So by all means, if you want a crazy fuzz pedal at the very end of your chain, go ahead and do it even if it’s not what’s usually done. As we all know, rules in music are just guidelines anyway. If people didn’t break the rules, we wouldn’t have distortion pedals in the first place.
With that being said, there are still some good general practices that tend to work best for most situations, and it’s important you know what they are.
Guitar Pedal Order Diagram
Ideally, you want a setup that has your pedals in the order you need, with your most frequently used pedals as close to your feet as possible. Eventually, you won’t need to look at them – you’ll just know where they are instinctively.
First, you’ll need to consider where each type of pedal is going to go. So think about the actual function of each effect and what it does to your signal and overall guitar tone.
The big categories we’re going to cover are utility pedals (tuners, compressors, boosts), tone shaping pedals (distortion, overdrive, fuzz), time-based pedals (delay and reverb), modulation (chorus, flangers, phaser, tremolo, etc) and finally more wild effects like octave / harmony and wah pedals.
On a macro scale, this order tends to work best:
Octave / harmony / wah
Distortion / overdrive
Modulation (Chorus, flange, phaser)
Time-based pedals (delay, reverb)
The general function of these ‘utility’ pedals is written right into the name: they serve some sort of basic utility function and aren’t really proper ‘effects’. Again, the name will say it all. Your tuner tunes your guitar (shocking!). A volume pedal gives you foot control over volume (duh!). You get the point.
In a lot of cases, the order for utility pedals isn’t too important, but most of the time they wind up at the beginning or end of your signal chain.
Tuners are usually placed first so they’re not being obscured by any effects. Many tuner pedals now also feature a ‘buffer’ feature (like the TC Electronic Polytune 3), which keeps the signal strong throughout the entire chain.
Volume pedals are also frequently used at the very front of your chain. In this instance, you can think of them as a foot-controlled version of your guitar’s volume pot. You could also place a volume pedal after your tone/gain section so you can better control the gain before it hits your amp. By using volume pedals in this way, you can vary the distortion tone better on your pedals and amp.
You could write an entire book on different uses for these ‘utility’ effects in your pedalboard, but the biggest thing to remember is that if it works for you, go for it. These pedals are generally designed to work anywhere in a signal chain since they are so basic.
Compressors, EQs and most clean boosts can go anywhere on your board, but it depends what you are using these pedals for. You can put an EQ after your distortion / fuzz to either boost or cut certain frequency bands. This way, you can tailor the overall sound of the distortion to your liking.
Compressors can work either in the front of your chain to add some extra spice to your tone, or after your other effects to give you a smoother overall level going to your amp.
When a compressor is placed at the beginning of the chain, it’s working on a clean guitar signal. This is a great way to add some extra sustain and even out your overall playing dynamics before going into your overdrive and distortion pedals.
Compressor pedals can also be used at the very front of your chain to compensate for volume differences in each guitar pickup.
You should be careful of putting your compressor pedal at the very end though, because it will increase any inherent noise in your other effects when it is engaged, resulting in undesired noise.
Special Effects: Octave, Harmony And Wah Pedals
This seems like a somewhat random category since wah-wah and octave pedals are really quite different effects. But what they do have in common is that they generally work well with a clean guitar signal, which means they should generally go before distortion, overdrive, etc.
In the case of octave and harmonizer pedals, this makes sense because the pedal has to track the note pitch then harmonize with it as seamlessly as possible. The addition of extra harmonics when you add distortion or overdrive can confuse these pedals and give strange results.
Wah pedals, especially auto-wah, typically work best when placed at the front of your chain, too. Distortion before wah means you have more harmonics to play with but less aggression in the sound as the wah is still clean. Distortion before an auto-wah is particularly problematic as there are no longer any dynamics for the envelope follower to react to.
The next step in your chain should almost always consist of any distortion, overdrive, fuzz, or other ‘tone’ shaping pedals. Considering these effects squeeze the dynamics right out of your signal, it’s especially important to consider the placement of these pedals.
For example, if you put your biggest, meanest fuzz pedal after your delay pedal, you won’t hear any difference between the dry and delayed signal. While you can definitely get creative this way, it is limiting, so you generally place tone-shaping effects before any modulation or time-based effects.
Boost pedals also typically get thrown into this category. You might want to boost before overdrive for extra grit, or after if you want to hit your amp harder. A boost pedal at the end of your chain can help compensate for signal loss with long cables, though these days a dedicated buffer pedal is the way to go here.
You can also try putting all of your pedals in order from lowest to highest gain. For example, you might want to place a light overdrive before your Boss Metalzone! This means you can shape the tone before it is smashed to pieces. You would have less control here if the heavy distortion was placed first.
Of course, this is largely up to your own experimentation, so feel free to play around with what works best for the sound you’re looking for. There’s no reason why you can’t do it the other way around. You won’t have as much control over the tone, but maybe this doesn’t matter to you anyway!
Modulation: Chorus, Flange, Phaser, Tremolo
The next step in your chain will usually be any modulation effects like tremolo, flangers, phasers, rotary sims, and the like. Because distortion can really mess with the character of these effects, they are best placed after any overdrive or fuzz pedals.
With that being said, if you put a distortion pedal after a flanger that’s an easy way to get those 1980s inspired Van Halen Jet takeoff sounds, so once again, the intention is key.
One thing to consider here is gain staging, as modulation pedals can have limits to how hot the input signal can be. In particular, bucket brigade delay lines in analog chorus and flange pedals will distort if the signal is too loud.
When it comes to the order of multiple modulation effects, it really doesn’t matter that much, since you largely won’t use more than any one modulation effect at once. Even if you do, you can really pick the order based on how the pedals react together to produce the sound you want.
One exception here is with tremolo pedals. Typically you want these placed after your other modulation effects, or the dynamics introduced by the tremolo can be lost. Additionally, placing a tremolo before your other effects may make them react unusually to the volume changes.
The final stage of your pedalboard will likely consist of your time-based effects like reverb and delay. These effects are typically designed to sound best without any further processing after them. It also makes sense to have your modulated sounds going into a delay, rather than having a modulation effect on both your clean and delayed signal afterwards. This will make the delay tails cleaner and more distinctive.
However, delays are often placed before reverb for a more natural sound. It’s better for your reverb to react to the delay tails and include them in the space, rather than creating echoes of the reverb tail. This order also makes sense when you consider that the built-in reverb in your amp always comes after your effects.
Effects loops let you place pedals between your amplifier’s preamp and power amp sections. This is similar to insert effects on a mixing board or in your DAW.
When using pedals the traditional way, everything runs into your pre-amp. With an effects loop, your guitar runs straight into the pre-amp, and then the effects are applied after this. This means the signal is already boosted before it hits your pedals.
Effects loops are mostly useful for modulation and time-based effects, and if you want to use your amp’s distortion before your pedals, this is the way to go.
Because of this, it’s uncommon to use distortion pedals in your amp’s effects loop.
Power & Cables
So, once you’ve got all your pedals picked out and have determined the order they’ll go in, it’s time to connect them together, give them some juice, and build your actual pedalboard.
While the norm in the past was that most guitar pedals could be powered by 9V batteries, this is no longer the case with the invention of mini-pedals and high powered digital stompboxes. Since you also have to plug your amp into a power source anyway, it makes a lot of sense to just power your pedals from the wall as well.
There are basically two different types of power supplies you can get for pedals that take 9V power adapters. This hasn’t been 100% standardized across every pedal, but in recent years there has been a massive push towards making it the norm whenever possible.
The first method is to get a single high current power supply (such as a 1 Spot) and a daisy-chain. The benefits of these ‘wall-wart’ power packs is they are cheap and you can plug a large number of pedals into just 1 outlet.
The downside is that you’re really just feeding one powerful source through all the different pedals at once, and if you connect too many pedals you won’t have enough voltage to power them all.
For small boards this usually isn’t an issue, or if you mostly have analog effects that don’t draw a ton of power this can work fine. These single power supplies can also introduce noise to your signal if the outlet isn’t grounded properly.
The other method of powering your pedals is to use an isolated power supply (such as the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power line). These boxes act as a miniaturized power conditioner, featuring separate isolated power outputs that give each of your pedals the exact right amount of juice for them to operate properly.
Most also feature a few different current options for heavy-duty digital effects, or voltage converters for pedals that are designed to run at 18V. Since each power outlet is isolated by the power supply itself, these systems make it a lot harder for noise to creep into your system. Sounds like a much better option, right?
Well, they are significantly more expensive, and depending on how many pedals you have you may need more than one. To me, if you have 8+ pedals or a lot of digital effects, they’re the only way to go.
Most are highly compatible with the major brands of pedalboards on the market and fit underneath the board comfortably, leaving plenty of room for your pedals..
When it comes to cables, there are a ton of options out there, so I’m going to keep this as brief as possible. My theory is that you should use whatever cables you need to get the job done, only spending extra when necessary.
Yes, super nice Mogami cables are awesome and won’t break on you in the middle of a gig, but is it worth spending hundreds of dollars because someone claims they sound ‘better’? I don’t think so!
If you feel particularly handy, you can make your own cables by buying the components yourself and cutting the wire to whatever length you need. Just keep in mind the invariable desire to change your pedalboard order around! You could end up swapping something in the future and be left with cables that are too short.
Personally I’ve become a big fan of Ernie Ball’s new flat patch cables. The connector and cabling are both flat, making them super low profile. They also come in a variety of different lengths so you can connect different pedals to your board with ease. They’re also very reasonably priced considering how handy they are.
If there’s one takeaway you get from all this, it’s that these are all suggestions based on best practice and common sense. These suggestions have worked well for tons of guitar players and are the safest way to go to get the most out of your pedals.
At the end of the day, your setup should be open to your own needs and experimentation. You shouldn’t be hindered by the idea that something is ‘supposed’ to go somewhere. All aspects of music are about innovation and experimentation, so feel free to play around and hear what works best for you.