The Electric: Signal Chain

In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll continue the conversation about finding the best amp for worship.


How have I never written a Signal Chain post? It’s almost criminal. Signal Chain posts are the Tube Screamer’s of guitar blogging! So after two and a half years, I think it’s finally time.


So you’ve got some pedals now, and you’re putting them together. Maybe they’re all Boss pedals (which is pretty much all we had back when I started) so you’ve just ordered them by color. That’s ok right? Well… not quite.

We order in pedals in a certain way (signal chain) because of the effects it has on the sound waves. For example a vibrato pedal affects the shape of the wave form while a delay pedal just repeats that shape. So the order you put the pedals affects the sound you get, and in some cases the way a pedal will act or respond.


Note: This list is speaking in generalities. If you want to do something different then give it a try. If it works for you then great.


This is my generic term for all pedals that do better at the front of the signal chain before other pedals or buffers. Usually this includes fuzz, wah, envelope filters, and POG type effects.


When you have long signal runs: 10-20ft from guitar to pedal board; 5 feet of pedal board cable and switches; 10-20ft from pedalboard to amp. You WILL have some tone loss, especially if all your pedals are true bypass. So I like to have a buffer of some kind at the start of the chain to correct this. Standalone buffers like the ones made by Matthews Effects, JHS, This1smyne, or a host of other companies are all great and will do the job. Also, a buffered bypass effect like a Boss Tu-2 or Ibanez TS-9 will work as well. I’m told that an always on compressor will do the same thing, but I’ve found I prefer a buffer at the front even though I run my compressor as always on.


Imagine that the cables you use are pipes and the sound waves from your guitar are like waves of water traveling through those pipes. A compression pedal controls how big or small the pipe is. With little or no compression, the size of the wave has the ability to grow very large, meaning that the sound can get very loud or very quite very quickly. A Compression makes your loud not as loud and your quite not as quite. I can be used as an effect for solos or finger picking, or an always on effect that brings subtle balance to your sound. I like to put it just after the buffer so the sound I’m sending to the rest of my pedals is smooth and controlled and even.


Boost, Compression, Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz all fall under Gain. Anything that makes your tone “hotter” in the same way that turning the gain/trim knob on a sound board would. Gain like the “gas pedal” of your tone. Push down and the pedal and things start to really move.

For the purposes of signal chain however, gain generally just means boost, overdrive and distortion. If you only have one gain pedal it’s no problem, but how do you order them if you have two or more? Years ago I was told that you should put your pedals lowest gain to highest gain, and so I did. Then I heard someone say that you should do the opposite. Now I tell people to experiment and do what works for you.

Personally, I order my gain pedals highest to lowest as a general rule. I’ve found through trial and error that I prefer to boost my overdrive instead of overdriving my boost. There have been exceptions to this rule. My plimsoul generally was set pretty dirty and last in the chain cause I found that I liked that way. I currently set my Superbolt very dirt and distorted to almost fuzz levels but I put it at the end of my gain pedal because I almost never stack it and it physically fits better on the board that way. Also, when I do stack it, it’s usually because I’ve set it for more amp like settings and I’m using it with my Colour Box to go amp less when then need arises.


This would be your volume pedal or an Attack/Decay effect that simulates a volume pedal’s swells. I find that if you place it after the gain pedals you get the best sounding swells. Otherwise it doesn’t matter where you put it.


These are effects that change the shape of your wave form. From the standard sine wave shape to a square, triangle or buzz saw or something in-between. Effects like phaser, chorus, vibrato, rotary, phase shifter, uni-vibe and flanger get lumped into this group. Some of these effects do include delay or volume based effects combined with a changing wave form to do the job. Order these effects to taste. Do you want your vibrato flanged or your phaser chorused? It’s all up to you. Historically I’ve stayed away from Modulation effects but that has been changing in the last year.

You’ll notice I didn’t include Tremolo which is really a volume based effect but is often listed as modulation. I would put Tremolo before any other modulation pedal. Also note that if your Fender amp says it has Vibrato, it’s really Tremolo cause apparently Leo didn’t know the difference.


While Modulation changes the wave form, a delay or echo pedal makes a copy of the wave form and repeats it.

My general take on delays is to divide them into two basic types: rhythmic and ambient. As a general rule I run rhythmic delays first and then ambient delay. The reason is that if I want to stack them, I’ve found I like the rhythm to go into ambience instead of the other way.


Reverb is a non-linear echo. To put it another way, reverb is the sound you hear when you yell in a cave and echo bounce off the ways, some are louder, some are softer and some trail or linger for longer than others.

Almost all digital reverbs (whatever their type) are based on a delay pedal circuit that’s been tweaked for non-linear repeats. Analog units like a spring reverb or metal plate reverb use mechanical means to achieve the sound while rooms like echo chambers and stairwells use physical space for effect. The big reverb sound that you hear on the drums for “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin is created by placing the drums in the stairwell of a large mansion. The reverb you hear on John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” is created by a mechanical spring verb on an amp while the reverb associated with the Fleet Foxes is the vocal/guitar signal being sent through a giant steel plate.

However you accomplish the effect, you generally want it to be last in the signal chain. It’s like putting your amp in a big echo-y room. You want to hear all the other effects echoing around in the space.


All the things I listed above are general rules. Here are some exceptions to those rules:


Some people like their compression after the gain pedals. They say it smooths things out. Compression guru Robert Keeley has endorsed this placement. I found that with standard compression pedals (including the Keeley) the compression amplified noise and pop when I turned my gain pedals on and off which is highly undesirable in a worship setting. Additionally, I didn’t like the way if affected how my gain pedals reacted to my playing. I recently tried putting my overdrives in front of my comp and was reminded why I don’t do it that way. But give it a try if you want.


More than any other guitar effect, I’ve found that the Fuzz pedal is absolutely dependent on how my guitar is set up (volume, tone and pickups) and where it sits in the chain in relation to my guitar. I won’t bore you with the electrical science of why this is, it just is. I’m told some modern fuzz pedals can sit later in the chain and it won’t matter. But three out of the four I’ve owned: a vintage green Sovtek Big Muff Pi, and JHS Pollinator and the Caroline Guitar Co Wave Cannon all really need to be at the front of the chain (I haven’t tested my JHS Colour Box on this front, but I kind of don’t care.)

BUT. If you’ve tried the fuzz placed somewhere else and you like it, then more power to you and go with what sounds good.


Wah. Filter. POG. I see these placed all over pedalboards. Do what works for you. Try out different locations. I list above are just guidelines or starting points. Go with what works and sounds good.  My only caution would be this: just because some experimental guitarist or blues rocker places his Wah pedal after the gain or her Micro-Pog at the very end of the signal chain, it doesn’t mean that it’ll work for you in a worship band setting.


I have had my volume pedal at the front of the chain. At the very end of the chain, and now in the middle. If you are only using your volume pedal as a kill switch then it doesn’t matter. If it’s their for ambient swells then I’ve found that it’s better right after my gain pedals but you try it for yourself.


I put my tremolo at the end of my chain after the reverb. This started because of the Strymon Flint where the Trem is post very by default (although you can change it). I found that I liked the effect that way. Now it’s a physical necessity since my Tremolo is amp based and by nature must go after all of my other effects.


Back in the day… bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and artists like Jimi Hendrix put tape delay units in front of dirty, overdriven amps. Some guys like to put delays (especially digital “tape” delays) before their overdrive pedals. It actually makes a lot of sense. So if you’re bored then try it out. Let me know how it goes.

Also, there is an argument that pedals like the Xotic EP booster or Dunlop’s Echoplex booster which are based on the pre-amp in the EP-3 tape delays could sit after modulation and before delay. I have no problem with this idea. I suppose you could also put a spring reverb in front of gain too for similar reasons. No hard and fast rules.


I found no hard and fast rules on where to place an EQ pedal. It seems totally dependent on desired result. Some guys place them before the gain pedals to shape the tone being overdrive. Some guys place them after the gain pedals to shape the tone of the gain pedals themselves. Some do both. Some guys place them at the very end of the signal chain to act as an EQ section for their amplifier. This makes sense on an Amp like the Fender Blue Pro or Vox AC4 that only have Tone knobs. I personally use my Colour Box in this way, adding a mid control for my Fender PRRI that only have Treble and Bass. Also, I use the Colour Box to change my amp from clean, to slightly broken up, to dirty without adding to the overall volume.


If your amp has an effects loop, the general rule is put everything from modulation down to reverb in that loop. Everything else goes before the amp. But if you want your chorus pedal before the amp and your delay/reverb after then go for it.


I don’t shake things up too much. I my signal chain looks like this:


Caroline Guitar Co. Wave Cannon.


Either a Boss Tu-2 or JHS Little Black Buffer


Origin Effects Cali76 Std


JHS Moonshine

Matthews Effects Klone

JHS Superbolt


ChaseBliss Warped Vinyl Chorus/Vibrato


Caroline Guitar Co Kilobyte Delay

TC Electronic Alter Ego


TC Electronic Hall of Fame mini


JHS Little Black Buffer


JHS Colour Box


Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb RI with on board tube driven Tremolo and Spring Reverb.

2 thoughts on “The Electric: Signal Chain

  1. Pingback: Worship Tech Roundup | Worship Links

  2. Pingback: Where Do I Put My Volume Pedal? – Real World Worship

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