Before we start I’d just like to say that there is no definitive single solution, sometimes happy accidents can happen when you plug your phaser into your fuzz or your delay into your chorus, so try lots of different ways before you decide what’s best for your music. Having said that there are some general tips that most players will agree with so here goes:
Typically there are six types of effects;
1) Frequency/EQ like wah wah and equalizers
2) Overdrives & distortions
3) Modulation – chorus & vibrato
4) Time based effects like delay and reverb
5) Dynamic effects like Compressors & Limiters
6) and what I call “other” for want of a better classification eg tremolo, harmonizers, octavers
I find that I’m forever going from how-many-pedals-can-get-on-my-board to what’s-the-least-I-can-get-away-with; maybe that’s you too? It’s always a trade off though, as the more pedals and interconnects the more signal loss and tone-sucking, but the more tone options you have at your feet. A line selector can help here so that you can keep the minimum number of pedals in your signal path and then use the line selector to bring in a loop of effects only when you need them.
Ok, so what’s the best order for all your effects? first is often the wah pedal. You can try your wah after overdrives etc and some people use two wah’s one before and one after.
Next would come a compressor if you use one, you want this before any overdrives to avoid too much noise and a smoother sustain. If you put your compressor after your overdrive and have both switched on, the compressor will keep raising the volume and background noise generated by the overdrive/distortion.
With overdrives and distortions I like to arrange them so that I can use more than one at a time. I find that putting the higher gain distortions and fuzz first and then the lower gain pedals like overdrives and tubescreamers etc afterwards works best. What this does is allow the lower gain pedals to boost the signal. If you run a lower gain overdrive into a higher gain distortion, you can’t get the volume boost, you might get a bit more squash to the signal though. I use a clean boost pedal as well and I put this after the distortions so I can get a volume boost for solos.
If you use a harmoniser or octave pedal this would come next. They like a “dry” signal and don’t work as well with any modulation on the input signal. A compressor really helps even out the signal when using a harmoniser too. Put your Tremolo here too.
Next would come any chorus, vibrato, tremolo, flange or vibe effects. I prefer the sound of a chorused distortion to a distorted chorus (if you know what I mean). It also makes for a cleaner signal and lower noise overall when you have distortion and chorus/flange etc on at the same time.
Finally, put your delays and reverbs (in that order) reverb after delay sounds more natural and makes the delay sound bigger and smoother.
MOST IMPORTANT! – Use the best quality patch leads you can get. Not much sense in forking out a fortune for your boutique pedals and using low quality cables to hook them up with. I’ve even known one guitarist who dispensed with patch leads and soldered all his pedals together using high quality oxygen free screened cables.
EQUALLY IMPORTANT! – If you use a power supply, get a regulated supply that can deliver enough current for the pedals that you use. Most supplies will have the maximum current load (expressed in miiliamps) and most pedals have the current draw listed on the base of the pedal or next to the power supply input.
N.B. Some old effects and boutique fuzzes with germanium transistors like to work off batteries and don’t like power supplies at all.