Guitar Tone Buzzwords (and what they mean) – Part 1

Guitar tone buzzwords blog article

Musicians are funny. Have you ever had a conversation where you’ve used terms that usually describe food to describe a guitar tone? 

Like, “the lead tone is really smooth and creamy”, or “the highs were very crisp”. You could really throw in any food descriptor and at least two other guitarists will agree. Try this, next time you’re talking about tone, just say something like “The low end was a little stogy like congealed oatmeal” and see who agrees.  

And then you have terms like glassy, chimey, honky, woofy, and shrill. All of these things describe tone in slightly abstract, but concise ways. You might recognize the term “glassy” or “chimey” to describe a Vox AC30. Or “woofy” to describe low end (in a bad way).  

These terms are generally helpful in describing the sound. Whether that’s to help you understand what an amp sounds like, or to help you dial in your tones. 

But there are terms and buzzwords that describe functions that also tend to come up in guitar circles. These buzzwords can be used as benchmarks by purists, thrown around to be used to add value to a product, or just flat out used in the wrong context.  

So let’s take a look at the most common buzzwords that seem to be misused or misunderstood and set the record straight. 

True Bypass 

One of the two most commonly used buzzwords on internet chat boards, True Bypass has turned into a sign of quality in guitar pedals. True bypass doesn’t mean that the pedal is any better than a pedal that doesn’t have true bypass. It doesn’t mean that the tone is better. It simply means that when the pedal is turned off that it doesn’t have an impact on your “dry” tone. 

The whole purpose of True Bypass is to bypass all of the circuitry of the pedal when it’s turned off. Essentially connecting the input and output of the pedal as if it were just an instrument cable. This wasn’t always the case with pedals, as there weren’t separate circuitry paths. So even when the pedal was off (like a fuzz pedal), it was still coloring your tone. 

True Bypass is awesome when you don’t want your pedals to color your tone. But as we’ve learned from the EchoPlex, True Bypass isn’t always desirable (or as much of a standard as you might think). 

I go way deeper into this subject in another post here: what is true bypass? 

Transparent Overdrive 

The second most thrown around word, typically used by tone snobs to show their superiority to their fellow musicians, is Transparent Overdrive.  

Transparent Overdrives are overdrives that don’t inherently change your guitar’s tone other than adding volume and gain. That means your amp’s tone and EQ aren’t impacted by the pedal (unless you’re using the tone knob to cut or boost the frequency range of the pedal).  

Most of the time you’ll see this transparency in low to medium gain pedals. I love transparent overdrives for what they do. I also like non-transparent overdrives, like the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer. 

The Tube Screamer specifically has a boosted mid-range. Metal players love to use this to add saturation and cut into their already overdriven amp. To do this, set your amp gain to around 50-75% depending on the gain level your amp. Turn the volume on the pedal all the way up, gain all the way down, and tone at 12 o’clock. This is the classic setting. Adjust the knobs as desired.  

Blues players love it because of how Stevie Ray Vaughn used it. The mid-range attack combined with a strat and a Fender style amp is unbeatable. Truly a beautiful and inspiring tone (that is far from True Bypass!). 

I go way farther into detail on transparent overdrives in this article: what makes an overdrive transparent?

Boutique 

Boutique is a fun word. It’s not a term that’s solely used in the music world either. You have boutique fitness, boutique wineries, and boutiques (like boutique clothing stores). In the music world, it describes manufacturers making their products by hand with small production runs. 

Boutique pedals are hand made and because of how long this takes, typically have short production runs. The whole conversation about hand wiring vs PCB is another topic I’ll tackle in a future article. But suffice it to say that throwing in “hand wired” or “boutique” will drive up the price by a large percentage. 

Does Boutique mean quality? Not really, though I haven’t seen too many Boutique amps or pedals that weren’t fantastic. Overrated and overpriced? Maybe. Awesome? Definitely. 

I don’t know that this term is really regulated. Like, how many pedals can you release before it’s no longer Boutique? But it is an excellent buzzword that marketers use to drum up excitement.  

Headroom 

Headroom is used to describe the level of power a tube amp has before it starts to break up (distort). Basically, how loud does it get before the tubes start to naturally add distortion.  

A 20w amp will have significantly less headroom than a 100w amp. Musicians who use low watt amps typically love this lack of headroom. You can get natural tube break up/distortion at much lower volumes. This slight breakup is pretty magical, when that’s what you want. 

But not all players want this. Higher gain amps in particular tend to come in the 100w range, and even go up to 300w in the case of the Crate Blue Voodoo. This headroom is desired because the players are using partially the amp’s gain, and partially a boost pedal (like the Ibanez Tube Screamer we talked about earlier). This gain comes primarily from the preamp tubes, and is a much different gain than the power tubes. 

You won’t see this term used on solid state amps as the tone doesn’t change with the volume. 

Coil Tap vs Coil Split 

If you have a humbucker that’s wired to perform as a single coil, is this a coil tap or a coil split? 

If you said coil tap, you’re as wrong as the 90% of musicians out there who also think it’s a coil tap. Sorry about that, but it’s not your fault.  

You see, the terms have been used so interchangeably that they’ve essentially taken on the same meaning when it comes to guitar pickups. But in any other electrical engineering world, they are much different. 

A coil split on a humbucker is used to “turn off” (or bypass) one of the two coils of the humbucker. This gives the pickup a single coil type voicing. Functionally, you’re splitting the pickup from 2 coils to 1. The humbuckers have 4 conductor wires allowing this to happen. The coils can be used independent of each other. 

A coil tap is a standardized term used in electrical engineering. An output transformer contains an input coil and an output coil. The coils both have wires that are wrapped around it a certain amount of times. Kind of like a guitar pickup. 

Let’s say the output coil has 10k windings and it’s tapped at 5k windings. You can use this tap at 5k to bypass the rest of the windings, effectively changing your transformer’s output coil to have 5k wraps instead of 10k. Why would you do this? 

For amp designers this exact technique is used to offer different ohm outputs on a single amplifier. 

After saying all of that, you will (rarely) see coil taps in pickups. Albeit single coil pickups. The idea is the same. You can take a relatively hot single coil pickup in the 8k range and tap it at a lower range of 5k. This will allow you to have the tone of both a hot single coil and a more moderately vintage rating of 5k. 

Clean Boost 

Xotic EP Booster

Clean boosts are useful for adding volume without gain. Much of the time they’re used by guitarists for solos to cut through the mix. In addition to adding volume, they can add a touch of EQ to thicken your tone and tighten the highs. 

I personally use my clean boost (based off the Xotic EP Boost) as an always-on pedal. I love what it does for my tone. It boosts EQs in all the right areas and gives me an extra oomph. 

Clean boosts can also be used to push an already overdriven amp, like you might use an overdrive. Your amp’s headroom is limited and finite. That is to say it doesn’t change. So when you take your amp to its max headroom (volume all the way up), it’s not going to get any louder no matter what you do. 

When you get to that point your tubes start to compress and natural gain occurs. What happens when you take a clean boost with the volume pushing 10 (and similarly an overdrive with the gain down and the volume up) is pure magic. Your amp can’t take anymore and starts to distort/overdrive. 

Buffer 

Put simply, a buffer is a small transistor circuit used as a signal amplifier. It’s a basic circuit that’s intended to preserve your guitar’s natural tone in long cable runs. The output signal becomes the same as the input signal. 

The longer your guitar’s signal has to go, the more impedance it encounters. A 5’ instrument cable travels much less distance than a hypothetical 50’ instrument cable. The 5’ distance will preserve your tone (signal), while a 50’ cable run will cause a serious decay in your tone. That’s why 50’ instrument cables aren’t a thing. 

Using that logic, think about your pedal board setup. You have a 10-15′ cable going from your guitar to your first pedal. Then you have a 10-15′ cable from your pedalboard to your amp. That’s already 20-30′ of cabling! Now add in every 6” patch cable. Now add in the pedals themselves. Yes, they too add “cable” length. 

This is especially the case with True Bypass pedals. Because the pedals act like a cable when powered off (meaning you’re physically bypassing all circuitry) your unamplified signal travels much farther to get to your amp. The solution for many guitarists is a buffer pedal. 

The buffer pedal can be placed in several places in your signal flow, but most people tend to use them at the beginning (or close to the beginning) of their pedal signal flow. Or, if you have a pedal that’s known to suck the tone right out of your rig (like wahs) adding a buffer in front of those pedals can be a good idea.  

It’s important to note that active pickups act in a similar way as a buffer. If you’re powering your pickups with a 9v battery it’s already being buffered. Similarly, some pedals have buffers built in. In either case you probably wouldn’t need to spend money on a buffer pedal.  

(For more about cables, check out this in depth article [link to cable article]) 

Valves 

To quote Colin from CS Guitars, the British call these valves because that describes its operation without ambiguity. Americans call them tubes because that’s what they look like.  

So valves are tubes, and tubes are valves. These are two names for the same thing.  

British Voiced and American Voices Amps 

When you see the term “British voiced amp”, what do you think of? Right, Marshall. No dispute there. Likewise, when you see “American voiced amp” you probably think of either a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier or a Peavey 5150 (or 6505)*.  

These terms have been around before modeling amps, but modeling amps should receive credit for making them as common as they are. If Line 6 were to use the word “Marshall” to describe one of their amp models, they’d have to pay Marshall for the privilege. So, crafty as they are, they use generic (but specific) terms so we know what they’re really trying to say. 

It’s the same thing with basically any green overdrive pedal. You know it’s a take on a Tube Screamer, but they can’t actually say that.  

So what do these terms mean?  

British amps, like Marshalls, tend to have looser low end and a pushed mid-range. This is largely due to the EL34 power tubes (or valves) that are common in these amps.  

American amps like Mesa Boogie and Peavey amps predominantly use 6L6 power tubes. The 6L6 tubes provide a tighter low end and less pronounced (and even scooped) mid-range frequency. 

This used to be more true 30 years ago, when there weren’t as many common amp makers. But these days there’s a lot less delineation and a lot more cross over. But even after all this time the two terms still carry their own weight. 

*There’s a certain caveat for Fender amps. While Fender is an American amp that existed long before Mesa Boogie or Peavey, they’re less thought of as being American voiced, and simply thought of as being Fender voiced.  

Clipping 

Clipping refers to the signal, or sine wave, distorting. In the world of guitar you have two different types of clipping: soft clipping and hard clipping. This can (and might soon be) an article in itself. Here’s the very general version.  

Any clipping is where the input signal (your guitar) goes past the limit of the device (your amp). Here’s a helpful graph I borrowed from Sweetwater

The blue line represents your signal. In an unimpeded world it’s a flowing sine wave. However, as you approach the limit of your amp your signal will start to clip. Look at the red lines. This is an example of hard clipping. It’s sharp and abrupt.  

Looking at the orange lines you can see that the signal is clipped, but it’s rounded off. This generally means that the clip (or distortion) will be smoother and less abrasive. 

Again, to over simplify, you can think of soft clipping as lower gain overdrive. Most overdrive pedals utilize soft clipping. While on the other hand, hard clipping is used for higher gain/distortion scenarios.  

Final Thoughts About Guitar Buzzwords 

This is part 1 of a longer series because there are a ton of buzzwords floating around. If you’ve heard debates between Germanium vs Silicon transistors (and diodes), want to understand sag, or don’t know what microphonics are, then stay tuned! 

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