Pedal Placement — Does It Matter?

pedal placement

So you finally have a boatload of effects pedals to play around with and a beautiful pedalboard to mount them on…

Now comes the difficult part — figuring out what order to put your pedals in.

After hundreds of gigs and studio sessions over the years, not to mention many hours of arduous experimentation, I have landed on a pedal order that simply works.

Before we dive into the who’s, what’s, and why’s, here is the standard order that I tend to keep my pedals in:

  • Tuner
  • Wah
  • Compression
  • Overdrive
  • Equalizer
  • Pitch Shifter
  • Modulation
  • Volume
  • Echo
  • Reverb

 

Let’s dig in and take a closer look at why I choose to order my pedalboard this way.

Tuner

I always keep my TC Electronic Polytune at the front of the lineup. The idea here is that no pedal is going to sound great if your guitar isn’t in tune. The reason I love the TC Electronic Polytune is that it is a true bypass pedal. The less effect another pedal can have on my clean signal, the better.

Of course, if you have a tuner you like that isn’t true bypass, you could use a switching system as well. I’ve personally never used one, though I know plenty of pro players who swear by them, so they might be worth looking into.

In my opinion, having your tuner first is a no-brainer. I can’t think of a guitarist who would argue that point. Keep it at the front and you’ll always have a guitar that’s in-tune. Simple as that.

Wah

Next, I like to put my wah down. I use a Budda Budwah wah pedal, which has a smooth sound and a wide frequency range. My compressor is the next pedal in line. Having my wah before my compressor allows the compressor to catch any unwanted resonant peaks that come from my wah pedal, giving me more control of my sound — plus, I just love the sound of feeding a wah into a distortion pedal. Jimi Hendrix fed his wah into a Fuzz Face to achieve his classic sound. If it worked for Jimi, it works for me. Of course, you can achieve a “cleaner” frequency sweep by placing your wah after your distortion pedal if you choose. This might be a better choice for modern rock players.

Compressor

A compressor pedal is used to reduce the dynamic range of whatever you play. Essentially, a compressor makes the quiet notes louder and the louder notes quieter. As for me, I enjoy putting my compressor before my distortion pedal, as it feeds my distortion in a more controlled way.

However, I rarely use compression and distortion in tandem, as distortion already is a form of compression. Typically, my compressor is used for clean playing styles. You might want to experiment with putting your compressor after your distortion if you’re looking to cut back on noise (compressors tend to bring up noise if placed before overdrive or distortion) or if you’re looking to increase sustain. A tiny bit of compression post-distortion can help beef up a solo.

My favorite compressor ever, is the Keeley Compressor. I pretty much leave it on all the time at this point. The beauty of the Keeley is that it has a blend knob to help blend in aggressive compression with your clean signal, providing you with more transparent compression. Plus, it provides that classic, 70s-style Dyna-Comp compression that we all know and love.

Overdrive

When I say “overdrive,” I’m really talking about overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals.

Depending on the session I’m in or the gig I’m playing, I may have anywhere from 2-3 “overdrive” effects on my board. Some of my favorites include my Sweet Honey Overdrive, my Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, and my Boss DS-1.

Having overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals before pitch, modulation, and time-based effects provide a more defined signal moving out. Running a modulation or time-based effect into distortion creates lots of unwanted mud and weird harmonic characteristics that are typically undesirable. For example, you could place your overdrive pedal after your delay pedal, though you would get a huge volume spike and unwanted muddiness when you switched it on.

EQ

I often go back and forth on the necessity of having an EQ pedal on my board. Compared to most pedals I have, EQs aren’t that interesting. You really need a clear reason as to why you want to shape the frequency characteristics of your signal, to justify having an EQ pedal. As of right now, I love the extra control in certain situations. I especially love having it post-overdrive and distortion, as I can use it to shape the sound.

The Boss GE-7 has always been my go-to, in fact, it’s the only EQ pedal I’ve ever owned, as Boss pedals last nearly forever. Its seven distinct bands of EQ help tame any unwanted frequencies that come from using heavy distortion, fuzz, or overdrive. It’s also great for cutting mids, and, combined with overdrive or distortion, helps the guitar cut through during solos.

Pitch

Pitch pedals include Whammy pedals, POGs, Octavers, vibrato pedals, and other types of pitch shifters. One thing I’ve learned from experimenting over the years is that overdrive and distortion pedals don’t respond well to too many frequencies at a time. To combat this issue, I place my Micro Pog after my distortion pedals. Sometimes, I’ll put it before my EQ pedal as well, as I often use the low octave on the POG, which can get a bit muddy with bass and drums in the mix. Using an EQ post-POG allows me to tame low frequencies, if necessary.

Modulation

Modulation pedals include flangers, phasers, chorus, and envelope filters. I typically place my Strymon Mobius after pitch and EQ pedals, though I ALWAYS place it after distortion, overdrive, or fuzz pedals. Modulation pedals tend to “thicken” the frequencies from your guitar, which is why they work best post-distortion.

Volume

When I talk about volume pedals, I’m talking about standard volume pedals, tremolo pedals, noise gates, and limiters.

There are a few reasons why I like this placement for my volume pedal. For starters, I like to use my volume pedal for swells, and having it before reverb and delay allows for the swell to receive time-based treatment. Second, in case you’re feeding your signal through a wide range of pedals, you may end up getting unwanted hiss or noise. Having the ability to push your volume pedal down to get rid of the noise can be very helpful.

Noise gates are particularly helpful at this point if you use heavy distortion, as they can get rid of the sound when the signal drops below a certain level. I love the MXR Smart Gate. In my opinion, a noise gate should be simple and effective with a threshold setting and an operation select mode for cutting out certain unwanted frequencies, such as hiss or hum. The MXR Smart Gate hits the nail on the head.

Delay

Delay pedals include echo pedals, digital delay pedals, and analog delay pedals.

The point of a delay is that it takes the sum of the sound you have created through your mass of pedals and repeats that sound in delays. Having delay after the majority of your effects gives you more control over the final sound produced.

Of course, there is plenty of room to experiment as you get closer to the end of your pedalboard.

For example, in my time as a producer and engineer, I found that one of my favorite delay tricks in the box came from feeding a delay into a pitch shifter plugin. After using this effect so many times while mixing, I figured, “What the heck, might as well try the same thing on my guitar!” It sounded incredible and I’ve been using that technique on and off ever since.

While I think there’s room for experimentation at this point in the pedal lineup, I typically keep my favorite delay (the Catalinbread EchoRec) after my modulation effects.

Reverb

Reverb, in its simplest definition, recreates the sound of a natural environment, which is why I like to use it last. Plus, many amps come with built-in reverb, which would come last, after the affected signal hits the amp anyway. It makes sense that your signal, clean or with effects, should get a “natural environment” spatial treatment after everything else.

The TC Electronic Hall of Fame is one of my favorite reverb pedals for when I don’t want to use the spring reverb built into my amplifier, or when I am using an amp that doesn’t have reverb built-in, to start. It’s one of the most versatile reverbs in its price range and uses the TonePrint software from TC-electronic, which allows you to “upload” presets from artists all over the world.

Yes, Pedal Order MATTERS

Having a polished sound requires an understanding of “proper” pedal order. Yes, your pedal order matters, as any alteration of that order results in a completely different tone.

Is that a bad thing?

Not at all! Experimentation in music is key. It helps us discover new sounds. Without it, I supposed we’d still be in the era of Gregorian chant. The important thing is having a strong foundation on which to experiment.

One thing to note is that every time I buy a new pedal, I like to explore the sounds of the pedal on its own before rigging it to my board, so I know how it will work alongside other effects. I recommend you do the same thing, as it will help you decide where in the lineup it should sit.

Beyond that, follow my recommendations and experiment as you see fit from there. You’ll be well on your way to a pro sound!

Tyler Connaghan Tyler is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles. In between duties at Humbucker Soup, he swims in the shark tank of music licensing for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.