Although there are many great articles about signal flow in relation to guitars, we often get asked for a simpler and more to the point explanation. Here we will address this topic in a very easy to understand way. Remember that, like all things in music, these are only guidelines. Sometimes the coolest sounds are achieved by going outside the box. It does help to know the layout before you deviate too far. That way you can understand what can be achieved by altering the normal signal flow. If you think of it in a two-pedal setup it is easier to understand.
Let's say you have a delay pedal and an overdrive.
Example 1: If you put the delay first in the chain then your clean guitar would go into the delay and produce clean echos that would then be driven by the overdrive. You would lose some of the dynamics and tone shaping from the delay unit and your guitar would not respond as well to the overdrive since it would hit the delay first.
Example 2: If you put the overdrive first, the guitar would be driven and then that signal would go into the delay and be echoe'd. So you can play with the overdrive's dynamic range by playing softer or harder and each echo will be unique based of the delay's responsiveness to that driven signal.
The general guidelines (although there are some exceptions) are to put your pedals in the following order from your guitar's output to the amp's input:
1. Your guitar output
2. Tuners want clean guitar signal so we recommend placing it first after the guitar.
3. Wah: This is where you would place a wah in most places to get the classic wah sound. If you want a more intense wah sound try placing it after your overdrives or distortions. It should be noted that the classic UniVibe sounds happen here too. So experiment with phasers in this spot as well.
4. Overdrives / Distortions / Fuzz / Compressors: Any level altering effect that boosts or adds gain or drive to the signal should go here. Experiment with what order you put these pedals in as many people like to "stack" them by using two or more at one time.
5. Pitch Altering: These are your octave pedals and pitch shifters. They sound cleanest here, but also play with them post delay. There are some cool effects to be had by shifting your delayed signal!
6. Modulations: Chorus and flangers live here. You will most likely want them after pitch and drive effects so they can modify those tones. These also can be fun after delays, but most people will want to place them between pitch and delays/verb effects.
7. Tremolo / Volume: Place your volume pedal here. This way when you turn it down it will not silence your delayed and reverbed signal. This will help make huge swells possible too. Tremolo goes here as well as it will effect the volume too.
8. Delay / Reverb: Finally you have the time-altering effects. These will echo and reverb everything that has happened up to this point. They will almost always sound cleaner at the end.
9. Finally the signal goes out to the amplifier.
Here is an example of how this would look:
Guitar -> Tuner -> Wah -> Overdrive, Distortion -> Pitch Shifter -> Chorus, Flanger -> Volume Pedal -> Digital Delay, Reverb -> Amplifier
If you follow these guidelines, setting up your pedal board will be a breeze. Remember to use as little cable as you can and to consider how you will power the pedals as well. A great power supply is a good investment. There are other things to consider as well such as how to and whether you want to use an effects loop (4cm) as well as true bypass vs. buffer bypass, but we will dive into that another day. For now, plug up and enjoy!