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Does the order in which you connect your electric guitar effects pedals matter?

Guitarists commonly use pedalboards consisting of several effects pedals, including distortion, delay, reverb and more. Does the order in which they are connected make a difference to the sound?

Guitarists commonly use several effects pedals hooked up together. In fact, not only guitarists can use pedals, but any electric or electronic instrumentalist can too - and the studio engineer if he or she is feeling extra creative. There are so many different types available it's a great way to achieve creativity with sound. But does it make any difference if the guitar plugs into the distortion pedal first and then the chorus, or the other way round?

In fact it makes a major difference. With many combinations of pedals you will hear the difference easily. Let's first of all list some of the types of pedals that are available:

  • Distortion/overdrive
  • Waa-waa
  • Chorus/flange
  • Delay
  • Reverb
  • EQ

There are of course more, but this will serve for the sake of example. Let's take the distortion and reverb pedals - what will this sound like when connected in the order distortion>reverb?

This will sound like the proper sound of the distorted electric guitar, to which reverb is added - probably quite pleasant. But swap the order to reverb>distortion. Now not only is the sound of the guitar distorted, so is the reverb. In nearly all cases, this will sound absolutely awful. So if you want an absolutely awful sound, you know how to set about it.

Another interesting combination is distortion and chorus. In the order distortion>chorus, the distortion pedal produces a rich spectrum of harmonics for the chorus pedal to work on. This will sound great. In the order chorus>distortion, the chorus pedal can only work on the thin raw sound of the guitar, and the distortion pedal will probably disguise the fact that there is any chorus at all.

For some combinations, there is no obvious right and wrong. Delay and chorus, for example. Delay>chorus gives you one sound, chorus>delay another. Both might be usable, depending on the context. The same is true of waa-waa>chorus, although some waa-waa units produce distortion also, that will probably sound better if the chorus comes last.

The key is to experiment. Usually it is the position of the distortion or overdrive pedal that will make the greatest difference, and usually it will be best placed first in the chain.

What if you are a studio engineer. Does this matter to you?

It is actually great fun to play with guitar effects pedals, on all kinds of sounds. So get friendly with a guitarist and try some.

But also there is the situation where the guitarist plugs straight into the amp and is relying on the amp to produce distortion. Here, if any pedals are used, distortion comes last in the chain, where you probably don't want it to be. Even if the amp has an effects loop, the essential component of the distortion produced by the speaker itself must always be last in the chain.

One answer is to mike up the sound from the amp, then use the mixing console's insert send and return connectors to send the signal through the desired effects pedals. If you want to achieve the best or most creative sound from an electric guitar, sometimes you have to go the extra mile.

By David Mellor Monday January 16, 2006