What Does It Mean When A Guitar Pedal Is “True Bypass”?
True bypass might be the biggest pedal buzzword around. Most people “in the know” won’t touch a pedal if it’s not true bypass. Much like “boutique” and “transparent overdrive”, it’s a term that gets thrown around like spaghetti in a kid’s cooking class.
But what is true bypass? And what does it actually mean for the pedal and your tone?
Understanding What True Bypass Is
Guitar pedals in the 1960s were kind of always on. Even when it wasn’t switched on it was still coloring your tone. Since your signal was still running through the capacitors and resistors, it was still influencing your tone. You can see how this is a problem to your dry signal.
Starting in the 1970s, pedal manufacturers (ahem, Boss) started to do something about this. They created a system called Electronic FET Switching (essentially buffered bypass switching). When you click the pedal to turn it off, the pedal would physically re-route your signal. Instead of passing it through the entire circuitry, it would pass it through a FET transistor and straight to the output.
Thus “bypass”ing the main circuitry.
Keep in mind that a lot of these pedals had momentary switches. Like a computer keyboard. When you pressed the pedal down, the momentary switch sent the command to either engage the circuitry or disengage it.
During the 90s pedal manufacturers started to switch to mechanical switches, which are used on most stomp boxes today. This mechanical switch literally reroutes your signal. But unlike the FET transistors in the older pedals, your signal goes directly to the output of the pedal. It doesn’t go through any circuitry. You could say, it truly bypasses it.
Is True Bypass Better?
Are you familiar with the Echoplex? It was a tape delay that was pretty big back in the 1960s and 70s. It was a pretty sweet delay. But that’s not what made it as famous as it is. Guitarists quickly figured out that their dry tone was somehow better when the Echoplex was in their signal chain.
And not when the Echoplex was on either. Just their guitar running through an Echoplex when it wasn’t on, to their amp. It fattened their tone and gave it an extra little oomph. It was so sought after due to it not being true bypass. (Though true bypass wasn’t a term back then, it was just having a pedal in your chain).
In fact, there are a ton of clean boosts specifically modeled after the turned off Echoplex. I have one on my pedalboard and it’s an ‘always on’ pedal. I love it.
Funnily enough, it’s a true bypass pedal modeled after a non-true bypass pedal. Good stuff.
Drawbacks To True Bypass
It’s important to point out that a good majority of pedals aren’t true bypass, and that’s OK. They don’t always need to be.
True bypass pedals are notorious for loud switching (in your chain, not the mechanical switch). The more you have in your chain the louder it’s likely to be. There are ways around that, like Loop pedals (saving that for its own article).
Your biggest issue is going to be signal loss.
If you have a lineup of only true bypass pedals (which limits the variety of effects you can have, more on that in a bit) your signal will be pretty weak by the time it gets to your amp. The problem with the “cable extension” idea is that your signal can only go so far on its own before it starts to degrade.
The general agreed consensus is that anything over 20’ is no bueno. If you have a 15’ instrument cable, plus a few 6” patch cables, and then another 15’ instrument cable going to your amp, you might be suffering from signal loss.
(insert pharmaceutical commercial joke here)
If you have nothing but true bypass pedals, you could buy a buffer. People rocking pedalboards the size of U2 (the plane, not the band) tend to have a dedicated buffer pedal. That way they can play their U2 cover sets (the band, not the plane) using about 45 pedals without much signal loss.
For most of us we probably own pedals with built in buffers. Pedals like digital reverbs and delays, use a buffer to power the effect chip. So they simply can’t be true bypass.
Buffers really deserve their own article, and I want to stay relatively on topic here (which is hard enough). Here’s the skinny.
Buffers are little preamps that are often built into pedals. Buffers maintain the signal quality and level while having a low output impedance. This makes the pedal quieter and lets you have a longer signal chain.
Buffers are in everything. Acoustic guitar preamps, active bass preamps, stereo receivers, and many guitar effect pedals.
Ideally you would only have 3-4 true bypass pedals on your board without a buffer. Like I said with the length of your signal chain, you’ll run into issues. Most pedalboards don’t need a separate buffer pedal. If you have 6 or 7 pedals, there’s a good chance at least one of them have a buffer.
A buffered pedal at the front of your signal chain will go a long way. Most people put dynamic pedals, like overdrives, compressors, and EQs, at the front of their chain. So if you have one of those that isn’t true bypass it’s a good place to start.
But your best bet is to experiment. As long as you’re powering your pedals properly [link to blog about pedal power once posted] you’re not going to hurt anything by using all buffered, all true bypass, or a mix.
Did you find this article helpful to understand what true bypass is? If so, share it with a friend!