To use a technical term, there are precisely a bajillion guitar and bass effects pedals roaming the wilds these days. And did you know they’re not just used to show off your musician cred? Obviously the bigger your board the better you are! In rare cases, effects pedals can also be used to alter your guitar tone and make it sound better for specific purposes. Who knew!?
As you build your impressive effects collection, you might start to wonder about the best way to arrange them on your pedalboard. There are tons of opinions about the “correct” pedal flow. You might read articles online, stumble on posts from social media, or hear your other guitar friends scream at you after looking at your rig. But we’re here to set the record straight! Are there any hard and fast rules to pedal flow, or is it all just a bunch of tomfoolery? Let’s dive in.
The basic pedal flow guidelines
Certain effects pedals don’t like to sit next to each other. Like rowdy kindergarteners, some of them need to be separated.
Generally, this is considered the “correct” way to set up your pedalboard:
- Impedance-sensitive pedals
- Pitch-tracking pedals
- Dynamic pedals
- Gain pedals
- Modulation pedals
- Time-based pedals
Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed the quotation marks around “correct.” That’s because there aren’t hard pedal flow rules you have to follow. These are just guidelines to help you get started, despite what anyone might tell you. It’s not like the pedal police are going to come after you if you swap around the order!
But if you want to stay on the straight and narrow, let’s run through a few of the types of effects pedals, so you can understand what goes where and why.
Impedance-sensitive effects pedals
Impedance is the measure of your guitar pickups’ resistance to alternating current. If you don’t have a degree in electrical engineering, impedance is essentially the power of your signal. The higher the impedance the "hotter” your pickups sound.
Every pedal you use affects your signal’s impedance. So, if you have any impedance-sensitive pedals, they should be first in line to get the cleanest signal possible straight from your instrument.
Some of the most common impedance-sensitive effects pedals include:
These pedals are very sensitive to changes in impedance. They’re like the fussy kindergarteners who need a bit more attention than the rest.
It’s common for guitarists to put their impedance-sensitive pedals in that order, too. You want your tuner to have the cleanest tone straight from your instrument for tuning accuracy, so it goes first. Then, follow it with your wah, then your fuzz.
Many guitarists also throw volume pedals into this group. They wouldn’t officially be called “impedance-sensitive,” but they are commonly put toward the front of a signal chain. However, they can also work well at the back of your chain.
A volume up front works almost like the volume control on your guitar. It just turns the signal down before it gets to any of your effects. A volume pedal at the back lets you get some awesome fades without affecting your overall gain into the amp.
If you want to put your volume pedal up front, put it just after your tuner. That way, you can keep the tuner on but stop the signal from going to your amp. You don’t need the audience to hear you try and keep that pesky G string in tune after every song!
Next up in the signal chain are pitch-tracking pedals. These effects track the pitch of your guitar or bass tone and bring it up or down, or add octaves and harmonies. You want these to be up front to get that nice clean signal to track so they can do their magic effectively.
Some of the most popular pitch-dependent pedals include:
Now, this part gets tricky… I know it’s only the second section, but that’s just how effects pedals are.
You already know that impedance-sensitive pedals should also go at the front of your signal chain. But in many cases, pitch-tracking pedals sound better in front of impedance-sensitive pedals.
For example, if you use a fuzz that isn’t super impedance sensitive, it might be better to put your synth pedal before it in the chain — especially if you prefer the synth sound and don’t rely heavily on your fuzz.
Finding the best pedal flow is a lot of trial and error. Swap some things around and see what works for you.
Dynamic effects pedals (compressors)
Dynamic pedals control the highs and lows of your tone. In most cases, your primary dynamic effect will be a compressor pedal.
Compressors keep your tone nice and level by flattening out any loud or quiet spots. Quiet parts are brought up, and loud parts are brought down to give you a nice, even sound.
Octave pedals deal with the pitch of your tone. They add either a higher or lower octave, depending on the pedal you choose.
Most guitarists like to put their compressor pedal toward the beginning of their signal chain, just before the distortion and gain pedals to make sure everything is nice and level before it gets all messed up by the craziness about to come.
Gain effects pedals
Now the fun begins! Who doesn’t like gain effect pedals? They add all the grit and crazy overdrive that rock, metal, and blues players adore so much. They’re pedals like:
Typically, pedals that mess with your gain like to sit right in the middle of your signal chain. And honestly, that’s as much insight as we can offer. The order of your gain effects is completely up to you. You can put your overdrive in front of your boost, the EQ before the distortion… Every move does something different to your tone, but there’s no “right” order. The options are really endless!
Modulation effects pedals
Generally, effects pedals that add some sort of modulation follow your gain pedals. Modulation effects are pedals like:
If it makes a weird noise, it’s probably a modulation pedal!
Modulation pedals like to sit right after your gain pedals to make sure their effects are heard in all their glory. Putting a modulation pedal before an overdrive will typically lessen the effect of the modulation.
With that being said, modulation pedals can make some wacky sounds when used before distortion pedals. Mess around with your signal flow to see what sounds best for you! Remember, these are pedal flow guidelines, not rules!
Time effects pedals
Bringing up the rear of your pedal flow are the time effect pedals. These are effects like:
Most guitarists like to put their delay pedal(s) before the reverb. That way, you can add lovely reverb to your repeating delay trails. If you flip the order, you’ll add repeats to your reverb trails — which can still be super cool but not quite as practical.
Does pedal order matter?
And now, for the question at hand. Does guitar pedal order actually matter?
No! Well, kinda…
Yes, the order of your pedals can dramatically impact the overall sound of your guitar or bass tone. Even if you use the same pedals and put them in a different order, you’re going to get a different sound. The order of your pedals absolutely matters in the end.
Don’t listen to anyone who says you “can’t” put a certain type of pedal somewhere in your chain. You might create a brand-new tone that’ll make all your musician friends jealous just by breaking one of the sacred “pedal flow rules.”
The best way to find your perfect pedal flow is to experiment. Put your wah at the end. Stick an overdrive at the front. Who cares!? Discover what works best for your unique style, despite what a bunch of trolls on the internet might have to say about your pedal flow.
At the end of the day, this is music. And music has no rules!