How To: Order Your Guitar Pedals Correctly For Killer Tone

my-pedal-board

I know, I know. Some guitar players are going to look at the title of this post and go “HA! So-and-so artist didn’t know how to correctly order his guitar pedals, yet his guitar tone is iconic and awesome!”

However, what these skeptics may fail to realize is that there are DOZENS of factors that go into creating an awesome guitar tone. A good guitar amp, a killer axe, good technique, durable cables, posture, setting the action low, good intonation, playing style, and many more. I like to argue that the guitarist’s playing style is the biggest factor in determining guitar tone. You can have all the greatest gear in the world, but if you can’t pluck the strings, it’s all useless.

The piece of the guitar tone puzzle that I will be discussing here is the best order for your guitar pedals in the signal chain.

Most common method

guitar effects pedals order

When ordering your guitar pedals, you want to do so in such a way that preserves the function and tone of each guitar pedal. Changing the placement of a guitar pedal in the signal chain of your guitar rig can drastically change your guitar tone when you stomp on that bad boy, and can be good or bad depending on the sound you are trying to achieve.

Followed by many guitar techs and players, this is the most commonly seen order for guitar pedals, starting with the guitar side of the signal chain, and ending at the amplifier:

  • Your guitar
  • Tuners: Although tuners are safe to place anywhere in the signal chain, try to make it the first pedal in the chain, so it receives the completely clean, unprocessed signal from your guitar.
  • Filters: Here is where you place your wah pedals, auto-wahs, envelope filters, and (sometimes) phaser pedals. These effects depend highly on the dynamics of the signal, so we want these effects to be as close to the unprocessed signal as possible.
  • Compressors: Placing a compression pedal here will even out the dynamics, and provide a smoother, consistent tone for the rest of the effects in the chain to work with.
  • Distortion/Overdrive/Fuzz: Unless you want some really wacky tones, it is highly recommended that you place your distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals before any modulation and time-based effects.
  • EQ: EQ’s are often used to shape the tonal character of distortion/overdrive/fuzz pedals, so it is only logical to place them right after these effects. Another common use of an EQ pedal is quick and easy volume boosting during a solo or standout part within a song.
  • Pitch-shifting: Pitch-shifting pedals work best with compressed signals, so it should certainly appear after your compressors and distortion pedals.
  • Modulation: This is where you should place your choruses, flangers, and (sometimes) phasers. Modulation pedals seem to function best anywhere after the distortion/overdrive pedals in the signal chain.
  • Volume: Any pedals that alter the volume level of your guitar signal (volume pedal, noise gates, limiters, tremelos, etc) should be placed towards the end of your signal path, so it affects the levels of all previous pedals simultaneously.
  • Delay: The purpose of delay pedals, much like reverb, is to simulate an environment’s response to your guitar sound. Therefore, it should be placed at the end of your chain so it can capture all the different effects that are going on.
  • Reverb: Reverb always sounds best placed at the very end of your signal chain, right before the amplifier. If you have any volume pedals before your reverb, then it will not affect the reverb, allowing it to decay naturally even after you have cut the signal from the guitar.
  • Your amplifier

The Robert Keeley Method

robert keeley

Having trouble remembering that order from above? Robert Keeley, maker of the famous Keeley Compressor pedal (and many more), has come up with an acronym that will help you remember the most common order of guitar pedals in the signal chain:

Which Chain Of Effect Pedals Makes Life Easy?
Which (Wah) Chain (Compressor) Of (Overdrive) Effect (EQ)
Pedals (Pitch) Makes (Modulation) Life (Levels) Easy (Echo)?

A deeper look into guitar pedal positioning

If you are a non-conformist, or just feel like experimenting further, here is a deeper look into how changing the positioning of guitar pedals can affect your guitar tone.

Wah Pedals

  • Before or after an Dist/OD/Fuzz pedal: Before results in a brighter, snappier, and quackier guitar tone that will jump out of a mix. After results in a mellowier, darker tone that fits into the mix better.
  • Before or after a compressor pedal: Before the compressor helps to even out the dynamics of the wah pedal, which can be helpful for creating a better mix. After the compressor will provide even dynamics going into the wah, but will retain the dynamics of the wah itself.

Compressor Pedals

  • Before or after a Dist/OD/Fuzz pedal: Before provides more even dynamics going into the dist/od/fuzz pedal. After will allow the dist/od/fuzz pedal to react to your playing more, like if you weren’t using a compressor at all.

Dist/OD/Fuzz Pedals

Many guitarists argue about the order of these three kinds of pedals in the signal chain, but it’s highly subjective. Some guitarists like to place their “dirt” pedals in order from lowest to highest gain amount, and some do the opposite. Simply try out a few configurations and pick the one you like best.

Modulation Pedals

These pedals usually work best after the distortion, overdrive and fuzz pedals. However, if you place a phaser before these “dirt” pedals, it results in a very interesting tone that sounds thicker and more complex.

Pitch Shifting Pedals

These pedals usually have a hard time handling dirty signals, so it is highly recommended that you place pitch-shifting pedals after your distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals. However, if you are looking for a broken, slightly detuned sound, try placing your pitch-shifting pedal before your dirty pedals to mangle it up nice.

Do the opposite of everything I just said

bicycling backwards

I’m all for experimentation. Occasionally, why not just disregard all of this advice and do something completely illogical and ass-backwards? Most of the time, your results will probably be horrendous, but who knows, maybe you’ll come across something usable! If you do, snap a picture of the setup with a camera or phone if you think you could ever use that signal chain setup in the future (maybe for a certain recording, performance, etc).

This article is meant to give you a basic starting point for the order of your signal chain. If you are a guitar player, feel free to post any pictures you may have of your pedalboard setup below!

  • ree

    These pedals usually have a hard time handling dirty signals, so it is
    highly recommended that you place pitch-shifting pedals after your
    distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals.

    Can you explain what this means?

  • http://tightmixblog.com Chris B.

    Sure! Basically, if you are trying to pass a distorted or overdriven signal through a pitch-shifting pedal, it will have a much more difficult time achieving the pitch-shift effect. It may not stay in tune very long, and might become warbley and strange sounding. However, if that’s the sound you’re looking for, then by all means do it that way!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LFKGDBAKYPQTDOKD3JQGN3UTDQ Ree Fungorio

    I gotcha.  I was thinking backwards.  It happens all the time.

  • Joel

    Wondering why an EQ pedal would not be first or at least toward the beginning of the chain?

  • Joel

    Wondering why an EQ pedal would not be first or at least toward the beginning of the chain?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LFKGDBAKYPQTDOKD3JQGN3UTDQ Ree Fungorio

    @Joel I like the EQ towards the end because I want to shape the tone AFTER the effects have been applied but there isn’t any reason to think it wouldn’t work just as well before.  Probably just my own preference but some effects create certain overtones or emphasize certain freqs that are easier to tame or enhance with the EQ after.  I just put a board together and almost every position was determined by how it sounded although most of the things mentioned above rang true.  So if you have the time and patience, try it every which way and play around with the order until you’ve found what sounds best to your ears.  And I’d say a big part of finding your own tone is knowing what you’re looking for first! One thing about EQs: they work much better as subtractive shapers than additive, usually, and even that’s just my opinion.

  • Joseph

    It’s not a bad idea to put EQ both in before and after distortion.  The result of post-drive EQ is easily understood, as it simply boosts or cuts certain frequencies in an otherwise ‘finished’ tone, much like most amp EQ controls (which are usually positioned between the pre-amp and power amp gain stages, though not always).  The pre-drive actually EQ shapes the character of the distortion: adding distortion to bass-heavy signals can make them sound flabby and unfocused (sometimes you might want that, sometimes not), treble-heavy signals into distortion can sound shrill or glassy.  Midrange-boosted signals often make the subsequent distortion sound smoother.  (BTW, Cutting bass and treble while boosting midrange is known as a frown curve.  Boosting bass and treble while cutting midrange is known as a smile curve.) 

    A common approach is gentle frown curve -> distortion -> gentle smile curve.  But, like you said, it depends a lot on personal preference and what you’re trying to accomplish with a given guitar part.

    Some distortion pedals have both pre- and post-gain eq controls built-in, but that’s pretty rare

  • StratSonic

    Thanks for the information.. very good stuff on this page!

  • Hiten_mitsirugi

    The way you desscribe it sounds like it should go before the dist… im a little confused.

  • http://cbracco.me/ Chris B.

    if you want it to sound warbley and strange, put the distortion pedal before the pitch shifter. if not, place it after.

  • MrMarcosMiranda

    Hello. Great diagram and thank you for posting about something so vital that do many guitarists need and want to know about.

    I do have a question however. How would you separate loops though?

    For instance, I have a Mesa Bogie and typically I go:

    Loop 1:
    Guitar > Tuner > Wah > Volume > Front of Amp

    Loop 2:
    Delay > Amp Out > Reverb > Amp In

  • Jimmydaniel69

    Thanks. this really helps in experimenting the sounds I’d like to produce. Just a question. Where is it best to place an octave pedal? I have a pitch shifter located after the EQ and when I place my octaver, it blinks as if there is a problem with the connecter. Can you comment on this?

  • Damien Harrison

    Best explanation on the internet.

  • Robert Olander

    I run the “four cord” method.

    Guitar -> OverDrive -> Distortion -> Amp Input
    All other effects in a loop (Line in and Line out in the back of the amp).

    Does this change anything about your recommendations, or do you have any advise about doing it this way?

  • Si C

    These pedals usually have a hard time handling dirty signals, so it is 
    highly recommended that you place pitch-shifting pedals after your 
    distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals.
    HUH????You clearly mean the other way around. A pitch-shift pedal should go BEFORE any overdrive/distortion. Provided you are thinking End-to-End starting at the Guitar and progressing through the chain towards the amp. That way the clean sound hits the pitch-shift first. 

  • Iggyspectre

    I was thinking the same thing, in his diagram and list, the distorted guitar signal is obviously going right into the whammy pedal. I’m confused.

  • Joesguitar

    Octave needs to go early in the chain. Right after wah & compressor.

  • finlay marshall

    where should pre-amps go ?

  • RobTheNob

    Where would you ideally place a bitcrusher/sample reducer pedal?

  • sandy_becker

    nah, either you didn’t think the statement through, or you accidentally swapped the variables & their descript’s. 1st, you make the case for placing pitch/mod after because, quote, “Pitch-shifting pedals work best with compressed signals, so it should certainly appear after your compressors and distortion pedals,” which, btw, i personally don’t always agree with, as illustrated by where in the chain you place, say, a whammy ped; you generally want to manipulate the pitch of your content, so that you’re speaking in the one voice you’ve chosen to state your case, in this example, a coat of overdrive (compression being a diff category, one of level/dynamics manipulation).

    on the other hand, multiple voices in the 1 voice benefit/suffer differently depending on which choice of placement you pick. some types of mod can sound a little too robotic/digitized placed after, while some suffer muddiness when placed before; sometimes, BOTH are usable, even if the results are diff. & this is where you muddle your recommendations. quote, “These pedals usually have a hard time handling dirty signals,” & then, after making the case for NOT placing dirt before pitch, you then tell us to DO just that, the exact opposite; “so it is highly recommended that you place pitch-shifting pedals after your distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals.” see what i mean?

    i DO understand what it is you MEANT to say, but you didn’t actually present it as such. in any event, you generally want the darker, moodier mod fx that also contribute body to greater & lesser degrees, before dirt, things like ‘vibe (usually before all other mod’n, ‘cept for a digi-t whammy, which u often want first up, unless ur using a buffer at the start of the chain) & chorus (though this, i like after comp, but before dirt. i say generally, because NUTHIN’ is written in stone. also, phaser placement REALLY depends on what you’re using, & for what purpose; for instance, an mxr-type phaser, more often that not, before. on the other hand, a mutron bi-phase kinda deal, u wanna slap that baby AFTER.

    things like flangers, leslies, tremolos, polyphonic pitch & synthy, these are types of mod’n with a LOT of depth & variation involved, and most definitely fall in the effects camp, the kinds of sounds dist/fuzz/od homogenize, if not obliterate completely of all their nuance. sorry this was so long, & i hope it’s taken as it was meant to be given; help & advice…

  • Ce Ele

    Swap 8 and 10 in the first image :)

  • Alex Delgado

    Years ago ( a la 1982 ) I had loads of noise and no real idea how to set pedals up. Around that time I read an article that said to clean your sound you should run from the guitar to tuner then volume and or wah compressor distortion I run the pitch shifter here but it should be placed before the compressor, then your delay ( I run two a DD3 and DD7) DD3 for a little extra reverb then the molding sounds of phaser chorus and lastly an eq. I basically had this all bass- ackwards and had noise galore before the article and when I placed them in the direction just explained, I didn’t have that annoying Marshall buzz ( even playing on a Marshall) when you ended a song. I can get just about anyone’s sound with this set up – clean blues of SRV – Angus – Glenn Tipton – Jabs- Lifeson- Adrian Smith, all with the tweak of a couple of knobs ( and a great axe featuring Seymour Duncan’s) This is what I found works well for me and maybe it will help someone else eliminate that annoying buzz without buying a noise gate.