What is 4 Cable Method & How Do You Use It?

Among guitarists, "4 cable method" is a phrase that crops up quite often. Some players may be aware that it has something to do with effects pedals. However, most may not know that it actually refers to a way in which stompboxes can be efficiently routed through an amplifier.

In this article, we describe exactly what 4 cable method is. Not only that, but we explain why it's important for achieving the best sounds possible, and how you can therefore use it to improve your rig as a whole.

Elliot Stent

Elliot Stent

Having lots of guitar pedals means that you have access to a vast palette of tones; quite literally at your feet. Unlocking tonnes of creativity, you can engage effects on-the-fly to spice up your playing. However, pedals can sound and behave differently depending on the order in which they’re placed and where. Therefore, ensuring that they’re routed in the most logical way possible will enable you to get the most out of them.

This is where ‘4 cable method’ comes into play. It lets you run your stompboxes through different sections of your amp; its ‘front end’ and ‘effects loop’. By doing this, you can achieve better separation between your effects, but it also allows them to work together more harmoniously in some cases.

As its name suggests, 4 cable method describes the amount of leads that are required to connect your guitar, pedals and amp together. This is so that a ‘signal chain’ is ultimately formed. What is important, though, is that 4 cable method works only if your guitar amp has an effects loop. But “what is an amp effects loop?” – you might ask…

What Is An Effects Loop?

Effects Loop on a Victory Amp

An effects loop is an input and output section (often marked ‘send’ and ‘return’) that lets you route pedals between the two main parts of your amplifier; its ‘preamp’ and ‘power amp’. The preamp is where your fundamental tone comes from, and it encompasses the EQ controls that you’d typically find on your amp’s front panel. The power amp is the section that actually “amplifies” sound; projecting your playing through a speaker.

With most amplifiers, the effects loop section comes after the preamp and before the power amp. An effects loop therefore places the preamp section before any of the pedals that you decide to route through it, while the power amp section remains at the end of the signal chain. So with that in mind; what are the types of pedals that you’d typically run through an effects loop?

Which Pedals Go Through The Effects Loop?

Generally, most players route their modulation and time-based pedals through their amp’s effects loop; such as chorus, phaser, delay and reverb. Running these particular pedals through the effects loop yields a more natural sound as they are being used after the preamp. This means that your core tone wouldn’t be as dramatically affected by the sound of the pedals, because the preamp would still remain the first part in your signal chain.

So, how would those pedals sound if you routed them straight into the front end and before the preamp? Well, if you plugged a delay directly into your amp’s input then it would sound fairly out of control, especially through the distortion channel. Modulation pedals are similarly problematic, as they often cause an unwanted boost in volume. These issues arise due to the compression that occurs in an amp’s preamp section. This compression thus enhances and boosts the sound of any pedals that run before the preamp, making effects like delay or chorus sound over-the-top and, often, unusable.

By running modulation and time-based pedals through the effects loop and therefore after the preamp section, they’ll simply sound more transparent and as you’d expect. You can therefore think of the pedals placed in the effects loop as “additive”. As you’ll discover in the next part of the article, though, there are many pedals that actually enhance the sound of an amplifier and work their best when placed before the preamp.

What is 4 Cable Method?

As we briefly explained in the introduction, 4 cable method describes a routing process that utilises four cables in order to connect the main elements of your rig together; the guitar itself, pedals and an amp. With 4 cable method, you’re making full use of your amplifier by running pedals into both its main input and through its effects loop.

4 cable method works for those that favour using individual stompboxes, but it also applies to players that prefer multi-FX units. Having said that, the ways in which you’d set them up differ slightly. With single pedals, it’s easier to visualise the process required to connect them together. The diagram below gives you a clear idea of how this is achieved:

4 Cable Method with Single Pedals

As you can see, with single pedals it’s very easy to separate the effects that you’d like to run into the front end and through the loop of your amplifier. Like we mentioned, the effects loop is perfect for routing your time-based and modulation pedals through; which are predominantly digital effects that embellish your tone instead of changing it.

It’s more typical to use analogue pedals straight into your amp’s front end, such as overdrive and distortion stompboxes. These effects interact better with your amp as they add gain before the preamp section, which can completely change the way that your amplifier sounds (but in a good way). For example, using an overdrive pedal into the distortion channel of your amplifier creates a richer and more saturated sound, with Tube Screamer-style pedals also known to “tighten” your tone. This is a popular technique employed by metal players.

Ultimately, there’s no definitive right or wrong when it comes to which pedals should go where. Some players, for instance, love to use modulation pedals into the front of their amps as it gives them a more exaggerated and “in-your-face” sound. The diagram above just illustrates the method that most players adhere to.

4 Cable Method with Multi-FX Units

Multi FX Pedals and 4 Cable Method

Multi-FX units are a little bit trickier to understand, with many modern examples boasting sophisticated interfaces and tonnes of features. We’ll try to keep it simple though! With powerful multi-fx units such as those offered by Line 6 and Boss, you’ll find a variety of inputs/output on their rear panels, including their own external loop sections. Often marked ‘send’ and ‘return’ just like with amplifiers, multi-FX pedals feature their own loops so that you can use a couple of your favourite single pedals in conjunction with them. However, they also enable you to employ 4 cable method with amps.

This is important, as multi-FX processors (as indicated by their names) are packed full of hundreds of different effects, including overdrives, modulations, delays and more. Therefore, figuring out a way to internally separate these effects is vital if you want to achieve the best results. This is just like with single pedals, where you’d want to ensure that the right effects are used into your amp’s front end, while others (like reverbs and delays) are routed through your amp’s effects loop.

With multi-FX pedals like the Boss GT-100 (pictured), you can edit its patches and engage the external loop function, which lets you determine which individual effects are placed before your amp’s preamp or within its effects loop. So, in terms of organising which cables should be plugged into where, here’s a simple breakdown:

  1. Connect your guitar to your multi-FX unit’s input.
  2. Take your second cable and connect your multi-FX’s external loop send to your amp’s input.
  3. Use cable three to connect your amplifier’s effects loop send to the multi-FX unit’s return jack.
  4. Lastly, your final cable should connect your multi-FX unit’s output to the amplifier’s return.

Want To Learn More?

If you’re interested in putting together your very first pedalboard, check out our extensive article on the subject by clicking here! And if you want to find out more about gear to expand your knowledge, click here to view all of our Learn articles!

Elliot Stent
Elliot Stent
Elliot is a digital content specialist at Andertons, a guitarist and a YouTube gear demonstrator. Having studied Music and Music Technology, his interests lie equally in both performance and production. Favouring Fender instruments and Marshall amps, Elliot is also a pedal fanatic with a large collection of effects.

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