If you've experienced using effects pedals within your signal chain then you'll be well aware of how these otherwise enjoyable little boxes can sometimes have quite a negative effect on your tone when disengaged. An instrument's signal is a sensitive thing for sure & I'm here to tell you that anything & EVERYTHING placed between your guitar & amp will have an influence regardless of how insignificant it may seem. In a world where buzzwords such as 'True Bypass' etc. are often misunderstood & acted upon incorrectly, obtaining a pure & transparent tone can sometimes seem like a mystical & unattainable thing to all but the most experienced & obsessive of tone seekers. If you're interested in demystifying the jargon that surrounds this issue & coming to a sound understanding of the basic principles for obtaining the best tone possible then please do read on...
The first issue to deal with is one that is often taken for granted: the cable! Your guitar lead is something that will be between your guitar & amp regardless of whatever else you choose to use so it most certainly deserves a little consideration. The basic principle to remember here is that cable has an inherent resistance & this results in an inevitable loss of high end (the longer the cable, the greater the loss). There is also a mammoth variety of available brands etc. to choose from & they'll all vary in terms of performance. The good news however is that there's a lot of snake oil & marketing baloney out there & you really don't need to spend a lot of money in order to get a decent sounding lead. The best starting point is a reliable, yet budget-friendly ten footer & my personal recommendation would be those offered by Dimarzio, Planet Waves or Fender (a basic ten foot lead connecting your guitar & amp should serve as your measuring stick when judging more complicated setups). Any of the more premium offerings that attempt to EQ your sound to make it more 'Rock' or 'Acoustic' etc. should be avoided like the plague as you really don't want an over priced mid-range lead dictating what your guitar is going to sound like!
What if you need more than ten foot of cable though; perhaps you play with a band & want to move about a bit? Well, this is where it gets a bit trickier. If you were to simply purchase a twenty foot version of the same lead then this would result in twice as much high-end loss. You'd hear more treble content & have a clearer response when plugging in at home with your ten foot lead, yet a significantly darker/woollier sound when playing out with the band using your twenty footer... not ideal. Now, the savvy among you may well be saying "isn't this what the tone controls on my amp are for!?" & you would be correct to a degree; however, the basic principle you should employ for maintaining good tone is to RETAIN as much as possible & then tweak to suit. An amp's tone circuit is most commonly passive & this means that the natural voice of your guitar is with everything on ten (the tone controls serving to roll off any frequencies that you feel are too prevalent). If your lead is resulting in a substantial loss of high end before your signal even reaches your amp, the you'll have no choice but to use the amp's tone controls to roll off bass & middle as well. This will result in an overall reduction of volume & a loss of tonal quality; the obvious solution is a better cable with a lower capacitance (i.e. less resistance).
This is where things can get costly though; a high quality low capacitance cable that performs as well at twenty foot as an inexpensive off-the-shelf ten footer does not usually come cheap. Mid-range cables are a complete waste of time as their capacitance is usually no different than that of cheap cables & the extra features they offer are arguably of no real benefit (it's like a boy-racer pimping a Vauxhall Corsa: it's still just a Corsa & if anything the mods can make the car handle worse!). So, for optimum results: stick to basic cables if you can live with ten foot runs; if not, then be prepared to fork out for proper high- end cables such as those offered by VoVox etc.
Okay, so now we're clear in terms of cable selection, the next thing to consider is the effects pedals that you intend to place within your chain. I'm sure that everybody reading this will have heard of the term 'True Bypass' & you may well be thinking that if you stick to True Bypass pedals then you don't need to worry? Well, although True Bypass effects are a good idea in general, you would be wrong in thinking it was a stand-alone solution to tonal loss.
The idea behind True Bypass switching is that when the pedal is disengaged, your guitar's signal is passed directly from the input to the output without passing through the effect's circuitry at all. This obviously means that the pedal does not colour the signal in any way when it's not in use; however, there is an extra factor to consider: the cable! Think of it this way: perhaps you have your guitar connected to a True Bypass overdrive pedal via a ten foot lead & you then have another ten foot lead connecting your overdrive pedal to your amp. You've dialled in your sound so that it's perfect when the overdrive pedal is engaged; however, when you switch it off, your guitar is no longer only seeing ten feet of cable, it's now seeing twenty feet because the pedal has been removed from the signal path. This results in twice the amount of resistance & hence, a significant loss of high-end & treble response (& let's face it, who wants their high-end continually fluctuating depending on whether or not they have any pedals engaged!?).
This is where buffers come into play; a buffer converts your high impedance guitar signal into a low impedance feed (this serves to prevent subsequent pedals loading down your guitar's signal) while also acting as a fixed point in your cable run (your guitar will not 'see' any cable placed after the buffer & will respond as though the buffer were the actual input of your amp). This results in a consistent tone & dynamic response that does not fluctuate as you switch pedals on or off.
Buffers can be found within certain effects pedals, or purchased as standalone items... one word of caution though: not all buffers are equal! A poor quality buffer can alter your tone in an undesirable way & stringing too many buffers together can raise your noise floor. Buffers should be strategically placed for optimum results & a good quality buffer should not change your guitar's basic tone (there is a misconception that buffers add high-end, but this is just a result of the reduction in cable length that your guitar's pickups are having to drive). A good way to test a buffer is to first plug straight into an amp with a ten foot lead & have a play; following this, plug that very same lead into a buffer & then put another lead of the same length between the buffer & your amp (if it's a good buffer, the tone should remain constant throughout the test).
For a quality standalone buffer I'd recommend the Lehle Sunday Driver; however, if on a tight budget then the buffers in Boss pedals can do the job (the transparency isn't on par with the Lehle but it's better than no buffer at all) & a TU-3 tuner is a handy little pedal to use for this purpose.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Okay, so you've gotten this far & all the talk of buffers, True Bypass, cable capacitance etc. is making your head spin!? Well, let's put it all together into a few easy-to-follow steps....
1) As mentioned in the section about cable, the ideal basic tone that you want to aim for in any setup is that of your guitar plugged straight into your amp with a basic ten foot lead. If you're going to be extending the cable length between your guitar & amp by a significant amount then you will need to implement a buffer &/or a low-capacitance cable if you wish for the tone to remain unaltered.
2) Should you want to use effects pedals then you are best to keep them True Bypass so that their circuitry does not enter your signal path unless the pedal is in use (for effects that aren't True Bypass I recommend using them in conjunction with a True Bypass looper such as the Little Lehle); furthermore, you should place them after a buffer if you wish to retain tonal consistency. *The only fly in the proverbial ointment here is effects with low- impedance inputs such as old-skool fuzzes etc. as these sorts of effects don't tend to respond well to low-impedance feeds (they really need to be placed before your buffer should you wish for them to sound right). You'd also be well served to use True Bypass loopers in this instance so as to prevent the low-impedance input stages of these effects from altering your guitar's responsiveness.*
3) In most instances a single buffer early on in the signal path will suffice; however, a secondary buffer as the very last thing in line can also be of benefit as it will serve to both strengthen & maintain a consistent feed to your amp (the first buffer will be the most important one though as this is the one that your guitar will 'see').
Anyway, thank you for reading! I hope this guide proves helpful to you on your tonal quest. It is of course possible that you may have found a tone that you're happy with without following this approach; however, if you wish for your guitar's tone & dynamics to remain as true & unaltered as possible then I urge you to give it a try. When looking for signal routing tools to help you achieve this, Lehle products such as the Sunday Driver buffer & the Little Lehle True Bypass switcher are (in my opinion) the best off-the-shelf options in terms of reliability & transparency; however, Boss pedals can double as usable buffers should their placement happen to be either first or last in line on your board.
Understanding the effects of the various components within your chain can really be a useful tool & I'll leave you with an example: Jimi Hendrix! The secret to Jimi's distorted tone was his use of a long coily cable that rolled off the high-end from his Strat & shifted its peak resonance lower. Jimi was well aware of this effect & he would revert to a straight ten foot cable in the studio when wanting to achieve a more standard Strat-like tone. Although pedal design was still in its infancy back then (there wasn't much choice in terms of bypass options & buffers etc.) Jimi had certainly noticed the effects of cable capacitance & he used this knowledge to get the single-coils in his Strat sounding a bit more humbucker-like... clever stuff!
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