October 7, 2015

The Art and Science of Guitar Pedal Order

I admit. I’m an unabashed lover of guitar pedals.

My live pedalboard may or may not be the size of the Starship Enterprise. <<<<< And I may or may not have somewhere in the vicinity of ten overdrives alone.

But just because I have a rampant pedal addiction doesn’t mean they aren’t awesome tools in our quest for ever-cooler sounds.

And honestly, how can you recreate some of those trippy effects you hear on recordings without a nice flanger? Or phaser. Or echo. Come to think of it, I could really use an octave pedal also…

Clearly it’s become a problem. :)

Having a nice supply of these little guys isn’t enough for sonic greatness, though. There are some basic tonal concepts and gear understandings that we must have to get the best out of our pedals.

One of these critical understandings is pedal order.

Although I have my own take on the subject, I thought I’d instead pass along information from two of the acknowledged masters of tone, namely pedal guru, Robert Keeley, and guitar virtuoso, Steve Vai.

So follow along as Bob and Steve-o take you through the art and science of pedal order!

The Keeley Compressor

Although I was into pedals – mostly Boss and Ibanez models, and still own most of ’em – since the late 80’s, the one that pushed me over the edge into full-blown addiction was the Keeley Compressor.

Along with Analogman, Robert Keeley is arguably the founder of the “pedal mod” revolution. He has his own extensive line of pedals now, but he originally made his name by modifying the pedals (mainly Boss models) of famous players who wanted better tone and functionality.

His first – and still most famous – Keeley model is the signature compressor. Here is mine, the original two-knob “Ross clone” model from the early 2000’s:

To educate his pedal customers, Keeley also wrote a sweet little paper that outlines his ideas on optimal pedal order. The gear sequence is kind of a big deal, because it can either subtly or drastically change the resulting sound. I’ve used this piece as my go-to reference for years; I highly recommend that you download it (below) and do the same.

Download (PDF, 30KB)

Steve Vai

I was inspired to do this post mainly because I came across an AWESOME video yesterday featuring the great Steve Vai talking about pedals.

This video is basically a free master class with one of the greatest guitarists in history, so to me, it is required viewing if you’re serious about your guitar playing. Steve talks about pedal order, sound manipulation, demonstrates his own pedal board, and more. And it’s pretty comprehensive at an hour long. Enjoy!

QUESTIONS: Do you have specific pedals that inspire you? Do you experiment with pedal order or stick to a particular sequence? Leave me a comment below!


  1. Dean Bews says:

    After a bad motorcycle accident, I have been left with the use of only my left arm/hand. I think I could call myself an intermediate guitar player, and because of the love of guitar/music, I would like to continue to learn, and of course to do it with only one hand.
    The problem I am having of course is to get a decent sound. I need more clarity and I would say a more sustained sound when tapping and bending and/or just playing a single note.
    I am using a Fender Srat and playing through a Marshall VS100 Valvestate. I love the blues, plus styles and sound of players like Santana and Gary Moore. Is there a way of getting that type of sound with only one hand and/or are there pedals that can assist.
    I also have an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer and Boss CS3 Compression Sustainer, which believe it or not I have never used. I actually bought them just weeks before my accident 8 years ago, and I’m only starting to play again now.
    Please, do you offer any advice or might I be wasting my time .

    • jim says:

      Hi Dean, thanks for reaching out! I’m very sorry to hear about your accident but it sounds like you are determined to make some music even with some limitations – I think that’s pretty impressive.

      Unfortunately I’m not sure that I have any great ideas for you since I’m not really sure how I would accomplish this if it were me. The compressor can certainly enhance sustain, as does a high gain overdrive/distortion pedal (although high gain also typically means higher noise). Higher gain pedals also tend to have a mushy sound, rather than good clarity. I have found success though with my Fulltone OCD – it can do all levels of gain and really does retain clarity in the notes. Believe it or not, I’ve never used a Tube Screamer, as popular as they are, so I’m not sure what that would do for you in your particular situation. I would think it’s similar to the OCD though. Echo/delay can also add space to the sound and give the illusion of more sustain. You may even find some cool uses for some type of harmonizer pedal and/or a looper, like the Ditto.

      Please keep me updated and let me know how this great musical experiment is coming along! I look forward to hearing something good in the future. :) Cheers, jb

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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