As a worship guitarist, it’s taken me a long time to try to figure out what order of effects makes the kinds of sounds that I’m looking for. There’s all kinds of questions asked about what the right order of effects one should use for guitar and I’ve seen some very rigid answers to the ‘try any order you like’ method.
My opinion on this is somewhere in the middle, but if you are looking to mimic a particular typical sound, then there are some general rules of thumb to apply. Before hitting those however, I would like you to do a little imagination exercise with me.
Imagine you have the simplest electric guitar setup possible:
Guitar–>Combo Guitar Amp. No effects. No distortion. Tone controls all half-way.
Now, imagine you are playing your favorite song with this setup.
WHERE did you imagine you were playing it? Was it in a big stadium? Was it in your basement practice room? Garage? Amp room at the local music store? If you didn’t have an imagined place to begin with, quickly run through that chord progression in your head and imagine playing it in each of those locations. Did the sound change as you imagined each of them? It should have, because each of those locations has different acoustics.
The reason I wanted you to start this whole discussion on effects order with this little thought experiment, is that there is one typical effect with the sole purpose of simulating acoustic spaces: Reverb.
Notice that we didn’t put reverb in our very simple setup signal chain. Reverb happened in our heads, from the sound that came out of the amplifier. And when we are simulating an acoustic space, that’s where reverb should go as well, after the amplifier output.
If you are actually playing in one of these different spaces, then often you don’t need reverb at all, but if you want to simulate one of those spaces, putting the appropriate configured reverb at the end of the signal chain will do wonders to simulate that environment. Many amps have built in Reverb. This comes after the pre-amp section of the amp in the amps internal signal chain.
If you have a reverb pedal, sure you can put reverb in front of your amplifier or amp simulation, but it’s going to sound quite weird and typically unpleasant. So, we have the two endpoints of the correct effects order nailed down: Guitar is at the front end, and reverb is on the opposite end.
There’s another effect that also emulates acoustic spaces – Delay. Instead of the wash of reflected sound from reverb, delay mimics the acoustics of getting a very distinct copy of the sound coming back to our ears. Where reverb is ‘fuzzy’ in a visual analogy sense, delay is like looking at the image presented in a couple of mirrors facing each other, and normally it’s the sound after the amplifier as well, but before the general wash of reverb.
So, now we have yet another typical placement of an effect in our chain:
Guitar–>Combo Amp preamp section–>Delay–>Reverb
Now is when it starts to get a little more complicated and less distinct as to the ‘proper’ order, but nonetheless, we can put a couple more typical effect types into our signal chain.
We’ve put a couple of effects after the amp, let’s keep this post fair and switch our attention to the front side of the signal chain, between the guitar and the amp.
We’re going to talk about compression now. This is not going to be a detailed description of compression and how it works – there are many web resources for that – feel free to post your favorite reference in the comments below. We are just going to say for now that the purpose of compression in a guitar signal chain is to present a more predictable signal to the amplifier. There are many ways that compression is used musically for a guitar tone, whether to smooth out picking anomalies, or to increase ‘sustain’, but the whole purpose again is to regulate the signal going into the amp section of the signal chain. So that’s where we are going to put it:
Guitar–>compressor–>Combo Amp preamp section–>Delay–>Reverb
So we have one in front of the amp, and two after the amp. OK, in the spirit of fairness, let’s go on and add one more that normally belongs before the amplifier: Distortion/overdrive.
However, we’ve got a choice as to where it goes, between guitar and compressor, or compressor and amp. The real purpose of distortion is to present a juiced up gain of the signal, to where it is distorted, like what happens in the amplifier. Believe it or not, electric guitar was not always distorted. I can’t point to who first purposely distorted a guitar signal but I can remember the first time I saw/heard someone really demonstrate what it was. This person took a guitar, plugged it into an old TEAC reel-to-reel, cranked the input gain on the TEAC and fed the output into a PA system. The guy put the tape monitor on and played the intro to the Beatles ‘Revolution’ and boom, I heard a non-guitar effect version of distortion for the first time. It happened before the amp, which was the PA. So let’s let that distortion/overdrive. Overdrive is possibly the preferred term since that also helps to imply where it goes in the chain. We are going to over-drive the amplifier intentionally.
Here’s what we have now:
Guitar–>Compressor–>Overdrive–>Combo Amp–>Delay–>Reverb (In the interest of saving space, consider the ‘Combo Amp’ to be the pre-amp section of the amp)
We really only have a couple more common ‘effect’ types to cover, and with these, they play both sides of the amplifier fence. I say ‘effect’ in single quotes here because there’s a couple more that are signal management items which we hope are less noticeable, but let’s stick to those that do somewhat radical things to the sound: talk chorus, phaser, flanger, and other modulation type effects. These effects are all doing some type of manipulation of the original signal and copies of it, messing with it in time. If you want to make the distortion behave differently, you would put the modulation effect before the overdrive. If you want to change the way the output of the amplifier sounds before you simulate the acoustic space, you would place the modulation effect(s) after the amplifier.
Now our chain looks like this:
One more general ‘obvious’ effect category, and that is of what I will call ‘dynamic filtering’. The most well recognized effect in this category is that of a wah pedal, whether gettin’ all funky like “wacka-wacka” or leaving the pedal in different positions for a long time, what the pedal is doing is radically altering the peak frequency content of the output of the guitar, before it goes into the whole signal chain for the rest of processing – so that’s where we need to place it, if you are going to use it – and using this one effect takes another limb to coordinate, so proceed with caution; you are entering drummer territory here!
Lastly, I hinted at some signal management processing, which really shouldn’t be acoustically noticeable to the end listener, these are EQ and noise gating. With EQ, you can pretty much put it anywhere in the chain – in fact, many of the effects we’ve already talked about have some type of tone control on them and this is an indication that you can change frequency content anywhere you please in the signal chain, so I’m going to pass on placing EQ in this chain in any one position. However, let’s talk another common signal management processor, the noise gate. We are making joyful noises here, not ugly noises – but we all know, some pretty ugly sounds can come out of our rigs, so how can a noise gate help us?
If you just had your guitar on the stand, not playing it, but with all of the signal chain above ‘live’ you would hear some hissing sound coming out of the whole signal chain. The main hissing noise is coming from the amplifier juicing what is incoming to it (which is just electrical noise since the guitar is on the stand), and then passing that on to the downstream effects. What goes into the amplifier is pretty important and you know as a guitarist that simple picking nuances, muting with your picking hand, etc. can all change the emotion of what comes out of the chain, so we don’t want to go messing with the input signal to the amplifier. Let’s put the noise gate right after the amp, so that the hissing that happens when we aren’t playing, isn’t passed on to downstream modulation and delay and reverb effects. Now we have the following:
Guitar->Compressor->Modulation->Overdrive->Combo Amp->Noise Gate->Modulation->Delay->Reverb
Folks, that’s it – that signal chain will take you miles to usable and familiar guitar tones and vibes. There’s a world of choices for each one of these parts of the signal chain, and this post is pretty long as it is – so there’s no room to discuss all of the nuance and minutiae of what guitar, pickups, strings, overdrive, amp, cabinet, chorus, delay, reverb one should use. Many other places to go look for that kind of discussion.
Footnote: If you have an effects loop in your amp, that’s where the downstream from the amp effects are placed.
I’ve also added some images using a block diagram of pedals and the amp setup
Configuration 1: Using only pedals to create overdrive and distortion, amp is functioning ‘clean’ as an amplifier and speaker
Configuration 2: Use effects loop of amp (after pre-amp, before power amp) for modulation effects
Configuration 3: Amp simulation used to provide overdrive and or distortion