5 Misunderstood Guitar Gear Concepts Explained

Through performance and experimentation, we musicians often become our own teachers. The life of a musician — and a gear-obsessed one especially — is full of learning, interpreting, and figuring things out. That experience, the learned alchemy of it all, is a huge part of the fun and joy that comes with picking up a guitar in the first place.

But when you learn by drawing your own conclusions or picking up tips here or there, you'll inevitably fall prey to some common myths and natural misunderstandings. When a whole community of musicians has learned its craft this way, a handful of stubborn misconceptions about gear and instruments prevail.

But take the opportunity to understand the reality behind these concepts and you stand a good chance of improving your setup, tone, and relationship with your instrument.

True Bypass Pedals Solve Signal Loss

Because guitarists are forever trying to limit noise and other variables in the quest for good tone, “true bypass” sounds like a no–brainer. We want our signal to pass through a pedal’s circuitry completely unaltered when the effect is turned off. Pedals with true bypass circuitry achieve this magic trick with a switch that connects the input directly to the output when the pedal is clicked off.

JHS Little Black Buffer

JHS Little Black Buffer

Sounds great, and it is. But true bypass can’t solve another problem, which is that your guitar signal can have a hard time making it all the way to the amplifier with tone and loudness completely intact.

A guitar’s output is not especially strong, and it may be at the mercy of a high number of contact points on your pedalboard — like all of the input and output jacks on your full Pedaltrain Novo 32 — or poorly shielded cables picking up electrical currents from your floor or other wires it's crossing. The resulting signal interference could rob your guitar's sound of its loudness and high–end sparkle.

To mitigate that tone and volume loss, you may want a buffer — a non–true bypass pedal — on your board. Buffered pedals are sometimes dissed as a sort of Neanderthalian precursor to highly evolved true bypass effects, but they can provide the muscle your signal needs. Sure, that signal will still be running through the same obstacle course outlined above, but a more robust signal will suffer less.


A high–quality buffer preserves tone by maintaining the guitar’s frequency response. Whether it’s a dedicated box or built into a pedal, the buffer is usually inserted first in the chain to take advantage of its tone–healing qualities. Everything inserted after the buffer’s output stage — including true bypass pedals — benefits from a more consistent signal, which will also edge out noise introduced by a poor cable.

That’s the short story. See "Demystifying Buffer Pedals and Avoiding the Dreaded Tone Suck" for more, and do some research before you throw shade at those buffered Boss boxes.

Vibrato and Tremolo Are the Same Effect

A tremolo effect modifies volume. A vibrato effect modifies pitch. These two effects have been getting mixed up for about as long as electric guitars have been around.

In a tremolo circuit, the amplitude of an incoming signal oscillates (raises and lowers), resulting in pulsing waves of sound. Depending on how intensely the parameters are set, trem can either be a gently throbbing sound or it create a hard, choppy effect, as it essentially flips the volume on and off.

In vibrato effects, it’s the frequency of an incoming signal that oscillates. The pitch raises and lowers, which at a slow rate can sound like it’s meandering in and out of tune. At a rapid rate, it sounds quivery and nervous.

These two terms are mistakenly interchanged all the time. Not helping one little bit is the fact that a tremolo system (or trem bar) on a guitar controls vibrato, not tremolo. And the so–called “vibrato circuit” on a Fender Vibro–King or Vibrolux amp controls tremolo, not vibrato.

Leo Fender himself reportedly mixed up the two terms. But he had other nice qualities.

Effects Loops Suck Tone

Completely unscientific research reveals that most guitarists don’t use an effects loop for two reasons. (A) they don’t know how to make connections and are worried something will blow up, or (B) they plugged their entire pedalboard into the loop and it sounded awful, so they bailed. The common misconception is that effects loops suck tone, and are therefore totally useless.

The truth is that it all depends on what pedals you're putting in the loop.

Boss ES-8 Effects Switching System

Effects Loop of an Orange Rockerverb

An effects loop is an insert point between an amplifier’s preamp stage where tone is conditioned and the power amp stage where a signal gains strength to drive the speaker(s). If you use an amp that can produce its own distortion at low volume, that overdriven and compressed sound is produced in the preamp stage. Learn more in this Dave’s Corner post.

The upshot is that some — not all — of your effects will sound cleaner and clearer inserted into the loop if you’re using the amp for distortion. The tone of time–based effects like delay, reverb, chorus and phase tends to suffer when run through preamp distortion and compression.

But the loop enables them to enter the signal chain after all of that conditioning has taken place. Connect the loop’s Send jack to send that preamped signal through the input of your time–based effects, and then connect the last effect’s output back to the Return jack.


If you run your amp clean and get your drive from pedals, all of this may be a non–issue. There may not be much of an audible difference when running your time–based effects through the loop since you're effectively already boosting your signal with your drive pedals like the effects loop does with the preamp.

Experimentation is key for figuring this out. In the big picture, there’s no right or wrong answer, but there will be a better and worse option for you.

Reliable Tuning from "5–7" Harmonics

Tuning a guitar is a painfully imperfect undertaking. Getting any string instrument to play all intervals of every key precisely in tune turns out to be literally impossible. But you can get real close.

We’ll spare you the physics lesson here, but the gist is that the guitar is set up for tempered tuning, which is a compromise that allows fretted intervals to sound reasonably fine–tuned. The “pure” intervals of harmonics can be several cents — or fractions of a semitone — away from the fretted or tempered version of the same intervals.

When you tune by matching harmonics at the 5th and 7th fret — typically starting with the 5th fret harmonic on the low E–string and matching it to a 7th fret harmonic on the A–string — you’re using a different tuning system than guitars are commonly set up for, meaning you'll have off–color relationships between the notes in your scales.

Read up on Pythagoras, the equal–tempered scale, and harmonic overtones to understand tuning and intonation, and then train your ear to gain mastery.

Or, yeah, just buy a good tuner.

Overdrive and Distortion Pedals Achieve the Same Sounds

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food Overdrive

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food

Deciding between overdrive and distortion pedals is like deciding between Tylenol and Advil. You know one is better for the job, but you’re not sure why. The common misconception here is that overdrive works best as a slightly dirty boost, and distortion works best as full–on dirt.

Overdrives emulate the sound produced when a tube amp is “driven” hard enough to break up naturally. They provide a volume lift to push your amp and add some soft clipping of their own. While a clean boost pedal depends entirely on the amp to clip the signal, an OD offers boost plus a dollop of built–in distortion.

A good overdrive sounds natural, warm, and preserves the tone of your guitar. With the drive control set just right, you should be able to push the signal from clean to clipped with harder pick attacks or by notching up the guitar’s onboard volume.

Distortions aren’t quite so subtle, and don’t intend to be. These pedals emulate a totally saturated gain channel. You can dial up a hard–clipped tone without having to drive your amp at all because the distortion already exists right there in the box.

Distortion pedals produce a compressed sound, generally without a whole lot of meat in the mid–EQ range, and tend to mask a guitar’s natural tone.


The distinction between the two gets a little murky since each pedal — especially depending on the manufacturer and model — can do a decent amount of what the other does especially well. In a sense, they are inversions of one another. An overdrive is built to boost signal and add a little clipping, while a distortion is built to clip like mad entirely on its own, but is also capable of boosting signal.

How’s that headache?

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