the reverb providing extra dimension when needed. 

Looper

After everything else in your chain, it’s usually best to put your loop pedal (if you have one). This allows you to create your desired tones and have them recorded on the loop pedal.

Doing it this way ensures that, when you have multiple loops engaged, each has its own characteristics. If you put a loop pedal before the delay, the entire loop output would be affected by the delay.

This obviously isn’t ideal, because your rhythm guitar part probably doesn’t need the delay that a lead part might need. Placing the looper at the end allows every loop’s tonal characteristics to stay intact. 

Output Buffer

After everything else, it’s ideal to have an output buffer as the last thing in your signal path. Like the input buffer, the output buffer conditions the entire guitar signal to hit the amp at ideal levels. 

This means that, if you do have some tone suck in your board, all levels are normalized before the amp. It also ensures that tone isn’t lost in the connection of cable between the amp and signal chain. 

Do Signal Chains Always Follow The Rules?

Do Signal Chains Always Follow The Rules?

It’s never a bad idea to at least try the conventional way of configuring guitar pedals in a signal path. This will give you the most predictable and expected results that are more akin to tones you’re familiar with. 

Sometimes it’s not such a bad thing to emulate those signature tones you know and love. You’ll be able to sound within the same family as some of the most famous guitarists of all time. 

However, let’s not kid ourselves and blindly accept that music always follows rules. Music itself is propelled by the willingness to experiment and find new things.

Applying this same fearless mindset of experimentation to guitar pedals is absolutely encouraged. In other words, don’t take my word for it, try these pedal configurations out for yourself. 

Tone, and whether it’s good or not, is completely dependent upon the unique ears and the brain connected to them. What sounds good to me might not necessarily sound all that good to you.

Plus, there’s a good chance that we play different guitars, with different pickups, utilizing different techniques for different genres. All of these things play a role in whether a pedal will sound good in one location or another.

Some pedal combinations create unique sounds, some of which might be more to your liking. The following combinations are just some of the common rules guitarists break when it comes to pedal order:

  • Overdrive before distortion (or, low-gain before high-gain)
  • Some modulation pedals before overdrive/distortion
  • Reverb before delay
  • Volume pedal after overdrive/distortion
  • Wah pedal after overdrive/distortion
  • Non-vintage fuzz either before/after overdrive/distortion

As you can clearly see, there’s quite a bit of leeway when it comes to the order of guitar pedals. If anything, this should serve as all the proof you need that there are no hard and fast rules here.

How To Approach Your Own Signal Path

Sure, it’s a little intimidating (and likely time-consuming) to try out a bunch of different configurations. But, really, the key is to start out small, with just 2 basic pedals.

Say you only have an overdrive and a delay pedal. There are only 2 different combinations you can choose from to use these pedals.

Once you’ve attained the data from this small experiment, adding in another pedal will be much easier. You will have already had a baseline of data with 2 of the possible configurations already tried.

If you were to take 3 or 4 pedals at once, you’ll be in for a long afternoon. Going this route is the equivalent of trying to juggle multiple things in the air without necessarily knowing how. 

Start small and branch out, and eventually, you’ll build yourself a rig that is suited and accustomed to your playing.

What Does A Real-Life Pedalboard Look Like? 

What Does A Real-Life Pedalboard Look Like?

To help drive the point of experimentation, I thought it best to give you a glimpse at my own pedalboard. While I don’t have every pedal type, some of the conventional pathway has been distilled for my setup. 

I say “some” because you’ll notice a few differences right off the bat. So, allow me to illustrate my signal path in a chronological bulleted list:

  • Guitar
  • Tuner
  • Compressor
  • Volume pedal
  • Octave pedal (dynamic)
  • Auto-wah (dynamic)
  • Tremolo (modulation)
  • High-gain overdrive into low-gain overdrive
  • Chorus (modulation)
  • Delay (time-based)
  • Looper
  • Amplifier

What Is The Reasoning For This Order Of Guitar Pedals?

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that I have a compressor before my dynamic effects as well as the volume. Even the volume pedal is before the dynamic effects in my signal path.

Why is this? Well, part of it comes from the fact that I like having a compressor toward the front of my chain. 

This thickens up my tone, allowing the tracking of the octave pedal to work better (in my opinion). It also maintains the ideal compressor before the overdrive section as we outlined earlier. 

I prefer to have my volume pedal toward the front of the board as well. It allows me to use it more like a master volume knob, but it also affects the overdrive clipping.

If I had placed the volume after the overdrives, pure unaffected overdrive would come through the amp when allowed. This makes the grit become more apparent gradually as the volume is opened to full blast. 

The volume before the dynamics also helps with subtle volume adjustments, particularly with the auto-wah (which is extremely sensitive). I can maintain the thickness of compression but adjust the volume if needed.

Placing the tremolo (a modulation pedal) before the overdrives is another broken rule of convention. I feel that having the tremolo in this position gives a little more nuance to the tremolo effect itself.

Rather than adding motion to the distorted tone, the motion gets distorted. This emulates more of a sound akin to Pops Staples, from the soul unit, The Staple Singers. 

After this, you’ll see that the rest of my rig follows the “rules” of convention. Despite having 2 TS9 Tube Screamers, the first is set to a higher gain setting than the second.

In general, I tend to run the low-gain overdrive all the time, with the high-gain kicked on when needed. I run a pretty clean tone with a subtle crunch, so not much clipping is necessary for my sound.

How Can I Plan My Pedalboard?

After you collect some pedals, it’s not a bad idea to put together a pedalboard, especially if you perform live. If you play a concert with other bands, setting up and tearing down your pedal rig takes too much time.

Think about it, you have to unpack each pedal and plug them into each other. Afterward, you’ll have to connect power connectors to each pedal in your rig.

Generally, 15 minutes is about all you have during this “set up” time when bands transition on and off stage. More often than not, you have even less time than this.

Plus, if there’s a soundman, you’re running against the clock to ensure that you get a proper soundcheck. A setup taking too long delays everything, annoys the soundman and other bands, and could cut your performance short.

Pedalboards allow you to slap some pedals on via velcro, with everything plugged into beforehand. Lay the board on the floor, plug the power in, plug in your input/output cables, and you’re set.

If you’re putting together a rig, I recommend checking out the Pedalboard Planner, provided by Pedaltrain. This resource is insanely extensive, offering every Pedaltrain pedalboard as a platform, with a massive list of pedals to add. 

The resource keeps the dimensions of each item relative to how it appears in reality. You’ll be able to quickly tell whether you’ll have enough room on your board for your potential order setup. 

Do keep in mind that you’ll want to accommodate spaces for things like cables and a power supply. In reality, you might have even less space than you thought.

You can easily make a pedalboard platform out of a sheet of wood in the most basic DIY way ever. But, something with a grated design helps to organize your board and keep cables hidden out of the way.

Grated designs (such as the one featured on my own pedalboard) can allow for pedals to be closer than normal. Ribbon cables can also help decrease the space between pedals, allowing for maximum space efficiency. 

Top Order For Guitar Pedals, Final Thoughts

If you’re like me, the order of guitar pedals on your pedalboard will never be a static and permanent thing. Experimenting with your tried and true rig can help you unlock tones and breath new life into the old. 

Plus, when you buy a new pedal, you’ll inevitably be trying the pedal in every possible location in your rig. Let go of how you think things should be and have fun discovering new sounds!

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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