Pedalboard Signal Flow

After posting about my new pedalboard rig, a reader asked that I break down which pedals I use and how I settled on their order in the signal-chain.

Let's start with a review of my setup:

The current pedalboard setup. The bottom row drives the "front-end", the top row drives the "back-end"

I have two separate signal-chains: the bottom row of pedals is the "front-end" chain which goes between my guitar and the input on the amp. The top row of pedals goes is the "back-end" loop which goes in the effects loop of my amp.

If you're not familiar, the effects loop is a spot between the pre- and power-amplifiers in most amps. Some amps allow you to switch this loop on and off with a footswitch. For nearly all amps, the effects loop can change how your pedals sound as it's typically using a hotter signal than what comes off of your pickups.

The Front-End Chain

Let's start with the front-end chain. In both chains the signal moves from right-to-left since nearly all pedals accept input on the right side and emit output on the left-side.

Let's go through the pedals in order, one by one:

T.C. Electronics PolyTune

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The PolyTune goes at the front of the signal chain. It's here for two reasons: when the PolyTune is engaged for tuning, it acts as a mute switch. I figure that if you're going to mute the signal you might as well do it fairly early upstream.

The second reason it's at the front is so I can give it the cleanest possible signal for easy tuning. If I put it further down the chain the signal could not only be noisier, but if I happened to leave the flanger on (for example), the PolyTune would have a hard time detecting the true pitch of the given notes.

Boss GE-7 Equalizer

I'll admit that I don't use this pedal a whole lot. If I'm switching between a meaty humbucker guitar and something with single-coil pickups I might use this pedal to tame the brightness a bit or boost the lows.

Basically it acts as a little early-stage EQ tweak that I would otherwise do on the EQ controls of the amp. But, playing live, I don't want to fiddle with the EQ knobs on my amp. In truth, once I get my amp's EQ knobs where I like 'em (after a lot of experimenting) I like to leave them there. You want to see a guitarist get angry, run your hands over my EQ knobs and reset them. Grrrrr…

EVH Wah-Pedal

Some pedals end up in their final location based on a process of elimination. It's not so much where they should go as where they can go based on the needs of other pedals. The wah is just such a case. The other pedals in the chain make more sense downstream (which I'll explain in a minute), so the wah goes here.

Also, the wah can be such a dramatic effect that giving it modulated input from the phaser or flanger would be noisy and gross-sounding. In truth, I can't recall when I've ever flipped the wah on while I'm modulating the signal, but that's no reason to throw caution to the wind, right?

The other reason for putting the wah here is ergonomics. It fits well here and balances the board both physically (when moving it) and visually. So why not?

Boss CS-3 Compressor Sustainer

I don't use this pedal a whole lot and I'm still working it into my playing. Country players love them some compressors and I'll admit that I've been dabbling with adding some country licks into my repertoire.

What this pedal is really good for is the subtle side-effect of acting as a buffer for the next pedal...

Ernie Ball VP45 Junior

If you want to get sucked into a whole new world of micro-obsession, go search for "tone suck" and "buffers" on Google. Like arguing about vintage guitars or oil-in-paper capacitors in amps, this is a discussion in which it's hard to separate fact from fiction. But let me try to give you a quick, reasonable explanation.

Every pedal and every additional inch of cable you add increases the resistance between your pickups and your amp. This can result in what tone-chasers call "tone suck" which is when the signal weakens so that the tone and, just as importantly, the feel go south.

The Ernie Ball is a passive volume pedal. It isn't powered in any way and is effectively like a volume knob on your guitar, except it's on the floor and you control it with your foot. Passive volume pedals are somewhat infamous for causing "tone suck" and the solution is to typically put a buffer on the input side of the pedal.

A "buffer" is simply a small amplifier that boosts the signal going in. Many pedals have little buffers in them to keep the signal level from input to output. In my experimentation, I found that simply putting the CS-3 before the volume pedal (even when it's switched off) buffers enough of the signal that tone-suck isn't a problem.

The volume pedal goes before the rest of the chain because I like the sound of volume-swells going in to the modulation effects rather than twiddling the volume coming from those effects. This is a case of trying it both ways and simply prefering one sound to another.

EVH Flanger & EVH Phaser

These two pedals are sort-of kissing cousins. Both are modulation effects and could really go in either order. These go after the volume pedal for the reasons I mentioned above. I put them before the overdrive pedal both because I like the sound better and because I don't want to send an overdriven signal into those effects.

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I figure that these effects are wired for instrument-level signal and are kind of noisy to begin with. Putting them in the effects-loop results in a hotter incoming signal that would overwhelm them and make things even noisier.

Of course rather than just guess and assume, I actually tried it and my suspicions were confirmed.

T-Rex Overdrive

One afternoon I spent three hours testing out overdrive pedals including various classic Tube Screamers, and I really like this one. I use it mostly with the Strat and a clean amp setting to get a gritty SRV kind of tone (or at least a weak attempt at one).

The idea here is to make the signal a little grittier and hotter going into the amp. To keep the noise down as much possible, I put this pedal here at the end of the front-end chain rather than earlier where a lot more noise would accumulate. I figure it's better to drive the amp directly rather than driving a bunch of effects into the amp. Again, experimentation proved that to be true.

The Back-End Chain

The back-end chain divides into three sections: modulation effects, time-based effects and end-processing.

Eventide PitchFactor

At the front of the effects-loop chain is the Eventide PitchFactor. I've lusted after the Eventide H9000 since I first heard about them over twenty years ago. Fast-forward and Eventide has packaged a significant portion of that extraordinarily expensive unit into a stompbox.

One of my favorite things this box can do is diatonic harmonization. That is, you give it a key and the interval you want and it will harmonize with the notes you're playing correctly. This works great for playing tunes that use multiple harmonized guitars like Thin Lizzy's "Boys Are Back In Town" or nearly any song by Boston.

I experimented with putting the Eventide in the front-end chain, but it didn't sound the same or nearly as good as in the effects loop, particularly for the harmonizing effects. It goes at the front because I want the harmonizing processor to use the purest guitar tones it can get coming out of the pre-amp. If I put it after the chorus or delay, it would be trying pitch shift all sort of "artifacts" and I wanted to avoid that.

One interesting thing about this pedal is that there is a switch on the back for specifically selecting the kind of input it will receive such as line- or instrument-level. It's not often that pedal-makers will add this feature, but when they do make sure you pay attention to it.

T.C. Electronics Corona Chorus

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A lot of guitarists put all of their modulation effects on the front-end. Normally I would too, but after some experimentation I found that this chorus sounds best in the back-end chain. Some chorus pedals can't take the hotter signal of an effects loop, but the Corona does just fine.

It goes here because I wanted any chorus effects to happen before any delays. Similarly, I didn't want the chorus to apply its effect to both dry and wet delay signals, so it's here for the same reason the PitchFactor appears early in the chain. It goes after the PitchFactor because I want to apply the harmonizing effects before any chorusing.

Boss DD-7 Digital Delay

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Now we're entering the time-based effects section. I put this one before the El Capistan because I mostly leave it set for a quick slapback effect that sounds somewhat like doubling. The DD-7 is capable of a whole lot more, but I pretty much use it for this one setting.

Strymon El Capistan

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This might be one of the best pedals I've ever owned. The El Capistan does an amazing impression of the classic tape-based echo machines popularized by Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson and the like. If you're chasing that classic EVH tone from the first couple of albums (and I always am) this pedal does a spot-on impersonation of that echo effect.

The El Capistan also has the ability to add a little reverb which does a nice job of "mushing" the echo effect a bit and separating the dry and wet signals. I have this pedal on almost all of the time. With a dedicated switch for tapping the tempo it's a snap to use it for almost any song.

I put it after the DD-7 because I want to apply the mushy reverb effect after any slapback echos. The DD-7 makes a pretty crisp copy of the original which feeds nicely into the El Capistan. If I did it the other way, the DD-7 is making copies of a "mushy" signal which, to my ears, doesn't sound as good.

T.C. Electronics Ditto Mini

I haven't worked this pedal into my live playing, but I love having it around for ad-hoc improvising. I learned a trick from Eric Johnson years ago in which he'd bang out some chord progression on a looper and then jam over it. It's a great way to work on your improvisation and timing skills.

I put it here because I want the Ditto to make and repeat the most complete copy of the signal that I can. It also lets me capture a particular effects setting and have it continue playing even if I change my pedal setup. For example I might play some clean, chorus-laden ethereal chords into the Ditto. Once I have the loop going, I can switch off the chorus, go into high-gain mode and the Ditto sound is unchanged.

T.C. Electronics Spark Mini

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I love the form-factor of these mini-pedals. The Spark is a great utility infielder kind of pedal. It works great in the front end as a type of overdrive, but also in the back-end as a volume boost.

My live rig is an EVH 5150iii 100-watt which doesn't have a solo/boost feature. I put the Spark here at the end to achieve the same effect. I have the gain knob up about 10-15% of the way which is just enough to lift any lead work above the chaos of a jamming band.

It goes at the absolute end of the chain because I want to boost everything and I'm only trying to push the output section of the amp, not any pedals after it.

One thing to note about this is that if I'm using the Looper, hitting the Spark will also lift the volume of the Looper, which is probably not what I want. In practice though, I don't use them that way so it's not really a big deal.

I have no doubt that I'll continue to fiddle with this setup. It's really just a snapshot in time. As always, let your ears be your ultimate guide.