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Pedal Order: How the Signal Flow Works on Your Pedalboard

Pedal order is one of the crucial decisions you’ll make as you set up a pedalboard.

The signal chain you choose defines how each effect interacts with the next and the range of sounds that are possible with your board.

It’s the reason why so many players ask about the best order to connect their pedals. And while there is a conventional choice for pedalboard order, some of the most exciting tones come from experimentation and breaking the rules. 

In this article, I’ll explain the basics of signal flow, suggest some common pedalboard setups, and offer a few creative ideas you can use in your pedal chain. 

From the traditional to the expermental, Fireghosting explores various pedal order combinations.   

Signal Chain Basics

Let’s start with the fundamentals of signal flow.

Your guitar signal originates from the weak electrical voltage your strings create as they vibrate back and forth over a magnetic pickup.

In a simple guitar setup, you’d connect directly to an amplifier, where the preamp, power amp, and speaker work together to bring your signal up to a healthy level for live performance.

Any pedals you connect in between act on the raw guitar signal before reaching the amplifier.

The changes introduced by each pedal affect the next in line as your signal flows from input to output like water through a pipe.

Why Pedal Order Matters

The order of effects in your signal chain determines how each pedal type interacts with the next.

One easy way to hear how it changes the outcome is by placing different effects before or after distortion.

Since the overdrive very noticeably changes the character of the sound, its effect on the pedals around it jumps right out.

For example, imagine a simple pedalboard with a drive and phaser on it. The effect gets much more pronounced with the phaser placed after the distortion. 

The additional high frequencies introduced by the distortion cause the phaser’s sweep to sound deeper and more intense.

Conversely, running the phaser before the drive makes it seem subtler and more incorporated into the sound.  

The same principle applies to other types of effects. For example, running a square wave tremolo after a long ambient reverb will chop the sustaining trails into a pulsing rhythmic wash.

Even stacking different drive pedals can change how they behave. For example, it’s common to run fuzz pedals into overdrives to focus the midrange and stand out in a mix when using a clean amp.

On the other hand, pummeling an overdrive with a powerful clean boost can turn a low gain OD into a fuzzy mess.

Once you get used to it, you can predict the outcomes of different pedal orders and use those ideas to explore new sounds.

The old classic Empress Pedalboard.  Signal flow is right to left, going from the top row to the bottom row and then the middle row.  The Reverb is the last pedal in the chain.  The Empress Buffers have tuner outputs to remove the tuner from your signal chain. 

Common Pedalboard Setups


With the basics out of the way, here's the most conventional pedal order and why it's used by many players as a starting point.

In order, the signal chain is:

  1. Buffers
  2. Compressors or preamps
  3. Pitch shifters
  4. Overdrives and distortion
  5. Modulation effects like chorus, vibrato, and flanger
  6. Time-based effects like delay and reverb

First off, most pro rig builders recommend that every pedalboard include a high-quality buffer at the start of the chain. 

Buffers convert the high impedance signal from your guitar's pickup into a low impedance one that's suitable for running a long chain of pedals and cabling.

After that, compressors, preamp pedals, and front-end tone shapers are generally found first in line. These pedals work with the dynamics and frequency balance of the raw guitar signal to shape the sound for the rest of the chain.

Pitch shifting pedals generally require a clean signal for solid tracking. Placing them after compressors or preamps can sometimes help improve stability and accuracy. 

Next up are drive pedals. Again, for those who stack overdrives, you'll have to experiment to find the order you like best in this stage.

Following that, modulation effects are typically placed next. Like in the earlier example, running modulation pedals after your gain stages makes their effect more noticeable. 

If it turns out you prefer them in front, it's entirely up to you!

Finally, delay and reverb act on everything that's come before, providing clean trails and repeats to the amplifier's front end.

Overall, this signal chain is set up for maximum clarity from each effect. That's why you'll often see it recommended as an excellent place to start. But that doesn't mean it's the best choice for your tone. 

Try this order first if you're unsure where to start, but use your ears and experiment before you decide for good.

My attempt at diagraming the signal flow on this board. I hope this doesn't make it more confusing!  This board is routed in a traditional way.  Where to place the ZOIA is probably worthy of a dedicated article though.

Effects Loops and Four Cable Method

So far I’ve covered a basic pedalboard setup with all the effects run into the amp’s input. For a single channel, non master volume amp, it works very well.

But If you get your overdrive from the dirty channel on your amplifier, there’s a problem.

In the conventional pedal order I described above, your delay and reverb run directly into the amps input.

With a dirty amp, turning up the gain on your drive channel is like running a distortion pedal last in your chain. It means your reverb trails and delay repeats will get distorted along with the rest of your signal.

This can sound muddy and unpleasant for some. Effects loops fix it by letting you patch pedals in between the amp’s preamp and power amp.

Running modulation and time based effects into an overdriven amp is like placing an overdrive pedal after your effects.  

Since the amp’s overdrive sound is produced in the preamp section, inserting an effect in the loop works just like placing it after a distortion pedal.

It’s common to use time-based effects like delay and reverb in the effects loop, but you can experiment with other choices here as well.

In setups like this, pedals in the effects loop aren’t part of the signal path between your guitar and the amp’s input. They have to be patched in separately from the effects loop send and return jacks with extra cables. It’s the reason why some players call it the “four cable method.”
Using an effects loop allows you to insert pedals after the amp's preamp section.  This results in a smoother tone.  

Stereo Pedalboards

Playing in stereo requires you to think differently about the order of your effects.

Stereo pedals create a signal with contrasting information in the left and right channels, giving your sound a sense of movement or space.

The effect differs by pedal type, but you'll sometimes see stereo outputs on delays, reverbs, and modulation effects like chorus or tremolo.

You'll need to use two amps or an amp with stereo inputs or a stereo effects loop to hear it properly.

For some players, stereo guitar tones are worth the extra effort. Delays and reverbs become lush, spacious, and enveloping. Chorus and panning effects add width and motion impossible with a mono amp.

As you set up your pedalboard, you'll have to pay special attention to your stereo effects to get the best results.

Once you've split the sound into left and right signal paths, each pedal that follows needs to have both stereo inputs and outputs to preserve the stereo sound.

This can be an issue for stereo pedals that only offer a mono input like the Boss CE-2w. If you use a pedal like this, you'll have to make it the first stereo effect in your chain.

If all that sounds complicated, don’t worry. We are going to spend more time on pedal order in the future. Feel free to email if you need assistance. In the end, the best way to find your sound is to experiment and see what works for you.

Our mailing address is:
Empress Effects
Suite 105 - 62 Steacie Dr
Kanata, Ontario K2K 2A9

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