What Does ‘True Bypass’ Mean In A Guitar Pedal?


In a musician’s search for effects pedals, the term “true bypass” will, without a doubt, appear. Let’s talk about guitar pedals with true bypass (and guitar pedals without this feature).

What does ‘true bypass’ mean in a guitar pedal? True bypass is a switching circuit that will route the guitar signal directly from the input to the output when the pedal is turned off. A pedal with true bypass, then, will effectively act as an extension of the guitar cable when turned off and have little to no effect on signal tone/degradation.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into our understanding of true bypass; its pros and cons, and whether true bypass signals are for you!


What Is True Bypass?

True bypass is signal path switching system that is used in some effects pedals.

Let’s begin by discussing a typical buffer bypass (non-true bypass) pedal. These pedals, like true bypass pedals, have on and off switches.

When a buffered bypass pedal is turned on, the signal flows through the circuitry and the desired effect is produced. When the pedal is turned off, the signal flows through the circuitry without triggering the effect.

True bypass pedals, conversely, have two independent signal paths.

When a true bypass pedal is turned on, the signal flows through the main circuit and the desired effect is produced. When the true bypass pedal is turned off, the signal path is switched to flow directly from the input to output, completely bypassing the main circuit.

This switch is typically achieved via a double-pole/double-throw (DPDT) switch.

So to recap, a true bypass pedal’s effect circuit can be completely or “truly” bypassed when the pedal is turned off.

Of course, there may be some alteration to the tone due to the capacitance within the true bypass circuit and the input and output connections. However, this system is designed to keep colouration to an absolute minimum.

This yields some advantages and disadvantages. Let’s talk about both.


Pros And Cons Of True Bypass

As with anything, there are pros and cons to true bypass pedals. Let’s begin with a quick table to list the pros and cons before digging into each advantage and disadvantage in detail:

Pros Of True BypassCons Of True Bypass
Provides a direct path from the guitar to the amplifier when turned off.Will degrade the signal if the resulting cable length is too long.
No buffer means no change in tone (when turned off)May cause popping when turned on or off.
May cause hard stops (no tail) in time-based effects such as delay and reverb.
Tend to cost more.

Pros Of True Bypass

Let’s have a look at the pros of true bypass pedals.

Direct Path When Turned Off

The key featured of a true bypass pedal is the ability to completely bypass the pedal’s circuitry when in the off position. This effectively produces a direct path. It’s as if the pedal acts as a short extension of the patch cable and nothing more (when in the off position).

But that’s not really all that much of an advantage. The real advantage comes from the preservation of tone that is a result of the direct path.

Truer Tone

Completely bypassing the internal circuitry of a true bypass pedal means that the pedal will not alter the tone of the signal. What goes in, comes out with no change in quality or tone. This is a big deal for guitarists and is the main benefit of running a true bypass pedal (or a series of true bypass pedals).

Cons Of True Bypass

Now let’s look at the cones of true bypass pedals.

Signal Degradation If Cables Are Too Long

It’s awesome that true bypass pedals can be completely bypassed when turned off.

However, the benefit of essentially extending the patch cord between the guitar and amplifier has a downside.

A guitar patch cable is unbalanced. This means that, from the centre, the cable has one conductive signal wire in the middle of the cable; some insulation around it; a conductive shield around the insulation that acts as a shield and return path for the audio; some more insulation, and the outer layer of the cable.

This presents some issues.

Firstly, the two conductors separated by the insulation act as a capacitor. Cables have distributed capacitance and so the longer the cable, the greater the capacitance. The capacitance between the two conductors will produce a low-pass filter on the signal. Greater capacitance means a lower cut-off point of this filter and worse degradation to the high-end of the signal.

So if the patch cord is too long, you’ll risk damaging the high-end tone of the signal.

Secondly, longer unbalanced cables are more susceptible to electromagnetic interference (EMI) from surrounding electronics. This is simply due to the additional length. Ground loops, radio frequency interference (RFI) and other EMI can get into the cable and be amplified through the amplifier.

Thirdly, the high impedance of the guitar signal can only travel so far without dying out.

So, then, having true bypass in a pedal can be great for tone. That is, unless the overall cable length is too great. It is commonly accepted that signal degradation will become audible in any cable beyond 18.5 feet. I would recommend no more than 25 feet of total cable in order to maintain a workable signal.

Note that by “total cable,” I mean the length of patch cord (including the cables between the true bypass pedal); the distance between input and out of each true bypass pedal, and the internal cabling of both the guitar and the amplifier. It all adds up quickly!

Note that this signal degradation is apparent in all unbalanced cables with significant length.

That is why microphones, which are often responsible for capturing frequencies up to (and even beyond) 20 kHz, will use balanced cables. To learn more, check out my article Do Microphones Output Balanced Or Unbalanced Audio?

A nice buffer (whether it’s a dedication buffer pedal or a well-designed buffered bypass pedal) can help to “reset” the length at a point in the signal chain. This can help tremendously in preserving tone when running long cable lengths (through true bypass pedals or not). Buffer pedals do this by converting the impedance of the signal to help with the flow fo the guitar signal.

To learn more about buffer pedals, check out my article Are Buffer Pedals Necessary & Where Do They Go In A Chain?

Popping

Popping can be an issue with true bypass pedals.

Put simply, the input and output coupling capacitors in true bypass designs can hold on to static electricity. Capacitors are imperfect and they “leak/bleed” some electrical potential within the circuit.

This electricity (known as DC offset) is often built-up and dissipated when the pedal is engaged. The dissipation of electricity can be heard as a pop in the output signal, which is not good (especially if a delay pedal is engaged somewhere down the line)!

Hard Stops

Because true bypass pedals act to switch between two circuits, turning a pedal off most often puts a hard stop to the effect.

This is typically what we want in an effects pedal. However, time-based effects may suffer from this quality.

Say, for example, we had a nice lush reverb or an echoing delay effect. Turning the responsible pedal off (assuming true bypass) would more than likely stop the reverb or delay in its tracks rather than allowing it to naturally fade out.

Pricing

True bypass pedal often command higher price tags that their buffered bypass counterparts.


How To Tell If A Pedal Is True Bypass Or Not

So how can we tell if an effects pedal is true bypass or not?

Well, some manufacturers will be sure to label their pedals as being true bypass.

TC Electronics is one example. Check out their Flashback 2 (link to check the price on Amazon) and the Ditto Looper (link to check the price on Amazon) and you’ll see that “true bypass” is printed on the pedals themselves:

TC Electronic Flashback 2
TC Electronic Ditto Looper

Another way to find out if a pedal is true bypass or not is to check the owners/operational manual or by looking up the pedal on the company’s website.

For example, checking out the DigiTech Whammy 5 (on DigiTech’s website and on Amazon) will list the pedal as being true bypass. However, nowhere on the pedal does it tell us that the Whammy is true bypass.

DigiTech Whammy 5

If the sales pages and manuals for a pedal do not clearly state whether the pedal is true bypass or not, then we can assume it is buffered rather than true bypass. If they state that the pedal is buffered, then the pedal is certainly not true bypass.

The Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer (link to check the price on Amazon) is one such pedal. Ibanez does not state that the pedal is true bypass and the pedal is certainly not.

Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer

The Boss DD-8 Digital Delay (link to check the price on Amazon), like all boss pedals, is also buffered rather than true bypass.

Boss DD-8 Digital Delay

TC Electronic, DigiTech and Boss are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.

If you’re in doubt, then there’s a more pragmatic way of determining whether a pedal is true bypass or not.

To check if a pedal is true bypass or not, put the pedal in question in-line between your guitar and amplifier. Take the battery out of the pedal and disconnect it from any power. If the signal still gets from the guitar to the amp, then the pedal is true bypass.

This is because, as we’ve discussed, the true bypass pedals will directly connect the input and output of the pedal and do not necessarily require power to do so.

Of course, we cannot use the pedal effect if there’s no power but that’s beside the point of this testing method. I discuss this in further detail in the section Do True Bypass Pedals Drain Battery When In Bypass Mode?


True Bypass Vs. Buffered Bypass

So far we’ve been discussing, in an indirect way, I suppose, the differences between true bypass and buffered bypass pedals.

The main differences have pretty much been summed up already but I figured it would be helpful to provide a table describing the differences between true bypass and buffered bypass pedals:

True BypassBuffered Bypass
Signal travels directly from input to output when bypassedSignal travels through same circuit without engaging the effect when bypassed
No gain, impedance or capacitance alteration when bypassedImpedance and capacitance alterating when bypassed
Does not colour tone when bypassedDoes colour tone when bypassed
Adds length to the overall cable and, therefore, to signal degradation due to long unbalanced cable runsAdds a buffer to help maintain signal integrity and allows for longer cable runs
May cause pops when engagedDoes not cause pops when engaged
Hard-stops effects when dissengaged Does not necessarily hard-stop effects when dissengaged
Typically more expensive for same functionalityTypically less expensive for same functionality

Of course, there are cons of using buffered bypass pedals as well. Chief among them are:

  • Tone suck: tone suck (yes, a common term) is typically defined as a loss of treble in the tone of a guitar signal. True bypass pedals can cause this due to long cable lengths but buffered bypass pedals can do this through their additional circuitry (especially when bypassed).
  • Poor buffering: just because a pedal is buffer bypasses doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great buffer. Dedicated buffer pedals provide excellent buffering but a random buffered effects pedal may not yield the best results (in terms of buffering).

Using True Bypass Pedals

If you’re interested in using true bypass pedals, there are a few important things to consider.

The first is the issue of cable length.

1 to 4 true bypass pedals on a board shouldn’t cause any significant issues so long as the cable from the guitar to the first pedal and the cable fro the last cable to the amplifier are kept at reasonable lengths.

Any more true bypass pedals may cause cable length issues, which we’ve discussed earlier.

If you’re running into signal degradation issues with your true bypass pedals, try using a dedicated buffer pedal at the beginning of the effects chain. The buffer will help adjust the load impedance seen by the guitar signal and reverse the damage done by any excess capacitance in the cable.

The Fender Level Set Buffer (link to check the price on Amazon) is one example of a dedicated buffer pedal.

Fender Level Set Buffer

Fender is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.

Using buffered bypass pedals along with true bypass pedals will have a similar effect in maintaining signal integrity but will likely colour the tone of the guitar signal more than a dedication “clean” buffer pedal would.

My personal approach is that I don’t worry too much about whether pedals and true or buffered and focus more on what the effects can do for my sound.


True Bypass Vs. Enhanced Bypass

What in the world is enhanced bypass? Enhanced bypass is a trademarked circuit developed by the pedal manufacturer Fulltone and debuted in their WahFull wah pedal (link to check the price at Sweetwater).

Fulltone WahFull

Michael Fuller, the inventor of enhanced bypass, defines the circuit as “involving FETs wired Class-A instead of the usual true-bypass, bipolar transistor buffered bypass, or unity gain FET bypass method used by virtually everyone else. All of these methods takes away all of the dynamics and cut the overall signal-path gain, mainly in the low mid to Bass frequencies.”

Enhanced bypass effectively combines the benefits of a true bypass circuit with a buffer circuit. When engaged, enhance bypass will maintain a clean buffer when the pedal is on or off. This makes for a more consistent sound by maintaining the buffer while still being able to bypass the main circuitry of the pedal when it is turned off.


Do True Bypass Pedals Drain Battery When In Bypass Mode?

It’s a fairly common assumption that true bypass pedals will not drain the battery of the pedal. The reason being that a true bypass pedal will bypass the main circuit and connect the input directly to the output so that no active circuit is engaged.

However, this is incorrect. True bypass pedals, even when in the off-position, will drain the battery so long as a cable is connected. The switch for the battery is typically located in the input plug (most common) or output plug (less common) of the pedal.

Of course, if you have a true bypass pedal with nothing in the input or output, then it will not drain the battery.

The reason behind this is that the electronic circuits in pedals may take a moment to power up when first turned on. This momentary power-up time can have ill-effects on the pedal’s performance, including short-lived silence, distortion, and even transient clips/pops in the guitar signal. Therefore, keeping the pedal powered, even in the true bypass state, is essential for smooth transitions between engaging and disengaging the pedal.

As an aside, and a revisit of something I’ve mentioned before, a true bypass pedal can still effectively pass the signal through it without any power. At the same time, the pedal cannot be turned on (because there is no power to run it). In this scenario, there is no battery, so the pedal will not drain the battery!


What does a guitar buffer pedal do? Buffer pedals are designed to minimize cumulative capacitance in a chain of guitar pedals and to adjust the guitar signal impedance to maintain signal quality. Buffers act to preserve the high-end frequencies that would otherwise be lost due to these factors and keep the guitar’s true tone intact.

How do you chain a guitar effect? “Chaining” a guitar effect pedal is as simple as choosing the order of the pedal(s) and connecting them together via proper cables. The “ideal” signal chain of a pedalboard is as follows:

  • Utility Pedals: tuners, buffers, and switcher pedals.
  • Dynamics pedals: compressors, filters, pitch shifters, and volume pedals.
  • Gain-based pedals: boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals.
  • Modulation effects pedals: chorus, flanger, phaser and other modulation pedals.
  • Time-based effects pedals: delay and reverb pedals

*Volume pedals can go anywhere in the effects chain.

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