Tone is everything for an electric guitarist. Being able to control and craft your tone to exactly how you like it can be tricky – especially if your gear is working against you. In this guide, we will look at how your guitar pedals could actually be hurting your tone. Find out what True Bypass is all about and how it affects your overall tone.
By the end of this guide, you will know whether you need to change your pedal setup and you will know exactly what to do to improve your tone.
Tone and Impedance
The reason there is so much debate and discussion about all these different options for your gear is that everything you add to your signal chain will affect your tone in one way or another. Anything in-between your pickup and your amp will affect your tone in one way or another. The point of this guide is to help you understand your signal chain so you will know if your current setup is affecting your tone in a negative way or not.
To understand how your tone is affected by your signal chain, let me give you an analogy. Imagine talking to somebody face to face. If you are standing right up to their face you will clearly hear their voice and understand the words coming out of their mouth. The tone of their voice will be clear (you will hear the full range from bass to treble) and loud. Now imagine taking 10 steps backward and trying to listen to them again while they continue to talk at the same volume.
Depending on your hearing you may still be able to understand what they are saying, but this time their voice isn’t as clear and the sound level decreases. You might notice you lose some of the clarity and treble in their tone. Take another 10 steps backward and the clarity in their voice decreases again. The volume and clarity in their voice continue to decrease the further you move away.
It’s exactly the same with your guitar signal. If you plug your guitar directly into your amp with a very short lead, the signal will come through loud and clear – just like talking to somebody face to face. On the other hand, if you run a 30ft (9m) lead from your guitar to your amp, your signal will actually degrade as it travels the lead to your amp.
The result is similar to what happens when you try to listen to somebody talks from a great distance. You may notice with a long lead that the clarity in your tone decreases. Think the vintage curly style leads look cool? Well just imagine how long that lead would be when pulled straight. It will suck the tone straight out of your guitar (modern curly leads have inbuilt electronics to help avoid this – but it isn’t perfect).
When talking about your guitar signal, there’s a term you need to understand: impedance. Impedance is a measure of electric resistance. The longer your signal path the more your tone will be affected by resistance and your tone will suffer. That’s why a long lead will affect your tone while a short lead won’t (in practical terms).
High Impedance vs Low Impedance
To be able to really understand True Bypass, buffers, and tone in general, you need to understand the difference between a high impedance and low impedance signal. If you have passive pickups (don’t require a built in battery), the signal coming out of your guitar is high impedance. A high impedance signal is strongly affected by resistance. So if you have passive pickups and run a very long lead to your amp (or have a very long chain of effect pedals), the resistance in the signal will affect your tone.
If your guitar has active pickups (powered by a built in battery), your guitar will have low impedance. Low impedance signals aren’t as affected by resistance. This means if you have active pickups in your guitar, you’re less likely to experience tone degradation.
What is True Bypass
Many guitar pedals will mark True Bypass as one of their features. What this means is that when the pedal is set to OFF, the pedal’s effect circuit is completely bypassed. The footswitch will reroute your guitar signal to completely skip the pedal’s circuitry. The result is the same as if the pedal wasn’t connected at all – it doesn’t affect your tone.
To understand why this is important, let’s look at a pedal that doesn’t have True Bypass. This time, when the pedal is set to OFF, the pedal’s effect circuitry is still connected to your main signal. While you won’t hear the effect, some of your guitar’s signal will redirect to the effect circuitry. This means the signal coming out of the pedal is ‘less’ than the signal going in. This is referred to as ‘Tone Sucking’. To put it simply – a guitar pedal without True Bypass affects your tone even when set to OFF.
So the easiest way to think about True Bypass is that when your pedal is set to OFF, a True Bypass pedal will be completely transparent – it won’t affect your tone at all. If the pedal doesn’t have True Bypass, then it will affect your tone in some way even when it is set to OFF.
Why True Bypass Won’t Solve Everything
At this point you may be thinking “okay so I’ll I need to do is make sure all my pedals have True Bypass and my tone will be fine.” Well, it depends. Remember at the start of this guide I explained that a long guitar lead will degrade a low impedance tone? Well generally speaking the length where your tone starts to noticeably degrade is around 18ft (5.5m). That’s pretty short and doesn’t take much to go over that length. Measure your total length between your guitar and your amp now to see if it’s longer than 18ft. If your entire signal length is less than 18ft, you won’t have any problem with True Bypass pedals and your signal should sound fine.
But as your signal path grows longer than 18ft, you will still experience degradation in your tone. True Bypass pedals won’t solve this problem because the pedal will simply pass the signal along. So if you run a chain of quite a few True Bypass pedals and have a long signal length, you need something else to solve this degradation problem. The solution is a buffer.
What is a Buffer
A buffer is a way to improve the strength of a weak high impedance signal. Many guitar pedals have built in buffers to avoid tone degradation such as all BOSS pedals. By adding a buffer to your signal chain, you increase the signal strength which allows your chain to be longer without degrading. Of course this means that, by giving your signal ‘strength’, you’re actually affecting your tone. This means guitar pedals with an inbuilt buffer cannot be True Bypass because they affect the tone.
To hear how a buffer affects your tone, you can run a test where you link multiple buffers in a row. You may notice more white noise and an increase in the treble in your tone. How much the buffer affects your tone depends on where it is placed in your signal chain, how many buffers are in the chain and how long the chain is.
What a buffer does is it changes your high impedance signal to a low impedance signal. As explained earlier, this means that your signal won’t be as greatly affected by resistance. So if you have a high impedance signal chain, adding a buffer can greatly reduce the chance that your signal will degrade as it passes over the chain (provided you place the buffer early in the chain).
Setting Up The Perfect Signal Chain
The main points to understand so far are:
- True Bypass pedals are completely transparent when set to OFF
- Guitar pedals without True Bypass affect your tone even when set to OFF (called Tone Sucking)
- A high impedance signal chain longer than 18ft (5.5m) will result in tone degredation
- A buffer can strengthen your weak tone signal
Now let’s look at how to set up the perfect signal chain to make sure you get the most out of your gear and tone. I’ll go through a few different scenarios so you can work out how to set up your own rig.
If you only use one or two pedals and the pedals are True Bypass, the only thing you need to keep in mind is the overall signal length. Measure the total length of your lead from your guitar to your pedal to your amp. If it is less than 18ft (the shorter the better), your tone shouldn’t be affected by degredation even if you have passive pickups.
On the other hand, if your signal chain is over 18ft there’s a few things to consider. If you have active pickups, your tone won’t be affected unless the length is substantially longer than 18ft. If you have passive pickups, your tone will be affected. What you can do is add a buffer to the start of your chain. The best way to do this is to run a short lead from your guitar to the buffer, then your other pedals will follow on from the buffer.
The buffer needs to be towards the start of the signal chain because you want to strengthen the signal before it starts to degrade. Many guitarists achieve this by adding a Boss TU-3 Tuner as the first pedal in their chain. The pedal has a built in buffer so it will strengthen your signal.
If you have four or five pedals in your chain and you know some of them are True Bypass and some are not, how you arrange the pedals will affect your tone. You can actually add a pedal called a True Bypass Looper such as the Radial BigShot EFX True Bypass Effects Loop Switcher which allows you to connect your non-True Bypass pedals in a way that won’t affect your tone when set to OFF. Using a True Bypass Looper is an excellent option if you have any vintage pedals that clearly affect your tone when set to OFF.
The other option is to add a buffer before your True Bypass pedals. That way your signal is getting a boost before going through the long chain of True Bypass pedals. Keep in mind that every time you add a buffer it affects your tone, so avoid overkill – one buffer should be enough for most people.
The Radial BigShot pedal is a ‘True Bypass Looper’ which allows you to take your non-True Bypass pedals out of your main signal so they don’t affect your tone when set to OFF. If your tone is noisy even when all the pedals are set to OFF, this pedal can make a big difference.
If you have a massive pedalboard with over 10 pedals always connected at once – your job becomes trickier. If all of your pedals are True Bypass, you’ll probably want a buffer somewhere in the chain. On the other hand if you have a mix of True Bypass and non-True Bypass pedals and you want to isolate or separate some pedals, consider breaking your entire chain up into segments that can be controlled with a multi-channel switcher such as the PXL4 Wave-X 4. This pedal allows you to connect up to four effects loops and program different combinations of effects that can be turned on and offer with one switch. If you have a lot of pedals in your chain, I recommend you look at using a channel selection pedal like the PXL4 (shown below) not only to improve your tone, but to make it easier to switch between different pedal combinations.
If you have a complex pedalboard, you might want to look at a more robust option such as the BOSS ES-8 Pedal Switching System. As you can see from the photo below, it gives you plenty of control over your pedalboard. You can create presets that completely re-arrange your rig, isolate any pedal you want, and more. What might surprise you with the ES-8 is it gives you the option for either true bypass or buffered bypass for each individual loop. This means you can set up your rig with the exact bypass methods you want.
Find out more about pedal switching systems here.
Why I Recommend Aiming For True Bypass
A lot of people debate whether True Bypass or Buffered effect chains are better. Ultimately you should let your ears decide what you prefer. The reason I recommend aiming for as much True Bypass as you can is that it gives you more control over your tone. You can choose when your chain will be affected or not by a pedal. Imagine getting a great sounding pedal when set to ON then when you set it to OFF you hear white noise or a unusual boost in treble in your tone. With a True Bypass pedal you avoid this and can decide when and if you want to add buffers or not.
Next time you look at purchasing a pedal, look at whether it’s True Bypass or not. Think about how it will affect your signal chain. There are always ways around a non-True Bypass pedal (eg: rewiring, using a looper), but be aware that a True Bypass pedal will make things much easier for you.
Tips for Good Tone
This guide should have given you all the information you need to control your signal chain and get the best tone possible. Here are a few general tips to keep in mind to get the most out of your pedals:
- If you have a long signal chain, add a buffer early from a tuner such as the PolyTune 3 (allows you to change between True Bypass or Buffer as you want)
- Long leads degrade your tone – keep your leads as short as possible
- If you have passive pickups, consider adding a buffer or keeping your chain short
- If you have active pickups, you will likely have a low impedance signal and will have less problems with tone degradation
- If you have a lot of non-True Bypass pedals, consider using a True Bypass Looper
To get more out of your gear, check out my Guitar Effects Course. You’ll learn everything you need to know about each type of guitar effect, how to set up different tones, and more.
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