Q: What is true bypass and why should I care?

A: Let’s start with a basic definition – True bypass pedals allow the signal to flow from the input, directly to the output. Buffered bypass is the long way around.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me paint a more vivid picture for you…The story of “You and Mr. Buffer.”

Imagine you are the signal. When the pedal is off, true bypass is like running through an opened front door and out an opened back door.

Consider the flipside: non-true bypass. When the pedal isn’t on, you run through an open door, tour the grounds, and get a gentle shove out the back door, by a guy called “Mr. Buffer.” Mr. Buffer lives on power, and if he is not powered, the back door is locked – meaning you never make it to the amp or the next pedal. You are trapped in a Big Muff (yikes) until power is restored. When power is restored, the pathway is reopened. You can pass through, with Mr. Buffer’s palm prints on your back. Additionally, it is sometimes said that a buffer will alter your tone, while true bypass will not.

But it’s not that simple. Your signal will lose strength after running through 15-20 feet of cable. The longer the path, the weaker it gets. Running through a 15 foot guitar cable, 5 six inch jumpers, and a 10 foot cable to the amp is hard work. Add it up and you have a 27.5 foot “signal marathon,” with 12 tone sucking connection points. Without Mr. Buffer to offer a helpful shove, you will arrive weaker than when you left the guitar.

A few true bypass pedals may be okay, but at a point, your tone and signal diminishes. A buffered bypass pedal will help keep the signal strong.

 

Q: What’s the difference between active and passive pickups?

A: We actually have a great article on this – “Active vs. Passive Pickups: What’s the Difference?” which goes into more detail, but I’ll rehash some of the important stuff.

It seems a simple enough question, but is it? At least, the basics are simple. Active pickups are equipped with a preamp which “cleans up” the signal, while passive pickups are true-to-form, unaltered signal. The outcome and results are a bit more complex. The main users of active pickups today are heavy metal guitarists and bass players.

Traditional style basses are dominated by passive pickups, but modern and boutique styles basses are nearly always active. The active pickup preamp runs on a 9 volt battery or even two batteries (18 volts). Dynamic control over EQ is far more expansive than a passive tone pot. Tons of sounds are available, without ever tweaking the amp at all. The output is strong and clean and clear, and works well with commonly used solid state bass amps of today.

Passive pickups outnumber active on most of today’s guitars. Guitar players often love to recreate classic tones—and they work hard at it. Passive is a more common choice for guitar pickups. However, you will find guitars suited to heavier music have active pickups, particularly when the bands use a lot of distortion, but still need to articulate. There are pros and cons to each system.

Classic tones are best recreated with a passive magnet and lower output pickups. The Alnico magnet, PAF-style, low-powered (by today’s standards) humbuckers remain the Holy Grail in this regard.

If you seek classic tones from 80’s Metal, a set of powerful EMGs will give you a massive power boost, and clarity to cut through heavy saturation. But active guitar pickups are not only a metal phenomenon—they were commonly used by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, as well as Jerry Garcia.

On top of all that, Fishman’s new(ish) Fluence pickups are an active guitar pickup, designed to recreate any tone you desire—even the passive ones.

 

Q: How can I make my electric guitar play better?

A: There is an old Klingon proverb (no, not the food one) which goes: “A good setup starts with a good guitar.” The truth is, if there isn’t a defect, a good setup will do wonders for playability.

So Rule #1 is to locate a good tech/luthier.

As long as you are a player, you will always need a good tech. I do all my own setup work (check out this video of me giving a tutorial on how to do a setup if you don’t believe me), but some jobs are over my head or I just don’t have time for them. Nonetheless, here are a few tips when it comes to making your guitar play better.

If you are even the slightest bit handy, you should be able to do basics like string changes and a neck tweak. Wood will shrink and expand with the heat and cold. This can adversely affect your guitars playability. Most players that really don’t know how to set a guitar up will immediately try to lower string height (action) by lowering the saddles or bridge of the guitar. This is backward approach, truthfully.

Be sure the guitar is tuned to correct pitch (a string change can’t hurt). Now it’s time to eyeball the neck for trueness. The taut string is a straight edge. Compare the string to the necks straightness. If the center dips, the neck is bowed. If it rises in the middle, it’s back-bowed (convex). Adjust the neck by turning the truss rod to tighten for a bow, and loosen for a back bow. This is by far the most common cause for a guitars action to go out of factory (or your) specs. If you do not feel comfortable adjusting the sensitive truss rod, see Rule #1.

 

Q: What gauge strings should I use on my Fender Strat?

A: Well my friend, strings are a personal choice…like how much habanero sauce is enough? (never enough). The USA Performer Series Strats come with 9’s on them. If you are accustomed to 9’s on a shorter scale length guitar like most Gibsons (24 3/4), or PRS (right in the middle at 25), the slightly longer Fender scale (25 ¼) will feel a little stiffer, string tension wise. The longer the scale, the more string tension, generally. A thicker string will generally produce more sound.

Vintage ’50s guitars usually had very heavy strings, with a wound G string. American electric players came up with a trick: Throw the low E string away, and use a thinner banjo string for the high E, moving all the strings down, along the way. Those were the first light gauge sets! It made bending easier (or even possible) and, strings easier to fret. Sets starting at gauge 13 will feel like you are playing suspension bridge cable, if you’re not used to them.

I use 10s on just about everything electric, but that doesn’t mean you should. Two of the same guitars right out of the box will play differently. So be careful not to judge that way. A good set up is essential to a comfy guitar. I’d say go with whatever feels best to you, for your style and taste. Remember, the heavier they are, the more tone you get. The difference between 9s and 10s is not monumental, but there is a difference, especially after you get accustomed to one or the other.

 

Q: What’s the most important thing I need to put in my signal chain?

A: A good guitar and a decent cable are all you really need. Put in your practice time every day. It’s okay to riff and have fun while watching TV, or noodle around on the guitar while multitasking, but don’t count that as quality practice. Put your time in, and most importantly, listen to yourself play. Lots of flubs and dead spot sounds? Slow it down and get it right. I had a teacher that said if you make a mistake, you need to play it correctly 10 times just to get back to zero. Practicing mistakes is bad. Your muscles remember the movements.

Don’t get me wrong, a well put together pedal board is great to have. It will extend the pallet of sounds at your disposal, but it will not help you play better. Scales, chord changes (especially the ones you hate), and basics are what get you to sound like Slash or Django, or whoever your favorite is. Your time practicing with care and open ears will be the best thing in your signal chain. Someone will eventually say, wow, that’s great tone! They will be talking about your hands, not the “it” box of the month. Go get ‘em.

Q: What’s your favorite acoustic guitar?

A: Wow. This is like impossible, you know that, right?

I am going with the underdog, though I have to give honorable mention to an SJ-200 and the D-28 and D-35. I have to go with…

The Guild Navarre F-50R! The 1969 model wins in my book. With so many ground breaking, awesome sounding acoustic guitars the world around, why the humble Guild from the late ’60s?

For a few years the F-50R was made from Brazilian rosewood. Beautiful and boast worthy, but pricey also. The 1969 sounds just as wonderful in Indian rosewood, and the price drops in half. Those familiar with Guild don’t need the sermon, those that aren’t—you owe it to yourself to check out a nice, old Guild. I personally love the F-50, because it has elements of the SJ-200 with its Jumbo body, and beautiful appointments. I also love it for the surprisingly rich and well defined low-end one might expect of a D-28 or D-35.

From the Chesterfield headstock, down the Ebony pearl block marker neck, right down to the mammoth Jumbo body. The F-50R has a direct connection to the pleasure center in my brain (good aim, for a small target). One look at this guitar and I hear the call to pick it up and play. Once it’s in my hands, I need no further coaxing. It’s as beautiful sounding at is to view. Playing a guitar like this is a privilege and a treat for me. The can be had for well under a king’s ransom.

Q: Do you make any changes to a guitar when you bring it home for the first time?

A: I make a few changes right away, but not to the guitar. My dresser, actually, has more work done to it. Even though I’m old enough to have seen the Plasmatics, Van Halen (Fair Warning tour), have had a beer with Johnny Thunders, and drove myself to my first gig at CBGB in 1982, it still feels like an adolescent Christmas morning when a guitar comes home for the first time.

Having been around guitars my whole life diminished nothing of my love for a good guitar. First, I discard the strings on it, even if they are new. Why? Because it’s “getting to know you time.” The cleaned-off dresser top becomes my work bench. I take the guitar apart and examine every little detail, because, I simply want to know more about it. I will clean and remove my fingerprints, as well as any dust.

Now I set the guitar up to the edge of its tolerances and work backward, ’till its set up “just right” for my tastes. When I’m done, with my curiosity satiated, and the guitar setup the way I want it, tools are put away, and the cleaned of part of my dresser will now host my special “home use only” guitar stand, made from a Harley chain, flywheel, brake disk. When I go to sleep, it will be the last thing I see. Upon waking, right after I throw the alarm clock across the room, the new addition to my collection will be the first thing I see. It’s going to be a good day. I remind myself how lucky I am…and also to buy a new alarm clock.

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.