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Tone Tip: Effects Pedals, Part 1

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

As much as many players still enjoy that straight-ahead sweetness of the guitar-to-amp tone fest, the fact is that effects pedals play a major part in sound shaping today. There are more, and better, stompboxes on the market today than ever before, and adding just a few to your signal chain can open up a spectacular pallet of sonic possibilities. Learning a little bit about how to make the most of the effects you use can go a long way toward maximizing your success with sound sculpting, so let’s investigate some of the best ways to chain these things together. This subject demands two installments, so this time we’ll look at traditional individual pedals placed between your guitar and the input of your amplifier. In Part 2, I’ll discuss using pedals in the effects loops of amps that are equipped with them, give an overview of multi-effects pedals and rack units, and offer a few other tips. We’re concerned here purely with the use and running order, if you will, of these effects; there are so many great pedals available today, not to mention all the outstanding stompboxes manufactured over the past 40 years or so, that I can’t begin to tell you which pedals you should be using, but can at least help you get the most out of what you’ve got.

There is an accepted “correct” order in which to chain pedals together for the best interaction and sound, but this subject should only be approached in the knowledge that whatever order gives you the most desirable sound for your own style, or for a particular song, is clearly the correct order for you.

The “quick start” guide to chaining effects pedals says you put tone filters and EQs first, boosters and overdrives second, modulation devices third, and delays fourth (see sidebar, Effects Categories). With this line up, you filter or EQ the raw guitar before distorting and boosting it, distort and boost it before making it spin or wobble (thereby spinning or wobbling the fully-driven sound), and finally, echo or reverberate all that has come before—echo first, reverb second, if you’re using both.

A common variation on this order, one that certainly 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 include an element of filtering-type EQ shaping, sweeping frequency notches or out-of-phase signal paths; sending an already distorted signal into this frequency-twisting mayhem can just cough up hairballs of atonal mush, but injecting the ethereal swirl into an overdrive or fuzz that follows it can work a certain magic on your guitar signal.  

You will also need to apply a little thought and experimentation in the case of certain pedals that like to sit in the same position. One such conflict can involve vintage fuzz pedals and wah-wah pedals, each of which like to sit first in the chain for their own reasons. Some fuzz pedals react most  dynamically with your guitar and playing style when they are connected directly to it, which is to say, when you place it first in the chain. Very often, however, if you’re using both fuzz and wah, you will want the wah’d sound going into the fuzz, and not vice-versa, in order to achieve that vocal, chewy sound of a wah-wah governing the fuzz textures (although interesting results can be had from reversing this, certainly). Another case might be that of a stereo analog chorus pedal and distortion pedal used in the same chain; perhaps the effect you want to create is best achieved with the chorus in front of the distortion, but if you want to use both stereo outs from the chorus to feed two amps—and have them be similar, although stereo-flipped, signals—you will need to have the chorus pedal last in the chain. In such cases all you can do is experiment, try things out every conceivable way, and use what works for you.

As with any formal music training, begin from an understanding of the rules, then break them as necessary to achieve what works for your music. Experiment, juggle your sounds, and see what you can come up with.

(End of Part 1; Here's Tone Tip: Effects Pedals, Part 2)