The Effect-Order Follies

This effect order ALWAYS works great!

Weird, isn’t it? You can explain the rules of thumb for ordering your guitar effects in about ten seconds, but you can still get stumped after years of experimentation.

You probably know the conventional effect-order advice, which goes something like this (in order of appearance):

  1. Distortion effects (fuzzes, distortion, overdrives)
  2. Modulation effects (phasers, flangers, vibratos, tremolos)
  3. Delay effects (digital or analog delays)
  4. Reverbs (analog or digital)

And that’s good advice, as far is it goes. But you don’t have to dig very deep before encountering alternatives, exceptions, and arrangements that make no sense whatsoever, but still sound great.

How, for example, do you deal with the following?

  • Dynamic effects (compressors, envelope modifiers, etc.). They usually go first — though a compressor sometimes sounds best at the end of the signal chain, mimicking a mixing desk signal flow, adding mass and smoothing your overall sound. (Though best is probably first if you want to shape the envelope of your tone with, for example, minimized note attack and increased sustain).
  • Pitch effects (Whammy pedals, octave pedals, etc.). They usually go first — though sometimes they track better after compressors.
  • Filter effects (wahs, auto-wahs, envelope filters, etc.). Before distortion, they subtly alter your tone. After distortion, they radically alter it. Wah before fuzz is great for a throaty, Hendrix-style sound, but wah after fuzz can create an edgy, super-resonant squawk that’ll slice through concrete.
  • Noise gates. Conventional wisdom says to put ’em last — but they often sound best at the front of your effect chain. They may not silence your signal as completely that way, but they often feel better, with delays and reverbs decaying more organically. (Try it yourself and see!)

And then there are the endless exceptions: You might, for example, place tremolo and vibrato pedals after reverb to mimic, say, Fender blackface or Magnatone combo amps, which modulate the reverb sound rather than reverberate the modulated sound.

Another example: Boosters often work best at the front of your effect chain, but sometimes placing one last in line provides a consistent solo-level volume boost, regardless of which pedals are engaged. (I’ve been doing this a lot lately for live performance pedalboard setups.)

And all those über-cool retro effects add more wrinkles. Vintage-style Fuzz Faces, for example, sound thin and nasty when preceded by a buffer — and there are buffers in many mass-produced stompboxes, especially the Japanese ones, so brace for disappointment if you situate a Fuzz Face after a Tube Screamer.

Here’s a case study, from my friend Linda B., of all-female sex Pistols cover band fame. She asked for a recommended effect order, and I said, no problem.

But it was a big problem!

Top row: Balls pedal (a Tonebender MKII clone), MXR Dyna-Comp, Musket (a Big Muff derivative). Middle row: Boss Harmonist pitch shifter, MXY Phase 45. Bottom row: Decimator noise gate, sketchy Gore Cult pedal (a Rangemaster derivative), a Durham Zia pedal (a relatively understated overdrive), Boss tuner.

What to make of that? Linda says the MKII clone sounds like crap after most other pedals, so I think she’s going to put it on a separate effect loop with no other pedals. (Remember, original MKII users in the ’60s would have used it alone, or maybe with one or two other boxes.) I know from experience that Rangemaster-style boosters, like the Cult and this site’s Fiendmaster project, usually sound better before clean boost rather than after, though I have no idea why. It rapidly starts sounding like one of those logic puzzles involving boats, grain, and hungry animals.

So my advice for Linda is basically, try every option and use whatever sounds the least crappy. And that’s my advice for you too.

Also, you might be astonished by some of the things that shouldn’t work at all, but occasionally do, like distortion after reverb. Some players have deployed counter-intuitive effect chains to great effect (the Radiohead guys spring to mind). And if you’re working in the digital realm, the sky’s the limit. For better or worse, the vast majority of my digital patches mimic traditional analog signal paths, but that may be more about my lack of imagination. Auditioning crazy effect sequences in software such a Logic, Guitar Rig, and AmpliTube is definitely a great way to brainstorm offbeat ideas. But don’t be surprised if your kooky creations don’t translate back to the analog world. After all, many of the above-mentioned kinks (like The Great Fuzz Face Crap-Out) have to do with impedance issues not encountered in the digital realm.

Anyway, I’d love it if you shared some of your hard-one effect-order techniques — especially ones that deviate from the norm. Got any great-sounding secret recipes? Terrible combinations to be avoided at all costs? Stuff that sounds horrible, but still kind of cool? Please share your signal-chain pain!

24 comments to The Effect-Order Follies

  • I have a nice one that I have been loving. maybe too much…
    I usually try to split the signal to two amps if I’m doing a guitar-based show, or recording heavy guitar stuff. I split at one delay (which usually comes after the other effects, yes, as per usual.) But then I take one of the sides of the delay into amp #1, the other goes into a reverb, which goes into a reversed delay on a relatively long cycle (man do I love backwards guitar) so I’m getting reverse reverb swells in amp #2. Yum!

    additional grist for the distortion mill: I just found an old Vox ToneBender (1969 model) at a local flea market. Actually my wife did and knew to buy it. Wow that thing is intense… it’s a little much for my old ears when it’s alone or preceded by some compression or drive. And I know that in the latter position it’s gonna add whatever volume boost you might need, etc. So I put it first. It really mitigates its intended function, but: it’s an amazing tone that comes out of the second item. I was playing it was an 808 clone after it, using both won’t give you the volume or much of the treble boost you normally create with a tone bender, but man, that singing tone that is suddenly coming out of the other end of the 808 clone. Wow! Beautiful.

  • ezcomes

    i’ve got my pedal board wired up to run an fx loop…but…when using an amp without a loop, an easy convert link too…

    i couldn’t get my BYOC Leeds fuzz to sound good before the wah…so it runs after…signal chain is this…

    guitar>wah>OD>fuzz>lmb-1 clone>tuner(acting as a kill switch)>amp
    fx from amp>to home-made loop pedal>lmb-1 clone>tremolo>flanger>chorus>back to loop>fx amp in

    my notes would be…
    -Loop pedal is handmade…i built it to keep the fx out of the loop when not in use, all i have are two cables until turned on…then it goes thru the pedal and back to the amp…it also helps my dancing feet…i can turn more than one pedal on and off easier this way, tap pedals on when i’ve got time, then turn them all on at the same time, rather than doing a tap dance to get them all on/off
    -loop pedal and tuner…when using an amp with no loop…i have a cable made to go from tuner to the loop pedal…this way…the tuner runs into the loop pedal, and then same as above, signal goes straight thru until i want my pedals on
    -I found the tremolo sounded better before the flanger…mostly cuz it gives this crazy space flange
    -I have a boost pedal (lmb-1 clones i’ve built) both in front and in the loop…in front to boost clean (especially when going single coil to HB), and in the loop for boosts when the amp is already dirty and has nowhere to ‘boost’ to when in front
    -the flanger bleeds…i’ve also built a power conditioner to use with my one-spot…i pair pedals together, but the flanger is by itself…with its own power line from the conditioner and in the loop, i can keep the tone suck, and bleed to a minimum (when off and power shared with another pedal, you could hear the flange go up and down when not playing)

    this works for me…might not for you…but between the two boost clones, and the loop pedal…finding the ‘right’ order is up to the ear of the beholder!

    Rock on!

  • Linda B

    Jonathan, a ’69 Vox ToneBender? At a flea market?? I am a very jealous person right now…

  • Thomas B.

    I actually stagger my overdrive, distortion, and fuzz throughout my chain. That way, I can always have some form of dirt either before or after my other pedals. For me it goes like this: Dunlop volume pedal, overdrive, then a Russian EHX Small Stone, crybaby, MXR 108 Fuzz, a cheap distortion pedal, and then a Modtone Tremor tremolo pedal. I use spring reverb on my amp instead of a pedal, so that is always last.

    Here’s some of the logic behind some of those locations: Volume goes first because I use it mostly for volume swells, but also because I need it under my right foot when I’m playing lap steel. The overdrive before phase is a favorite sound of mine, as it creates a phase tone that sounds really vintage and dirty and generally not like EVH’s tone. I don’t really know why, but I really like the sound of wah after phase. The 108 Fuzz actually features a buffer so that it works better than most other fuzzes when used after a wah, and with the overdrive earlier in the chain, I can still get less robotic dirty wah sounds. The distortion is placed after the other dirt pedals so that it can be used to “clean up” and make the tones of the other dirt pedals more manageable when they’re used simultaneously. The tremolo is placed at the end for the common reasons in the article. BUT when operated at 3 volts of power instead of 9, the tremolo becomes an awesome nonadjustable breakup/fuzz tone, which is best last in chain because it makes the sound of all the other pedals incredibly dirty and unmanageable.

    I hardly ever worry about how my chain sounds in total, since I hardly ever use more than 3 or 4 pedals at once. I’ve just set it up so that I can use most of my favorite combination tones and only sacrifice as little as I can.

  • I’m with Thomas on the “rarely use more than 3 or 4 pedals at once” thing; if you turn everything on at once, things get a whole lot more complicated. I’m more of a traditionalist (albeit an irreverent one), so my effects chain is fairly simple: Boss TU-2 tuner, Gore Codpiece boost, Fulltone Plimsoul overdrive, Maxon analog delay.
    The limitations of the Pedaltrain Nano board I use (four average sized pedals, max) sometimes require that my mod pedals (Dano Tunamelt Trem and Modtone Phaser) are not on the board and go after analog delay (on the rare occasions that they are required on a gig). I haven’t noted any problems with this arrangement. Usually amp trem and reverb are employed, and are obviously last in line, so having some slap-back before the mod pedals is pretty similar.
    My JH-2 fuzz is definitely NOT happy with buffers, so it goes out front of everything, and is usually the only pedal that is not placed on the board on top of my amp.

  • As far as Linda’s rig goes, I would try this: MKII clone, Musket Fuzz, Cult, Tuner(!), Zia Drive, Dynacomp, Harmonist, Phase 90 and Decimator. Maybe the Harmonist and Phaser should be reversed, but it would depend on their uses (are they used simultaneously?). If nothing else, I would place the MKII clone out front of the tuner and use a cheap-ass dollar store battery instead of the power supply. Then I would find out I’m totally wrong and start over…

  • CroftyTTL

    I have a perma-on trio of pedals for my amp (Guitar in>TS9>Comp>Gate) and found that I get less noise if I gate after compressing, despite it feeling logical to gate then compress; seems to be that the gate finds the dud notes and squeals easier if they’re slightly louder!

  • s.huck

    People say I run my dirt backwards. Normally I run my heavy stuff first and my Overdrives next then clean boost. I find I can run my dirtier pedals a bit fuzzier then and click on an OD to smooth it out. For instance my RAT can be set up for a Hendrix-y type fuzz but then hit a clean Blues Driver behind it and it smooths it out to a nice lead tone. My exception to this is using an amp in the box like a Riot, I pretty much run them last. Sometimes even after the delay. And yeah, the wah after the dirt can be a very cool sound.

  • My pedal setup for bass usually consists of a distortion -> wah -> overdrive. (Russian Big muff pi – moogerfooger lowpass – generic tubescreamer clone) i like dirt before and after the filter, getting access to wast amounts of squeals, quacks, ohmmmwahs and other delightful noises.

    The moogerfooger is hands down the best sounding wah I have ever heard. So many sounds. I use a footpedal to control cutoff.

  • Oinkus

    Wow , I really have a lot of pedals on my board guys? Just to say, I have them to use when needed not to spend all my time hitting switches randomly . DOD A/B 2 Guitars Input ,Boss TU3 ,Visual Sounds Comp 66 ,Dunlop CFH Wah (boost),Gore Codpiece Boost,MXR Phase 90,Ibanez Tube King OD , Ibanez Tube King Distortion , Boss EQ 20 (boost) ,Ernie Ball Volume Pedal ISP G String Decimator Noise Redux,DOD A/B (amps)ISP Decimator for amp input without loop(Fender Prosonic). FX Loop Ibanez CS9 Chorus ,Boss PS5 Super Shifter,MXR Stereo Chorus,MXR EVH Flanger,Boss TR2 Tremolo,Boss DD5,Boss DD20 runs into my Hughes and Kettner Tubemeister 18 Combo.There are pics around here somewhere but it is built out of 3/4″ plywood with 2 strips of 4″ velcro and many holes drilled for cable storage underneath. Complete monster 54 1/2 ” wide 24″ deep tapers from 3/4″ tall to 6 ” at top/back. Yes it weighs a ton and really doesn’t move very much but it is pretty easily portable.Now for something completely different…

    • mwseniff

      I noticed you use a Boss EQ20 as a boost. That was a trick a a pal turned me on to 30 years ago. I used an MXR EQ for that for years but lost the EQ to a drunk with a beer in a bar gig (but I stole his girl friend for a couple of weeks to make up for it). But it works very well especially in a live band situation. You also have a seriously large pedal board which I can sympathize with you on. My pedal boards aren’t that big or heavy but when I am able to do a live show with The Dits I have a pile of equipment. I use a Roland GR-55 guitar synth, a Moog Slim Phatty module, Yamaha TX-80 synth module, a rack with 24 channel Samson mixer, several FX processors, as well as small keyboard, my electric cello and it’s stand, drum pads, 2 mp3 players, iPad in an Alesis IO dock, an iPod touch, Boomerang 2 looper, JamMan stereo looper and a pair of Fender powered monitors for the rack. All this along with my Egnater Tweaker head, 2-10 cab and pedal board for the guitar and electric cello. Luckily there are plenty of friends to drag all this stuff into the gig and set it in place but I do the wiring which is mostly a custom snake I made. Best of all they also carry it home for me and put it back in my basement studio. I am unable to actually carry this stuff anymore due to my failed back but if I can get it working and lay down for an hour or so I can play 1 to 1.5 hours or more. It sounds like a lot of work but I have some great pals and it makes life feel a lot more worthwhile if I can play for an audience once in a while. All this is possible because I have a fabulous pain specialist that has made life as good as possible for me (thanks to my neuro-stimulator and morphine). We are also very lucky to have a devoted following here in town that appreciates the avant garde free improv noise stuff we play (nobody is stranger than us Pink Floyd’s weirdest stuff sounds like Top 40 compared to us).

  • bear

    My fuzzes and wahs are sensitive to placement (and get voodoo ordering rituals), most of my other stuff not so much. So there’s the matter of modulation before or after non-fuzz dirt, but that all depends on what you’re going for at the moment.

    I gather the Rangemaster is in a class with early fuzzes and wahs in that no one expected them to need to play nice impedance-wise with anything but a guitar and an amp. Fuzzes and wahs are getting buffers lately to try to cope, with mixed results. I’m considering adding the FoxRox wah-output buffer circuit to my Crybaby, since it’s reputedly the one wah buffer that kind of works if you want wah before Fuzz Face, though I don’t know how it works with oscillating and gated fuzz.

  • Tremolo before an envelope filter can yield interesting results.

  • Digital Larry

    For anyone having trouble running a fuzz after a buffered effect – I have a theory. (I’ll skip the Miss Anne Elk routine).

    Which is simply that you can keep the buffer from “frying” (that’s a technical term) the fuzz’s input by adding a 4.7k to 15k resistor in series. You could even put it into your patch cable. And this patch cable would probably work OK with other pedals as long as they had reasonably high input impedance.

    Someone want to give it a try?

    • mwseniff

      Might be able to go to 47K or better. But for me the only pedal that would be needed on are my germanium Fuzz Faces but I only use them directly after the guitar because that is were they work their curious magic. I also use only old school batteries (no alkalines) as they really impact that sound due to the high internal impedance of the traditional zinc carbon battery vs the lower internal impedance of the alkaline types. That is why alkalines can deliver more current than the old school zinc carbon types and also why alkalines tend to overheat and blow up in chargers, it’s a great prank to play on your not so much friends just kidding. Please don’t try it at home you could put someones eye out or at the very least make a nasty mess. But the old school batteries are the thing in a Fuzz Face it changes the feel of the guitar/fuzz interaction. I tried recording it for Joe but it is really more a matter of feel rather than sound and I never really got a pair of recordings that really illustrated the difference well (I think you need to try it for yourself to get the idea) It makes it seem like the notes sort of jump or explode in a musical fashion but whatever it is I like it. It makes getting those sounds from the great psychedelic rock records just happen (I love that 60’s psychedelic stuff and connect to it in a way different from any other music even tho’ I listen to a pretty wide variety of musical genres ). For the record the cleaner tones dialed up on the Fuzz Face are really sweet and musical with very little fuzziness but it just seems to bring out the best in the guitar. It is magic and I’d rather keep it as magic in the same way that I’d rather not learn to play some songs I really love listening to as it sort of spoils the place my mind goes to if I understand how it is put together (like Beatles tunes I’d like them to wash over me rather than fix on the minutiae of them and I know many other players that feel the same way).

  • mwseniff

    I actually have several pedal setups I use regularly.
    The main current modern pedal board is a Dallas Arbiter Wah Face > Zvex Mastrotron (I like the Mastrotron close to first as the loading control can make some nice tweaks) > Compressor (Pigtronix Philosopher King or Philosopher Rock)> Pigtronix Disnortion (Fuzz-OD-Octave) > Compact Faye Sing Phaser (so sweet)> Zvex Distoron (warms things up) > Devi Ever Dark Boost > Devi Ever Dark Ruby > MoogerFooger MP-101 LPF > Compressor (Francisco Pena Aboveground.com a very sweet and transparent box I use it to imitate pedal steel stuff or smooth things out a bit) Digitech Timebender (does all the Echoplex/Space Echo stuff without the maintenance as well as get seriously weird) > guitar amp in the FX loop is a Ibanez Screaming Demon wah (best wah on the market IMHO) > Ernie Ball volume pedal (expensive but worth every penny). I also add other stuff like some Earthquaker and Devi Ever fuzzes etc. as needed.

    I have a vintage FX pedal board I’ve used for 20+ years
    Fuzz Face (old one germanium )MXR Compressor > Maestro FZ1b > Thomas Organ Crybabay > DOD 250 > EH Bad Stone phaser > Ibanez Flanger (yellow one with 2 – 9 volts) EH Talking Pedal (old one a seriously wacked wah type pedal that makes vowel sounds) > Roland Space Echo or Echoplex (solid state I like the SS better for making UFO noises sliding the head back and forth with the repeat maxed I also traded my immaculate tube echoplex complete with box it camein for a cheap car for my kid when she was in high school) This board has individual 9 volt 3 pin regulator ICs on each pedal and is powered by ancient laptop power supply from the 1990s it puts out 24 volts at 6 amps. The entire pedal board draws way less than 100 mA max so it is real overkill but the individual regulators kill any weird noises that other wise happen between pedals using the same voltage source. This board is sort of reserved for recording these days.

    I have a pedal setup in my living room that is sort of always changing with new pedals (toys). I am currently trying to figure out where my Earthquaker Rainbow Machine belongs (a pitch shifter that can do some cool and very wacky stuff) I have had it both early and late in the chain so far I like it late in chain and need to add an echo before it to see how that works and also try a wah after it. That chain is Pigtronix Philospopher Rock > Pigtronix Fat Drive > Elektar Phaser > Earthquaker Hoof > Elektar Chorus > Pigtronix Polysaturator > Rainbow Machine I will probably add my Rocktron Celestial Delay but probably before the Rainbow Machine to see how that sounds.

    I like to have fuzz/OD/distortion sort of sprinkled thru the chain to maximize possibilities.I am a long time germanium Fuzz Face lover and I always have one to stick right after the guitar which is sort of set in stone for me. I even put a Fuzz Face in between my guitar and the GK3 hex pickup for my Roland GR55 synth to liven things up before it’s internal mono guitar processor. I have an old leather purse I found that holds it nicely. I cut it out to leave the controls and switch accessible I put the Fuzz Face in when playing just the guitar synth (Fuzz Faces are seriously heavy). Looks weird sounds great. I usually run the Fuzz Face fairly clean to get a very nice tone especially with P90s.

    I like to have as many possibilities as possible in my setup. When I used to use a multiFX processor I tended to have multiple patches of the same FX but in different orders for a variety of tones. I have an old Peavey Profex I always sort of hated and loved but it had one very cool thing which was the ability to put FX in parallel or series. In fact I had patches with multiple modulation FX in parallel with one another that sounded most cool. Parallel FX are rich sounding a bit more subtle in most cases but very musical. I am currently working on a new 4 input box to parallel FX pedals mainly fuzzes with a buffered mixer to stop nasty feedback if I forget and punch the button on a true bypass pedal or want to inject some clean (a pal talked me out of the last one I built for three pedals).
    Oh yeah I’ve got a boat load of FX pedals many of which I got broken and repaired. I also still do a little repair work for close pals when I can and they all know that I prefer pedals to dollars so I get more toys. I’ve done this for many years a so I have a big pile of Boss pedals as well as some serious oddball stuff.

    I use my pedal boards for both guitar and electric cello (electric cello sounds very cool thru FX). Since I developed back problems years ago I put my pedal boards on a small table that keeps them easy to reach for tweaking controls and I have a 4 loop switcher I built that allows me to make changes with my feet when needed. The wahs and vol pedals are on the floor as well.

  • soggybag

    I always place my Super Hard on clone at the end of the chain. This works best for me. It also sounds good over driven. So I’ll +1 on booster at the end of the signal chain.

  • joe

    If anyone’s curious, I recently posted pics of my digital and analog pedalboards here: http://tonefiend.com/recording/a-tale-of-two-pedalboards/

  • bear

    I might mention the peculiarities of my Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal, given that it’s typical Boss buffered bypass and you would expect it to play nice. Fans of certain metal subgenres seek the pedal out for what they call the “Swedish chainsaw” sound, but I chase 90s shoegazer sounds, so I tend to layer dirt a lot.. The thing uses several distortion methods simultaneously, creating a blurry and screechy mess that may be the blurry and screechy mess you’re chasing. It also compresses like the dickens. Not such a big thing when giving it a guitar-level input, but feed it a hot output, say from a Rat at high distortion and volume settings, and you bypass the HM-2 at your own risk. Haven’t noticed the same level of input compression on the Rat, but I don’t think I’ve ever given it as hot an input.

  • On Black Sabbath’s “Live Evil” album, included within Heaven and Hell/Sign of the Southern Cross potpourri there is a very impressive guitar solo but sadly forgotten.
    Was there something that had to be cut to fit the show on CD, I’m afraid it might be some of these minutes.
    Starting with fingerpicking (SG volume rolled down) seque into amp distortion twidle-dee. Very soon a fuzz (Roger Mayer I think) is added and a minute next another one(!). Very little real-time audience noise is heard on album only on this section. For closing mr. Iommi steps on octave-down device to bring his solo to its climax.
    No idea of his FX order on his pedalboard/rack but sure did he know to use them! There is also some chorus around but it may have been added when mixing, who knows?
    To this date this is one of the few examples in Hi-Fi sounding totally full gain metal guitar. To me anyway.
    Just some thoughts risen by the headline iaginary… :satansmoking:

  • Paul Honeycutt

    I like to take a “stereo” out delay pedal and split to two amps, one dry, one delayed. After the delayed out, stick a phase shifter so the repeats get phased. A very cool sound.

    • joe

      That’s a great effect. The most extreme example I ever heard was Tchad Blake mixing a Lisa Germano song. He panned the entire mix to one side, and sent a delay of the mis to the other. It sound SO awesome — but he wound up not using it. :)

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