There is a lot that goes into getting that sound in your head to come out of your amp’s speakers. And this process is of course first to be addressed in the form of what guitar and amp you are using. Yet pedals and the order in which you use them can also play a huge role in getting the tone you want. Pedalboards are also where much of the confusion and misinformation about tone tends to dwell. I aim to lay out some general tips that will aid you in finding the sound that you want. It is important to note that none of these tips, or any others for that matter, are to be taken as fact or rules to always be followed. Everything with the tone, and especially pedal order, is a personal preference. With that in mind let’s get right into it.
Try Moving Fuzzes Around
Fuzzes are very interesting in the way that they react to other circuits. Many people will prefer to stick their fuzzes early on, if not at the very beginning of their signal chain. This is because, due to the nature of fuzz, they will often sound “best” with as much of the original signal as possible. But you should not let this convention keep you from trying things. There are plenty of iconic tones that have come from pairing a fuzz with another effect after it or even before it. The obvious example that I will cite here is the fuzz placed after the wah pedal as done by Hendrix. Without a doubt, this alone makes my case for changing up the standard pedal order for fuzz. But don’t think that a wah is the only effect type you can try this with. There is an infinite number of creative ways to get new sounds by trying this method.
Don’t Just Group All Gain Pedals Together
It is easy to throw all your boost/drive/distortion/fuzz boxes into the same boat when it comes to where you position them in the pedal order. Hopefully, you already can tell by my previous tip that sometimes, moving things around is a good idea. In the case of gain pedals, there is A LOT of variety in the style of circuits that are present. So, don’t be afraid to have other kinds of pedals in between some of your gain units. The best way to decide the order of your pedals, in general, is to think about your situation, then try things out to see what works best. The key here is that you’re not assuming what sounds best.
Buy a Graphic EQ… And Use It!
There is a whole lot to be said about the versatility an EQ pedal can bring to a rig. But because this tip is supposed to be related to pedal order, I will cover two examples that deal with where you’re using the EQ. The first great use case for an EQ in your pedal chain is right before your drive(s). Placing an EQ right in front of a drive basically lets you transform your gain pedal into whatever you would like. Say you have a scooped heavy distortion pedal or fuzz, just push the mids on your EQ and this becomes more of a full range drive sound. This is just a single example of using EQ pedals before drives, the possibilities are endless.
The other use case I will mention for an EQ is placing it at the very end of your chain. This positioning will act as more of an amp shaping tool than a pedal. You can alter your amps EQ however you would like and even get some timbres you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Use Your Effects Loop
Unless you are using a completely clean, high headroom amp, you can benefit from using your amps effects loop in some way. The idea with this is that some pedals sound better (subjectively) when placed after the preamp, which is exactly where the loop sits. There is a lot that you can put into this position, however, the most common use is for time-based effects and sometimes modulation. Most people will prefer the sound of delays and reverbs after the front of the amp. It may take a little more effort on your end, but the hassle of dealing with a couple of extra cables is well worth it.
Don’t Overuse Your Effects Loop
It can be easy to get carried away with an effects loop once you have started using it. The main thing that causes people to slip up here, is the idea that anything that’s not a gain pedal should be placed in the loop. Many folks, myself included, actually prefer things like modulation and pitch effects to be placed in front of the amp. So, just listen to what you actually prefer and go with that.
Try Putting Your Reverbs Before Your Delays
Among many tone purists, this is a big no-no. Putting your reverb last and after your echo is both the standard and most logical placement if you think about it. But the truth is, you can get some very usable and original sounds from flipping these two effects around. The process of running a reverb into a delay is one that yields some very textured, almost pad like atmosphere. While I wouldn’t recommend this approach for classic delay and reverb sounds (i.e. the Edge), it is a great way to get something new and different out of your time-based units.
All of the above tips are great starting points for getting the perfect pedal order to your ears. But as you can imagine, with many of us having a good number of pedals with different circuits, there are endless combinations that you can use. The most important thing is to continue to try new things and not be afraid to bend the rules a bit.