How Long Are Your Cables?
This article is intended to clarify a topic that is often surrounded by misinformation. Our intention is to present the facts and help the reader make informed decisions about using buffered and true bypass pedals, and to achieve the best tone.
Tone matters. To guitar players, it’s that simple. Tone is the Holy Grail, the ultimate quest. But how do you get great tone? With so much guitar gear available, and with so much conflicting information out there, we’d like to clear up some of the confusion about the guitar signal path, stompbox pedals (both true-bypass and buffered), and other things that affect tone.
To get the best tone out of your rig, it’s important to understand the following principles and make decisions about cables and pedals based on them.
1. Nearly All Electric Guitars are High-Impedance Devices…
This simple fact probably affects tone more than just about anything else. Impedance is a measure of electronic resistance: the longer the signal path, the more resistance there is in it. With a high-impedance guitar output, the more distance there is between your guitar and your amp, the more your tone will be affected by the resistance in the cable connecting the two together.
It’s commonly accepted that at about 18.5 feet you can both clearly hear and easily measure the sound changes in an electric guitar’s tone—typically a loss of highs—caused by running a high-impedance signal over that cable length. And the longer the cable, the more the tone is affected in a negative way. The design and quality of the cable influences this tonal change as well (sometimes even at shorter lengths than 18.5 feet), which is why there’s a lot of voodoo out there about different types of guitar cables.
How do you know if your electric guitar has a high-impedance output? If it’s equipped with passive pickups (ones that don’t require an onboard battery to run), then it will have a high-impedance output. If your guitar has active pickups, which means that it has battery-powered preamp onboard, then your guitar most likely has a low-impedance output that is not as susceptible to tone degradation with long cable lengths.
Passive pickup systems with high-impedance outputs are by far the norm in the electric guitar world, and make up the vast majority of instruments out there. So, in all likelihood, your electric guitar probably has a high-impedance output.
2. Using More Than 18.5 Feet of Cable…
Think about it—if you’re using a typical half-stack, for example, it’s about four or five feet just from the amp’s input to the ground. If your pedalboard is only ten feet from the amp, that’s already a minimum of 15 feet of cable. In reality, you’re probably using a 20- to 25-foot cable here, so that you have some room to spare. Since you can easily hear tone loss at 18.5 feet, you’re already in trouble, and you aren’t even plugged into your pedalboard yet!
How long is the cord from your guitar to the pedalboard? It’s probably at least 15-20 feet, just so you have room to move around. So, in the real world, you’re easily using 40 to 50 feet of cable in total (if not more), and we’re not even counting the cables between your pedals, which could add several more feet depending on how elaborate your rig is.
So, what’s happening here? You’re losing lots of tone as a result of the very long length of cable between your guitar and amp. If your rig is bigger and your cables are longer, the tone loss is going to be even worse.
Related Video: Buffers, Cables, Capacitance, and more…
3. Do True Bypass Pedals Really Help?
It’s often touted that using only true bypass pedals will give you better tone, but that’s very often not the case. This may be blasphemy to some of you, but let us explain—true bypass, by definition, simply means that the signal from your guitar passes through the pedal unaltered when the pedal’s effect is turned off (bypassed).
Consider this: let’s assume that you have only one pedal, a true bypass pedal, in your rig. What happens when you turn it on? The pedal electronically acts on the signal and does its thing to your tone, be it modifying frequencies, amplifying, or whatever it’s supposed to do to produce its sound. But when you turn it off, you take away the tone-enhancing electronics, and your guitar’s signal path now sees nothing there but a very long cable to the amp.
Unfortunately, this brings us back to the tone-sucking cable-length conundrum described earlier. In your effort to keep your tone pure via true bypass, you’re unwittingly changing your tone, and probably not for the better. It’s not really the fault of the pedal itself; it’s just that incorporating a true bypass pedal does nothing to solve the fundamental problem of signal loss/degradation brought on with cable length.
4. How Do Buffered Pedals Help?
A buffer is a way to electronically strengthen the somewhat weak high-impedance guitar signal so that it can run over longer cable lengths with no tone degradation. When using a pedal that includes a buffer circuit, your tone is always clean and consistent (electronically speaking), no matter whether the pedal’s on or off. You can also run very long cable lengths—usually as much as 100 feet after the buffer—with little to no signal loss.
For this reason, all BOSS pedals include buffer circuits. Of course, top pedalboard designers are hip to this fact, too, and almost always incorporate buffers in the rigs they build, using either custom-made circuits or buffered pedals like those from BOSS.
Buffered Pedals in Use…
Many players that use true bypass pedals have found that using a BOSS pedal either at the beginning or end of the pedal chain mitigates the unintended effect that true bypass pedals have on a high-impedance signal path. This may be one of the many reasons that the BOSS TU-3 is so popular; besides providing a great tuner, using a TU-3 at the front of a pedalboard buffers the signal to the subsequent pedals, and eliminates the negative effect on tone that’s caused by turning true bypass pedals on/off in a high-impedance signal path.
Some pedals can be finicky (particularly vintage-style fuzz pedals that use germanium transistors), and sound their best when your guitar is plugged into them first. In these situations, you can simply place a BOSS pedal somewhere in the middle or end of the stompbox chain to get its beneficial signal-buffering effect—just remember to keep your cable length before the BOSS pedal as short as possible (18.5 feet or less).
A nice side benefit of the buffering in BOSS pedals is that it allows you to connect your high-impedance guitar into a low-impedance ¼-inch input on a mixing console and retain good tone. When you plug your guitar directly to a mixer, the tone is typically going to be thin and brittle because of the impedance mismatch; by patching a BOSS pedal in-between, you give the mixer a signal it likes much better, and your tone is preserved. (You probably won’t want to be plugging your guitar direct into a mixer for distorted guitar tones, but you may have occasion to if you want to capture a snappy clean sound for recording or practice.)
Keep Your Tone Intact…
We’re not here to debate the sound quality of true bypass vs. buffered effects, but the simple facts are these: if your rig consists of more than 18.5 feet of total signal path, you’re going to lose tone (mostly high frequencies) in the cable, and using true bypass pedals will not alter this fact. Using buffered pedals in the signal path solves this problem, which is why most top pedalboard designers include buffering in their pro boards, and is why all BOSS pedals are buffered.
Check out the following video, where we demonstrate the negative effects of long cable length and how using a BOSS pedal with buffering retains your tone.
True Bypass vs. Buffered Effects Pedals