One of the most common questions I was asked in my days as a guitar repair guy, aside from “which should I buy, a tube amp or a valve amp?”, “My Strat buzzes under neon lights, is it busted?” and “Who the hell are you and what are you doing with that crowbar,” is “what order should my effects pedals be in?” The answers to each of those questions could take up an entire magazine, so let’s tackle the pedal one. To know how to configure your effects, first you must understand what they do and how they do it. Effects generally fall into two categories: Gain and Time-based.
Gain effects include overdrive and distortion, but also EQ, Wah Wah, enhancer, compressor and limiter. These effects usually take a signal and boost or alter some aspect of it such as volume or tone. Time-based effects include delay, reverb, flanger, pitch shifter and phaser, and these usually work by splitting the signal in two and doing something interesting with the sound, like repeat it, slow it down and speed it up again by a few milliseconds, or change its pitch.
Let’s say you have a distortion, a wah, a chorus and a delay pedal, a classic combo if ever there was one. The ideal set-up for this selection would be wah first, followed by distortion, then chorus, then delay. There are several reasons for this, all to do with how each pedal interacts with the unit or units before it in the signal chain. Wah before distortion creates the classic bassy to trebly sweep we all know and love. Wah after distortion has a smooth, midrange-heavy kind of tone. Instead of complementing the straight distortion tone by emphasising frequencies, it changes the frequencies of the distortion. It may sound good that way for certain applications (and Tim Commerford from Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave is a big fan of post-gain wah) but it will completely change the character of the tone. If you need both textures, chuck an extra distortion pedal in front of your wah.
Similarly, delay probably shouldn’t go before a distortion pedal, because any good distortion pedal worth its salt will add more distortion when you hit it with a loud sound (for instance, picking a string hard), and will produce lower levels of distortion when hit with a quieter signal, like when you pick softly. It’s this dynamic swing and interactivity that’s made pedals such as the Ibanez Tube Screamer such favourites among guitarists. But if you hit a distortion or overdrive pedal with the signal from a delay, the successively quieter repeats will lessen in distortion – but usually not in a good way (unless you’re going for a particular lo-fi sound, in which case it can be cool, but it’s not gonna work if you’re going for Satriani-style repeats synched with the tempo of the tune). The sound of the quieter repeats will clash with the ‘first generation’ notes you’re playing, and the whole thing will sound like a mess.
Most players prefer chorus pedals to be placed after distortion, creating the effect of two guitars playing at once, or just generally spreading out the sound in the stereo spectrum. Personally, I think it makes everything sound like a beer commercial or an 80s guitar solo on some pop diva album. Experiment with placing a chorus pedal before an overdrive pedal. This will add a subtle, Hendrixy warble to the sound, and is especially good for copping fake organ sounds.
One of my favourite happy accidents occurred when I placed an envelope filter pedal in the signal chain after a phaser. Envelope filters are basically wah wah pedals which vary the sweep of the wah effect depending on how loud or soft the input signal is (or, if you please, how soft or hard you pick). You can use this to your advantage by presenting the envelope filter with a signal that varies in intensity. An envelope filter will take the sweeping movement of a phaser and completely exaggerate it to the point of controllable feedback and back again. Similarly, running a wah into an envelope filter set just right can yield a tone similar to those filter sweeps from techno, where it sounds like you’re walking out of a club, into the car park and back again.
The classic Dimebag Darrell distortion tone was partly arrived at by placing a graphic EQ after distortion – in Dime’s case it was in the amp’s effects loop, but if you’re generating distortion from a pedal instead of an amplifier, you can get pretty close by running from your distortion into an EQ with the midrange turned down and the high and low frequencies boosts. Dime also had huge amounts of distortion which he kept controlled by using a noise gate set very high, and this played a huge part in his stop-start rhythms.
Some other tips:
* Try running a phaser or flanger before distortion for those Eddie Van Halen “Eruption” or “Unchained” moments – most people place these effects after distortion but it just sounds too hi-fi for the EVH tone.
* If you have a tuner (and why wouldn’t you?) it should be the very first pedal you plug your guitar into. If you place it after your other pedals, it could ‘hear’ the hiss and swirl of the various pedals, and this can prevent it reading your notes clearly.
* If you have a Digitech Whammy Pedal and you mainly use it for high pitched squeals, place it before distortion – this makes the effect sound more natural, like you’re actually bending a note up two octaves. If you use it as a harmonizer, it will sound more like two guitars if it’s after distortion, but if it’s before, it can sound pretty cool too, just completely different. Try both. You can get some wild harmonic overtones by using it as a harmonizer into a distorted setting, and shifting between 4ths and 5ths with the pedal.
* A compressor pedal can help you get a little extra gain if you place it before a distortion pedal, then you can turn the distortion off for a sweet John Frusciante tone.
But you don’t just have to use pedals the ‘right’ way because some blog guy tells you to. Some of the coolest sounds in the world have come about because of someone doing something the wrong way. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Then post your findings here and tell me what you did so I can steal your ideas. Hehe.