Best Effects Pedal Order: Guide to the Perfect Signal Chain


If you’re expanding your guitar effects pedal collection, or building your first pedal board, then choosing the right pedal order is really important.

In this article, I’ll take you through an example of a pedal signal chain and explain why certain pedals work well in certain positions, and some more options to explain how you can switch things up to produce different sounds.

The order of effects pedals in the chain matters because each pedal influences the pedal following it. The signal chain only goes in one direction (from the guitar to the amplifier), so different positions will create different effects, even when using identical pedals.

Best Pedal Order

The best guitar effects pedal chain order starts with tuner pedals (closest to the guitar), followed by wah then fuzz. Dynamic-effects (e.g. compression) should go next, and then overdrive and distortion. EQ and modulation pedals should go next, and reverb and delay should go last in the chain.

If you are using a buffer pedal, this can either be placed at the end of the signal chain, towards the start before compression or gain, and after impedance sensitive pedals such as fuzz and wah. Some players use buffer pedals in this position, and end the very end of the chain to preserve the tone.

Pedal Board Order

The example above is pretty typical of what a lot of guitar players opt for. However, the great thing about pedals is that you can use them in a variety of different orders to achieve different effects. You also certainly don’t need every pedal in the example, I just wanted to make it as comprehensive as possible.

In this article, I’ll explain each pedal and why it is usually placed before or after other pedal types plus some examples of what happens when you switch things up!

Pedal Effect Ordering Basics

As I said, pedal placement is personal. You don’t need to strictly follow the example outlined and plenty of players achieve great results with different orders. There is also a lot of debate around certain placements which divides the guitar community.

Some pedals only really work well in a particular position, whilst others are more flexible and the placement will depend on the tone you’re trying to achieve. Typically, pedals which have the most dramatic impact on the tone of the guitar will go first. Note that I said tone and not sound here. I’m really talking about the true tone of the guitar.

To simplify things, it’s a good idea to categorise the different effects:

  • Tuner
  • Volume
  • Buffer
  • Impedance sensitive e.g. wah and fuzz
  • Dynamic e.g. compression and octave
  • Gain e.g. overdrive and distortion
  • Boost
  • EQ
  • Modulation e.g. phaser, flanger, chorus and tremolo
  • Time-based e.g. reverb and delay

Key Terminology Point: often you’ll hear people describe pedals being placed at the “start” or “end” of the chain. The start of the chain is described as the point closest to the guitar and the end of the chain is the point closest to the amplifier. Also notice that you’ll see arrows going from right to left, as the input on the pedal is always on the right hand side and the output is on the left.

There are no super strict rules when it comes to the order of these effects, but there are guidelines. Here are some to keep in mind:

  1. Buffer pedals are often placed at the end of the chain or after fuzz or wah pedals.
  2. Time-based effects go at the end again to prevent the tone from sounding cluttered.
  3. Tuner pedals should always go at the start as this is the purest point in the chain.

There are also plenty of effects which are debated:

  • The order of wah pedals compared to gain pedals (e.g. distortion, overdrive and even fuzz)
  • The order of gain pedals if you are using more than one e.g. distortion and overdrive
  • EQ and boost pedals compared to each other
  • Volume pedal placement: there are multiple options which all create different effects

In the rest of the article, I will go through each category of effects and explain which order they are typically used in as well as any variations you might want to consider.

Organising your new pedalboard? Check out my ultimate guide to designing a pedalboard including all the equipment you need and a step by step formula to getting set up in a pain-free way.

Buffer Pedals

Buffer pedals are designed to preserve the signal strength running from the guitar to the amplifier. When the signal from the pickups travels through all the different pedals and cables, you lose a lot of the high-end frequencies causing the tone to sound dull. Buffer pedals prevent this from happening.

Some players use two buffer pedals, one at the start and one at the very end of the chain. However, some players just prefer to use one buffer.

If you are using just one buffer pedal, put it at the start if you are using a lot of pedals, or at the end if you are using a long cable from your pedal to your amp. You may need to experiment with this to figure out which is best in your situation.

The only caveat, is when you are using impedance sensitive pedals, such as wah or fuzz pedals. If you put a buffer pedal before them, then you lose the effect and it won’t sound good at all.

In this case, put your wah/ fuzz pedals first, and then place your buffer pedal before anything else. You can also use a second buffer pedal after the rest of your effects and before your amp.

Best option if no fuzz or wah pedal
Best if using long cable from pedal to amp
Best if using many pedals
Best option if using fuzz or wah

Volume Pedals

I wanted to discuss volume pedal placement next as there’s quite a bit of debate as to where these should go.

There are two main types of volume pedal:

  • Passive: has the same effect as the volume pot on the guitar with no other effects and does not require a power supply. The main issue with these is that you can lose some treble from your guitar’s tone.
  • Active: these require a power supply and do not result in any treble loss.

You can put them pretty much anywhere in the chain, but they will produce a different effect depending on where you place them:

  • At the start: placing a volume pedal here allows it to act very similarly to the volume control on your guitar. This placement essentially functions the same, but means you can keep your hands on the guitar and let your feet make the volume adjustments. The problem with this, is that it actually decreases the resistance if you are using a passive volume pedal, causing you to lose some treble frequencies.
  • After gain and before modulation: this controls the volume of the guitar at a purer point in the signal chain.
  • After gain and modulation but before delay and reverb: similar to the above but can be less messy than the below option.
  • At the end: this acts as a master volume for your entire signal chain.

When deciding on the volume pedal placement, remember that placing a pedal at the end of the chain creates the biggest impact on the time because it is altered by fewer other pedals.

You may actually require different placements for different songs if you are trying to achieve different effects with your volume pedal, so experimentations is encouraged here.

Acts similarly to volume pot on guitar
Affects volume when signal is reasonably pure
Affects volume after the tone is shaped
Acts like a master volume control on an amp

Check out my complete guide to volume pedals to learn how to get the most out of one.

Impedance Sensitive Pedals (Fuzz and Wah)

Fuzz and Wah-effects should be placed towards the start of the signal chain (close to the guitar), before any buffer pedals which would interfere with the effect.

Wah pedals are often placed before any gain pedals, including fuzz, and compressors. This produces a more dramatic and recognisable wah-sound. However, some players will use wah pedals after gain pedals to producing a more sweeping tone.

Here is a video comparing the different orders.

It’s all personal preference with this one. Try both positions and figure out which suits the kind of tone you’re looking for.

When using fuzz pedals with overdrive and distortion pedals, it’s best to use the fuzz first. This effect can be more controlled by your guitar’s volume control, so having it closer to the start of the chain makes more sense.

Here are some example variants you can try.

The classic order when using fuzz and wah together
Alternative use of fuzz and wah together
Classic use of wah with other gain pedals
Alternative use of wah with other gain pedals

Dynamic Effects (Compression, Pitch Shift and Octave)

Now let’s talk about another family of effects, the dynamic pedals. These can be divided into two types: compression and pitch shifter/ octave pedals. They work best using a clean signal, so are placed before using distortion and overdrive pedals. You may also want to use them before fuzz pedals.

Pitch shift and octave pedals go first as they respond better to the purer signal (closest to the guitar.

Compressor pedals have two main effects: increasing sustain and smoothening out the tone. Compressor pedals even out the sound by decreasing the volume of strings that are plucked more aggressively.

If you place your compression pedal at the very start of your chain, then only the sound of your guitar will be affected, and not the rest of your pedals. So if you’re just using it to even out accidental heavy picking, then it’s a great place to put it. 

Putting a compression pedal after gain pedals will decrease the volume and create a super compressed effect because distortion pedals already compress the signal. Placing compressor pedals before a wah pedal is not that common because it limits the range of the wah effect.

Gain

Gain effects include overdrive and distortion, and also fuzz to an extent but I won’t address that in this section since we already discussed it above.

Overdrive and distortion pedals work best before modulation and time-based effects, but after compression, wah and buffers. Having gain pedals after modulation, reverb and delay makes sense because it’s unlikely you would want to distort these kinds of effects as things will often start to sound pretty messy.

If you are using both distortion and overdrive pedals, then there is a bit of debate as to which is the best order. As I said earlier, there are no hard and fast rules with pedal placement, but there are often personal preferences.

Personally, I like using overdrive before distortion because it creates a specific tone that I like. However, many people and in fact probably the general consensus is to use overdrive after distortion so you can essentially use the overdrive pedal to boost an already distorted signal. Placing the distortion first also tends to thicken the tone up a bit more.

Metal players often use a distortion pedal and then a tube screamer-type overdrive pedal to tighten the low-end or as a boost for soloing.

This one is highly debated, so if you’re using both pedals, try experimenting and see which you like the most!

Check out this video to listen to the two options back to back.

Thicker tone and can use overdrive to boost
Creates more saturation

Equaliser (EQ)

EQ pedals allow you to adjust the bass, middle and treble frequencies to shape the overall tone. There is a bit of a debate as to where EQ pedals should go in the chain and the reason is because there is no real right answer here. It depends on what effect you’re trying to achieve.

  • Before gain pedals (overdrive and distortion): allows you to adjust the tone of the pickups so you can allow the gain pedals to emphasise the current EQ.
  • After gain pedals: this allows you to adjust the tone and fine-tune after the EQ of the gain pedals has been set, but before adding effects.
  • End of the chain: if you’re still struggling to get the right balance after all the other pedals have altered the signal. This is usually less common than placing it before the modulation effects.

You can use an EQ pedal to address specific issues you are having with your tone. For example, if your distortion pedal sounds a bit harsh, then using an EQ pedal to tame the treble frequencies will be beneficial.

Allows the gain pedals to emphasise the EQ
Allows you to fine tune the tone after most pedals

Boost

Boost pedals are usually placed after the overdrive/ distortion and EQ pedal but before any modulation, delay or reverb effects. The benefit of placing the boost after the EQ and gain pedals, is that it allows the volume to be increased without affecting the tone.

Placing the boost before the modulation and time-based effects prevents the signal from getting messy, which can happen if you end up boosting reverb and delay in particular.

Modulation

Modulation effects are a pretty large group and include the following:

  • Chorus
  • Tremolo
  • Phaser
  • Flanger
  • Uni-vibe

Generally, modulation effects work best after gain pedals, however some players like to use phaser and flanger effects before distortion pedals as they can sound more “natural”.

  • Placing a flanger, uni-vibe or phaser before a gain pedal will ensure you get more “sweep”.
  • Placing a chorus after a gain pedal usually sounds best as you can add drive to the chorus.

Personally I think chorus and tremolo effects sound better after gain pedals and flanger, uni-vibe, and phaser effects sound better before gain pedals. Make sure to experiment with your pedal board and figure out which you prefer!

Here’s a really great video where you can listen to some modulation effects being placed before and after gain pedals to hear the differences in action.

Works better with chorus and tremolo
Works better with phaser and flanger

Noise Gate

One pedal-type that I’ve not touched on yet is the noise gate pedal. These attenuate signals that are below a threshold to reduce humming, buzzing and unwanted background noise. They are often used when you are using a lot of gain, single coil pickups, or boosted treble and mids.

  • Placing the noise gate at the start of the chain allows you to reduce any unwanted background noise from the pickups before any of your other effects pedals amplify it. The risk here, is that it can reduce the level of sustain.
  • Putting a noise gate pedal after the gain pedals helps to reduce humming but does not affect the level of sustain which can occur when placing it earlier on, hence this is quite a popular placement.

Placing a noise gate pedal after reverb or delay should definitely be avoided because it will remove these effects almost entirely!

Try placing the noise gate pedal after whatever is causing the humming or hissing: for example it could be an overdrive, distortion or fuzz pedal, your EQ pedal or your guitar’s pickups.

Check out my complete guide to noise gate pedals to learn how to get the most out of one.

Time Based

Finally, onto time-based effects, and by this I mean reverb and delay. It is generally agreed that reverb and delay pedals should go at the end of the signal chain closest to the amplifier. This allows them to subtly shape the tone and avoids other effects interfering. For example, adding distortion to a delay effect will usually end up sounding like quite a bit of a mess.

The real debate here is whether reverb goes before distortion, or after. This one is down to personal preference, although a lot of players do tend to place reverb pedals last in the chain, after delay pedals. The risk with placing reverb before delay, is that it can sound a bit muddy. However, it really depends on what type of reverb and delay you’re using.

Placing the effect with the most dramatic impact last in the chain is a good rule of thumb.

For example, there are several types of reverb, the main ones being: room, hall, chamber and plate. There are also different types of delay. Without getting into the nitty gritty, some delay effects may producing dramatic long lasting and spaced out repeats.

In this example, if you’re using room reverb (used to simulate the tone of playing in a smaller area whilst still adding some ambience), and using a dramatic delay effect, then placing the reverb before the delay may actually sound better.

It’s all preference, and will really depend on the effect you’re trying to achieve so again, experimentation is strongly encouraged.

To demonstrate the differences, check out this video below to hear both possible orders.

Effects Loops

Some pedals work better after distortion/ overdrive, which is fine if you’re using a distortion or overdrive pedal, but not so great if your using your amp to provide the gain. This is where an effects loop comes in. It allows you to place pedals after the pre-amp stage of your amp to stop them sounding muddy.

Check out this guide I’ve written on everything you need to know about effects loops for more information on which pedals work best in the loop.

Organising your new pedalboard? Check out my ultimate guide to designing a pedalboard including all the equipment you need and a step by step formula to getting set up in a pain-free way.

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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