Be Effective With Effects - Power Up Your Tone

Be Effective With Effects!
by Chris Liepe

I’m going to be blunt with you. If you don’t have a basic understanding of how effects work, your playing will never sound as good as it could. Understanding all of the inputs, effects loops, and pedals with their plethora of settings can feel like an insurmountable problem. Fear not, Weekend Warrior from JamPlay is here to help.

The best news of the weekend is that whether you have an all-in-one pedal board, an app or a bin full of stompboxes, once you understand basic signal and effects routing, and have a few starting points to work from (not stock presets designed by marketing people) you really can dial in some great, versatile tones.

Let’s start with the effects loop. If you’re using purely software, you won’t be messing with a physical effects loop, but understanding the principles and routing implications will help you craft your sounds just the same. If you’re using an all-in-one or an amp, you’ve likely looked at this set of jacks with confusion more than once in your guitar playing life. There are two basic kinds of effects loops: Serial and Parallel.


Example 1

Serial is most common for middle of the road amps and modeling floorboards. With this setup, there is an effects send (out) and an effects return (in). When you stick a plug in to the "send" you are completely interrupting the signal flow. The "send" would then go to your pedal(s) and then the OUT from your last pedal would go into the "return" which returns the signal to the amp.

With this setup, you are blending your amp sound with each effect in the chain in order, so your mix knobs on your effects control how much of your original sound makes it out the other end. This can be a cool way to work, but it means that your tone gets smashed through every little box you put in it's way. If you're using good quality effects, you really don't have much to worry about, but if you have a tendency to use a ton of pedals in your loop or you've got some old, dirty pedals, some low batteries or questionable cables, you can really do a number on your tone. There are pedals you can purchase to correct for this type of issue, but I like to limit my serial FX loops to about 6 good quality, fully powered pedals. It seems like there is no noticeable deterioration in tone and I can still get what I need to out of my effects. Some amps call the effects send a "preamp out" and the effects return a "power amp in." These terms are interchangeable for the most part but suggest some interesting possibilities.


This type of loop allows your amp signal to pass 'untouched' from the guitar through the amp to the speaker and then simultaneously add the FX signal to the original tone rather than giving that responsibility to each individual pedal. Here's how this looks:
Example 2 If your amp has an FX level control on it somewhere, it probably has a parallel FX loop. This setup is great because it allows all the original tone through no matter what, and then you get to choose how much of the 'wet' sound you want to include in your signal with your amp. In many cases, this is cleaner, and you don't have as much of an issue with one 'bad' pedal sucking the tone out of your amp. Because you're allowing the amp signal to pass PLUS your FX signal, you'll want to make sure that your pedal's "mix level" controls are set to 100% so that you aren't ending up with a partially dry tone in addition to your completely dry tone (this can sound quite weird with certain effects). Some amps don’t have effects loops. As you’ll find out, this is fine, but in order to use certain effects well, you’ll need to know a few general rules. All is not lost.

Learn How To Use Effects Pedals Now let’s talk about where to place different effects for maximum goodness. Keep in mind that, like with everything, you can do whatever you want! There are no hard and fast rules, but there are starting points that will help you understand how certain effects work and perform “best.” Once you fully understand how a pedal works in its most common place in the chain, feel free to move it around and you’ll get to discover all sorts of funky, cool applications. It is important though, that you work with these starting guidelines so you have a solid foundation, understanding and proper context! You don’t want to be one of those guys that settles for muddy tones because you don’t know what you’re doing!

In general, all of your “dynamic” stompboxes or effects modules should be placed between your guitar and your amp input and should be placed in the order of cleanest to dirtiest in sound quality. Clean boosts and wahs should go before compressors. Compressors should go before overdrives and overdrives before screaming distortion pedals. Don’t start with any of these in an effects loop. Examples of “dynamics” effects include overdrives, distortions, compressors, boost pedals, EQs, wahs, and volume pedals. There are others and if you have a question as to whether or not the effect you are using qualifies to be in this category, just ask yourself this: does the unit alter the original sound without adding anything to it? If the answer is “yes,” then it is probably a “dynamic” effect. For example, an overdrive pedal makes the original signal sound different, punchier, uhh… overdriven, but you don’t hear the original clean sound of the guitar and the overdriven sound. You just hear the ‘new’ sound that the pedal is creating. It’s the same with all the effects I listed above.

Delay, chorus, and reverb effects are examples of “additive” effects because they use the original signal and add to that base with the desired effect. With delay, you get the original sound, PLUS delay repeats. The same is true for the other two mentioned.

Another way to classify effects is “time/pitch” (otherwise called mods or “modulation effects”). Reverbs, choruses, and delays fall into the “mods” bucket, and so do flangers, rotary speakers, and phasers. Anything with a ‘rate’ knob can be considered a “time” effect. Some time/pitch-based effects completely change the original signal and therefore are “dynamic” and some are “additive” because the original signal is allowed to be mixed in with the processed one. The type of effect loop you use can drastically alter the function of the pedal as you probably gathered from reading through the different routing possibilities of both effect loop types.

Start with your “additive” effects in your effects loop, or if you don’t have an effects loop, place them after your overdrive and distortion pedals. Place them after your dynamics effects. You’ll want to run a mostly clean amp (it can break up a little) and get most of your gain from pedals to maintain clarity with your time based effects if you don’t have an effects loop. Lots of amazing guitar players work without effects loops and have gotten amazing tones! Check out Satriani’s earlier stuff for a crazy example of an entirely ‘pre-amp input’ chain.

Your other time-based effects can work on either side of your drive but I definitely have my preferences as far as starting points. I like tremolos before my delay and reverb in the effects loop even though they are technically a “dynamics” effect most of the time. I like my phasers after my drive but my flangers move around depending on the sound I want. They have a nice punchiness before drive, but are really tight when placed after.

Starting Order for Effects

Learn How To Use Effects Pedals

Here’s a general starting point for ordering your effects. This is hardly comprehensive, but will be a good base whether you are using an “all-in-one” or a traditional amp/pedal setup:

Guitar ---> Tuner ---> Volume Pedal ---> Wah ---> Whammy ---> Clean Boost/EQ ---> Compressor ---> Overdrive ---> Distortion ---> Gate --->AMP INPUT (if no FX loop, you’d start chaining your post drive pedals HERE) IN SERIAL FX LOOP OR AFTER DRIVE PEDALS: Phaser/Flanger/Chorus ---> Tremolo ---> Reverb ---> Delay.

A volume pedal before your drive will function sort of like your guitar knobs, allowing you to temper your guitar input and therefore your drive signal or breakup. If you move it after your drive, but before your delay and reverb, you’ll be able to decrease the whole dynamic chain which also works really well. In this placement, you’ll still get delay trails and reverb decay even after you step on the volume pedal but your signal remains consistent through all your dynamics preserving the gain staging you may want. You can also experiment with putting it last in the effects loop so that it is a true master volume control. Volume pedals are neat.

EQ modules or pedals are sorta like volume pedals. They can really go anywhere for different reasons/purposes. Put it before your drive/right after your guitar input to shape the sound coming out of your pickups. Put it after your drive or first in the effects loop to shape your distortion sound with precision. Try using two if you can, and experiment!

If you read the manuals for most multi-effects units, they explain their signal chain pretty clearly and you may not even have to worry about these basic routing rules when trying to get sounds initially, but many boxes allow you to change around your routing. They also provide what's called a semi-parallel option. This means that your pre drive effects are all run in series (one after the other in an order similar to what is suggested above) but then the signal is sent to a number of post drive effects at the same time and then combined before going to the output.

This might look something like this:

Example 3
This is actually quite a cool way to do things and is difficult to do with individual pedals. One of the advantages here is that you can feed the same signal to two different delay effects at the same time -- eliminating the traditional "first delay messes up the second delay problem." You can also get a cleaner delay/reverb distinction if one is not being fed into another. This is where multi-effects units really shine!

Let’s talk a little about DRIVE.

There are a lot of great sounds you can get by stacking more, milder drives over one another rather than trying to get all your gain from just one stage. One of my favorite ways to get versatile, natural and sometimes mean sounding distortion is to dial in a decent drive on the amp itself and then put an overdrive, like an Ibanez Tubescreamer, on at the same time. Turn the volume up and the drive down on the pedal and you get a nice, tight, yet meatier sound to play with. This is great for mid song lead boosts, or just a great way to get a little more out of an overdriven amp. This is called “gain stacking” and works with all different types of pedals across all genres. Give it a try!

So, now that you have some good starting points and a few new ideas, dust off those pedals or delete all those complicated presets and build yourself some tones from scratch this weekend!

If you get through all this stuff and want to geek out on some cool delay effect applications, check out this article:
Playing With Effects: Advanced Delay Techniques

There are lots of great video lessons on JamPlay dealing with effects. Check out this one by Michael “Nomad” Ripoll. Nomad will show you how to take some the effects we discussed in a funky/rhythm context:

Far Out Effects Wrapup

Taught by Michael "Nomad" Ripoll

Proper muting can add a lot of passion to your playing. In this lesson, Will shows us how to play single notes without compromising any of the energy or intensity.
Show Interactive Tabs

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining me on this musical journey!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Dawson.  JamPlay Co-Founder

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

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