The Ultimate Guide To Guitar Pedal Signal Chain

ultimate guide to guitar pedal signal chain blog article

If you ask 10 guitarists about preferred pedal order on a pedalboard, you’ll get 30 answers. Hey, guitarists are an opinionated bunch. 

You might have heard people talk about hard and fast rules, and others that say it doesn’t matter at all just play the solo right for once. #projecting 

I would love to go back in time to my high school self and see what pedal signal path I used. I remember having 3 or 4 pedals laid out on the floor, each with their own power supplies plugged into a power strip. I had no idea that the signal chain mattered. 

I just wanted to rock dang it! 

And then I got more into pedals which meant I got more pedals. I eventually graduated to a pedal board (and from high school) and somewhere learned that the order of pedals mattered. So I followed the “rules” I had learned about pedal order. 

And while I’ve stuck closely to that order, I’ve also done some experimenting with pretty cool results (I’ll show you my preferred signal chain at the end of the article). 

I’m a believer in knowing the rules first, so you know how to break them. In our context, it’s important to understand why this signal chain is the most preferred set up. From there you’ll have a better understanding of how your pedals interact with each other.  

Which ultimately will lead you to thoughtful experimenting. 


The Standard Pedal Order 

standard guitar pedal signal chain , best pedal order

I’m going to start by going over the standard, recommended, mandatory, do this or else pedal order you’ll see in any article or write up. There are a lot of benefits here and I actually use something similar to this. I’ll go over the reasons as we’re going along.  

But don’t get too hung up on this. Especially if you’re recording, have a small pedal board, or want to express yourself in a different way than the norm. Remember, this is all subjective. And while 80% of guitarists might agree on this signal chain, there are different strokes for different folks and different signal paths for different situations. 

I’ll list these in order as they would be from your guitar to your amp. 

Fuzz Pedals 

Fuzz pedals normally come first because of how they respond (negatively) to buffered pedals. Even buffered bypass pedals can have a significant impact on how your fuzz sounds. It kind of sucks the life out of your tone. Putting your fuzz pedals before anything else makes sure there aren’t any buffers in front of it. 

Wah And Filter Pedals 

Wahs are another form of tone sucking pedals and typically do better in the beginning of your signal chain. One thing that is very much open for debate is if wahs sound better before overdrives and gain pedals, or if they sound better after overdrives and gain pedals.  

Envelope filters and auto wahs would naturally come next. They respond to your pickup’s dynamics and putting them towards the end reduces their touch sensitivity. Pitch shifters also work well at this point in your pedal chain.  

Properly powering your pedals is as important as your signal chain. To find out more about pedal power, check out this article.

Compressors 

Compressors fall into the next category, Dynamic Pedals, but I highly, highly, highly recommend putting them before any gain pedals. The reason has little to do with tone and much to do with noise.  

The primary function of a compressor is to “normalize” your signal. That means the loud parts are brought down and the quiet parts are brought up. If you have any buzz or hum coming from your overdrive, no matter how small, it gets amplified by the compressor if it comes after an overdrive.  

This same thing happens with fuzz pedals, by the way. I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone play a compressor and a fuzz at the same time. And I don’t know how it would sound. So I guess give that a shot and report back! 

Dynamic Pedals 

Next in your chain would be your dynamic pedals. Overdrives , distortions, boosts , and EQ pedals. Where you put each pedal will do different things. Especially if you have multiple gain pedals (and be honest, you do).  

Starting with overdrives and boosts, you have two options. Put the boost before the overdrive or put the overdrive before the boost.  

If you put your boost before your overdrive, you’ll add mostly just gain to your overdrive pedal. Your tone will stay relatively that same. This is perfect if you just need a little extra gain for a solo, 

If you put your overdrive before your boost, your boost acts primarily as a clean boost. The output knob on the boost acts as a volume without adding much gain. This is good if you only need a volume boost, with no added gain. 

EQ pedals can go in several places too. Some guitarists like to shape their tone from the start and put it near the front of the signal chain, or at least in front of their overdrives.  

Others prefer to sculpt their tone after the rest of their dynamic pedals. If your overdrives don’t have much of an EQ control you can fix some of that by putting your EQ after them. 

Modulation Pedals 

Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger filter guitar pedal signal chain.

Broadly inclusive of flangers, phasers, rotary speakers, and tremolo pedals. If you ran overdrives after modulation pedals, your effects wouldn’t be as intense. If you want the full swoosh of a flanger you’ll want it after your overdrive.  

Eddie Van Halen is a glaring exception, as are any guitarists who use their amp’s distortion exclusively. Because the modulations are before the overdrive it creates a unique sound. Which is a perfect example of this whole argument breaking down before our eyes…..OK not really, but it shows that guidelines aren’t hard and fast rules. 

Delays And Reverbs 

Last and certainly not least are your 3 delay and 2 reverb pedals I know for a fact you have on your board. Standard practice calls for delays to be in front of reverbs. If you were to swap that, you’d be adding repeats to your reverb which is cool but less practical. 

If you run both of them it’s considered better to put your delay first. That way you can clearly hear the repeats.  

Volume Pedals 

Now that we’ve covered effect pedals, let’s talk about non-effect pedals starting with Volume pedals. 

I see two primary uses of volume pedals. The first is at the very beginning of your signal chain. This acts just like your volume knob on your guitar. It can be used as a master volume control. Just know that like a volume pot on your guitar, you lose tone when you “roll” the volume back on the pedal. 

The second place guitarists generally use the volume pedal is after overdrive pedals and before delays and reverbs. This lets you get awesome fades with your gain level remaining the same. If you do this with your volume at the front of your signal chain, your gain will also “swell”.  

Tuner Pedals 

A lot of guitarists run a tuner out to their tuner if they’re using a volume pedal. This allows the tuner to be always on, and they just need to roll back the volume pedal to quietly tune.  

If you don’t do this stick it wherever it will fit. I prefer to keep mine at the beginning of the chain just to make sure I’m getting the cleanest signal in, for accurate tuning.  

Buffers 

Buffers are mandatory on pedal boards with more than 5 pedals (that don’t include pedals with buffered bypass). On long cable runs, anything over 20-25′, your tone starts to suffer. That’s because your cables have an impedance. It’s small, but enough to be noticed. 

You have options of where to put them, but it is somewhat situationally specific. You might have pedals already with buffered bypass, in which case you might be fine. But let’s assume you don’t. People are either going to use a buffer at the very beginning (after fuzz pedals if you please) or at the very end. 

At the beginning of your signal chain, they boost your signal going into the board- providing the cleanest signal your guitar has. At the end of your board, they boost everything before it on the way to the amp. 

I’d try it both ways and see what sounds best to you (keeping in mind you might have buffered pedals somewhere in your signal chain).  

Effects Loop 

pedal signal chain effects loop pedal order best order amp input time based pedals

Something I haven’t touched on is your amp’s effects loop, if it has one. The effects loop on your amp is in between your preamp and your power amp. So post preamp and pre power amp. Right. 

This is a pretty good spot for your tremolo pedals, since amps with built in tremolos traditionally have them after the preamp in the amp’s signal flow.  

This is also a place that people will put reverbs and delays. The tone for reverbs, delays, and tremolos sound much different in the effects loop (after your preamp) than they do on your pedal board (before your preamp). They have a cleaner quality to them being unhindered by any other pedals’ noise, impedance, or buffers. 

It’s fun to play around with and you should give it a try for science. Your set up gets more complicated when you do this though, and you’ll need more cables if you want to control them from your pedal board. Which I’m assuming you do.  


Example Pedal Signal Chains 

I think it’s helpful to see this in action. I have what I would consider a pretty standard pedalboard. Well two: one small one for jamming at home and another for gigs with more options.  

Small Pedal Board

small pedalboard signal chain example Rock Stock The Ultimate Guide To Guitar Pedal Signal Chain

Large Pedal Board

large pedalboard signal chain example Rock Stock The Ultimate Guide To Guitar Pedal Signal Chain

The small pedal board gets its pedals changed out frequently, so it looks different day to day. That UniVibe type pedal might be a second delay, or I might run to overdrives instead of an overdrive and a boost. This pedal board is where I do much of my experimenting.  

It’s super basic and I love it for that. Because it sits on my desk I can easily swap out pedals, try different combos and pedal orders, and generally use my pedals more.  

In the large pedalboard I don’t use the overdrives stacked together. I use them for different tones since they’re nothing alike (and don’t sound good stacked). If I did stack them, I’d play around with the order.  

I don’t use a ton of modulation pedals outside of jamming, though I do have my eyes on an Electric Mistress flanger. If I did I personally would put them in between the boost and delays. And I prefer my volume pedals post-gain pedals, for maximum swell awesomeness. 

One thing that I want to do, besides get a bigger pedal board, so I can bring back the volume pedal and add some modulation pedals, is get a looper. Not like a recording looper, but a signal looper. These deserve their own article, and they’ll get it. But you have some that let you change the signal flow with the push of a button (instead of physically changing your pedals’ positions).  


Different Pedal Signal Chain Ideas 

The last thing I want to leave you with is a really cool video Reverb put out testing unconventional pedal order. It’s a great way to hear a lot of these concepts, and you might see why one order works better than another.  

And remember, your ears dictate your music. Do what sounds best for you, and for the love of all that’s good spend some time experimenting! That’s part of the fun of using and collecting pedals. You might just stumble upon something pretty incredible.  

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