What is a signal chain?
Effect pedals. We know ‘em, we love ‘em, but what’s really going on when they’re all hooked up together? One pedal alone could produce any number of awesome tones, so what’s the big picture? What’s great about effect pedals is their ability to play off each other when connected in a sequence, one after another. Many guitarists rely on some series of effects to achieve their sound, and with so many pedals out there today, the combinations are limitless and the tones are incredible. Whether it’s a wah into a fuzz, an overdrive into a chorus, or a delay into another delay, you may already be an expert in signal chains from your favorite artists alone!
When you hear someone talk about signal chain, effects chain, or effects pedal order, they’re talking about the dynamics that play out by ordering guitar pedals in a particular way. There are many schools of thought about effect pedal order, but where do you start?
So here we are. You’ve got the guitar, the amplifier, and now, the all-important effect pedals. So many options, so many possibilities. You may consider how your pedal order affects that perfect sound you are going for and how it can best come together. For that, here are a couple of quick pointers for setting out on your effect pedal journey.
With power supplies and patch cables ready, let’s jump in.
Is there an ideal pedal chain?
There are no laws of nature regarding signal chain but there are some common rules worth following to preserve tone and get the most out of your pedals. Everything is up to interpretation as to what makes your sound your sound, so don’t get too nervous because there are no wrong answers. However, here are some common trends that you may see on a pedalboard:
An almost universal trend in signal chain order is putting a tuning pedal first in front of all other effects. The reasoning for this trend is rather straightforward: to best pick up your guitar signal to accurately tune, you’ll want the clearest and cleanest output you can get from your instrument to the tuner. Some effects may get in the way of your tuner picking up your signal, so for clarity and accuracy, tuners can usually be found up front.
Drive on Drive
While stacking different drive pedals can sometimes be a challenge alone, a generally popular way to start stacking is to order the drives in relation to how much they are affecting the signal: the lower the noise, the earlier in the chain. If you’re looking to combine a light overdrive and a noisy fuzz for example, the overdrive can work as a base to build the fuzz off of (drive before fuzz). This may take tinkering to match your drive pedals, but it is usually easier to ramp up with dirt than to use several different drive pedals unorganized.
When using a delay or a reverb, players are usually trying to create some sort of trail off of an existing tone. Think of an amplifier with an onboard reverb. That reverb is essentially the last “effect” that is hitting the amplifier before you hear the signal altogether. Commonly, players want to hear their distorted signal echoed rather than an echoed signal distorted. Placing your time-based effects in front of distortions can create a sound that is more washed and blurry. If you are looking for more clarity combining your drives and delays, time-based effects are usually best kept at the end.
What happens if I change the guitar pedal order?
While there are some “conventions” in pedalboard design that you may see and hear from other musicians, the beauty of effect pedals is that they are stackable and mix-and-matchable. Certain combinations and chains may not sound 100% traditional, but your pedals will not take a hit or damage for the trouble. The key is to not be afraid of sounding less than perfect off the bat. Trial and error can be a great practice when it comes to unlocking your sound with the pedals at your disposal. If you are looking for some direction in experimentation, here are a couple of deviations from the traditional that can get that ball rolling.
When you are looking to get into sounds that are more quirky or spacey, swapping chorus effects throughout your chain can allow for different tones to play off of each other in ways that they traditionally wouldn’t. Since most chorus effects can be pushed to create some spacey motion in your signal, placing them before a drive effect can result in some wacky distorted signals.
You would commonly use a noise reduction pedal to quiet noisier effects that can bleed into the rest of your signal when they are turned on. Fuzz and distortion pedals are usually main culprits due to the feedback they can cause (depending on the pedal and how far you push it). Experimenting with your noise reduction pedal throughout your signal chain can be an interesting way to see not only the unique ways the noise interacts with sections of your chain, but also how your other pedals interact with each other.
The Traveling Wah
Maybe one of the most dominating effects you can chain in is a wah pedal. The filtered tones you can create with a wah pedal are usually reserved for the beginning of your chain to keep control over your signal tight. Placing your wah pedal at the end of your chain however, that is another story. Taking all your effects and send them through the wah effect creates a new frame of interaction between all your pedals. Along with a wah pedal’s distinct tonal character, putting all of your effects through an interactive pedal like a wah can create wicked reactions as you ride a wave of wah-filtered wildness.
What about effects loops?
Oh, so you want to get fancy, huh?
An effects loop is a saving grace if you’re looking to mix drive and modulation effects. As a feature of some amplifiers, an effects loop allows you to chain a series of effects after the preamp section of your amplifier but before the power section. Popular effects to run through an effects loop are usually modulation effects such as chorus or tremolo and time-based effects such as reverb or delay. Placing a modulation effect before your overdriven amplifier can result in the modulation becoming squashed or muddied. Effects loops can play a crucial part in shaping your sound when it comes to retaining the clarity and dynamics of modulation effects and the organic tones of overdriven amplifiers.
Just as a modulation pedal affects an overdrive pedal when the modulation is placed in front, the same applies to an overdriven preamp and a modulation. In the majority of cases, players want their overdrive first in a chain to retain their amp’s unique voice, so an effects loop is a remedy when plugging directly into an overdriven amp. With an effects loop, your organic tube overdrive and colorful modulation effect pedal will both be thankful and play their best.
There are two types of effects loops – series and parallel.
A series effects loop will run your entire amplifier signal through the pedals that you have plugged into it. This is a more straightforward and streamlined option if you’re looking to simply retain the distinct character of your amplifier while running it through effects. A parallel effects loop is slightly more complicated. The parallel loop will create two identical signals from one signal, one remaining unaffected while the other is sent through your effects. With a parallel loop, you can adjust the two signals to match up in a mix that best suits your sound. As a word of caution, make sure the effects you run through your second parallel signal are capable of running completely wet.
If you’re wondering where to begin, start here:
Dynamics - Effects that affect your clean tone
- Compression, Wah, Octave
Gain - Effects that create tones different from your clean tone
- Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz
Modulation - Effects that shape your affected tone
- Chorus, Phaser, Flanger
Time - Effects that replicate sounds
- Looper, Delay, Reverb
What does this all mean for me?
Effect pedals can be a very important component of your own unique electric guitar sound, so there’s bound to be a couple questions. The beauty in signal chains is the freedom to explore different combinations and to color the canvas as you see fit. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to the order of effects with what can and cannot be done, so try it for yourself. You never know what you may find.
If you have any questions, we’re here to help, so reach out any time.
Some of our favorite signal chains:
“The OK Calculator”
In the style of Ed O’Brien of Radiohead
- Pitch Shifter
In the style of Billy Duffy of The Cult
- Noise Reduction
- Delay (Analog)
- Delay (Digital)
- Delay (Digital)
- Amp Selector
“The Prehistoric Fuzz Fiend”
In the style of J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.
“The Red, White, and Blues”
In the style of Jack White of The White Stripes
- Pitch Shifter
“The Parade Leader”
In the style of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine
Huge thanks to our awesome teams who helped put this guide together.