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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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!