Effects loops can be a bit controversial in the guitar world; some players swear by them, and others don’t want to be bothered with yet another tangle of cables. However, effects loops can be incredibly useful tools when you understand what they are, how they work, and how to use them.
Many players opt to ignore the effects loop and run everything straight into the amp, but learning how to utilize an effects loop might help you find the tone you’ve been looking for. Today we’re going to cover the basics of effects loops, how they work, and how to get the most out of them so you can get the best tone possible.
What Is an Effects Loop
First, let’s start with what an effects loop is. Effects loops are usually located on the back of your amp and consist of two jacks, send (output) and return (input). An effects loop lets you place pedals after the pre-amp but before the power amp. The pre-amp boosts your guitar’s signal to line level, and the power amp boosts the line level to “speaker level” before it reaches the speakers. So what is the benefit of placing pedals between the pre-amp and power amp?
Well, as explained in our pedal order article, where your pedals are in the pedal chain has a huge impact on your tone. The pre-amp is typically where your amp’s distortion comes from, so an effects loop allows you to place pedals after the amp’s distortion instead of before. It ultimately gives you more control over the order of the signal chain, allowing you to more finely sculpt your sound.
Now, let’s move on to how to use an effects loop and make the most of it so you get the best tone possible.
How To Use an Effects Loop
Using an effects loop can seem a lot more complicated than it actually is. What pedals should be in the loop? What plugs into what? What’s the order? Well don’t worry—we’re going to cover the basics so you can finally put your effects loop to good use.
What Should and Shouldn’t Be In the Loop
This is one of the biggest questions most guitarists have about effects loops; what should and shouldn’t be in the loop? Thankfully, the answer is pretty simple for the most part—time based effects usually benefit from being in the loop, distortion/overdrive/fuzz usually sound better in front of the amp, and modulation pedals can work either way depending preference. Let’s cover why those effects do or don’t work in the loop.
Time Based Effects
Time based effects like reverb and delay work great with an effects loop, especially if you are using the amp’s distortion. If you run a delay or reverb directly into a distorted amp, the preamp is going to distort the entire signal, including the delay or reverb. This can make the sound muddy and less distinct, which isn’t usually what people are going for when using those effects.
However, an effects loop allows you to use your delay and reverb after the pre-amp, that way you’re adding reverb or delay to an already distorted signal. This keeps the signal cleaner and gives you clean, spacious, delay and or reverb. For most players, this is preferable to the distorted and muddy sound created by putting delay and reverb in front of a distorted amp.
Distortion, Overdrive, and Fuzz
Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz don’t really work well in effects loops for one simple reason—you’re adding distortion to an already distorted signal. Most pre-amps add color and distortion to the signal, so adding a distortion or overdrive after that can push the signal “over the line” so to speak.
Using these pedals with an effects loop usually results in a harsh and unpleasant sound. While there are bound to be exceptions of people who have found tones they like using overdrive, distortion, and fuzz in the effects loop, it generally isn’t recommended.
Exceptions and Experimentation
Despite there being rules of thumb, there are pedals that some prefer in the loop and some prefer out of the loop. Modulation for example can sound great either way depending on the tone you’re looking for. Using modulation in the effects loop can result in a cleaner sound and a more full dynamic sweep, but using them before the loop can give you a more warm and compressed sound. It ultimately comes down to preference.
Another example of this is reverb and delay. Though most players prefer to use reverb and delay in the effects loop, there are also many players who prefer to use them in front of the amp. Doing so can further saturate the signal and re-create the delay sounds of the 60s and 70s before effects loops caught on in the 80s. Again, it comes down to what sound you are looking for.
One last example are level control pedals such as volume pedals, boosts, and buffers. Using these pedals in the loop can let you get massive changes in volume while still keeping all the tonal additions from your pre-amp. At the same time, others still prefer to place their volume pedals in front of the amp.
Like everything in the guitar world, there are no rights or wrongs. Experiment with your pedals and effects loop to find what you like the most. Each combination of pedals and amps is totally different, so don’t be afraid to try out new combinations and see what happens.
The Four Cable Method
Before wrapping up, let’s quickly cover how to actually set-up and use an effects loop. Despite being relatively simple, it’s one of the things that often keeps guitarists from trying out their effects loops. The four cable method is called the four cable method for obvious reasons—it requires four cables (as well as patch cables, depending on how many pedals you’re using).
The first cable goes from your guitar’s output into the pedals you want to use in front of the amp, such as your tuner and distortion. Then, the second cable goes from the output of the last pedal not in the loop to the amp’s input. This is just like a basic pedal board set up, so nothing to stress too much about.
The third cable goes from the effects loop’s send (output; located on the back of the amp) to the input of the first pedal in the effects loop, like your reverb or delay. Finally, the fourth cable goes from the output of the final pedal in the effects loop to the return (input; located on the back of the amp) of the effects loop.
This method gives you complete control over the order of your pedals in relation to the pre-amp and power amp of your amplifier. You can choose which pedals you want in front of the amp and fed through the pre-amp and which pedals you want to run in between the pre-amp and power amp.
Just be sure that you have all the basics covered when setting up your effects loop, such as having all the inputs and outputs right, power supplies for your pedals, patch cables, etc. We all know the feeling of plugging in and turning on only to hear nothing, so double check that you have everything connected properly.
Effects loops may seem a little complicated and convoluted, but it’s worth taking the time to understand how they work and try them. Effects loops are an incredible tool that can give you more control over your signal chain, allowing you to choose which pedals you want to go in between the pre-amp and power amp.
For time-based effects used in conjunction with amp distortion, an effects loop can greatly improve their sound. And don’t forget—while there are common suggestions, there is no right or wrong way to use an effects loop. Experiment using different pedals in different orders to find what you like best.