The simple set-up of a good guitar played through a good tube amp can still provide the most compelling tones in popular music, but many players — and band situations — need something more in the sonic brew. Effects pedals can add texture, dynamics, space and motion to an otherwise “two dimensional” sound, and have become popular in almost every genre of electric guitar-based music. There’s an enormous range of sounds out there, and the only way to choose what will work for you is to sample as many as you can lay your hands on and determine what’s right for your music, your band and your playing style. Once you have done that, though, it pays to know a few things about connecting them between guitar and amp for optimum performance.
Wherever there are rules, of course, there are also exceptions to the rules. Let’s get the rules down first, then look at the exceptions — as well as checking out a few ways that creative players have learned to break the rules entirely.
The rule of thumb for connecting pedals between guitar and amp holds that you place tone filters and EQs first (that is, the guitar plugs directly into them), gain-producing devices such as overdrive and distortion pedals second, modulation devices such as chorus and flanger pedals third, and delay devices such as echo and reverb last (and in that order, if you have both).
A common variation on this, one that works best with certain types of pedals, is to swap the middle two of these four stages. Some modulation devices such as vintage-style analog choruses, phasers or Uni-Vibes and their clones do their best work when put before overdrive or fuzz pedals. This is mostly because their function and sound includes an element of filtering-type tone shifting that can sound great going into an overdrive pedal, but pretty gnarly when working its magic on a signal that is already distorted.
For our purposes here, consider wah-wah pedals as EQ or tone-filtering devices, which is really what they are. For most applications, they work best placed first in the chain, with your guitar going straight into them, and that’s the way that everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Johnson to Yngwie Malmsteen to J. Mascis has used them. Some others, however, do things a little differently: Carlos Santana sticks a Tube Screamer before his wah-wah, Brian May puts his treble booster first, and Steve Vai has wahs both before and after his Boss DS-1 Distortion. The decision depends upon whether you want to distort the frequency-swept tone of the wah (ie wah first, overdrive second), or sweep the frequency of an already distorted tone. The only way to decide for yourself is to try both.
Fuzz pedals provide another fly in the ointment here: most vintage-style fuzz pedals interact best with your guitar — regarding dynamics, pick attack, and volume control — when they are connected first in the chain. For many wah-wah applications, however, you want the wah before them. Convention says you should put the wah-wah first, but again, decide for yourself.
Delay-based devices will usually go last in the chain because you want your fully overdriven and modulated tone to then be treated to the space-created effects of echo or reverb. Working in this order generally results in the highest fidelity and the greatest depth for each effect in the rig. Mixing it up, on the other hand, might create odd and unusual sounds that just happen to produce the sonic magic you were looking for, so don’t be afraid to experiment (but check your effects devices’ manuals first to make sure you won’t overload anything by running something else before it). Once again, the functions of certain components will also sometimes force you to change the conventional running order here. For example, if you get your overdrive sound from the lead channel in a channel-switching amp rather than an overdrive or distortion pedal, and your reverb and/or echo sounds come from individual pedals or outboard units, you’re a little stuck. Many such amps have effects loops that you can run delay-based devices in — and that’s exactly what they’re intended for (again, read manuals to make sure FX loop levels won’t overload such devices, and adjust levels accordingly). If your amp has no effects loop but you still want to get your lead sound from its high-gain channel, you’ll just have to decide which compromise you want to make.
If you use more than one of each type of effects pedal, you will very likely have to compromise somewhere. Test, experiment, and work with what you’ve got to create the best sound for your own music. It helps to know convention, but don’t be bound by it if something a little out of left field actually helps to better produced the tones in your head. Even Jimi Hendrix had to compromise — and he certainly broke plenty of rules, too. His most legendary pedal set up ran guitar—> Vox Wah-Wah—> Fuzz Face—> Octavia—> Uni-Vibe. In other words, that’s filter/EQ, gain, filter, modulation. Did it work for him? You decide!
In Part Two, we’ll look at some advanced techniques for connecting stereo pedals and examine buffers, which can help your signal get through extensive pedal set ups and connecting cables with minimal signal loss.