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Signal Path: How To Get Your Guitar's Holy Grail Of Tone To Your Amp In One Piece

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I was reading an article this morning on Fender's Tech Talk forum page about how to organize pedals on a basic pedalboard for best tone and least noise. Called Mass Effects: How To Compose An Effective Effects Chain, Fender's article is for entry to mid-level players and is good info in terms overall order but does not cover some "pain points" that crop up often at practice, studio, basement and especially onstage.

In principle, I agree with Fender's take: Tuner>Wah>Mod&Time-Based Echo>Reverb>Other>EQ is a baseline order that minimizes noise and unpleasant signal side-effects. But, if you regard the tone coming out of your beloved guitar as the "holy grail" that you want to gently carry, unchanged unless stomped on, to its final resting place (your amp), the path to greatness ought to go a little more like this:

The Basics:

  1. Start with great cables. Best you can afford. Too many otherwise great pedal boards fail in live circumstances due to poor connections between cables and pedals.
  2. Ensure that you're making the connection by scoring some Contact Enhancer spray or brush on. Seriously. Deox Id is an excellent example. You can find these at electronics stores or online. Refresh once every few months.
  3. Next, get a power supply that is capable of an sufficient amperage capacity greater than the pedals you're powering - 20% more is ample but do the pedal math to be certain. Use Contact Enhancer on the power supply interconnects as well.
  4. Use a solidly built pedalboard of some type capable of holding all pedals with room left over to add a few more - this happens more often than guitarists think. Make sure it has a protective cover or case. Dust (and beer) is your grail's enemy. Protect the grail at all costs!

Now, you're ready for adding pedals to the board.

  1. Make sure they play well together. Some pedals function well with others. Some just don't. Some only sound good in a certain order with the others in your signal path. Experiment - you may find a lucky 'sonic accident' by combining things in unusual orders.
  2. Look for pedals that use something called 'true bypass'. This literally takes the pedal when not in use out of the circuit guaranteeing that the your tonal grail will make it to its resting place with minimal messing around. If you have a combo of trueBP and non trueBP, the rule to follow is to understand that gain stages that introduce noise always come first. Compressors and distortions are the worst offenders and should be introduced at the head of your board. (The exception to the rule is when you have active pickups or use a front end Buffer pedal they normalize impedance and inductance preserving tone across long line runs and they automatically are first in line.)
  3. Next in line if you use one, for minimizing hiss' sake, should be your compressor. They must be put before overdrive/fuzz/distortions or they would over-amplify (the after-effect of compression release) the hiss behind the signal coming from your gain pedals.
  4. Following that would be your pick of fuzz/distortion/gain/octave pedals.
  5. If you use one, your Wah pedal comes next (some would place this pedal before gain but this way is quieter).
  6. The grail's path gets a little murky here - you can place chorus, flange, reverbs and echoes in different orders to get different cascades of effects. It's really where personal taste comes in - no wrong nor right.
  7. Last, I'd recommend placement of vibrato, tremolo, roto-vibe, etc.

If you have a long run of cable back to the amp, you could introduce another buffer, but most do not need this step.

Side not
e: Touring pros often use midi/electronically triggered switching systems that look like a long, rectangular box on the floor at the mic line with a cable snake leading back to your actual pedals and racks. These systems are becoming more common at the club level but are significantly more sophisticated than what we're talking about here - my goal is to give information you can use on an every day basis. 

Pedalboards don't happen instantly - they change and evolve, starting from your very first one.Chad Szopinski is Cream City Music's resident pedal expert. Seek him out for anything pedal related.

We'd love to hear about YOUR pedalboard journey - what's your first go-to pedal in your board?

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