Almost every guitarist we know – and we know a few! – loves playing with FX pedals. And most of us love buying up as many as we can, with the goal of building the pedal board of dreams. Hey, it’ll make us sound better, right? But when it comes to ordering these precious stompboxes, and choosing whether to put them in the front of the amp, or in the FX loop, we’re no longer all in such a state of agreement…
Diligent scholars who study this sort of thing say that the first standalone FX pedal was an Inspector Gadget-type motorized contraption that creates an aqueous tremolo effect by waggling a vial of Windex-like ‘hydro-fluid’.
This ingenious little mechanical maraca put the shimmy in Bo Diddley’s trademark sound, and helped begin the glorious era of stompboxes.
Not long after, guitarists were hooked, and these days we have so many means, motives and opportunities to commit crimes against sonic purity that we must ask ourselves this: where should they all go? Is it best to keep it simple by lining them all up like musical minions and plugging the whole daisy-chain of fuzz, wah-wah, echo and chorus boxes into the amp’s front end?
Or is it better to insert all or at least some of these effects into the pair of jacks on the back of the amp revealingly labeled FX Loop?
Fun, but not fast
Before we start on the dark art that is FX routing though, let’s clear one thing up first.
There are no rules.
That’s right, we said it. It is 100% your choice what order you line your pedals up in front of your amp.
Sure, there might be accepted ways of doing certain things. Principles of good FX routing, let’s call them.
But we always recommend you to try things out for yourself. Audition different FX in different places to hear how changing the sequence colors your tone in different ways.
Sometimes weird is wonderful – perhaps you will discover something so refreshingly different that it will become your trademark tone!
Know this though: this trial-and-error method is neither fast nor efficient.
Overdrive, distortion, boost, fuzz, compressor, wah…
Why’s that, you ask?
To answer this, we must first distinguish between a few fundamentally different types of guitar effects.
For one, we have FX that mess with the signal’s dynamics or amplitude, if you will.
This includes all things that make your get guitar louder, softer, more distorted, or make it quack like an angry duck.
We are, of course, talking about boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz boxes, compressors, outboard preamps, equalizers, wah-wah pedals, and the like.
Most do more than merely affect the signal’s dynamics. They also reshape the tone; some transfigure it.
Conventional wisdom says these effects go BETWEEN the guitar and amplifier.
Of course, each works in its own special way in an amp’s FX Loop, and there are plenty of guitarists who experiment with such sounds.
But for practical purposes, the gigging guitarist is better off making a habit of plugging these effects into the amp’s front end for the simple reason that that’s exactly what where they were designed to go.
Reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, tremolo
For the sake of this blog, let’s oversimplify a bit: we’ll say the second FX category includes everything that affects the signal’s phase and/or pitch.
A combination of shifts in pitch and time is responsible for the magic of FX such as chorus, flanger and tremolo.
The source signal is delayed by just a few milliseconds and modulated with a very slight change in pitch to create chorus and flanger effects, so time is not instantly recognizable as a sound-shaping factor. And it is not a factor at all in phase-shifting.
It is, however, immediately apparent in time-altering effects such as reverb, delays and echo.
The ‘best’ place for these stompboxes is in the amp’s FX loop. They often produce interesting results when sandwiched between the guitar and amp, but tone-wise, the FX loop is more likely to hit the sweet spot – or, for flangers and phasers, the sweep spot.
Octave, pitch shifter, harmonizer
Pitch-altering and augmenting effects like pitch shifters, octavers and harmonizers are an interesting tonal subfamily.
Very generally speaking, we’d say they respond better to a drier or cleaner signal.
Then again, wet-and-messy can be a lot more memorable. Only Odin and Jimmy Page know how he got that splatty octave effect on his Fool In The Rain solo to ooze with such attitude.
Filthy fuzz, dodgy tracking and cheesy envelope shifting all come together to create a sound best described as flatulent dinosaurs on a chili-eating binge. Forty years later, guitarists the world over are still trying to emulate that stink. In a good way.
The four cable method and multi FX units
Anyway, back to FX routing.
Some players like to work with multi FX units that shoehorn all the aforementioned sounds into one box.
If you’re interested in exploring that kind of thing, you’ll find that many of these Swiss-army-knife signal processors let you combine the different effect types into blocks and access those blocks separately.
This is where the four-cable method can be your friend. It’s an effective and practical way of integrating these effects into your setup.
Here’s how it’s done:
This goes here, that goes there
- Cable 1 runs from the guitar to the multi FX device’s input.
- Cable 2 connects its FX Out to the amp’s FX Return.
- Cable 3 connects the amp’s FX Send to the multi-FX device’s Loop Return.
- Cable 4 routes the signal back from the processor’s Loop Send to the amp’s Input jack.
To help you visualize it, it all looks a bit like this:
Or have a watch of this explanation using the TriAmp Mark 3:
Then you can assign and manage dynamic effects in the first section of the multi-effects unit, which now sits between the guitar and amp.
Phase-shifting effects are assigned to the device’s internal loop, which serves as your FX loop in this setup.
And this is where the fun starts. Most modern multi FX boxes let you change the order of effects in the respective blocks at the touch of a button.
How many possibilities and options does that leave you with? Too many to count, is the answer.
Useful or just interesting?
If it can be done, you can bet that someone somewhere will try to find some way of doing something interesting with it.
In the gigging guitarist’s world, though, there just aren’t that many applications where doing things like running a distortion effect in a parallel loop is worth the effort.
Most of us can live without the clean dry signal when we’re going for an overdriven sound.
But the opposite is true for delay and reverb effects. The usefulness of an echo or reflection without an audible source signal is limited to interesting violin, reverse and ambient effects.
It’s all about the blend, baby
To dial in a powerful, assertive sound, you have to get the blend between the dry source signal and the wet effects signal just right. What, exactly, right or wrong means to you will depend on your style of music, the sound of your electric guitar and your sensibilities, but for most players, these effects are icing on the cake.
If the mix is right, it’s tasty!
Adjusting the levels
There are various ways to adjust the relative levels. If the amp has a Dry/Wet Mix knob for the FX loop, you can control the balance for all effects in the loop collectively.
If you want fine-tune a composite of several effects, you’ll have to adjust the level of each individually.
Convenient yet evocative of the classics
The GrandMeister Deluxe 40 is a good example of an amp with built-in effects and boosters designed with these principles in mind.
Its Boost circuit is tailored to each of the amp’s four fundamental sounds, ranging from a simple boost in the Clean Channel to some pretty ferocious distortion for the Ultra Channel.
The Boost circuit sits right behind the input jack and BEFORE the preamp, just like those workhorse stompboxes we have come to know and love.
Its location in the signal chain is important because this gives players that familiar touch and feel of an outboard pedal.
The GrandMeister Deluxe 40’s internal delay, reverb and modulation effects are also placed where they work best, in a serial circuit slotted in between the preamp and power amp sections.
These effects can be added to each sound using the programmable Intensity or Delay Level knobs.
Good advice, best ignored
And now that we’ve extolled the virtues of routing FX signals in conventional ways, bear in mind that many an unforgettable sound has been created by defying conventions.
Let the principles outlined here guide you when you’re in a hurry to hack your way through the thicket of the FX jungle.
But when you have time and the mood to experiment, forget everything we just told you and go wherever your muse takes you.
First published: March 09 2018. Most recent update: March 09 2018.