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Pedal Flow Part I: Down and Dirty

Today I’m going to talk about something that can make or break a pedal board, but at the same time is just as lawless as creating music. Pedal flow, or the order you place your pedals in, is crucial in creating your tone. Essentially, it is what creates the final product that you present to the world as your persona on your respective instrument. That being said, I like to think putting together a pedal board is like putting together a new instrument: it’s an extension to an existing instrument that transforms it into something with the potential for complete originality. The real truth must be said first, and that is you are in control of your sound. So do whatever you want to achieve your long-dreamed tone and try everything once. Consider this piece more or less a guideline on what is considered common practice and placement. I also decided to split the piece into a series as the topic itself is as dense as the instrument it’s plugged into. So let’s jump right in!

My first bit is going to be about tuning pedals. Tuners are self-explanatory and should be on your board for obvious reasons. You may be awesome at tuning by ear, but the tuner is always going to be better. It’s a thing built specifically for doing that. It also saves the world from hearing you tune, which is an added bonus that everyone loves. End of story. Moving along…

“Clean” and “dirty” are two phrases in the pedal community that are incredibly common and they refer to what is happening on the gain stage of your board. Your gain stage is what controls the harmonic distortion that occurs in your signal. Think of it like the dirtiness of your tone, or how gritty and crunchy it can get. A lot of controversy stirs up in which order to place the pedals in your gain stage, and I will list them in the order that I am most accustomed to on a board from guitar to amp: compression, overdrive, distortion and fuzz. It is a pretty common configuration among many players. The reasoning is in the way these pedals interact with the original tone by increasing levels of harmonic distortion. The logic behind the order is that when you go from least interaction to most interaction on the natural tone of the instrument, you get a natural increase in your volume and gain with each pedal turned on. Think of the gain stage overall as a base tone that you model the rest of the board around. It’s going to be what makes your instrument essentially clean or dirty when you play.

Next we are going to get a little more in depth about what each of the pedal types in the gain stage do, starting with compressor pedals. In a very simplified phrasing, compression makes your instrument sound more “full” by increasing the softer notes to be at the same frequency as the louder notes. Compression generally doesn’t add to the natural tone of the instrument, it just makes what is already there more noticeable and increases its volume. It is also commonly described as “squeezing” your signal because of the limiting effect it has when loud notes are played.

Overdrive on the other hand changes the overall texture of the sound produced by increasing the gain. This creates your rockabilly tones that jangle like it’s Saturday at a drag strip in the 50’s and all the way to blues rock vibes and classic rock. Overdrive also has a cousin known as a boost pedal, which is a lighter version of overdrive that is sought out for being more “transparent.” Transparency is basically how much a pedal retains its original sound, with a boost pedal increasing volume but not adding as much to the gain stage as an overdrive.

Distortion takes the third slot for its significant increase in gain. Distortion pedals generally have a much dirtier sound compared to overdrive. Distortion has a beautiful addition of sustain to notes and chords, as well as making the notes more pronounced with less picking power involved due to the increased sensitivity around your instrument’s pickup. This makes it the “go-to” for mastered rock solos, metal crunch and a history of association with guitar gods the world over.

Fuzz has the potential to have the most drastic effect on your tone, which puts it last in the grouping. It has a claim in anything from Hendrix’s psychedelia to Jack White’s Velcro-ripping solos. Just remember that with great power comes great responsibility, as fuzz is also one of the most powerful circuits available in a pedal with some models having the potential to blow out a speaker from the sheer amount of feedback these beasts can produce.

I can’t stress enough that this is only one of a mathematical infinitum of ways to put together a board. Adrien Belew once plugged a wah in backwards to create the effect of a whale blowing through his speakers, so nothing is off limits as long as you have the idea and the time to make it happen.

Speaking of wah, I’m going to be covering filter and pitch effects in my next piece. I hope you enjoyed this crash course into pedal placement. As always, rock on!