What is true bypass? Do I need it? Why do some people love it and other people hate it?

True bypass has gone from a feature, to a buzzword, to a misunderstood concept as quickly as it was created. It still creates controversy but the best way to combat controversy and confusion is with knowledge.

Today we’re ditching the electrical jargon and breaking down true bypass guitar pedals (in English)!

Why Should I Care?

In short: because it has the potential to make your tone worse.

Before we get into what these pedals are and what the differences between them are, we need to understand one very basic rule: the longer your signal chain, the greater impact it will have on your tone.

If you’re running a 5-foot cable from your guitar to your amp, it’s going to sound different than if you ran a 500-foot cable. This is because your guitar signal loses its “strength” the further it has to travel.

Think of it this way: if you have to run around the block to get your groceries, you’re going to be in fine physical shape. If you have to run 10 miles to get your groceries, you’re going to be pretty exhausted. Sounds acts the same way. This is a very basic and broad analogy, but it’s all we’ll be needing to tackle this topic.

When we say that long signal chains can impact your tone, this is most often evident as a loss of treble frequencies and increased noise. This can mean less clarity, a lack of bite or sparkle, and a tone that sound dull and muddy.

This might seem like we’re making a big deal out of nothing and that you’ll never use a 500-foot cable. This is likely true, but even if you’re just using a pedalboard of 1 or 2 pedals, you’re probably impacted by this issue already and don’t even realize it.

What Is True Bypass?

True bypass is a switching system that aims to eliminate this problem.

When you turn off a buffered bypass guitar pedal, it can still potentially change your tone because your guitar signal is still running through the entire circuit of the pedal when it’s turned off. This means you’re still adding length to the signal chain, forcing the sound to travel further and lose some of its strength along the way.

When you turn off a true bypass guitar pedal, the idea is that there should be no tonal changes when compared to plugging straight into your amp without any pedals in between. It does this by wiring the input jack directly to the output jack when the pedal is off, bypassing the circuitry of the pedal entirely. It’s transparent.

When the pedal is turned off, your tone should sound the same as if the pedal was never in your chain to begin with. It’s the same idea as a No-Load Tone Pot.

Why Aren’t All Pedals True Bypass?

True bypass sounds great in theory, and in practice, it can be, but it’s a trade-off.

The downside to true bypass pedals is that they are typically more expensive to make, are more susceptible to noise, and can cause loud “pop” sounds when turning them on and off, especially with guitar tones that have lots of distortion.

The “buffer” we refer to in buffered bypass pedals is actually a useful tool, too. The buffer helps give the signal strength to drive long cable runs, and a high-quality buffer can be great for preserving that tone. A poor quality buffer, however, can have a negative impact on the sound.

Buffers are also great for other scenarios where a signal might be weak, such as splitting your signal into multiple amplifiers.

So… Which Is Better?

Both.

True bypass can be great for smaller pedalboards and short cables, but if you’ve got a large pedalboard or long cables then you’ve got a significant distance for the sound to travel and no buffer to provide the necessary strength to do so.

Buffered bypass can be great for providing the necessary signal strength while retaining treble frequencies, but a poor quality buffer can color your tone in undesirable ways.

The best compromise is to buy based on your needs as a guitarist.

If your top priority is making sure that your amp sounds exactly the way it is no matter what, then go with true bypass pedals but be prepared to live with some switching noise.

If you don’t care about transparency, then buy whatever pedals you want! Just keep this concept in mind when you change your setup, as your tone might change with it.

True vs. buffered bypass is, ideally, not something that should dictate which pedals you buy, but instead something that you should keep in the back of your mind when you’re putting your pedalboard together and dialing in your tone.

If you can’t get the high end that you want, you might want to look at buying a high-quality buffer or placing a buffered pedal near the beginning of your pedalboard to help it out.

There’s One More Option

If you are both a complete tone-nerd that needs that “straight into the amp sound” but also can’t live without your favorite pedals that happen to contain buffers, don’t sweat it.

Buy yourself a “true bypass looper.” These are true bypass pedals that act like an amp’s effects loop. Put whatever pedals you want in the loop and turn them all off and on at will!

When turned off, they act like any other true bypass pedal: transparent. They remove the pedals from your signal entirely. When turned on, any of the pedals in this loop will be included in your chain. This is a great solution for pedals that really suck your tone when turned off but sound amazing when turned on!

How Do I Know If My Pedals Are True Bypass?

There’s an easy test for this one. Plug in a pedal, then remove its power supply (either the internal battery or the external power supply). If you still hear sound, then your pedal is true bypass!

This simple tip can help you decide where certain pedals should go in the signal chain. Of course, it’s very important to understand where your pedals should go in order for them to perform optimally, but depending on your setup there can be some flexibility.

Where To Go From Here

True bypass is one of those things that everyone should understand, but not everyone needs to abide by.

While it’s highly important to have an understanding of the gear you’re working with and why things sound a certain way, that information doesn’t necessarily need to be cause for concern.

If you are getting the tone you want without knowing any of this information, then that’s all that matters at the end of the day. But, if you’re still unhappy, maybe it’s time to look at a little pedalboard renovation…

This article was written by Connor Gilkinson, our editor located in Canada.