How to Arrange Guitar Pedals: Tips and Tricks

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It can feel a bit overwhelming and confusing when you first try to arrange your guitar pedals, especially if you have never had to do it before. That said, there is actually a method to that madness which will make it very easy for you to learn how to arrange guitar pedals in no time.

How to Arrange Guitar Pedals

The best way to get started is to think about your pedals as if they were blocks that needed to be arranged. As you add a block (pedal), you are adding a new dimension to the tone.

You are essentially building your tone’s overall structure. Remember that every block (pedal), influences all those that come after it so the order can be quite impactful.

The Basics

There is a pre-determined order of pedals which seems to be universally accepted for the most part:

  • Filters: These pedals literally filter altering frequencies, so they tend to go first in your chain. You would find compressors, EQs, and wah pedals to be considered filters that would be placed first.
  • Gain: You want to make sure that overdrive and distortion make an early appearance in your chain. You can put them either before or after your filters. That particular sequence would depend on your personal preference as well as your overall style.
  • Modulation: The middle of your chain should be dominated by flangers, chorus, and phasers.
  • Time-based: This is the spot directly in front of your amp. It should include reverbs and save delays.

While this order is understood, it is not a hard and fast set of rules. There are reasons this order is laid out this way but ultimately, the choice is yours when it comes to arranging guitar pedals.

The Details

Let's discuss each one of them in detail.

1. Filters

Included in your filters are compressions, EQs and Wahs. A lot of guitarists will put their wah pedal at the very beginning, in front of anything else. The reason for that is the sound is understood to be purer and a little more subdued. Those guitarists who like a smooth overdrive instead of distortion are usually the ones who prefer this sequence over other potential ones.

The alternative is to put the distortion ahead of the wah. With this approach, the wah effect is greater, more aggressive, and bolder. This is usually the preferred sound for rock players.

The same approach can be taken with EQ pedals and compressors. A compressor tends to work best when it follows the distortion or when it is between the distortion and the wah but some guitarists still prefer it at the very end to compress everything.

If you put an EQ first in the chain, you can reshape the guitar’s pickup sounds before any other effects. If you put it before distortion, you can choose which frequencies the distortion will emphasize.

Finally, putting the EQ after distortion is a good choice if the distortion will create a harshness once select frequencies are reached. If you want to dial that harshness back, putting the EQ after distortion is a favorable choice.

2. Gain

A distortion pedal might be the first one you purchase, and you might find that you accumulate them faster than any others. If you put distortion early in your chain, you are going to accomplish a couple of different things.

To start, you will push a harder signal which is your ultimate goal since you want to do that as opposed to the signal from a phaser or chorus. The second accomplishment is that modulation pedals often have a thicker sound when overdrive is in front of them as opposed to behind.

If you find that you have two gain pedals, you can really just to put both on to get the maximum amount of distortion pushed through your amp. In that sense, there really is no difference between which goes first in the chain. That said, if the two pedals you have offer extremely different sounds, you will have to decide for yourself which you want to put first.

3. Modulation

Modulation effects are almost always in the middle of the chain and for a good reason. When we talk about modulation effects, we mean more specifically the chorus, phaser, and flanger.

Not every modulation effect is created equal and each can offer very different sounds. While some are gentler, others are bolder so you need to keep in mind that pedals will impact whatever comes after them. That means you want to be particularly conscious of the bolder sounds you might be producing and think about how that will impact the rest of the pedals in the chain.

If you are using several different modulation pedals, a good rule of thumb is to arrange in ascending order of aggressiveness. If that is the approach you take, you will likely find that you start with the chorus and then move to a flanger and finally phaser.

4. Time-Based

Time-based effects are usually placed last in any chain. That is because both delay and reverb repeat the signal of your guitar.

By placing them last, you will find that you get increased clarity, impacting the sound of every single pedal that was earlier in your chain. It serves as a bit of a booster if you want to think of it that way.

You can experiment if you want but you should know the effect of putting time-based effects earlier in your chain. Ultimately, it will give you a split signal.

That signal will travel through every single pedal which comes after it which will then leave you with a mushy, inarticulate sound that really will not be very pleasant. This is why it makes sense to keep your signal tight and reserve the delay and reverb for the very end of the effects chain.

Experimenting Is the Key

The order described here is really meant as a starting point if you are new to playing guitar or if you want to switch things up or get some new ideas. There is nothing wrong with experimenting a bit and trying out different orders to see what sounds speak to you the most.

There isn’t actually a right or wrong answer as much of the order will be driven by your personal preference. What matters most is you enjoy the sound you are making, as it is your sound and really no one else’s. Ultimately, you determine how to arrange guitar pedals for yourself but this can be a useful guide in the more universal way of doing it.

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