The Essentials of Setting up & Ordering Your Guitar Pedals March 03 2014

Ok, you've got a few pedals but don't actually have a clue which way you should be connecting and powering them. Well if you want a little guidance about the basics then this is the article for you.

There's a lot of obvious stuff here (which new players may not know about) so feel free to skip to the relevant section below:

1. Introduction

I must admit, setting up your effects pedals can be pretty confusing at first since you have little idea about what goes where. Most of the time you just end up randomly connecting everything and hoping for the best. I know that's what I did.

But did you know that you can substantially alter the sound coming from your guitar depending on where in your chain a certain pedal is located? Knowing a little bit more about common pedal positions can help you improve your sound. However, there's no real “right” or “wrong” way to do things. It's all about experimentation and personal preference.

2. Getting Everything Set Up

So forgetting about the exact pedal order for a bit, how do you even get your setup working in the first place? The first task is making sure they're all powered.

2.1 Power Supplies

Power supplies can get a bit confusing since most of us don't know the first thing about electronics. To simplify things – most pedals will work with any given power supply as long as it's the same type. For example if you're using a standard 9v pedal, it should work with a 9v adaptor or 9v battery.

But you'll also notice that the pedal has a mA reading too. It will usually be in the form of a scary message on the back of the pedal such as “Only use a 200mA adaptor with this pedal”. When I bought my first pedal I was a little worried about it overloading and it exploding due to this message, since my adaptor was higher than 200mA. Fortunately this just means that the total current draw of the pedals connected to the power supply shouldn't exceed 500mA. If they do (for example if I had x3 80mA pedals = 240mA) then your 200mA adaptor is in danger of overheating.battery for pedal

Let's take a step back; we said before that more than one pedal can be connected to a power supply. How would this work? This uses something called a daisy chain. It means you don't need 1 power supply for each pedal. It lets you connect several pedals from one power supply. This sounds really convenient doesn't it? Unfortunately there are two problems associated with it.

  1. As we said above, the total mA of the pedals connected to the power supply shouldn't exceed the mA of the adaptor. Otherwise it could become overloaded causing damage. So always calculate the combined mA of the pedals attached.

  2. It can also create something called a ground loop. This is where two or more devices are connected to the same ground through different paths. The problem with this is that it can create a really annoying humming noise.

Of course these problems can be overcome by using a battery. However as you probably know they run out pretty quickly and can cost a fortune to replace. An alternative is to buy an isolated power supply which should habe substantially less hum than a dasiy chain since it eliminates the ground loop. Unfortunately these aren't cheap. They range from £50-150+ depending on quality compared to the £10 which an adaptor costs.

You'll only really need to worry about isolated power supplies if you're starting to get a little bit more professional. An adaptor with daisy chain / 9v battery will be fine for most beginners.

2.2 Getting Things Connected

Now you know about powering pedals, it's time to connect your pedal(s) to your amp. Look at your pedal and you should see two holes. One of the left and one on the right. They may be labeled “in” and “out”. Simply insert the jack attached to your guitar into the “in” slot. Then with another jack cable connect the other “out” side of the pedal to the amplifier. It should go into the same input slot of your amp that you usually plug your guitar into.

If you've got more than one pedal you'll need to connect them via a patch cable. So you'd connect one pedal with the jack attached to the guitar, and the other pedal with the jack attached to the amp. You then connect the two (or more) pedals with the patch cable so they form a nice chain.

3. Pedal Positioning & Arrangement

all image credit to Flickr user Mariano Keselman

Onto actual pedal positioning. Each pedal the guitar sound goes through changes it a bit. First let's try and get see why order matters. Let's say the signal leaves our guitar and goes into the first pedal (wah), and then into the second pedal (distortion). This would distort the wah sound. But if we connected the distortion and then the wah, a wah would be added to the distortion. Yes, these would sound similar, but not the same.

Let's look at a few different pedal types in turn, going from what should (generally speaking) be connected closest to your guitar end, to what should be connected closer to the amp end.

3.1 Tuner Pedal

Think about a tuner pedal. Will it be better to try and tune your guitar with the pure unaltered signal right out of your guitar, or after several effects have substantially altered its tone? Obviously it's going to be better at tuning with a nice clean tone. So you should put it towards the start of your effects chain. This is one of the few pedals where there is a right place to put it.

3.2 Wah & Compressors

The wah pedal depends on having a pure signal in order to get the most out of them, so may sound good towards the start. However it's equally acceptable to have it a little later in the chain (after distortion) to accentuate the wah sound.

Compressors are often a good pedal to put next as this prepares and evens the volume ready for the subsequent effects. However whether to put the compressor before or after distortion effects is the subject of much debate. Experiment to see what you like the most.

3.3 Distortion & Overdrive

Distortion pedals are commonly put next. If certain effects are added before distortion their distorted output doesn't sound as good. Think about a reverb pedal. Adding reverb before distortion will distort the reverb effect. A distorted echo probably isn't something you want. The same goes for effects like chorus and phaser, they don't always sound good distorted.

3.4 Modulation Effects

Next other pedals like phaser, chorus, flanger should be placed due to the reasons mentioned above. Placing them after the distortion makes sure they don't get distorted and ensures the essence of the effect stays clear.

3.5 Time Based Effects

With the delay pedal (or other time based pedals such as reverb or a looper pedal) you'll want them to be located towards the end of your chain. You want it to delay all of the effects so far, not delay some then have other non delayed effects on top. Placing another effect after the delay pedal can make your tone sound “uneven”.

3.6 Volume

If you have a volume pedal it should probably be at, or close to the end of your chain. You'll want it to evenly change the sound of everything that has come before it. Many players also use it before any time based effects too so they can delay the whole volume change.

4. It's All Subjective

Keep in mind that music is subjective. So while we've made recommendations here, don't treat them as being set in stone! Experiment and see what sounds good for you. Going against some of the common rules can help you find some really unique sounds. Some pedals like equalisers have even less rules. Place them where you need to specifically manipulate your sound range. It's up to you to experiment and find out where they sound best in your setup.

5. Example Setup

To get a rough idea, an example setup could look like this:

Guitar > Tuner > Wah > Compressor > EQ > Distortion > Phaser > Chorus > Delay > Volume > Amp

However this setup would also be perfectly acceptable:

Guitar > Tuner > Compressor > Wah > Distortion > EQ > Chorus > Phaser > Volume > Delay > Amp

6. Effects Loops

We can make things a little bit more complicated with effects loops since they're a different way to attach effects to your setup. Essentially they insert the effect after the preamp. Usually effects are inserted before the preamp. The preamp essentially prepares your sound for the main amplifier (the bit which actually makes it louder). However inserting effects, especially time based & modulation effects, after the pre amp can make them sound better. Simply think of the preamp as another effect in the chain. Some effects may sound better after it, rather than before. As above this comes down to personal opinion, but it's something else which you can experiment with.

6.1 How Do I use an Effects Loop?

So you actually want to use a loop? Actually setting up an effects loop is pretty easy but can differ between amplifiers. Let's say that we wanted to take the delay and chorus out of this setup and put it in the loop:

Guitar > Tuner > Wah > Compressor > Distortion > Chorus > Delay > Volume > Amp

We'd remove the pedals (so the distortion and volume would be connected) and look at our amp. There should be something which says “FX Send” and “FX Return” or something similar. Here's what it looks like on my amp:

fx send

You'd connect the input of the chorus pedal to the “FX Send” and, assuming the delay is connected via patch cable, the output of the delay pedal to the “FX Return”. So your new setup with an effects loop would look like this:

Guitar > Tuner > Wah > Compressor > Distortion > Volume > Pre Amp > FX Send > Chorus > Delay > FX Return > Main Amp

Some very small practice amps may not have the ability to use effects loops.

7. Conclusion

There you have it. A brief overview of powering and setting up your effects. Hopefully this will give you a basic base on which to go forward and experiment. Remember – sound is subjective!

8. Further Resources

There's a lot said online about the various positions you can put your pedals in, some guides get a little bit more in depth than us too. So you may find some of these resources useful:

Boss guide on the order of pedals.

Find the guitar setups of your favourite bands.

Guitar pedal subreddit. A great guitar pedal community where setups often get posted.