Category Archives: Effects FAQ

Effects questions answered

In which order should I plug my effects?

This post is part of my “Effects FAQ” series explaining guitar effects basics. A very common question is:  “where should I plug my pedals in the effect chain?”.

So I have put on schematics what is thought to be the most optimal guitar effect order for most styles to avoid for instance, plugging a reverb before a distortion which produces a very mushy sound. And so it goes for most effect combinations.

A word of advice on this though: often in music, rules are meant to be broken and experimenting to find your tone is highly recommended!

Case 1: All your effects are plugged before an amp that has no “Effects Loop”

The first case is where you run all your pedals before the input of your amplifier i.e. your amplifier has no Effects Loop or you are not using it. The amp would be presumably set quite clean. You don’t want to run a delay or a reverb in front of an overdriven amp as this can sound quite mushy. Click on the image to see a larger version.


  • You could argue that the Whammy is a pitch shifter but there are two types of pitch shifters and each type might work better in different places in the chain. You could place a Whammy after your distortion but the “tracking” is usually better before. More sophisticated digital pitch shifters/harmonizers like the Eventide kind sound better after a distortion/overdrive (think Brian May of Queen).
  • Modulation effects like chorus or flanger can be placed before a distortion but the sound will be quite different from when they are placed after. As I said, just experiment!
Case 2: if you own an amplifier equipped with an Effects Loop (a.k.a. FX Loop)

Some effects like delay or reverb sound clearer if they are placed after a distortion/overdrive. In order to use these effects after the natural overdrive of your amp, the amplifier gods created the effects loop. It translates into an “FX LOOP SEND” connector that goes into the “INPUT” of your effect and an “FX LOOP RETURN” connector that goes to the “OUTPUT” of your effect. Here is how it goes:


The loop is placed in between the two main parts of any amp: the preamp and the power section. Most modern amps get their natural overdrive from the preamp and then the signal goes through the effects loop and is amplified quite cleanly by the power section. Cleanly means that effects like delays and reverb stay “clear”.

This is different from earlier amps which had no master volume let alone effect loops (think old tube Marshall, Fender and VOX amps). With these or their reissues still sold today, in order to get any distortion, you have to crank the volume to make both the preamp and the power section saturate. This is sometimes referred to as “power tube saturation”. Some guitarists like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck love power tube saturation which explains why they still tend to use older amps that they crank.

To add some “crystal clear” reverb or delay to “power tube saturation”, you can put a microphone in front of the amp and add the effects to the signal picked up by said microphone. Or you can use a power attenuator like the THD Hotplate which can absorb the power of an amp and turn most of it into heat as well as provide a “line level” signal. This can then be used with effects before it has to be re-amplified. Not as easy as an amp with an effects loop or the use of pedals in front of a clean amp! But some guitarists really want the tone provided by “power tube saturation”.

What is the difference between a distortion and an overdrive?

I have received some feedback suggesting I should do more “beginner” posts about guitar tone and effects. I have also noticed some interesting questions in the google keywords leading to this site. One grabbed my attention: “What is the difference between the Satchurator and the Ice 9 overdrive?”. These two pedals are designed by VOX in collaboration with Joe Satriani and the answer is: the Satchurator is a distortion whereas the Ice 9 is an overdrive.

So what is the difference between a distortion and an overdrive? To put it simply, an overdrive pedal aims at simulating the creamy sound of an overdriven tube amp whereas a distortion does not try to simulate reality and usually offers more gain and is more aggressive.

ds-1 and ts-9
The BOSS DS-1 distortion (left) and the Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer (right)

Way back in the sixties, the only way to get any kind of overdriven tone consisted in just cranking the volume of your tube amp to 10 or 11 if you could. And these amps had no master volume so they were really really loud. Fuzz pedals were the first attempt to reproduce this tone without having to crank your amp. They were really popular in the late sixties but they kind of missed the point and are really a different breed of effect. I will dedicate a post to fuzz pedals very soon!

Later on, talented electronics wizards invented “overdrive” pedals which provided a less harsh tone. Some of them truly approached the singing sound of an overdriven tube amp, so loved by blues and classic rock players. The Ibanez Tube Screamer released in the late 70s is an example of overdrive pedal which became really successful (see my post about it).

Around the same time, other wizards invented distortion pedals which generally offered a raunchier, dirtier, “gainier” tone. The BOSS DS-1 used a lot by Joe Satriani or the Proco Rat are two famous examples.

Then as they did before with fuzz pedals, guitarists combined the tube saturation of their amp with overdrive or distortion pedals, creating entirely new tones… but this is a story for later…

Tone tips: boosting the volume of your solos in live situations

As a guitarist, sooner or later comes the question of the volume balance between rhythm and lead tones.

You probably all know the devastating feeling of playing the best solo of your life only to be told later on by members of the audience that nobody could hear it!

MXR Micro Amp
A nice affordable clean boost pedal: the MXR Micro Amp

In 2010, one could think this is a trivial problem but it is not. This is essentially due to the fact that a volume or gain modification anywhere in an effect chain can have a big effect on the overall tone. Unless you are a rock star and your sound engineer knows exactly when to boost your volume, there is a number of solutions to this problem that I will list in this post.

Using the guitar volume control or a volume pedal

The first solution that comes to mind is of course to use the volume control of your guitar. After all, why is there one? The problem is that reducing the volume of your guitar will reduce the amount of signal sent to your pedals and amp thus directly change the amount of distortion/overdrive in your tone. It can fit certain styles like blues rock where rhythm work is not as dirty as lead work. For instance, Jimi Hendrix made use of this extensively on stage:  he could go from clean to dirty just by manipulating the volume of his guitar (note that the stratocaster is especially good for that). It also works well if you are more of a clean tone player. Using a volume pedal at the beginning of your chain is the same thing as using the volume of your guitar except it might be more progressive. You will have the same problem though: reducing the volume will reduce the amount of overdrive or distortion from any device placed after.

Using an amp with multiple channels

Another solution is to use an amplifier with 2 master volumes or 3 or more channels so that you can dedicate some of them to rythm work and some of them to lead work: usually these amps are not the cheapest and offer slightly different tones depending on the channel but they can be a good solution. For example, the high end models of the Marshall JVM series feature 2 master volumes and are programmable which makes them very flexible. Note that for those of you who need tons of distortion for their rhythm tone, a lot of 3 channel amps (especially those made in the 90s) won’t cut it since the middle channel is often tailored for crunch tones rather than devastating ones.

Using two overdrive/distortion pedals

This is a very flexible solution: you can set the volume of one pedal in “rhythm mode” and the one placed after in “lead mode”. In lead mode, you can have the two pedals together for more gain or just the lead pedal. It can be tricky to switch from rhythm to lead but it is doable especially with BOSS or Ibanez pedals which have a large switch. One stomp and you can switch off a pedal while switching on the other one. Combining two overdrive/distortion pedals is a broad topic in itself and I will soon post about it. A few recent distortion/overdrive pedals feature a “boost” switch to increase the volume for lead work, check out the Satchurator and the upcoming Ice 9 overdrive designed by VOX for Joe Satriani or the ZVEX box of rock.

Using a multi-effect unit or a modeling amp

Those of you with super sophisticated gizmos don’t have much of an issue since you can program rhythm and lead patches. They can even sound good plugged straight into a PA. This is not something that purists love but I have used my Line 6 Pod straight into a PA for gigs with very good results.

Using a clean boost or volume pedal at the end of your chain

If you play against a clean amp and all your overdriven tones come from pedals, this is by far the easiest solution. A clean boost pedal will take the signal and make it louder without altering it. I personally use a BOSS LS-2. The LS-2 can also be used as a looper to switch between 2 chains of effects or use them in series, each chain having its own volume.  I have heard the MXR micro amp is also pretty good placed after a chain of effects to increase the overall volume, not to mention all the boutique clean boost pedals. I stress that you need to have a clean amp with enough headroom because otherwise the extra volume might make the amp clip (which can also be a cool effect). Alternatively, most equalizer pedals feature a general volume control and will be able to get you a nice boost, check out the BOSS GE-7 or MXR 10 band EQ. And of course, you can also use a good old volume pedal but at the end of the effect chain rather than at the beginning as mentioned earlier in this post.

The BOSS LS-2 can act as a clean boost or a more sophisticated looper able to manage two effect chains each with their own volume

If your dirty tone comes from your amp, it is a bit trickier. People have had good results using a booster and or a volume pedal in the effect loop providing your amp offers such a facility. Be careful what kind of pedal you use. Most of them are OK but some of them won’t work in an effect loop since the signal strength is too different from a guitar output (check out the impedance). Check also that your effect loop has an adjustable level because in this case it will probably adapt to any pedal.

The beauty of this “end of chain” boost solution is that you can boost either your clean tone or your distorted tone which gives you a wide variety of tones for soloing.

Note that placed at the beginning of the effect chain, say right after your guitar, a clean boost pedal will have a different effect. If it is placed before a distortion/overdrive pedal, the more gain is dialed, the less the clean boost will have an effect on the overall volume, it will rather have an effect on the amount of distortion (this is because a side effect of distortion or overdrive is that the tone gets compressed). With a moderate amount of gain on your overdrive/distortion stompbox,  a clean boost will fatten your tone and moderately increase the volume which is like going from the crunch to the lead channel on a 3 channel amp. As always when unsure, just experiment!


Solving the lead volume issue is linked to your style of playing and one or several solutions amongst those I have mentioned in this post might be available to you. And don’t forget that the volume is not everything and your tone will have to cut through the mix as I have explained in a previous post. Also you might want to check another one of my posts about the use of compressors at the end of your effect chain, it is a possible solution to boost your volume for solos although I have not always found it workable in live situations.

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