There are few things more fun as a guitarist than buying new pedals and seeing what they can do. If you have gear acquisition syndrome like me and most other guitarists, you likely find yourself spending hundreds on all kinds of cool new pedals, trying to find new tones and sounds for your style.
However, there is also something a little less fun that comes along with guitar pedals—pedal order. Pedal order is one of those things that often gets ignored, partially because players think it is some technical and complex thing. That said, pedal order can have a massive impact on your tone. Switching your pedals around can result in entirely different sounds coming from your amp. And thankfully, the basics of pedal order aren’t quite as complicated as they seem.
Let’s try to breakdown the basics of pedal order, that way you can be more confident when arranging your pedals and produce even better results.
Common Pedal Order
First off, it should be noted that there are no rights and wrongs when it comes to pedal order. As will be explained later, there are tons of exceptions and variations to the standard or common pedal order. Many players prefer an order that is different from the usual, and deviation from this order can often have great results. Experimentation pushes music forward after all, so don’t be afraid to try something new.
The order listed below is the common pedal order and a great starting point if you are confused about your pedal order. This combination should have good results for most set-ups and avoids many of the common issues caused by “incorrect” pedal order. I recommend trying this pedal order out first and experimenting from there to find what you like best.
The first thing in your pedal chain should typically be pedals that involve dynamics, such as compressors and volume pedals. If you have a tuner, that typically goes before anything else so it can be used as an on/off while tuning. But after that come the dynamics pedals.
When placed at the beginning of your pedal chain, a volume pedal acts like the volume knob on your guitar. You can easily and quickly change the volume without having to reach for your knobs. It can be used to create violin-like swells or simply for volume adjustments throughout a performance. Volume pedals are also placed elsewhere on the pedal chain for different effects (which we’ll get to later), but this is the standard placement.
As far as compressors, they are typically placed at the front to avoid compressing your effects. Since a compressor will squash peaks and reduce the dynamic range of your signal, it makes more sense to put it first. Distortion will also squash peaks in your signal, so a compressor would have little effect later on in your signal chain.
Next up are pitch based effects like pitch shifters and octave pedals. These usually go after your compressor and or volume pedal. Pitch shifters need to be able to track your signal so it can change or add to the pitch of it. If your pitch shifter is after distortion, flanger, delay, and all sorts of other pedals, it will have a harder time tracking your signal, resulting in a less than optimal sound.
This is all avoided by placing your pitch based effects early on. This will allow your pitch effects to get a clean signal and make tracking much more accurate. That said, some players do prefer to put it after any distortion or overdrive, particularly if they plan on using it with some added dirt. But the recommended standard is to use it before filters and gain but after dynamic effects.
Filter effects are effects that take away or add frequencies to your tone, such as wah, envelope filters (auto-wah), and more. These pedals can have huge impacts on their tone, and their placement is very important when using them.
Filter effects are typically placed before gain and after dynamic and pitch effects. Filters often produce weird and unwanted sounds, such as feedback, when placed after gain effects. They can also get a bit “wild” and “uncontrollable” depending on the pedal and distortion used, which is why they are typically placed before any gain effects.
However, this is one of the more hotly debated aspects of pedal board placement. We will talk more later about why some players prefer filters to go after distortion. But for now, start with this placement and keep in mind that there are other options worth trying.
Now comes one of the most popular effects—gain. This includes pedals like overdrive and distortion that introduce some dirt to your signal. Gain is typically placed before any modulation and time based effects but after everything else. Distortion and overdrive will amplify any noise in the signal chain, including from other pedals. If your distortion is after effects like reverb and delay, the noise can very quickly get out of hand. If your distortion is before all this though, you can prevent all of that unwanted noise.
It’s also important to mention gain stacking here since many players use more than one gain based pedal. If you are using a combination of boost, overdrive, and distortion, the order you put them in has a huge impact on the tone.
Gain stacking can be a controversial topic, but the standard order for gain pedals is boost => overdrive => distortion. Putting the boost before the overdrive lets you use the volume of the boost to further increase the amount of overdrive. Placing the boost afterwards would only increase the volume instead of further pushing the overdrive. Putting your distortion after your overdrive allows for a more saturated, compressed, and “thick” sound.
However, this is a hotly debated topic. Many metal players prefer to put a tubescreamer style overdrive after a distortion. Others just like the sound of distortion before overdrive. This one is very subjective, so experiment and find what works best for you.
Modulation effects are what we typically think of as the weirder stuff—flangers, phasers, choruses, etc. They also include stuff like tremolo and vibrato as well. These are usually placed after gain effects because when placed before, the gain can amplify unwanted frequencies and create harsh sounds. Chorus in particular can sound very harsh when placed before gain effects.
Again though, this is a debated subject. Many players prefer to put certain modulation effects before gain, such as flanger, uni-vibe, and phasers. Some think that these effects sound more “natural” and provide a more pronounced sweep when placed before gain. I even know a player who absolutely loves the unpleasant sound of running a cranked delay into a powerful distortion. But start with modulation after gain first and try moving them around from there.
Coming in at the very end are the time based effects. These are pedals such as reverb, delay, and loopers which alter the timing of your signal. The order typically goes delay => reverb => looper. They are usually placed at the end for a few main reasons.
The first is that you generally want to add reverb or delay on-top of everything else. You usually don’t want to filter, overdrive, or modulate the reverb or delay, so they are placed last. The second is that placing them earlier often has poor results. Reverb before distortion for example can result in losing the definition and attack in your sound, as well as adding a ton of unwanted ambience and noise.
Again though, many players like the sound of reverb or delay before distortion. Reverb before distortion has been used by many more ambient focused artists, like Sigur Ros. Many classic guitar tones were created by using a delay pedal into a heavily distorted amp. Like always, we recommend starting with the suggested order and then experimenting from there.
And a quick note on loopers—they are almost always placed at the very end of the signal chain. You want to loop all the sound created by your pedal board and guitar, so you place it at the end. If it is earlier on, say before the reverb and delay, you won’t actually loop those effects.
Variations and Experimentation
As mentioned throughout this guide, there is always room for experimentation and variation. Guitar rigs and pedal boards are not one size fits all. We all have different styles, play different music, and have different preferences. Don’t be afraid to try out something new and see how it sounds.
Experimentation can also have great results. Just check out Andy from Reverb demonstrating the kind of results you can get by moving your pedals around a bit. Some of these tones are surprisingly great, so get creative and have fun!
To show how debated and flexible pedal order really is, let’s cover a few common variations and changes made to the common pedal order.
Though the volume pedal is typically early on in the signal chain, many players prefer to place it elsewhere depending on their desired use. Placing it at the very end of the signal chain can allow it to function like a master volume knob for your entire pedal board. Placing it after your gain based pedals means it will have no bearing on their input levels, so it can be used like master volume for your signal up until that point.
Again, it all depends on your preferences and what exactly you want to use your volume pedal for.
Wah is arguably the most debatable pedal on the list. Many players much prefer to put their wah after gain effects instead of before. Placing it before provides a stronger and cleaner signal sweep, but placing it after can give you a thicker sound while reducing some of the classic wah sound.
Since this one really is entirely subjective, just try out both. Figure out which wah sound you prefer and go with that. There are no right or wrong answers here, so go with what you like.
Reverb Into Phaser
One reason many prefer to deviate from the traditional pedal order is to create specific effects. A perfect example of that is Kevin Parker of Tame Impala using a reverb into a phaser. This creates a swirling sort of effect that can be heard on countless Tame Impala tracks, such as Enders Toi.
Parker also uses delay into phaser as well to create the psychedelic sounds he is so well known for. Sometimes wrong is exactly what you’re looking for, so break some rules and see what happens.
Flangers/Phasers Into Distortion
Another common variation is placing flangers, phasers, and uni-vibes before distortion. Putting these before your distortion can make the sound more “natural” with a more pronounced sweep. Like always, this comes down to personal preference. Experiment with your pedal order and see what works best for you.
Pedal order can be a seemingly complex and frustrating thing, but the basics of pedal order are fairly simple. Follow the recommended order above and you should get pretty good results. But as with nearly everything related to guitar, it all comes down to what you like.
There is no correct pedal order, and pros set their boards up in all kinds of weird ways depending on what they’re looking for. Use this guide as a starting point and experiment from there. Try to find your sound and what works best for you. And above all—have fun! Pedals are exciting and can provide entirely new sounds and textures, so don’t forget to enjoy yourself too.