What Order Should My Pedals Be In?

Signal Flow...

One of the questions frequently asked here at Humbucker Music concerns the arrangement and order of effects pedals.   This is a very valid question, especially when there are a lot of pedals in use.  Many people, even several pros we've dealt with, are surprised by the importance of proper pedal board signal flow.  Improper arrangement of pedals can make even the most impressive pedalboard your worst enemy.  Naturally, pedals react quite differently according to what input is being fed into them.  

Pedal arrangement can be a fun process and can inspire new sounds when tired of the same setup.  It is a pretty large topic to address, and although there are a few basics that can get someone headed in the right direction, we want to attempt to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time and concentrate on some more common situations and set ups.  Please keep in mind that pedal order can be a subjective thing and largely based on opinion, especially since tastes can differ and change.  There are a few rules to pedal order, but we still encourage anybody that reads this to experiment with your own sounds and arrangement and not to be worried about a "wrong" order.  There are a lot of different and interesting sounds to be had by changing the order of pedals.  We hope this provides a guideline and describes what we have noticed about effects order. 

Let's start with what an effects pedal does.  It doesn't just affect the tone of your guitar.  It affects your guitar tone *and* every pedal before it in the chain.  Take for instance the following simple scenario:  You have a reverb pedal and a distortion pedal.  Ideally you would want to add reverb to the already distorted sound, and not distort the guitar *and* the reverb.  It's likely you'll end up with a more jarbled or muddied sound if you distort the reverberated signal.  Another example:  Plug your guitar into an overdrive pedal then into a boost pedal.  Some people would want the boost pedal to be placed before the overdrive pedal, in order to boost the overdrive signal and everything after it.  Now in this setup, the boost pedal will also be “driving” the OD pedal harder, which can be ideal for some players.  However, some players may prefer to place the boost pedal after the OD, in order to just add some sustain and volume to the overdrive signal.  In this setup, the overdrive would be pushing the original signal in order to add the “breakup” sound, and the boost pedal would be boosting this effect, instead of boosting the original signal first.  Neither setup is necessarily right or wrong, but they accomplish different effects.

When organizing your pedals, you should first determine the purpose of each pedal.  To help, here is a basic categorization of pedal types and their purposes: 


Signal conditioners - Pedals that only alter the general sound by increasing gain and optionally changing the EQ.  Includes preamp, overdrive, boostdistortion, fuzz and compressor pedals.



Filter effects - Pedals that adjust the frequency response by enhancing, notching out, or shaping the frequencies in certain ranges.  Includes wah, envelope filter, and EQ pedals.



Volume/Level effects - Pedals that cause changes in the overall signal by increasing or decreasing level, or controlling certain peaks.  Includes volume, tremolo, and noise gate pedals. A compressor could be considered in this category because of its volume control and ability to smooth peaks and valleys in a signal.



Modulation effects - Pedals that modulate the original sound by introducing several signals to interact with the others in order to produce frequencies otherwise not present.  Includes chorus, flanger, phase shifting, and rotary simulating pedals.  Vibrato could also be considered in this category.



Pitch related effects - Pedals that alter the pitch of the signal by adding octaves or bending the pitch.  Includes octave and pitch shifting pedals such as a whammy. Vibrato could also be considered in this category.



Echo and time-based effects - Pedals that simulate the original introduction of the sound by copying and repeating the sound or through an echo effect.  Includes delay, reverb, and echo pedals.


Now that the pedals are categorized, we’ll go over a very basic pedal layout, an arrangement that we have found to typically work best, guitar being the start of the signal path and the amp being the end.


Guitar --> Signal conditioners --> Filter effects -->


Pitch related effects --> Modulation effects --> Volume/Level effects -->  


Echo and time-based effects --> Amp

These types of effects seem to work together the best in this arrangement, each pedal performing naturally and achieving a smooth and desired sound.  

When any overdrives or distortion are first in the chain, the overdriven sounds will be more natural and unaffected than if they were elsewhere.  This also helps to prevent other effects being driven too hard, like unnecessarily dirtying a delay signal by having the overdrive later in the chain.  Filter effects are more lively and resonate more clearly in this position.  Pitch based effects seem to do well here because overdrive pedals already create more pitches when engaged (think of all the harmonics or overtones they can add) so having the pitch related effects afterward help things to stay more controlled.  Having a volume pedal in this position works well when doing swells with delay or reverb pedals or even with overdriven sounds.  The volume pedal allows the swells to sound more organic and actually swell, instead of sudden, "nothing-to-all" volume changes. When playing with delay or reverb, putting the volume pedal in the heel position would not kill the echoes (this would be like turning the amp off while playing) as it would in another position, but instead the sounds would naturally decay.   Having modulation effects in this order helps the sound to be a "chorused overdrive" or "phased distortion" or a lead part with a hint of flange, instead of distorting the modulated sounds.  Having reverb and delay effects last in a chain helps to emulate the sound of playing in a larger room, typically a desired affect when using delay or reverb, and the delay and echoes sound much cleaner and articulate when in this position. 

When arranging pedals in this order, it can be a good idea to spend a lot of time with the specific arrangement of pedals within a category. Many people have different overdrives, different modulation effects, different volume effects and different delays.  Arranging within a category can prove to be tedious but well worth time spent.  Here are some examples of what we at Humbucker Music have learned from this.  

Some of us at the shop have found that the stronger gain pedals, like distortions or fuzz pedals sound better first.  Some people have a particular drive or boost pedal that they prefer to always leave on, and this setup seems to work well when stacking the higher gain pedals with the more moderate gain pedals.  Others here feel that their best sound comes when the higher gain pedals are later in the chain.  This is most noticeable when the drive pedals are not stacked.         

When using a compressor, we have noticed a large difference in sound when varying its placement.  First consider the type of sound you are aiming for before settling on a home for a compressor in a chain of pedals.  For a more dynamic, rock and roll sound, we have found the compressor works best at the start of the chain.  This helps the overall sound to breathe a bit more with the introduction of other pedals in the signal path.  The compressor is working less hard, allowing slight changes in level and the sound is very lively.  The compressor serves to even things out, the overdrives are very focused and detailed, single notes sustain well and delays and reverbs ring out more.  To change things up, we have added the compressor after pitch related effects and before level and volume effects.  This adds more sustain to the overall sound and the compressor is doing more compressing.  Fewer changes in volume occur when introducing new effects and less dynamics.  Having the compressor at the end of the chain helps to achieve a great country sound.  Everything is very tight and "squashed" in a good way.  Notes are very even and there is a lot of sustain. 

Some of us like wah best after overdrive, (first in a group of filter effects because it works closer to the overdriven sounds) for a certain aggressive-sounding tone. However, having a wah before overdrive or distortion can make some pretty interesting frequency responses and may be more desired than this setup.  A classic example is Jimi Hendrix.  He ran the wah first and, even if it's just us, he had some really killer wah tones.

We commonly place volume last in its category, right before delay and reverb; it seems most natural when fading out sounds or doing swells.  Reverb pedals are placed after echoes or delays, it seems like this brings out the most ambience and the fullest sound.   

When running an EQ pedal, we believe it works best if it is placed directly after the effect that is being EQ'd.  If it is working on the overall sound, it seems to work best after modulation effects or right after volume effects.  The same can be true for noise gates.  They seem to be the friendliest right before or even after time based effects, but they can also work well right before a really noisy pedal, like fuzz or wah. 

Remember, that these are all suggestions and what brought us to these conclusions was experimentation and patience.  For the best results, set aside some time for adjusting the order and enjoy the time spent.  An arrangement other than what has been described can prove to be very satisfying, even if it isn't conventional.