Are you having a hard time getting a decent sound from your guitar?
And, even if you aren’t this lesson on chaining your effects pedals is for you.
Actually, this lesson is for every guitarist no matter what level. Most of my gigs (lately) have a backline (music lingo for amps, PA and drums) that is provided by the club or event coordinator.
I don’t have the luxury of using my own gear and sometimes (due to scheduling mishaps) I won’t have a soundcheck.
Dialing in a good, working tone at the last minute has provided me with a few go-to tips that I’ll share with you here.
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In this lesson, we’re gonna talk about putting your guitar effects pedals in the proper order in pursuit of the holy grail of every guitarist, ultimate tone. I actually prefer compliments to my tone over flattering remarks regarding my technique. Simply, because an appealing and appropriate guitar sound speaks to serving the song and style of music.
That being said, effects chaining is not an exact science. This article is an explanation of best practices that should serve as a starting point. I encourage you to try different approaches and use your ears in the end. If it sounds good, it is good—no matter what the pundits and forum trolls say.
In addition, I have included two Top 10 lists that cover tips for playing rock rhythm guitar and getting the proper sound. So, grab your guitar, hook up your pedals and let’s dial in some tone.
The order that you line up your effects in is extremely important because the sequence of the pedals affects the sound that you’re looking for. Some effects chains can be very elaborate and require a sound engineer or technician to operate. In this section, we’re gonna keep things really simple so that you can have a general understanding of effects chains and can get started putting together your own pedal board.
Tone and the sound generated by the guitar and amplifier combination is a topic that is consistently avoided. Aside from being one of the most identifiable aspect of a guitarist’s playing, tone is sometimes regarded as a mysterious topic that is quietly not mentioned. However, every good guitar player has a tone that compliments the way that they play. But careful, the opposite is also true: a bad guitar sound can diminish the way that you play.
There’s also an old saying, “a bad guitar is really a good guitar player with bad tone.” But, to most music fans, a guitar player with bad tone is simply… Bad. In other words, work on your tone as much as you work on your playing technique because you’re only as good as you sound.
When I get to a gig or studio and there’s an amp that I’m unfamiliar with, I perform the same tone ritual that I describe below. I generally know what I’m looking for and it also depends on the style of music that I’ll be playing.
When setting up an amp tone for the first time follow these simple steps:
- Set the “Master” on it’s lowest setting.
- Adjust the “Gain” and “Volume” to the desired amount of distortion and overall sound. But, begin with a low level. You can always turn up.
- Set the EQs (Bass, Mid, and Treb) to 5 or 12 o’clock to begin with.
- Set the Reverb to low level (begin at around 9 o’clock).
- Adjust the EQs one at a time to fine tune your tone.
- Use the “Master” volume to set your overall level.
- Then, tweak a little here and a little there until you find the tone that you’re listening for.
A guitar amplifier or amp, is generally divided into two sections:
- The pre-amp section (or front); and,
- The power amp section (or back).
The pre-amp section is what colors the sound. This section has a master volume, maybe a gain knob, and EQ section where you can really shape your sound by adjusting the amount of lows, mids, and highs (or treble).
The power amp section provides just what it says, power (or volume). It doesn’t color or shape the sound, it just increases the level of the sound. In the back of the amp there’s sometimes an effects loop or effects send and return. This caused me all sorts of confusion for years because I would plug my effects in and things just wouldn’t sound right. Well, I’m gonna keep this from happening to you and we’ll discuss this below.
The Pedalboard Chain
Let’s setup are chain and discuss what goes where. But, first, remember that these are general rules. As you get comfortable and begin to learn to listen to what you’re looking for, then you can begin to experiment (and tweak).
The most simple setup is to chain all of the effects together and plug them into the amp. Check out this diagram:
It’s not necessary to have all of these pedals. For example, my most basic setup for live playing is:
- Guitar >> Wah >> Overdrive >> Reverb >> Delay >> Amp
This setup has served me perfectly for practically every live situation.
My secret isn’t much of a secret,
I begin with a good clean sound. If I spend enough time dialing in the clean sound then the rest of the effects will only enhance that. However, when I have the luxury of a sound check, I follow the setup outlined below.
The First Stage of Effects
First, the guitar. I’ll plug the guitar into our first stage of effects. The first stage includes the effects that really change the quality of the sound; for example: boosts, compressors, filters, and distortion effects.
- Boosts are sometimes used for lead guitar, we stomp on these to get more volume and the reason that this is first in the chain is that we want to boost the guitar signal and not all of the effects.
- Compressors are sometimes used to even out the sound or to add sustain. We want to do this before the sound is colored or shaped.
- Filters like wah pedals and volume pedals also go in the front.
- And, distortion, you may want some distortion or overdrive coming from the amp but many players prefer to add distortion from a pedal especially if they use many different sounds. Blues and jazz players tend to use the distortion from the amp. Pop and rock players will use more sounds so they rely more on pedals.
The Second Stage of Effects
Second, the effects send and return. The second stage is for time-based effects.
The reason that we call these time-based effects is because these pedals change the reflections produced by the sound creating the illusion that the room is bigger or smaller than it actually is.
For example: delays, echoes, reverbs, flangers and choruses are all time-based effects.
We want to put them through the send and return of the power amp section because we want to be able to have a steady sound and control it. The steady sound has already been colored from the preamp section and through the power amp section we can control the effect amount easier than if we simply chained it after the first stage effects and plugged them into the amp.
The preamp stage can create some sounds that you don’t want to enhance with time-based effects.
10 Tips for Rock Rhythm
- Using a pick rather than fingers, or vice versa. This can provide different sounds.
- Use the palm-muting technique with downstrokes for heavier rock styles.
- Power chords sound heavier than major chords—especially with distortion.
- Too much distortion will bury the guitar sound in the mix and the attack of the chord will be lost.
- Don’t hit all six strings, all of the time. Most rock rhythm parts focus on the bass strings.
- Experiment with alternate tunings for a heavier sound; for example, drop D (lower the sixth string a whole step from E to D).
- Less reverb will add punch to the rhythm part.
- Tune it! ‘Close enough for rock and roll’ tuning is a myth. An out-of-tune guitar just sounds bad.
- Use accents to create interest and interaction with the bass and drums.
- Be disciplined! Lock into the rhythm and don’t wander—a good rhythm part often features very little variation.
10 Tips for Ultimate Rock Tone
Use the right guitar!
- Les Paul-style or other humbucking pickups for a thick, fat tone.
- Strat-style single coil pickups for a bluesy, biting sound.
Use the right pickup!
- Neck pickup for a warm tone.
- Bridge pickup for pounding rhythms with screaming leads.
- Too much distortion can destroy a rhythm guitar part.
- On the other hand, really high gain can improve sustain and create fantastic harmonics for single-note leads.
- If you use a compressor, put it before the distortion in the effects chain to avoid microphone feedback.
- For a smooth lead sound, add a delay of about 200-400ms to a distorted tone, and mix it between 20% and 50% of the main signal.
- Adding a bit of midrange boost can sometimes improve rock lead parts.
- Subsequently, cutting a bit of midrange can sometimes improve rock rhythm parts.
- Good vibrato technique can make up for poor tone.
- … and vice versa.
As I said earlier, these are just some guidelines that have served me well over the years. There have been instances where these rules haven’t worked; for example, an amp on its last legs, a venue that’s all concrete and glass, etc. In those instances I’ve just closed my eyes and listened while I turned the knob. The final amp setup doesn’t make sense but the resulting sound worked.
Your personal tone is a matter of taste and playing technique. Some folks are heavy handed while others have a light touch, some use thicker picks and others use thinner strings, some use active pickups while other prefer vintage pickups, and the list goes on and on.
Adjust and experiment and tweak until you’re satisfied. Everyday you’ll get a little closer and when you finally find the sound that you’re looking for, (as Frank Zappa said), “Shut up and play your guitar!”
Thanks for hanging with me.