Guitar Pedal Order – How To Correctly Organize Your Pedalboard

Guitar Pedal Order - How to Correctly Organize Your Pedalboard

As a guitarist you’ve more than likely collected a few effects pedals (OK, maybe more than just a few) and you might be asking yourself… Can pedals be thrown together in any order?

Does effect order change the way the pedals sound?

It turns out that the order you organize your pedals in does change the way they sound.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at some common pedal orders you may want to consider when putting together your board, as well as some unconventional pedal pairings to play around with.

Snapshot: Pedal Order

  1. Tuner
  2. Wah
  3. Fuzz
  4. Octave/Harmonizer
  5. Compressor
  6. EQ
  7. Overdrive/Distortion/Boost
  8. Modulation
  9. Delay
  10. Tremolo
  11. Reverb

There is NO Right Order, but There is a COMMON Order

Pedal Board Layout

The most important thing to remember about pedal order is that there isn’t a right or wrong way to go about pedal order, other than what sounds right or wrong to you. The next most important thing to remember is that pedals interact with each other, so the order that you place your pedals in does have an effect (pun intended) on your guitar sound.

I organized this article in order of the most commonly accepted pedal order by effect type, which is: Tuner, Wah, Fuzz, Octave, Compressor, EQ, Overdrive/Distortion, Modulation, Delay, Reverb.

If you’re looking for a quick answer to the question “What is the right pedal order?” you could run with this sequence and you’ll more than likely be happy with the result.  Most guitarists incorporate this general layout in their boards with maybe a couple of exceptions. I will discuss those exceptions in this article.

Within each effect type I will explain why the “Common Order” works for most pedals of its kind, as well as some variations worth experimenting with. Finally, I will make recommendations for pedals of each effect type so that you can get going in the right direction if you don’t already own one of these pedals.

1. Tuner

Arguably the most important pedal on your board, your Tuner is most commonly placed at the front of your signal chain. This keeps any effects from interfering with the Tuner and ensures it can be as accurate as possible. It also allows your tuner to work as a kill switch, completely interrupting the rest of your signal should you need to turn off your guitar for any reason.

Tuners offer zero to little signal interference, but can come as either true bypass or buffered bypass depending on which brand you use. Later in this article, I will explain how buffers can interfere with fuzz pedals, so if you have a Boss Tuner (all Boss pedals are buffered bypass) then you may want to place your tuner after your germanium fuzz pedals.

Recommended Tuner Pedals

2. Wah

Wah pedals are typically the first “effect” in your chain (considering that tuners aren’t much of an effects pedal). These sweepable filters effect the EQ of everything that comes before them and are at their best when placed at the front of the signal chain (yes, even before your fuzz pedals).

That being said, there are some fun (though chaotic) applications for placing your wah later in your chain. Some guitar players have used wah at the very end of their chain. Putting an overdrive or distortion in front of a wah eliminates the attack of your guitar and almost creates a swell like effect. There is also often a jump in volume when you do this. Placing delay in front of a wah results in all the delayed notes carrying change in their EQ.

While these are cool techniques, they can get out of hand fast and are not very usable in a live situation as a “go-to” sound for most. When in doubt, Wah pedals seem to be happiest at the beginning of the chain, along with most other “filter” effects like auto-wah.

Recommended Wah Pedals

3. Fuzz

“Fuzz First” is a rule of thumb that you will often hear, to which I recommend you stick to when it comes to germanium transistor fuzzes. That is unless you have a wah pedal in your chain, then that should still come before a fuzz pedal of any kind.

Germanium fuzzes require a low impedance signal like the one that comes straight from your guitar cable to function the way they were designed to. They especially don’t like to have a buffer in front of them, as this changes the impedance going into the pedal and can drastically alter the sound of the pedal.

Silicon transistor fuzzes are much more common these days due to their reliability and availability. Though they can handle a buffered or boosted signal much better than germanium, they are often still placed early on in the chain. Though, you have a little bit more flexibility when it comes to placing them pre or boost boosts and overdrives. These fuzzes work much more like a distortion pedal than a vintage fuzz.

Neither germanium or silicon are “better” but they do sound and react with other pedals differently. It’s worth experimenting with both.

Recommended Fuzz Pedals

4. Octave/Harmonizer

Octave pedals like to be placed after fuzz, but usually before the rest of your overdrives. This places them early on in your signal chain, whether you’re using a whammy pedal or a polyphonic octave or harmonizer.

This placement is also ideal for any other pitch or synth pedals you may have in your chain, as they work best with as little altered signal in front of them as possible. This is especially important for polyphonic pedals that track multiple notes at a time, as sending a distorted signal can make achieving their effect more challenging.

That being said, these pedals are often finicky and will react to certain overdrives or fuzzes differently than others, so definitely experiment. Maybe you’ll like the sound of a glitchy monophonic octave pedal with distortion in front of it as you play multiple strings. It can add some chaos and the feeling of danger when your music calls for it.

Recommended Octave/Harmonizer Pedals

5. Compressor

Compressors typically come before your overdrive pedals. I took this advice to heart until very recently when That Pedal Show explained how compressors can work like boost pedals depending on where they are placed.

Place your compressor before your overdrive and you’ll notice that the attack is softer, because you’re compressing before going into and overdrive that compresses even further. This may be ideal if you are typically a clean player or you play a lot of chicken-pickin’ and you want to add just a little bit of gain without adding to much aggression to your sound.

Place your compressor after your overdrive, and you retain more of that initial bite. Adding a compressor after your overdrive can add volume and just a touch of sustain, making this a great scenario for lead/solo boosts. I recommend increasing the threshold in this scenario so that that compressor sounds slightly more transparent.

Recommended Compressor Pedals

6. EQ

Since EQ pedals are transparent in nature (until you move the knobs, that is), you might think that their placement on your board is irrelevant. However, the placement of an EQ pedal can make it much more effective than you might initially think, especially when used in conjunction with overdrive pedals.

Place an EQ before your overdrive pedals and the frequencies that you boost will compress more, causing them to distort. This is a great way to completely revoice an overdrive pedal without changing its volume.

Place your EQ pedal after your overdrive and the pedal works like a master volume control. This means that the frequencies you boost or cut will be reflected in a volume drop, as opposed to a change in gain. This is a great way to use your EQ pedal as a solo booster. Just boost the mid frequencies, along with a bump in the master volume, and turn the pedal on during your solo to cut through the mix substantially.

Recommended EQ Pedals

7. Overdrive/Distortion/Boost

This is possibly the densest family of effects when it comes to pedal placement and this section could easily be renamed “Gain Stacking”, which is a topic all to itself.

Conventional wisdom suggests placing your drive pedals in order from lowest gain to highest (i.e. Boost, Overdrive, Distortion). This typically does not include fuzz, which is placed near the very beginning of your chain, unless it’s a Big Muff or some other kind of silicon fuzz.

See how there are already exceptions to “conventional wisdom” here?

I, for one, go completely against conventional wisdom here and place my overdrives from highest gain to lowest gain. I do this because I often use “always on” boost pedals that serve a critical role in shaping my tone. I also consider myself to be a low-gain guitarist, so when I want distortion I don’t want my other pedals coloring my distortion or adding to its already heavy gain structure.

One technique of gain staging worth mentioning here is the use of boost pedals pre or post your overdrive or distortion pedal:

  • Boost Pre OD: increases gain. Volume remains consistent.
  • Boost Post OD: Gain remains consistent. Volume increases.

There is so much more to cover when it comes to gain and tone stacking, but when it comes to the order of your overdrives, my biggest piece of advice is to trust your ears and keep in mind what purpose you want each of your overdrives to serve. The later an overdrive is in your chain, the more its character will remain no matter what you put before it.

Gain pedals play a crucial role in pedal order, and more will be discussed about them through the entirety of this article.

Recommended Boost/OD/Distortion Pedals

8. Modulation

Modulation is another dense family of effects, landing just shy of Gain pedals in my opinion in terms of importance of placement in your signal chain.

If you’re looking for a quick answer of where to place Modulation pedals in your signal chain, the most commonly used technique is modulation post overdrive. This even applies to some high gain amps that include an effects loop so that you can place modulation effects after your amplifier’s preamp, but before the power section of the amplifier.

The one modulation effect I have reserved later on for its own section is Tremolo. Read section 10.

One thing you might want to consider if you have always followed conventional wisdom is to try placing your modulation effects (i.e. Chorus, Flanger, and Vibrato) before your overdrive.

When you place your modulation pedals after overdrive, the modulation is the most prevalent effect. This is awesome if you want modulation to be overtly present like in an 80’s ballad, but what if you want modulation to be more subtle and your pedal doesn’t have a mix knob?

Placing modulation before your overdrives creates a more subtle effect. Because the overdrive comes after the modulation, the overdrive is the effect you hear more of, resulting in a tone where the modulation is more incorporated into your overdrive sound. I especially like this with chorus, but Univibe pedals are another modulation effect that commonly get placed before your overdrives. Try it out!

Recommended Modulation Pedals

9. Delay

One of the most common issues with delay pedals is that they can get pretty unruly when they are placed in front of a dirty amplifier. This is why most choose to place their delay pedals in the effects loop of the amp. However, there have been exceptions to this – just take Led Zeppelin for example. The key is to make sure that the amp isn’t too overdriven.

The same goes for placing delay in front of your overdrive. If you want your delay to sound slightly more distorted and to boost its delay trails, you can try placing a delay in front of your overdrive.

Delay also interacts in a picky way with some reverb sounds. Placing a reverb pedal before delay can cause artifacts to arise, as the delay amplifies all the small repetitions of your sound that come from a reverb pedal. This may be a fun trick to keep in your back pocket when you’re working in the studio, but placing Delay before Reverb is one standard of pedal order that I tend to adhere to.

 Of course there are a wide array of delay types, from tape to digital, and they all interact with overdrives, modulations, and reverbs differently. Some even have their own effects loops incorporated into them for further routing options. The key is to know how you plan on utilizing your delay and experiment so that you can place it appropriately for your rig.

Recommended Delay Pedals

10.  Tremolo

As I mentioned before, Tremolo is a modulation effect. However, you may be surprised at how much more adaptable your tremolo pedal is when its placed later in your signal.

A good way to think about this is how Tremolo is set up in tube amplifiers, where the effect comes after your preamp, but before the reverb section, if there is one. Your delay pedal would also more than likely come before these sections of your amp. The same theory could be applied to these effects in pedal form.

Placing your Tremolo before your delay and reverb tames the effect, which may be the way that you prefer tremolo to sound. However, if you want to keep a strong, fully amplified tremolo effect, the best place to achieve this sound is after delay and before your reverb.

Recommended Tremolo Pedals

11.  Reverb

There are few guitarists that will dispute that the best place to put your favorite Reverb pedal is at the very end of your signal. This allows your reverb effect to sit nicely in the mix no matter what kind of overdrive or distortion you have before it. This is also how most amplifiers will be set up.

That being said, there are some unconventional methods that can be used with Reverb. Placing your Reverb pedal before an overdrive pedal pushes the reverb sound to the forefront and creates a much wetter, heavily saturated reverb sound. This can be a cool effect if you’re trying to create swells or if you have a relatively tame reverb, such as a room reverb, that you want to sound larger.

If you’re using a Reverb pedal into a dirty/distorted amplifier, try placing it into the effects loop of your amp if it has one. This places your Reverb post the preamp section and will create a more subtle effect.

Recommended Reverb Pedals

Pedal “Rules” Are Meant to be Broken

That’s it! That is how you can “correctly” organize your pedals: Wah, Fuzz, Octave, Compressor, Boost, EQ, Distortion, Vibe, Overdrive, (Boost) (Fuzz), Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Delay, Tremolo, Reverb

This article is far from all-encompassing. There are more pieces of gear that play a vital role in your pedal board not mentioned here, such as buffers, power supplies, and your amplifier choice. The Sound Junky has articles written specifically about these topics that you can check out if you want to learn more about them.

That being said, I hope I was able to explain what the generally excepted “rules of thumb” are for pedal order. With this you can have the confidence to get started in organizing your pedals in a fashion that is almost guaranteed to sound good and to allow your pedals to function the way they were designed to.

We guitarists create art and pedals are our tools for creation. They are meant to be experimented with; that’s what makes them so fun!

I encourage all guitarists to start with the basics of pedal order, and then feel empowered to experiment beyond those guidelines and trust your ears. If you like the position of a pedal and the sounds your pedal creates as a result, then it’s in the right place.

The flipside to this is that if you buy a new pedal and you don’t like the way it sounds with the rest of your pedals; it may just not be in the most suitable position on your board. Before you throw away a pedal that doesn’t sound good on the first play through, try moving it around on your board even if it goes against conventional pedal order wisdom.

Remember, there are no right answers here. Just trust your ears and have fun making music!

Further Reading: