Some things you should consider when you're adding effects pedals to your arsenal.
By Mike Duffy and Jeff Owens
At some point during many a guitarist’s musical journey, effects pedals come into the mix.
Maybe it’s just one in the beginning. A distortion pedal to add a little crunch to your sound, or a reverb to give your guitar more dimension.
Soon, however, this flirtation with tonal experimentation can turn into an addiction, with more and more stompboxes entering the rig and possibly making the effects chain unwieldy. So many pedals, so many wires, so many possible placements. How are you supposed to properly order everything in relation to your amplifier to ensure that you’re dialing in the way you want?
It should be noted that there are no hard and fast rules. True musical genius is oftentimes born out of breaking the rules and just letting your ears lead the way.
That being said, there is a general school of thought regarding the relationship between amps and effects that can provide a foundation for your own signal path.
As such, consider these tips when pairing pedals with your amp:
These increase your gain rather than change your sound, and include: preamps, compressors, distortion units (such as the MTG Tube Distortion), wah-wah pedals and EQ units (but EQ units are kind of a special case; we’ll get back to those in a minute). Distortion devices can add a lot of harmonic content to your signal, so other types of effects added after these tend to sound more intense. A wah-wah pedal is actually a form of active EQ circuit with a variable range capable of a variety of effects; as such it’s usually placed after gain-boosting effects such as preamps and distortion units, but Jimi Hendrix put his wah-wah pedal before his distortion unit, so there you have it (like we said, there are no exact rules).
These effects combine your original signal with a time-manipulated version of it. They encompass several of the most sonically colorful and spacious effects types, including choruses, like as Fender's Bubbler Chorus, flangers, pitch shifters and delay units. Unlike distortion-type effects, time-based effects units are often best placed in the “effects loop” portion of the signal chain (after an amp’s preamp section and before its power amp section) on amps that are so equipped, rather than up front in between instrument and amp.
Reverb is distinguished here as a more naturally ambient sound than more discrete and artificial delay effects. It’s typically placed last in the signal/effects chain, although various effects are possible by placing it earlier (a good example is the “gated reverb” snare drum sound so prevalent in the 1980s). Fender's Tre-Verb Digital Reverb/Tremolo is one that is flexible enought that is can go anywhere in your chain.
Not all effects fit neatly into the above categories, but they can still be sensibly placed. Phase shifters resemble flangers in effect even though they’re more EQ-based than time-based; nonetheless, they’re right at home among the time-based effects (after gain and distortion effects but before reverb). Octave dividers are a form of pitch-shifting device, and can also be placed near time-based effects. Exciters are designed to make your entire sound more lively and sparkly, so it makes sense to place them at the end of the effects chain, right before reverb. Noise gate devices designed to cut off unwanted buzzing also belong at the end—again, usually before reverb, unless you want the trailing sound of the reverb to be cut off abruptly.
A special case. EQ (equalization) is actually a form of gain-type effect, boosting only a piece of the signal rather than the entire range. EQ units don’t change the overall sound of the signal; they’re mainly used to correct frequency deficiencies caused by other elements in the signal path and in the audio environment, and can hence be placed anywhere in the effects chain as circumstances warrant.
Remember that these are guidelines, not rules. Your creativity can extend not only to which effects you use, but also to the order in which you combine them.