The Truth About True Bypass

Posted on by Matt Perkins

Doing the Bypass Jig

The world of guitar is, like most things in life, full of strange buzzwords and mis-information. In this article we’ll focus on one of the most controversial of these terms: true bypass. By the end, you should understand exactly what it is, what it does, and why you do (or do not) want it in your pedals.

Let’s start by breaking the concept down:

What Bypass Means

Pedals, by definition, all have a big stomp-able switch that turns the effect on and off. When the switch is on, we hear the effect that the pedal creates on our guitar signal. When the switch is off, we hear what the signal would sound like if the pedal weren’t there. In this state, the pedal is said to be bypassed. The guitar signal is not flowing through the part of the pedal that creates the effect. The effect circuit is being bypassed inside the pedal, hence the name.

If bypass were entirely that simple, we wouldn’t need this article. In truth, there are several ways to bypass a pedal.

Types of Pedal Bypass

In general, there are three ways to bypass a pedal. I’ve made a handy (albeit ugly) diagram to illustrate them.

The first, most basic, and oldest is called (for the purposes of this article) simple bypass. This uses a single switch that either sends the guitar input to the effect, or directly to the output, where it joins up with the effect output. This switching circuit is the cheapest and simplest to make, which is why nearly every pedal up until the late 70’s did it this way (and why some still do). The big drawback, as you can see from the diagram, is that the effect circuit is always connected to the output. This has the side effect of “loading” the output of the pedal, symptoms of which include high frequency loss and reduced dynamic range. Depending on the effect circuit in question, and the other things in your signal path, these problems will either be barely noticeable, or quite obvious. Another more prominent drawback is that this design is prone to sending pops or clicks to the amp when the switch is engaged. You can actually hear Keith Richards’ Maestro Fuzz Tone making switch pop noises if you listen carefully to “Satisfaction”!

In the late 1970s, a few Japanese companies like Roland (Boss’s … er, boss) and Ibanez looked at the state of guitar effects and said “there must be a better way.” Their idea was to produce a transistor-based switch that cut the effect out of the circuit completely, and did so without pops or clicks. The “logic bypass” accomplishes these goals, and over time became the de facto standard for effects switching. However, certain guitarists were not happy with this arrangement, and rightly pointed out that their precious signal has to pass through all that switching logic even when the effect is bypassed. The pedal makers had traded one form of tone-coloring bypass for another (though the true effect a logic bypass has on tone is open for debate).

True bypass was invented as a “best of both worlds” solution. There are two switches working in parallel: one at the input and one at the output. When the pedal is in bypass mode, it truly, completely bypasses the effect. There is no effect circuit dangling off the bypass to load it down, and no complex switching logic to travel through – just a straight, unimpeded path from input to output. There are mechanical true bypass switches that are basically a “double” version of the simple bypass switch, or the pedal can employ relays instead of mechanical switches. Either way, the bypass tone is kept as true as possible.

“So Matt,” you ask, “if true bypass is so great, does that mean I should only use true bypass pedals from now on?” Well …

The Effect of Buffering

Here’s the thing: true bypass is, on paper at least, a great idea. That said, there’s a little fact that I haven’t revealed yet: a direct, unimpeded bypass is not necessarily the best thing for your tone. The reason, in a word, is “buffering.”

No, that’s not what I’m … you know what: never mind.

If you have read my article about buffers, you know that they are very useful for keeping your signal intact over long cable runs. The thing you may not yet know is that some of those supposedly bad logic bypass pedals have buffers built into the switching circuit. The people who designed those pedals knew that your tone might need a little help getting to the amp intact, which is why they buffered their switching circuits. Those buffers are always on, even when the pedal is bypassed. You bought a pedal, and got a buffer thrown in for free!

With a true bypass pedal, you get no buffer help when the effect is off. If you have nothing but true bypass pedals, your wee little guitar signal has to travel through quite a lot of cable plus the pedals themselves to get to the amp. The end result is very similar to the tone loss caused by bad bypass circuits. This is why many guitarists are confused by the weaker bypass tone when they trade their old Boss Metal Zone in for a super pricey boutique true bypass pedal.

Is it possible to build a pedal with true bypass switching and a buffer that’s always on? Yep, but then it wouldn’t officially be “true bypass” now, would it? This is the decision that pedal manufacturers have to wrestle with. They know that a certain segment of the guitar community insists on true bypass pedals, even though it may not be what’s best for them in the end.

So, What Do We Do?

You could do what I do: use true bypass pedals, and build (or buy) a dedicated buffer to run in front of them. That way you get the strength of the buffer to drive your signal home to the amp, and you can rest assured that your bypass tone will be untouched by tone goblins.

Or you could just … ignore the whole problem, and use whatever you want. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you are happy with your tone, do you really care that the pedals are true bypass or not? There is no objective “best” solution when it comes to this stuff, so you may as well trust your instincts and use the pedals that make you happy.

Questions? Concerns? That’s what the comments are for. I’ll respond to whatever I can.

Written on June 14, 2013, by Matt Perkins

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  • Frank Levine

    very informative and simple when explained clearly – thanks!
    i’ve been wondering about this for some time.

  • shorty_himself

    kinda funny.. i always this things bout true bypassed pedals but i never pointed out that this would be the reason for my muddy guitartone with a lack of brilliance. but now, after i read this article, its totaly clear for me and i´m asking myself why i never thought of that before?!
    thanks for getting me to this point!!

  • Gear_Head

    Probably one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject. Not bashing one way or the other, just simply providing facts both for and against true bypass. Well done. Thanks!

  • Casey Moreno

    Hey, I have a question about the true bypass/buffer. If you were to take a true bypass pedal and put it before (or after, whichever works better) a Boss style pedal, would the Boss pedal take the place of the buffer instead of having to go build/buy one somewhere?

    • Matt Perkins

      The Boss pedal will have a buffer, yes. Whether it takes the place of a dedicated buffer or not is not an easy thing to answer, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on the quality of Boss buffers. As for what order to place the pedals in, that depends on what they are and what your needs are. Sorry for being so vague, but there are no easy answers when it comes to this stuff. Good luck!

      • Casey Moreno

        Thank you for answering, I guess that helps.

        How much would a dedicated buffer cost to make/buy?

  • Original Sinner

    Great article! I had no idea that there was so much to consider with true bypass and the aspects of buffering. Thanks for an awesome article.

  • Joannies Tech

    This is so stupid. Seymour Duncan makes True Bypass pedals. Don’t be a hypocrite. Here’s irony for you, the best buffer pedals made today are True Bypass. Look at the Wampler Decibil Plus or Carl Martin Buff Deluxe. There is just too much incomplete info here. TRUE BYPASS is a god send at times. A board full of buffered pedals is a tone drain. It isn’t the True Bypass pedals draing high end it is the long cable runs. TB pedals are just small cables. But if you like your sound and work hard for it, It is mosty beneficial to keep as much original tone when you turn a pedal OFF. As a gigging musician I have had pedal power fail (battery or power supply and if you have any NON-TRUE BYPASS pedal in a chain all fo your signal is toast. If one pedal goes bad that is non TB, your signal is toast. If you haver all TB pedals in chain it will still function even with loss of power or a bad pedal. Ever wonder why professional boards have TB relays? To avoid this. Many TB pedal companies MAKE buffers. This is pedal info 101. Tell the whole story next time dude.

    • Matt Perkins

      Very good point about true bypass pedals still passing signal when they are off. That can definitely be a big advantage if you have a power supply problem. And to be clear, I’m not arguing for or against any type of pedal bypass – just explaining the pros and cons of each. I have plenty of true bypass pedals on my own board, and even modded my Crybaby for true bypass (also removed the buffer).

  • JimB

    Not the ‘truth’ per se, just a bit of it and doesn’t SD make true bypass pedals? Might want to do your homework next time Matt.

    • Matt Perkins

      Yes, they do make true bypass pedals. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Like I said, there are many advantages to true bypass, just as there are many advantages to other types of bypass.

  • Gilson Da Silva Paula

    Each connection to a pedal requires 8 welds and at least 4 contacts in the plugs, of course not to mention the circuit of effect, so I’m opting for integrated effects like GT 10 or Pod, I think the engineers at Roland or Line 6 make measurements to assess the best way to do that.

  • Ralphy Boy

    They know that a certain segment of the guitar community insists on true bypass pedals, even though it may not be what’s best for them in the end.” that is stupid. How would any pedal maker know what was best for me? Answer: They cannot! Why do we ‘insist’ on true bypass pedals anyway? Because they don’t suck your tone dry. What is it with these current SD blog articles? Talk to more working professionals before you release these articles. This needs more research and you need more working knowledge or understanding in my opinion.

    • Matt Perkins

      Sorry, I guess I should have realized that all those working pros who rely on Boss and Ibanez pedals can’t be trusted 🙂

    • Steve

      Sure, your needs might be different, but the majority of Boss pedal users either (1) might only have one or two pedals (in which case a buffer or two makes fine sense), or (2) aren’t quite that discerning in tone. What is true is that a Boss pedal is likely to be someone’s first (and perhaps only) pedal, in which case getting a buffer for free is often beneficial. Boss’s choice to make buffered pedals can be rationalized simply by seeing that they’re playing the odds and making the best product as they can for the biggest slice of their target market.

      Now, if you’re running 25′ into a board without any buffers and 25′ to the amp, and don’t see how that’s different than 25′ straight into the amp, then there’s a problem. Pete Thorn made a very nice YouTube video which compares a 6′ cable, 25′ -> TB -> 25′, and 25′ -> Buffered -> 25′. It’s worth looking up as the differences are very easy to hear.

  • Giuliano Michida

    wow that made things clear to me, thanks Matt ! I’m a bass player tough, do you think I can use a guitar buffer to my bass pedals rig? I dunno if there is a specific bass buffer pedal or a guitar one will do it.

    • Matt Perkins

      I’ve not heard of a specific buffer for bass. A buffer is supposed to be frequency neutral, so there should be no need for one tuned to a specific instrument. I’m sure any buffer that works for guitar will work just as well for bass.

  • Frank

    The real bypass is to unplug your guitar cable from the pedal and plug it directly to the amp! If you decide to put something between the guitar and the amp you must accept the compromise in tone and sound.

  • audioware

    You nailed it Matt, very simple and clear explaination. I design and build OD pedals at home and I always include a switchable buffer stage, to allow players to choose between TrueBypass and Buffered True Bypass, for use with really long cables.

  • stinkfoot

    Nice post! Although I think you have the “simple bypass” backwards. The signal is split on the input side (feeding both the circuit and the bypass line), while the switch sits on the output side. This setup was used just about exclusively back in the day, and is still widely used (Dunlop calls it “hardwire bypass”, as opposed to “true hardwire”, which is their term for true bypass. I’ve never seen a pedal that switched the input while leaving the output connected/hardwired.

    The Boss-style bypass works the same way as the hardwire/simple type, but uses transistors to mute the effected and dry signal, respectively. And the whole circuit is of course sandwiched by buffers at both ends.

  • rgrace

    I have 11 true-bypass pedals in my chain, but the front of it has a compressor. I also keep the chain as short as possible and use the best cables I can afford. Result: excellent tone. I tried a buffer and hated what it did to my sound. Reminded me of using Boss stompboxes. Great explanation in this article.