How do you arrange guitar effects in a signal chain and why should you care? In the simplest of terms, one effect will affect the next one down the chain, then the next one and so forth. For example, a chorus before a distortion pedal will create a distorted chorus and a chorus after a distortion will create a chorused distortion. Confusing? Probably. Before getting started, there are two points to remember – first, no real damage can occur by switching the order of anything and second, often times there is no better way to check things out than by just moving them around and listening to what sounds best. If you have a multi-effect unit, this all may be even more important. Most have options to move the effects around. Without knowing your options, you may be destined only to adjusting presets and never get the most out of your piece of gear.
Volume boost and/or compression.
There are varying schools of thought on this one, but generally to get an even sound through your signal chain, you’ll want to get the boost or cut of compression in there first. The effect chain will get the most even signal path to work with, and the effects will be truer to their intended purpose. A word of caution: any auto wah or similar effect that would be triggered by signal strength will be affected greatly by the compressor up front. Either the sensitivity will need to be increased, or that effect should just go first. Some distortion pedals and guitar synth settings are even sensitive to this.
A wah pedal is essentially a variable tone control. You can experiment, but the classic wah sounds would be best served with the guitar tone uncolored as it goes through. You could put it after other effects and distortion, but be advised you will be adjusting the tone of these effects along with the tone of the guitar. Another consideration is that a wah pedal is generally a noisy pedal. If it is placed further down the chain, especially after a distortion pedal, it will be adding noise to all the noise that came before it. Every company’s wah is a little different – some company’s wah pedals vary greatly even in the same model – so experiment with placing the wah first. A volume boost before a wah should be fine and maybe even help, but compression may kill many wah’s functionality.
There’s really not a bad place to put a distortion pedal, but in the most general terms a distortion pedal will kind of muddy-up the effects coming before it. The distortion pedal probably has more affect on the rest of the pedals than anything else, so if you’d want to move something around this might be your choice.
Equalization is a bit of a wild card. It really depends on what you want to control. Generally right after a distortion pedal tames the signal before going into the rest of the effects, but right before works as well. It may come down to whether it is always on, or used as an effect in itself. Many guitarists use it as a boost pedal in which case, it would work best first.
These would be phasers, flangers, chorus, pitch shift and tremolo type effects. Putting them towards the end of the chain generally gives the most accurate representation of what they actually do. There are no rules, of course, and phasers in particular can often be found ahead of wahs and distortions. It gives the whole unit a different kind of sound and is well worth checking out.
This placement will be met with some criticism, as many guitarists like a volume pedal at different places for different reasons. Placed at this point, it will control the volume of the signal as it is going into the amp and controlling the level of everything before it. Placed anywhere before the other effects, those effects will operate differently as they are receiving less of a signal as the volume is dropped off. Not better or worse – just different. A distortion pedal or phaser just sounds different as volume is decreased to it. If this works for your particular sound, go for it.
Delays, echos and reverbs.
This can be exchanged with number six for a different kind of effect. I personally consider a reverb or delay as something recreating the sound of a room. I would want it to keep echoing on as I drop the volume with the pedal. If your particular application requires your sound to stop-on-a-dime, you’ll want to put the volume pedal last.
The effects loop.
Running all your effects into the front end of an amp is perfectly fine and what guitarists did since the beginning of time. Most amps offer an effects loop, which puts effects after the preamp and before the power amp – basically where they will sound the best. As we put the boost and/or compressor up front in the chain to get the cleanest signal to the later effects, we can do the same with an effects loop. The effects loop sounds best with only the modulation effects and delay and reverb effects running through it. Non time-based effects like distortion and compression usually sound best when run through the front end of the amp – after all, those effects were designed to simulate an overdriven tube amp in the first place.
There are probably hundreds of guitar multi effects out on the market, so they’ll all be a little different. Check the owner’s manual or the company website to see what yours is capable of. Many guitarist use a multi-effect in conjunction with single pedals. Try using the multi-effect pedal in a position as you would the guitar pedals above as a starting point. Many have an effects loop of their own, so experiment with placing other effects through the multi-effect loop. Internally, many multi-effects have options to place their virtual pedals anywhere in the signal chain just like the single pedals we placed in the examples above. For a lucky few, computer based options exist like on a number of Line 6 products. Clinking a mouse can move all your virtual effects around rather than plugging and unplugging stompboxes to hear the differences.
There are no hard and fast rules. I’m sure some of the greatest effects in the world come from effects placed “wrong” in the guitarist's signal path.
Where to find them in LA? Check out the manufacturer's sites for local dealers. A lot can now be found at Guitar Center.