Parent article: Best Guitar Pedals
Pedalboards are unique to every guitar player. They say something about your personality, creativity, and can even tell a story about how you grew into your guitar rig. At the same time, there are plenty of helpful guidelines and best practices that can make your pedalboard setup more effective and helpful.
In this article, we'll look at absolutely everything there is to know about setting up guitar pedals and running an optimal pedalboard.
What you already know
I'm assuming you have a basic understanding of the types of effects and what they sound like. For those needing a refresher, this best guitar pedal roundup covers a lot of the basics. In this piece, we'll go further in-depth and cover more unique questions/situations.
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Order Pedals by Effect Category
There are "types" of effects pedals like chorus, distortion, delay, etc. But what a lot of people don't realize is that those pedals can be further sorted by effect categories. These categories are how we ultimately order effects pedals within our signal chain.
Before we look at some best practices, here's a table with the most important effects categories and the pedals that go within each one:
Gain is the parent effects category for any pedal that pushes volume higher at a preamp level. Any effect that allows you to manipulate gain or output is considered a gain-based effect.
- Preamp pedals
- Drive pedals
Modulation is a type of effect that manipulates the waveform or the shape of the sound wave.
Ambient effects include all pedals that manipulate time of your original signal.
Filter effects create sounds by manipulating the tone or pitch of your guitar.
- Pitch shifting
Utility pedals deal with signal processing functionality and aren't used to create a particular sound effect.
- Tuner pedals
- Volume pedals
- A/B/Y switches
- Noise gates
Almost every guitar pedal you'll use will fall into one of these five categories. And if you know how to order the categories properly, it'll be much easier to order your pedals. Here's the most common arrangement:
Most Common Guitar Pedal Arrangement by Category
- Compression & Volume
- Filter effects
- Gain-based effects
Once you have your categories arranged, each pedal you have will get lined up based on those categories, like this:
Once all your pedals are placed, you'll have an arrangement that is consistent with the parent effects categories:
While it's not necessarily "incorrect," moving these pedals out of their categorical order might look like this:
Switching the tremolo and delay pedal breaks the category order of the effects. Now, this certainly isn't going to ruin your tone. But it is considered a more optimal pedal order to keep all pedals of a single category together and avoid mixing them with other categories.
- Arrange by category first
- Pedals within a single category don't need a particular order (for example, multiple modulation pedals - chorus, flanger, tremolo - can be arranged in whatever order, so long as they're in their proper category order)
- Ambient effects should be last in your pedal chain or in your effects loop (more on effects loops later)
- Compressor and volume pedals should always be first in your effects chain
Arrange all pedals based on category
Let's look at another example with a few more pedals. The following diagram shows how we've ordered our signal with one pedal from each category.
- Avoid putting a distortion pedal before a filter effect, like a wah pedal
- Make sure distortion precedes modulation and ambient effects
- Arrange multiple modulation pedals - within their category - however you'd like
Put compressor pedals at the front of your signal chain
In most cases it's considered a best practice to run a compressor pedal (if you have one) at the front of your signal chain. You can read more about optimizing compressor pedal use in this Sweetwater article.
Though it could be categorized as a gain-based effect, a compressor pedal should come before any distortion or boost pedals you might be running.
- Make sure that the compression level is set to match your distortion level
- Do not use your compression pedal as a gain or volume boost
- As we cover in the following section, only put a tuner pedal before compression
Put a tuner pedal before everything
If you have a chromatic pedal tuner like the Boss TU-3, make sure it's the first place your signal stops after leaving your guitar. This means it'll get the cleanest signal possible for the most accurate tuning.
- Most tuner pedals can tune while muting your signal
- Use your tuner pedal as a muting mechanism instead of your guitar's volume knob
- Pedal tuners are more accurate than amp-based tuners and even certain rackmounted tuners
Full Guitar Pedal Buying Guide
Looking for guitar pedal recommendations? We keep a list of the ones we've bought, tested, and like the best. Check 'em out here:
Optimizing Placement & Functionality
In this section we'll go a little deeper into pedal placement and signal chain arrangement. We'll look at setting up pedals in the right order while also setting things up to be the most functional for how we use our board.
Prioritize pedals you use the most
Most of us have pedals that we use a lot more than any other. While observing a proper signal chain order, we can setup our pedalboard to make these particular effects the most accessible. For most people, that most accessible spot is going to be the bottom right-hand side of your pedalboard.
Read more: Best pedalboards for guitar players
For most guitar players, you'll want to have the following effects placed at this spot, or appreciably close:
- Pedal switcher/channel selector
Here's how that might look on a typical-sized pedalboard:
Move compression and tuning to the back row
This begs the question of where to put pedals that should come before filter and gain effects in a signal chain. For example, we've already covered that a tuner and compressor should be the first two pedals in your signal path but aren't necessarily going to be the ones you're using the most. If you don't want to put these in the bottom right side, you can cable them so they're placed on the second row in a less convenient spot, leaving room for more highly used pedals like distortion and wah.
Setting up two rows of pedals
The above example shows that you can have two rows of pedals, particularly if your pedalboard has a lot of vertical space like the Pedaltrain Classic does. Here's how you would add modulation and ambient effects using multiple rows, while still maintaining the categorical order we established earlier. Note the blue lines and arrows represent the cabling and direction of the signal path.
I've put the "amp switch" in its own path, since this will often be a MIDI cable or a direct line to the amplifier. This now gives you two rows of pedals on the top and bottom of your board.
Front Row (Frequently used & easily accessible)
- Amp channel switcher
- Delay workstation with three buttons
Back Row (Less frequently used)
- Tuner pedal
- Modulation (phaser and flanger)
Using a pedal switcher
Another way to make your pedalboard dramatically more functional is to use something called a pedal switcher. This is generally a long row of switches that engages each pedal in your board from the front, allowing you to leave all the pedals on at once and perhaps even in a rackmounted drawer.
Here's one that Voodoo Lab makes:
Here's how the connections work at a basic level:
In this scenario, all the pedals are on but the chorus and fuzz pedal are bypassed going through the switch and cutting off the loops. Here's how you would connect everything, including an external tuner:
The most convenient aspect of this type of switch is that it puts all your effects directly in front of you on the same box. This is especially helpful if you have a lot of pedals on the back row of your board or if you want to store them on a rack somewhere, perhaps away from your performance area. A lot of professional guitar players use these for rack-mounted systems and stage setup, so it's not necessary for everyone.
- Most pedal switchers will give you automatic true bypass: With the connection that runs through the switcher itself, each loop can be cutoff which gives you true bypass around whatever pedal is in that loop. If you engage a loop with no pedal in it, that will break the audio connection and you won't hear any sound
- Can these switch amp channels as well? In most cases, no. Pedal switchers are not the same thing as a channel selector on an amplifier. Most amplifier channel switchers are designed and purchased for a particular amp.
- You do not have to use every send/return in the switcher. Since each loop is hard-wired into the switch, you don't need to have a pedal connected to every single one for the switch to work. Just remember, if you don't have a pedal on a given loop, be sure to leave that loop off so it runs through the hard-wired path and skips over the disconnected loop.
- Do I always leave pedals on when using the switcher? Yes. Any pedal that you run through a loop in your switch should always be on, then you can use the bypass controls on the switch to engage them.
Guitar Pedal Cabling Best Practices
Now that we've covered a lot about guitar pedal arrangement and categorization, I want to get into the more technical realm of guitar pedal cabling. This is an important part of guitar pedal setup that every player needs to understand, especially if you play live at all. Being able to handle some of your own tech-related cabling concerns will make you more professional as a performer and can improve the technical quality of your rig.
Let's start with a few of the most important cable terms in the world of audio/visual production that could concern your pedalboard:
- Instrument cables
- TS cables
- TRS cables
- XLR cables
- DI box
DI boxes and XLR cables will only apply in certain situations. It's the garden variety "instrument" cable that is going to be your biggest concern. Let's start there.
What are instrument (TS) cables?
Known to many simply as a "guitar cable" the instrument cable you might be familiar with is technically an unbalanced TS cable. These cables have a 1/4" jack and are used for a mono connection (single signal path) when connecting a guitar to a pedal, a pedal to another pedal, a pedal to an amplifier, or a guitar directly to an amplifier.
- Mono signal
- 1/4" jack
- Single insulator ring
- Should be used with unbalanced inputs and outputs
Patch cables (pedal to pedal)
Another term you'll often hear is "patch cable" which usually refers to a TS instrument cable that is much shorter, designed to be used between pedals, like this:
These patch cables can often be just a few inches long and are designed to minimize length and space between guitar pedals.
Use pedal couplers and low-profile right angle cables
In the above example, I've used small low-profile right-angle patch cables to make sure I have minimal cable length between my pedals and that they're able to be placed close together. We'd recommend using those or pedal couplers for improved electrical conductivity and more efficient use of your pedalboard space.
Here are a couple examples of pedal couplers sold on Sweetwater:
And here's another look at the low profile patch cable, also listed on Sweetwater:
In most cases, all the connections between your pedals can be handled by unbalanced TS patch cables or pedal couplers.
- TS cables are used for all the basics: Guitar to pedal, pedal to pedal, and pedal to amp are all going to use an unbalanced TS cable in most cases.
- TS cables can be identified by the single insulator ring: The single ring near the tip of a TS cable is the easiest way to identify a TS cable and distinguish it from a TRS cable, which has two rings near the tip.
- Most connections are going to be mono and unbalanced: Most guitar and keyboard connections are going to be mono and unbalanced. TRS cables (covered below) deal with stereo and/or balanced connections.
What are TRS cables?
Though they're almost identical in appearance to TS cables, TRS cables have a second insulator ring that allows them to handle balanced and stereo signals. This effectively gives it a positive conductor, negative conductor and ground, meaning it can be used for a balanced line out connection, like going from a DI box or guitar amp line out jack to a PA system.
TRS cables are generally not needed unless you have something like a balanced mono signal running from a line out or input on a mixer or audio interface. They can also be used for connecting a stereo output to a stereo input.
What are XLR cables?
XLR cables are typically used for microphones or to connect a DI box to a channel on a mixer. For example, I run an acoustic guitar at church, for which I use an instrument cable going to a DI box, and then an XLR cable from the DI box to the mixer. As it concerns your pedalboard, XLR cables are generally not going to be necessary.
Minimize cable length
An important part of cabling your pedalboard is minimizing cable length whenever possible. As we've already alluded to, a lot of this happens with pedal-to-pedal connections, which can be shortened by pedal couplers and patch cables. It's worth mentioning that not all guitar players adhere to this practice. Take a look at one of Eric Johnson's pedalboards:
It's hard to argue with Johnson's success as a guitar player, but I wouldn't recommend his cabling work.
- Avoid using long instrument cables for pedals: Use patch cables that are as short as possible between pedals.
- Don't cross instrument cables up with one another: Avoid your instrument cables overlapping or having to be coiled up to fit. If a line has to run in multiple directions, make sure the cable doesn't end up lying on top of itself or another cable.
- Use tape and cable ties: When possible, use adhesive like tape, cable ties, or even Velcro to fix your cables in place on your pedalboard.
Use cables with a strong jacket
If possible, use cables that cover the ground metal piece in a jacket. This is just going to look like material that encases that part of the cable, which makes it less likely to fail and helps to protect the most fragile part of the cable (where the tip is soldered to the wiring). Here's how I'd break down your most typical options:
Power cable best practices
In addition to dealing with instrument cables on your pedalboard, you're likely to be dealing with power cables for each pedal as well. The type of cable will vary, but most look the same: They're small, black electrical cables with a power jack on each end. One end goes to your power supply and another goes to your pedal.
You're most likely to need/use the following types of power cables:
- 9V AC & DC
- 12V AC & DC
- 18V AC & DC
These cables are usually included with a guitar pedal power supply. For example, the Voodoo Lab ISO 5 includes the following cables:
- 3 x 9V power cables
- 1 x 9/12V power cable
- 1 x 18V power cable
Here are some practical things to note regarding your power cables:
- Don't use higher voltage cables for lower voltage pedals: Avoid using an 18V cable or power source for a 9V pedal. This will run too much power into the device and risk frying the electric connection and ruining the pedal.
- If possible, avoid crossing power cables over instrument cables: Electrical currents can cause noise and interference in an instrument cable, especially if the instrument cable is poorly shielded. On your pedalboard, try to avoid crossing the two types of cables over one another.
- Try to always use isolated sources of power: Isolated power supplies are always better for reducing noise and unwanted interference. This means single 9V batteries or isolated power bricks like the Voodoo Lab power supplies are preferable to something like a 9V daisy chain, which is not isolated.
Distortion Pedal and Gain Best Practices
We've covered some basics on how to use a distortion pedal. But here, I want to go more in-depth about setting one up and getting the most out of your gain-based effects in general. We'll look at distortion pedals, but also amp-based distortion, overdrive pedals, fuzz pedals, and how to set them all up on your pedalboard.
First, I'll define the most common types of gain pedals. Keep in mind, gain is the type of effect while distortion, overdrive, etc., are specific types of pedals within that effect category.
The most common type of gain effect is distortion. However, the term "distortion" can also be used to describe a number of gain-related pedals, including overdrive and fuzz pedals. In that regard, distortion is often mistakenly assumed to be the parent category and not a type of effect within the gain category. As its own effect type, distortion creates a heavy, saturated layer of high gain that covers the clean signal and makes it sound distorted (hence the name). Distortion is increased gain along with decreased output. The higher the gain, the more distortion you'll hear.
Though similar to distortion, overdrive is a smoother, less aggressive form of gain that's often meant to mimic - or be produced by - a tube amp. Overdrive pedals still create distortion, but they sound warmer, smoother and less edgy than a typical distortion pedal.
The fuzz effect is created by a flatter cap over the increased gain, giving you more of an edgy distortion sound that's less refined than regular distortion and the opposite of the smoothed out overdrive effect. Fuzz pedals are not as commonly used as overdrive and distortion, though still a popular part of rock and blues styles.
Boost pedals are in the gain effect category and are often sold in the same sections as distortion and overdrive pedals. However, they aren't really distortion because they "boost" gain without capping off output. This lack of an output cap means you don't get any distortion from a boost pedal, but just an increase in decibels.
We'll cover how to set up and use all four of these gain-based effects, as well as some related best practices.
Can/should I put a distortion pedal in an effects loop?
In most cases we would recommend not placing a distortion pedal in your effects loop. As we'll discuss more in the next section, a distortion pedal is effectively a second amplifier, which means placing it in an effects loop isn't really necessary and doesn't make sense.
Here's the right way:
We'll do more on effects loops later. Let's keep talking distortion.
If possible, get distortion from your amplifier
Most professional guitar players use the distorted channel on their amplifier as their primary distortion source. This makes more sense than a pedal because your amp already has a preamp and power amp handling gain and master output. This is why I said adding a distortion pedal is like adding a mini guitar amp to your signal chain with gain and output control.
If you have a nice amp, we would recommend first getting your distortion from that amp, then adding the pedal if further tweaking is necessary.
Of course, this depends heavily on the type and quality of amplifier you have.
A lot of pros use amp-based distortion because a lot of pros (predictably) have really nice amps with a good onboard gain channel. It also depends on the style of music you like and the type of amp that produces a distortion to match. For example, the Fender Deluxe has a good dirty channel for distortion, but it's very much blues and classic rock, not at all what you would consider a modern-voiced distortion.
To get that, you would have to go to Mesa Boogie or Diezel for that heavy, percussive distortion sound.
With a distortion pedal, match gain levels carefully
But let's say you do end up using a distortion pedal. There's nothing wrong with that, because tons of guitar players still do it. The first thing you need to do is make sure the gain levels on your amp and pedal are matched up, or at least appreciably close. Remember, introducing a distortion pedal into your rig is effectively a second preamp and power amp, so we've got to get them playing nice together.
Here's how I'd recommend stepping through the process:
- Use your amp's clean channel (don't use a distortion pedal on an already dirty channel)
- Set the preamp volume on the amplifier and then set the master output (this becomes your volume template)
- Set the master volume on your distortion pedal to match the preamp or channel volume on your amplifier
- Turn the gain up on your distortion pedal to your liking
- If the gain control on the pedal adds too much volume, turn the master control on the pedal down to compensate
In other words: The output from the pedal should match the output from your preamp. This way, the master volume on the amp will push everything up starting from the same spot.
Our goal in doing it this way is to avoid a big discrepancy in volume between using the distortion and not using it.
If you have multiple channels, like in the above example, you'll want to match volume levels for each channel (which are all controlled at the preamp level), to the volume or "master" output of your distortion pedal.
Once you do that, the gain control on the pedal controls saturation (usually without impacting volume) and the Master volume control - at the power amp level - controls the output of everything.
Distortion pedal setup best practices
- Put all distortion pedals after wah, compressor, and volume pedals: Per our effects category system, a distortion pedal should be placed after compressors, volume pedals, and filter effects - like wah pedals - but before all modulation and ambient effects.
- Use a distortion pedal consistent with the style of music you're playing: Distortion common in metal sounds a lot different than distortion in blues. If you're going to use a distortion pedal, make sure that pedal's voicing fits the style of music you intend to use it for.
- Avoid over-saturating the natural tone of your amp: There's a point where distortion pedals can get so aggressive that they engulf the natural tone of your amp. Regardless of musical style, this is when distortion gets to be "too much" and should have its intensity dialed back. Knowing when this is happening isn't an exact science, but should be kept in mind when setting your preferred gain levels.
- Avoid using batteries for distortion pedals (especially): A battery that's running out of power can actually further distort your signal, which can be confusing with a distortion pedal that's already supposed to be doing that. We'd recommend using a power supply for all pedals, but especially distortion.
- Consider using a distortion pedal with a noise gate: High gain settings can often cause unwanted buzz and hum, especially when you're not touching the strings. Consider getting a distortion pedal with a noise gate built into the unit. The link above has several good options we've curated and highlighted.
Overdrive Pedal Setup Suggestions
The overdrive is a smoother type of gain boost, usually less aggressive than distortion and often used in blues or lighter styles of music. When setting up an overdrive pedal on your board you can treat it the same as a distortion pedal, as the difference is a matter of style and not typically one of functionality.
Most overdrive pedals still have a preamp control and a master volume output, though often the overdrive pedal labels gain differently, sometimes using "drive" to indicate the same function.
Here are some practical tips related to overdrive pedals:
- Use overdrive as a type of amp breakup: Overdrive isn't meant to be a heavy or saturating type of effect. Instead, it's made for smooth, amp-like breakup that's particularly useful in classic rock and blues genres.
- Set gain or "drive" levels on your overdrive pedal lower to start: Your "control" for testing an overdrive pedal should start lower and creep up as you go. Even on lower settings, a good overdrive pedal can give your tone a nice thickness and smooth overdrive without bumping the gain level up too high.
- Position an overdrive pedal as a gain-related effect: Just like your distortion, overdrive pedals should be similarly positioned in your signal chain.
- Overdrive pedals can be used in conjunction with amp-based distortion: Consider using your overdrive pedal for further boosting an already distorted amp signal.
Fuzz Pedal Setup Suggestions
Most fuzz pedals have a volume, tone, and gain control, mirroring the typical distortion pedal settings we've already seen. I'd recommend using the volume knob on your electric guitar to manage the intensity of the fuzz, while keeping the tone and level or volume of your fuzz pedal a bit higher.
Here's a graphic that lays out these settings suggestions:
Here's a demo video I did with the Twin Bender fuzz pedal by Ramble FX using this and other settings:
- Start with the volume knob on your guitar: Put the volume knob at about 50% or even lower, perhaps starting at 25%. This will cap the intensity of the effect while still promoting the edginess of the fuzz effect. By lowering the volume headroom, it'll sound more like a true fuzz pedal and not just loud distortion.
- Keep tone and volume control on the fuzz pedal higher: By pushing your fuzz pedal harder than you might normally, you'll get a more aggressive-sounding fuzz effect while using the volume knob on your guitar to cap it off.
- Use fuzz over you amp's clean channel: Since fuzz pedals tend to be a little heavier, don't use them over a distorted amp channel. Make sure you set your amplifier to a clean setting before tinkering with your fuzz pedal.
The above demo isn't a great example, just because that particular fuzz pedal has a lot more control than most. A typical fuzz pedal, like the DOD fuzz pictured below will only have three controls, volume, tone, and gain or "fuzz" in this case.
Boost Pedal Best Practices
Boost pedals are more complex and versatile than they seem. How you use one depends on where you want to increase volume. Unlike other gain and volume effects, you can actually put your boost pedal in an effects loop and often get a better result than you would if you had it in your main line. There are three main placement options to consider:
- Boost in the effects loop
- Pre-pedal boost
- Post-pedal boost
Boost in the Effects Loop
If you want your boost pedal to function more like a volume knob on your guitar or a distortion source, you can put it in the front of your signal chain, before everything, as follows:
This creates what's called a pre-pedal boost, meaning you're boosting your signal before it's being run through any additional processes. Depending on the pedals you're using, this can have a different effect when compared to a post-pedal boost which we'll look at next.
In the above diagram the boost pedal is placed behind every other effect in the chain, right before it meets the amplifier. This - like the effects loop placement - will get you a cleaner boost in volume and will always boost an already processed signal from all your other effects pedals.
The particular method you choose will depend on the other pedals on your board and might require a bit of experimentation.
Modulation Pedal Setup Suggestions and Best Practices
Modulation pedals are some of the easiest to use and the most straightforward to set up. To be categorized as a modulation effect, a pedal needs to create its sound by manipulating the waveform of your signal. This can be done by an analog circuit or an algorithm in a digital signal processor. Per our earlier recommendation, modulation effects should be placed in the middle of your signal chain, right before your ambient effects.
In this article, we're going to specifically address four common modulation effects:
Chorus pedals create several slightly off-pitch waveforms of your dry signal and then layer them over the original dry signal creating a slightly shifted sound that is usually adjustable by rate and depth.
Phaser pedals create an out-of-phase sound that is layered back over the original waveform to create the swirling phase sound. Increasing speed on a phaser means the swirl effect will complete its circle (between the peak and notch) quicker. Increasing depth will usually causer a deeper distinction between the in-phase and out-of-phase wave.
Flangers are similar to phasers in that they're created by peaks and notches in the waveform, though a flanger processes the sound with a slight, gradually increasing delay between each peak. This creates a sound that's often compared to a jet flying over your head.
Tremolo pedals are the simplest of the modulation effect. At a basic level, it's simply the rapid increase and decrease of your signal's volume in synchronized succession. Most tremolo pedals will have at least a speed knob that allows you to control how fast the peaks and notches complete.
Modulation Pedal Setup, Tweaking, & Best Practices
We've already addressed placement in your signal chain. However, there are a few additional best practices that are helpful to keep in mind when it comes to modulation pedals in general. In most cases, these will apply to all modulation effects because they're so similar.
In fact, there are a lot of guitar players and musicians who would argue that there isn't a ton of difference between chorus, phaser, and flanger sounds at all.
I wouldn't necessarily agree with that, but these best practices can be applied to all four of the modulation effects mentioned above.
Use to Layer your Clean Signal
When you add a chorus or phaser pedal to your rig, its primary job will be to add a layer of nuance and decoration to your clean signal. Use modulation pedals when you need some thickness or a little more substance behind a clean chord progression or melody line.
Here's what it might sound like with the Boss BF-3 flanger pedal:
Read the review: Boss BF-3 Flanger
Test with Depth and Rate around 12 o'clock
All modulation pedals should have at least a rate and depth knob for control though some, like the MXR Phase 90, only have a speed control. It's a good practice with waveform effects to start with these settings at the 12 o'clock position or whatever the middle position would be. From there, you can adjust up or down as needed.
Put Modulation Pedals in Your Effects Loop (if you have one)
Along with ambient effects, modulation pedals are commonly put in an effects loop. If you have a send/return on your amplifier or from an effects switch, we'd highly recommend moving your modulation effects there to get a cleaner signal. The effects loop will also help modulation stay more consistent with your amp's volume.
Be Careful to Avoid Settings that are Too Chaotic
Chorus and phaser pedals - in particular - can sound too chaotic if you push settings too high. It depends on the pedal, but be careful not to over-saturate your clean sound with waveform manipulation. Ideally, you want modulation to flavor your clean tone but not to the point where it's distracting from it or covering up the clarity of your notes.
Here's an example of the settings I typically use on my Boss BF-3 flanger, which came from the above audio sample:
Avoid doubling Up Modulation Effects
Though multiple modulation effects can be useful on a single pedalboard, using more than one at the same time isn't advisable. It will typically sound too chaotic and will quickly overpower your clean signal.
Ambient Effects Pedals: Delay and Reverb Setup Suggestions
Ambient effects have a much shorter pedal roster, as they're limited to effects that manipulate time instead of volume or waveform. The only two significant pedal types in this category would include delay and reverb.
Delay pedals record a sample of your original signal and then play it back with a certain number of repeats.
Reverb plays back an ambient persistence of your dry signal after that signal is produced, meaning you'll hear a trail of sound after you play.
The other type of pedal you'll see is echo or tape echo, which is essentially the same as delay, albeit a more vintage flavor. All ambient pedals - delay, echo, and reverb - should be placed at the very end of your signal chain, whether in the main pedal line or an effects loop.
We'll go over some best practices relating to delay and reverb.
Delay Pedal Best Practices
Delay can be a tricky effect to implement because it manipulates the timing of your signal. Like an echo, it repeats a certain segment a certain number of times. Thus, you have to think about the following properties:
- How long of a segment do I want repeated?
- How many times do I want said segment to repeat?
- How should I balance the mix between the dry and repeated (wet) signal?
Other controls on delay pedals might include frequency, EQ, modulation controls, and more depending on the pedal in question. But the three things mentioned in the above list are going to be the most important.
This makes how you tweak your delay a bit more important, given how it can impact your rhythm.
Here are some delay settings best practices to consider.
- If possible buy/use a delay pedal with a tap tempo: Many delay pedals have a tap tempo control, which means you can dial in the time or rhythm sub divisions on the fly by tapping a button with your foot. Delay pedals with a tap tempo - in my opinion - are far preferable, especially if you play live.
- Avoid pushing repeats too far out: With too many repeats, notes can start running into other notes. Usually, as low as two or three repeats are enough to give you the full effect of a delay without playing notes over other notes and interfering with the main melody line or chord progression.
- Use delay as both a melody and rhythm tool: Since delay is rhythmic by nature, I've found that it's just as effective on that side of the guitar as it is for lead guitar players. Again, this is where the importance of the tap tempo comes in. You should use it to compliment rhythm and layer lines of melody.
Get Familiar with Timing Sub-Divisions
There is a way to calculate delay time based on timing subdivisions. First, let's look at the note durations we'd be using:
- Whole note
- Half note (1/2)
- Quarter note (1/4)
- Eighth note (1/8)
For example, the eighth note sub division means you repeat the note eight times within each beat. This is what that subdivision indicator on a delay pedal would mean, which is sometimes displayed on a pedal, like this version of the MXR Carbon Copy:
An even better example would be this selector knob on the Strymon DIG:
In the Strymon example, you might notice the dots behind the quarter and eighth notes. This creates a dotted quarter note and dotted eighth note, which is worth three quarters of a beat.
Read more here: Dotted Eighth Notes
Reverb Pedal Best Practices
Though reverb pedals can get somewhat complex (take the Walrus Audio Descent for example) most are far simpler to use than delay. Instead of a rhythm repeat, reverb leaves a trail that is still based on time, but is a persistence of sound and more ethereal than rhythmic.
Many amplifiers, specifically Fender combo amps, have been known to include a reverb effect.
If you have an amp with reverb and you're happy with the reverb tone, you may not need to add a pedal. However, if you want a reverb effect with more functionality and versatility, you can add reverb pedals that go extremely in-depth. Take the Strymon BigSky, for example:
Pedals like the BigSky give you access to different reverb algorithms, combined modulation, and multiple ways to mix and manipulate the reverb effect. You can even make changes to specific aspects of the reverb's trail.
Within the ambient category, we'd recommend running a reverb pedal behind delay, right before your signal reaches your amplifier. This goes for either a main line or a send/return loop.
- Combine reverb and delay: Unlike modulation, ambient effects can sound really good when layered together, especially if you're looking for an ethereal sound over a clean signal. Experiment by combining reverb and delay together.
- Experiment with the wet/dry mix: Getting a reverb pedal with a wet/dry mix knob gives you the option mix in a trail-only reverb sound, which can be perfect for creating those nuanced, ethereal tones. In most reverb pedals with a mix knob, keeping mix all the way up will completely silence your dry signal.
How to Setup and Use a Wah Pedal
As you may recall from earlier, the wah pedal is considered a filter effect because it manipulates your tone, just like the tone knob on an electric guitar. However, wah pedals can do this a lot quicker and to a greater degree than your average tone knob, which gives you an almost vocal-like sound that is often used in a lead guitar context.
In this section, we'll go over the basics of use and setup.
For more detailed information, checkout our step-by-step guide on how to use a wah pedal.
Engage the wah pedal with the bypass button
Most wah pedals will engage via a bypass switch, just like other guitar pedals. The exception would be Morley's switchless pedal series, as they function simply by stepping on the pedal and moving it, without a bypass switch.
Once you've hit the bypass button you can rock the foot pedal back and forth to move the tone from high to low.
Wah Pedal Should be Easily Accessible
In most pedalboards, a wah pedal is going to get the most active and frequent use, at least in terms of your foot actually touching a pedal. To make these easier, put your wah pedal in the most accessible part of your board, which - as we mentioned earlier - is the lower right-hand corner of your pedalboard.
Notice the Morley wah pedal in that spot of the following two pedalboard examples:
In the next example, Morley wah and pedal switcher are most accessible:
In most cases, this is going to be the most comfortable place for your wah pedal, since it's one of the only pedals that your foot stays on for extended periods of time. Otherwise, it's a fairly simple effect to setup and use. Most wah pedals don't have settings (some have what's called a contour knob), but if you make sure it's easy to get to and keep it in the front of your pedal chain as a filter effect, the rest is pretty straightforward.
Use your Wah Pedal for Solos and Lead
Though it's not an unbreakable rule, most guitar players tend to use their wah pedal for solos and lead parts of a song. Godsmack's Tony Rombola does this a lot. A good example on the track "Greed" embedded below:
Put a wah pedal after your tuner
If you have a tuner in your signal chain and a wah pedal, I'd still recommend putting the tuner before your wah pedal as your signal's first stop coming out of your guitar.
Put a wah pedal after your compressor
As we mentioned in earlier sections, compressor pedals are a bit of an anomaly in terms of where they should be placed in a signal chain. They're one of the few pedals that we'd recommend putting before your filter effects, including your wah pedal.
Put your volume pedal before your wah
If you have a volume pedal, it should go in front of your wah for the same reason a compressor goes in front. A volume pedal controls the ensuing output of your signal, just like the volume knob on your guitar.
Setting up and Using an EQ Pedal
The positioning of your EQ pedal is harder to pin down since it doesn't necessarily have a default effects category. It's almost like a tiny amplifier, which means a good starting spot would be at the very end of your signal chain, right before your actual amplifier. Here's how that setup might look:
However, there are a few different ways to use an EQ pedal, which will depend a lot on the style of music you play and the other effects in your rig. We'll cover a few options here.
Option 1: Use it as a Signal Boost at the end of your Pedal Chain
Tom Morello has been known to use a DOD EQ pedal with all the settings set to their mid point, but the decibel level control set higher to use as a signal boost. The following is a diagram of Morello's board, which he strangely places between his phaser and delay pedal.
Option 2: Use it as Preamp for your Preamp
The most conventional way to use an EQ pedal is to put it at the very end of your signal chain to mix the signal coming out of your effects before it goes into your preamp. This makes it a kind of preamp for your preamp, where you get one last chance to tweak your signal before the amplifier functionality takes over. This is the arrangement we covered in the first example.
Option 3: Place at the beginning of your signal chain
Some guitarists will put an EQ pedal all the way at the front of their signal chain to tweak the signal coming out of their electric guitar. This gives you more control over the sound going into your pedals.
Option 4: In relation to your gain effects
You can also place your EQ pedal in relation to how you have your gain effects set up. Since it can double as a booster pedal or as a tone manipulating effect, an EQ can help you tweak or change what your signal is doing when it comes out of your gain-related effects. This means it can be helpful after a distortion pedal, but before ambient and modulation pedals.
Here are some additional best practices related to an EQ pedal:
- Avoid using it as an amplifier replacement: An EQ is not the same thing as a pedal preamp. While you can use it to tweak things like a preamp, it's not made to be a full amplifier replacement at the pedalboard level. Use it to tweak frequency levels and volume, but still rely on a preamp and power amp to finish the job.
- Use it to correct tone-related extremes: EQ pedals can be really helpful for dialing extremes out of your sound. For example, you can use it as a kind of hi-pass filter, if your tone is too bright, or a lo-pass filter if your tone is too booming.
- Don't be afraid to go cheap with EQ pedals: An EQ pedal uses such basic technology that I wouldn't mind going really cheap when it comes to picking out one of these pedals. As we saw in the Morello example, even the really old DOD EQ boxes will get the job done.
Using MIDI Controllers
As we get into the more advanced aspects of pedalboard setup, MIDI controllers are one of our first and most helpful stops. While it's not common for beginner guitar players to incorporate these into their rigs, anyone who wants to setup an advanced pedalboard should at least be familiar with MIDI connections and how they can benefit your rig.
MIDI controllers are basically pedals that can control other MIDI capable devices. That means a MIDI-compatible rig can have the following components:
- MIDI floorboard controller
- MIDI compatible guitar pedals
- MIDI compatible rack effects
Almost any time you have some kind of a rack effects unit, you'll have a MIDI controller that switches between those effects. Here's a really simple example of how that might be set up:
In the above diagram, you have a TC-Electronic G Major, which is a rack effects processor with MIDI ports that is controlled by a floorboard MIDI controller.
Here are some additional resources we've put together on these components:
In it's simplest form you'll have one MIDI controller for a single MIDI-compatible device, like the TC Electronic G Major. However, you can also have a single MIDI controller for multiple MIDI-compatible devices and multiple settings within each device. This depends - of course - on the MIDI controller you're using and the pedals or devices that they're controlling.
I covered the connection process in detail in this article on pairing MIDI foot controllers with compatible devices, so I won't rehash that content here in full, but I will go over some basics.
Use the Input/Outputs to Connect Multiple MIDI Devices
If you have more than one MIDI device that you want to control, you can connect them in a sequence using the MIDI in and MIDI out on the back of the device, just like you would a chain of pedals. The difference is that you'll need to use MIDI cables in between each one, as in the following diagram.
Once you connect all of the MIDI devices together you can use a single MIDI foot controller - assuming it's capable of recognizing and controlling multiple devices - to assign channels and presets for each device.
High end foot controllers like the Voodoo Lab Ground Control (pictured below) are capable of handling multiple MIDI units.
Always Check your Gear for MIDI Ports
Before you decide on a final MIDI configuration, check to make sure you don't already have devices that are MIDI controllable. Most rack effects systems have MIDI ports, though a lot of guitar pedals (as I've already mentioned) and a growing number of amplifiers are also controllable through a MIDI device.
As your rig gets more complex you might want to incorporate multiple amplifiers or even multiple pedalboards depending on what you're playing or what kind of gig you're doing. Once again, we look to a common tool of the professionals to make this easier: The A/B/Y switch.
These switches allow you to do the following:
- Split your signal into two paths
- Plug two instruments into one path
- Run one instrument into two amplifiers
- Run two instruments into one amplifier
By far, the most common implementation of this device is to run a single electric guitar signal and pedalboard into two different amplifiers. Here's how that looks in diagram form:
You can also place your A/B/Y switch at the beginning of your pedal chain and run two different pedalboards to two different amplifiers.
How you setup your A/B/Y switch is going to be unique to the rest of your rig. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:
- Don't use an A/B/Y switch if multiple amp channels will do the job: Most amplifiers already have multiple channels for a clean and dirty tone. Don't go through the trouble of running a second amplifier if the same task can be accomplished by using the channel switcher on your first amp.
- Get a switch with true bypass: True bypass switches will help preserve your clean signal. It's worth investing in an A/B/Y switch that has it.
- Look for the switches with mixing options: Like the Morley switch above, the option to mix in different levels depending on the channel is extremely helpful.
In this article we've covered all relevant aspects of setting up your guitar pedals in the most optimal way possible. However, It's important to keep in mind that these are simply best practices that might not be optimal for your situation, depending on the specific make-up of your guitar rig. What these guidelines can do is give you a starting point or a control that will allow you to make changes and tweaks as you develop more creativity within your own rig.
When I was learning how to set all this stuff up, I found it helpful to know what the baseline looked like, then over time I was able to make changes based on my sound and make it my own.
That's the goal of this piece, to help you start at that baseline.
Do you have questions about setting up your guitar pedals or signal chain? There's a lot of material covered here, so I'm happy to take questions on an specific aspect of it and expand the conversion. If you have thoughts you'd like to share, drop them in the comments section below and I'll jump in. See you there.
Michael Turko says
It seems that putting the compressor in front of distortion/fuzz pedals means you have much less control of the distortion amount from your guitar volume control or picking technique. True or not?
I think so, but my understanding would be that if you’re using a compressor at all, you kind of want that. If you wanted to get more variance or put more emphasis on your picking technique, you’d just cut the compressor off. Just my thought on it. Could go either way.
Dan McGreevy says
After doing a ton of research on the functionality of different compressor pedals and whether it would provide enough utility to my board along with finding one with more tone shaping capabilities (used to assume it was pointless due to my use of my picking dynamics) led me to learn that a comp after any gain based pedal allows more dynamics back in to your playing as well as some smoothness. I ultimately decided against getting one for now but will eventually get one of the several I found had the most EQ/tone control but I will most likely have it after my ODs but if using my treble booster before that.
Thanks for sharing, Dan. It can definitely improve your overall sound.