Advice on how to line up your effects pedals with the goal of helping you get your rig sounding just right
By Roland US
So you decided to play electric guitar. Once you get a guitar and an amp, the next step is to explore effects. Effects pedals can be separated into groups based on their functions. Understanding the different pedal groups is the key to getting the best sound when chaining them together. The largest pedal group is probably overdrives and distortions, and BOSS currently makes 16 different guitar effects pedals in this category. For our example pedal board, we’ll pick the ST-2 Power Stack. Another category with many choices is modulation.These are effects like flanger, phaser, chorus, tremolo, and others. Let’s use the most versatile of these—the BF-3 Flanger. Another group is ambience effects, such as delays and reverbs. We’ll use one of each: a DD-7 Digital Delay and the FRV-1 ’63 Fender Reverb. There are some pedal effects that can add notes or alter the pitch of what you’re playing. For want of a more esoteric name, we’ll call these “pitch-altering” pedals. From this category, let’s throw in a BOSS OC-3 Octave. BOSS also has a few pedals that make your instrument sound like some other instrument. The AC-3 Acoustic Simulator will do the job. Some effects change your sound with filtering. This effect type can be used in different places in the signal path, so we’ll use the GE-7 Graphic EQ. A few BOSS effects defy categorization, but are nevertheless very useful in any signal path. The most common of these is the CS-3 Compression/Sustainer. Loopers fall into this category also, so let’s add an RC-3 Loop Station to the mix. And you might want the NS-2 Noise Suppressor to kill the noise in your rig, so let’s add that in, too. What about a tuner? The TU-3 is the most popular pedal tuner in the world.
So, where does each pedal go in the signal path? Here are some tips to keep in mind before you start plugging pedals together:
Rule 1—There are no rules. The sound you’re after might not be made by what we could call the appropriate or logical signal path, but that’s not always the issue. The issue is this: what does it sound like? If it makes the sound you’re after, then it’s right…although, you may have to do something about the noise. Traditional pedal board arrangements were designed for certain reasons, and keeping the noise down is one biggie. Following the principles of how sound is made in physical space is another (see Rule 4 coming up). But the final choice is yours. As a very wise man said: if it works, don’t fix it.
Rule 2—Some pedal types work better in certain parts of the signal path than in others. Octave pedals or tuners, for example, don’t work as well with a distorted signal as with an undistorted signal, so they should be placed before the distortion.
Rule 3—Noise can be a problem, particularly with high-gain distortion sounds. Pedals that can add volume—such as compressors, wahs, EQs, and overdrive/distortions—will also amplify any noise created by the effects placed before them.
Rule 4—Taking sound-making devices like stompbox pedals out of the equation, there’s an order to the way sounds naturally occur in physical space. For example, guitar amp distortion is made in physical space by turning an amp up enough to cause its circuits to overload, and any echo you might hear happens after the distorted sound hits walls or ceilings and bounces back to your ears. Therefore, logic says that your reverb and/or delay pedals should be last in the signal path, since that is how the sounds they produce actually occur in three-dimensional space.
In keeping with these rules—okay, they aren’t really rules, so let’s compromise and call them “guidelines”—here are some essential concepts for lining your pedals up:
- Pedals that amplify or add noise should go near the beginning of the signal path. This includes overdrive/distortion effects, compressors, and wah pedals. If they’re later in the signal path, they will amplify the noise of everything before them, which can be difficult to control.
- Pedals that produce tone go before things that modify tone. This is logical, because you want to create your basic sound first, then tweak it with some kind of modifying effect. For example, this means that overdrives go before chorus effects.
- Pedals that create ambience go last. This goes back to the “how does sound actually occur in physical space” idea. So, delay and reverb should go after all other effects.
Let’s connect our pedals together
Using our basic guidelines, let’s connect our pedalboard together:
That is one rockin’ pedalboard! But why is this the suggested signal path? Follow along as we go pedal by pedal.
The tuner goes first. This one is pretty easy. It doesn’t want to hear an effected signal; it wants to see the direct input from the guitar. Another reason for putting the tuner first is that if you’re using any true-bypass pedals, the TU-3 will give them a buffered signal, which will protect your tone from loss of signal in the cables when other pedals are off. This is another one of the reasons there as so many TU tuners in pedalboards worldwide, even ones using nothing else but boutique true-bypass stompers.
The next three pedals — PW-10, AC-3, and OC-3 — change the basic tone of the guitar. For the most variety of sound, you want all the other pedals to have a shot at the sound from these pedals, so it’s best to have them as close to the guitar as possible.
After these is the overdrive/distortion, in this case our ST-2 Power Stack. The CS-3 Compression/Sustainer (and the PW-10 V-Wah) can improve the ST-2’s sustain and tone by increasing the signal to it, so they’re placed before the ST-2. Many players use a compressor just for this reason, and the “fixed wah” sound, which is a wah pedal turned on but not continuously swept, is very common in rock and metal lead tones.
The GE-7 Graphic Equalizer is good to have after the overdrive in case you want to use it to scoop mids or bump certain frequencies for solos. (To show that these are not hard rules, it also works pretty well if the EQ is after the compressor but before the overdrive. But this changes how the EQ sounds, since you would be distorting it with the overdrive, so try it in the suggested position first.) Also, it’s good to have the EQ before the noise suppressor, since EQs can add noise as they boost tone at various points in the frequency spectrum, including any noise that is already there.
The NS-2 Noise Suppressor is best used in the middle, so it can take out the noise created by the amplifying pedals before the signal moves into the modulation and ambience pedals.
Modulation stompboxes like our BF-3 Flanger should be after the tone-producing effects like distortion, wah, etc. so they can process and modify the tone built by the pedals before it. If you put it before the distortion, then you are distorting the sound of the flanger. Maybe that’s what you’re after, but in general, put the BF-3 and other modulation effects after the tone-shaping (and noise–producing) pedals. And then there are the ambience effects: delay and reverb. As we discussed earlier, reverb—and sometimes delay, depending on the space—is the last thing that happens before the sound reaches your ears in a physical space, so these go last. Delaying reverb can sound muddy, so it’s usually better to have the reverb after the delay.
And last, but certainly not least, is the Loop Station. Loopers aren’t effects—they’re recorders. Normally, you’ll want the looper to be able to record and playback any of your sounds. Of course, this means you should place it at the very end of the chain so it can hear and record whatever pedal combinations you use.
So there it is. To recap, while there are no rules for creating tones, these basic principles will help you achieve tone nirvana. By following the guidelines we’ve laid out here, you will:
- keep the noise to a minimum.
- achieve the most tonal flexibility.
- produce tone in the most natural, organic way, as close as possible to how tone is created without effects.
At the same time, experiment! Maybe the tone you seek is made by the wah after the distortion—it’s noisy, but sounds cool. Ultimately, the only rule is this: what sounds best is best, so get your BOSS pedals and grab your tone. It’s what we make them for!