Effects Pedals: Using 'Goodie Boxes' Without Covering Up Your Tone

Effects Pedals: Using 'Goodie Boxes' Without Covering Up Your Tone

March 30, 2017 3 Comments

Think back to when you first started playing the electric guitar. Like most beginners, you probably didn't start with all the equipment you have now. Your student guitar and entry-level practice amp didn't deliver the most inspiring tone. Then you got your first 'goodie box', what the salesmen called a pedal. It was most likely a major event! If one pedal was good, more pedals were better. You started connecting them all, taking them all out every time.  The chain of pedals began, adding noise, degrading your tone and increasing the chances of equipment failure. Now you are ready to get serious and clean up your guitar tone. Here we will take a close look at your pedals and determine whether they are adding as much as they are subtract from your tone.


Include Only the Pedals You Really Need

A talented oil painter might have several hundred colors in their supply box. But notice when they begin a new piece they don't automatically dab a dollop of every color on their palette. Instead, they consider the work they want to do and lay out the colors that will best compliment the subject. Similarly, you don't need to hook up every pedal each time you plug in your guitar. The modular design and ease of interfacing guitar equipment gives maximum flexibility and generally excellent sound quality, but no matter how fancy a pedal might be you will be degrading the signal slightly by including it. Cables can introduce noise and capacitance that dulls your tone, and every place you plug in another cable there is a little bit of 'insertion loss' as well. If you add too many pedals without adequate buffering, the result of all of these little losses is that your guitar will lose its presence and clarity. Plan ahead which devices you need to paint your sonic landscape and keep the rest in your gig bag until you need them.

Optimize Your Signal Path for Best Results

If you ever experimented with putting your distortion box in front of your wah pedal, you probably got a rather extreme result! Effects like distortion, overdrive and fuzz work by adding extra harmonics to your clean guitar sound. So when you follow them with effects such as wah that boost a certain frequency range you suddenly have a lot more harmonics in that range. This can result in feedback (see Hendrix, Jimi) or amplify noise to the point of being unusable. In general you will get better results with wah type pedals before distortion, or maybe I should say "more predictable results," because apparently the laws of audio physics didn't apply to Jimi and you might be similarly gifted. Spatial effects like delay, chorus and reverb sound 'cleaner' and less cluttered if you keep them towards the end of your signal chain (this might take some creative planning if you use your amplifier's built-in distortion channel - that's what effects loops are for). On the other hand, boost pedals, compressors and equalizers can be more effective up in front of everything else. You can't cause any damage by breaking the rules- all the pedals will work fine in any order, but you might not like the way they sound in every order. Try combining your pedals in different orders and listen carefully: Do you like the way it sounds? Does the pedal affect how up-front your guitar sounds in the mix or did it make it sound muddy? Does the arrangement add undesirable noise? As the late great Mr. Hendrix taught us: there are no rules, only guidelines. Do what works for you. But remember the guidelines were developed by millions of other guitar players based on practical experience; the basics are a good place to start.

Don't Over-Do the Effects Mix

Any effect you add to your guitar will tend to push you back in the mix. Obvious examples are reverbs which make you sound far away. That makes a great vibe on an epic ballad, but it might mask what you're doing on those Paganini caprices you spent last summer learning. The most presence you can achieve in live sound is by going 'dry' (no pedals at all) and is often described as "in the listener's face." Adjust your effects accordingly.

Be Careful to Match Your Signal Levels if Possible

With most pedals this means putting them in front of your amp input. Rack effects and many multi-effects units sound better in your effects loop. Most effects loops are optimized for line-level units, while pedals are usually optimized for instrument level use (before the preamp). Again, you can break the rules, but it can add noise and make things less predictable.

Make Use of Switching Pedals

Be creative, you can often use a switching pedal (A/B box) to loop around or bypass unused effects until you need them. The author uses this technique with all guitar tuners regardless of design, because personal experience with several had them playing havoc running them inline. We want to achieve versatility with our pedals, but it might be better to keep them in the on-deck circle rather than putting multiple 'players' in the batter's box. Be creative and thoughtfully consider the guidelines as you design your system. Less is more until you really do need more. Remember that excess cable (or poor quality cables) can add noise and subtract tone quality. So while you're at it, get pro quality cables and keep them short.

Well-routed effects and pedalboards can enhance your music when used judiciously. As with most things in life there are trade-offs to different approaches so take some time in advance to experiment and discover the methods that work best for you. Put your goodie boxes to good use by carefully weighing how they interact with the rest of your system and you'll be rewarded with great tone and a broad palette of colors with which to paint your sonic landscapes.

3 Responses

John Haydin
John Haydin

April 03, 2017

Great article! I would like to heat your thoughts on multiple effects units, for example, Boss GT-6.

Angel Rubio-Sanchez
Angel Rubio-Sanchez

April 01, 2017

That is the truth about messing around with pedal order, to find a sound that reaches one’s desired tone!!! I love my carvin legacy VL1 drive pedal!!! I can’t wait to put a crybaby wah infront of it!!!! ?

Chris Browning
Chris Browning

March 31, 2017

Good article..food for thought..been playing close to forever but got a couple of ideas..thx guys!..love carvin!..

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