One of the earliest points of confusion for many rookie electric guitarists comes when first exploring the crazy cocktail of tonal possibilities that their shiny new amplifier can dish out. The extreme highs and lows that can be twiddled out of the EQ controls, the ear-bleeding noises that are all-too-easily created when pushing the gain settings; it can generally turn into a minefield for some! Our Guitar Amplifier 103: Toning Up article hopefully answered any questions our readers may have had when it comes to getting the very best basic sounds from your main rig.
Then there’s the exciting world of effects pedals - the next logical route to take when expanding your guitars sonic capabilities. Increased distortion, extra delay, or some modulation of the signal such as chorus; all these are brilliant choices for a guitarist who wants to discover new sounds and ideas with their instrument. However, what you may not have considered when playing with your stomp boxes is your signal chain. Or (to put it more simply) are you plugging everything in properly?
Is there a right or wrong way to plug in?
Ooooooh yes. Because your guitar amp isn’t JUST an amplifier. And we’ll now explain this using a variety of different illustrated methods to connect your equipment together!
The one-cable method
It’s an understandable assumption that your ‘sound’ or ‘signal chain’ starts at the guitars output socket, and ends at the speaker cone of your amplifier. And if you’re only using one cable, connecting the instrument directly to the amps input socket, then this is indeed the case.
However it’s when we start adding external effects into the mix that issues can potentially crop up…
The two-cable method
Your guitar amp actually contains TWO vital electrical circuits - the pre-amp for creating the basic initial tonal color, and the power amp which then turns that basic tone into a signal powerful enough to drive a speaker. Meaning that ANYTHING connected to the amplifiers input socket will run through the pre-amp section.
This is actually fine for stomp boxes designed to simply condition the guitar signal - things like distortion/overdrive/fuzz, wah-wah, compression or boost pedals can actually benefit from being placed in front of the pre-amp (not to mention any tuner pedals, which usually double as a useful stage mute). So, a two-cable method is entirely appropriate here.
The three-cable method
Now we come to the tricky question of what to do with guitar stomp boxes that effect time or modulation. Anything that introduces an element of delay, reverb, chorus, phasing or similar will tend to sound unpleasantly extreme or uncontrollable once the pre-amp has finished with it - particularly if you’ve dialled in a high level of gain.
Fortunately, many guitar amplifiers feature an effects loop as standard. This allows you to send an output feed from the rig that comes after the pre-amp stage, run it through your stomp boxes, and then bring it back into a return socket that sends the signal directly to the power amp stage.
This three-cable method is definitely the cleanest way of hooking up the more esoteric parts of your pedal collection! But what if you wanted to work in ALL your pedals at once?
The four-cable method
As you’ve probably guessed, we can easily combine the two and three cable method ideas into one overall stomp-box connection strategy. Just line-up the conditioning pedals (distortion, was, boost etc) BEFORE the pre-amp, and your time/modulation pedals through the effects loop AFTER the pre-amp.
A four-cable setup really is the ideal way to achieve ultimate control over your sound when introducing stomp boxes into your setup.
Wrapping it up
And there you have it - the apparent complexity of all those sockets on the back of your amplifier should hopefully now seem a little less complex! Although we’re going to guess that many of our readers are already browsing Amazon for some extra jack-to-jack cables to enhance their equipment arsenal. Until next time…