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Steve Vai’s pedal configuration

As modern synths and inexpensive yet feature-rich recording equipment become more standard, guitarists are under increasing pressure to match the keyboardists versatility of sound. While the quality of amps and guitars has improved in some ways, the basic effects used by guitarists have not changed much in the last 20 years. This can be seen quite plainly in the fact that a lot of contemporary guitarists still rely on distortion, chorus, delay, compression & reverb. With so many cool, clean-sounding effects-units around, some guitarists are turning to these as a source of inspiration. Unfortunately, the majority of guitarists don’t use the full potential of these units because they either place these in the wrong order or use pedals inefficiently.


Mike Keneally’s pedal configuration

The first step towards getting your effects to work synergistically is to match the levels from one effects pedal to the next. Each pedal will have an optimum input level in which it will work best. Go above that and you will peak the input, go below that optimum level and you will raise your analog noise level. Natural compression can be obtained by raising the input of any pedal and lowering its output by an equal amount. You can also apply this to the whole effects setup by raising the input on the first pedal and lowering the output of the last pedal.


Out of the loop… It is most common for effects such as compression, distortion, overdrive, and wah to be placed between the guitar and the amp. Placing a compression unit in the effects-loop doesn’t work because compression is meant to effect the over-all signal. Delays, chorus-phase modulators, and reverbs should be plugged into the amp’s effects-loop (if provided). The effects-loop acts like a separate effects-channel in that it mixes the effect with the original signal.

The pedals between the guitar and the amp often react better with the level and dynamic range from the guitars pick-ups and act as boosters (both tonally and in volume). A compressor at the front can help to even out volume and increase the sustain while a distortion/overdrive pedal can boost the gain. A good wah pedal can boost the treble and allow you to adjust your phase. A mono enhancer can also boost the treble to a point where old strings sound like new (a cheap trick- so buy new strings).

In the loop… Try placing the delay before a modulation unit such as a chorus or flanger. This way, the echos will continue to modulate and sound different with each repeat. The delay after the modulation can cause phase cancellations that can create ugly side effects such as making your signal weaker and stronger on its own at all the wrong times. The reverb unit should always be placed last in the lineup. Located below are a few pointers regarding setup of different effect types.


The mono output from the compressor (or special effects unit) would go into the input of the next effect unit. (I would recommend putting the delay unit here). Set the delay time (ms) to match the BPM of the track (it should either be in half notes, quarter notes, eighths or sixteenths) but you can set this a bit faster or slower to get it to “swing.” The stereo output (if your delay unit is stereo) goes to the stereo input of the next unit.


I would recommend putting the modulation unit next (i.e. chorus/flangers etc). Try to keep the signal stereo if possible via stereo inputs to this unit and stereo outputs from this unit (even if you are going to mix back down to mono when you go back into the effects loop return). Don’t forget that modulation is a rhythmical effect. Make sure that the envelopes (the rising and falling) match the “groove” of the track or whatever you’re playing with.


The last effect should be the reverb. Go light on the reverb. Remember that the room/venue you play in will also add more reverb. Try different types of reverb on the effects unit that emulate older studio and amp reverbs like plates, spring reverbs, early reflections, etc., as they will add an extra dimension.


A good multi-effects unit can combine the modulation/delay and reverb stage into one unit with the advantages of midi control and programmable memories for settings. The output of the last effects-unit goes back to the power amp (into the amp’s effects loop return). Use the mix output of the last effect unit if your amp’s effects loop return is mono. If you have two power amps (or a stereo power amp) you can take the left output from the last unit (reverb) to one power amp and the right output to the other power amp.

A rear view of a rack configuration.

BUT… don’t fall prey to the cheap digital effects-unit just because it says “digital” on it! There are some good multi-effects units out there in a reasonable price-range but many cheap digital effects use very cheap AD_DA (analog to digital and back) convertors. We spend time and money searching for the amp that best matches our guitar and the sound we’re looking for and then suck the life out of the sound with a cheap digital convertor. I’d rather have a little noise in an analog effects-pedal than a quiet digital pedal that sounds brittle and grainy. Best bet when searching for a multi-effects pedal is go try it out with YOUR guitar and YOUR amp at a volume level that matches how you will normally be playing. Good luck and good picking!