What Is a Buffer?
On a technical level, a buffer is a tiny amplifier that isolates the incoming high impedance signal coming from the guitar into a unity level signal that is great for running through your pedalboard and to your amp.
Why Do I Need a Buffer
The guitar is not a perfect instrument, pedals are not perfectly designed and cables are certainly not a perfect method of transferring the signal. All of these imperfections and changes in impedance means that you lose a lot of high-end signal the longer your cables and the more pedals in your chain.
It is like putting a low pass or high cut filter on your guitar signal. The more you add the more high end you lose, leaving your tone dull and without any kind of attack. This means you are missing important frequencies that are essential to you being heard live with a full band. If you have a very powerful amp this may not be a problem as you can turn up louder to battle this, but for a lot of players their amp just will not be heard.
How does it work?
As explained above it isolates the guitar level signal before the buffer and after the buffer. This means you get a much cleaner signal chain going through your pedals and to your amplifier. So once you have a buffer in place only the length of cable before the buffer and any pedals before it as well will cause degradation to the tone.
So as long as you are using a short cable direct from your guitar into the buffer on your pedalboard your signal will be as clear as it can possibly be.
So do I need one even if I don’t use pedals?
It can still be a huge help. Really long cables can do just as much damage as a massive pedalboard so putting a buffer before your 100ft cable is a great choice as shown here in this video from TC Electronic showing off their Bonafide Buffer.
So yes, unless you are using a 6ft lead between your guitar and your amp and nothing else I would really recommend picking up some kind of buffer so you can get the best tone possible.
Depending on your rig you may only have a tiny amount of degradation or it may be completely tone-destroying. So depending on what you like you may be able to get away with it but your tone will not be as clean and as clear as it could be with one.
Choosing Your Buffer
Some people will say a buffer is a buffer and shouldn’t colour the sound at all. Which in a perfect world would be true but is sadly not the case.
Because of the nature of tone and electronics, any part be that a resistor, capacitor, op amp or anything else in the signal change will have some effect on the signal. Some are obviously more transparent than others. Even the worst offenders will offer a minor change at most though so any decent quality buffer should make your tone better, not worse.
They also have some different features. Some may be smaller making them fit better on your pedalboard. Others will have boost functions and some will even have extra connectivity for tuners and effects loops.
Obviously, this all comes down to personal taste. For some something small is the best possible bet while for others larger devices with more connectivity may end up being more useful than some of the other gear already on your board.
Buffers & Your Signal Chain
Like most pedals, where you put your buffer can make a huge difference in how it cleans up your sound.
As we've already mentioned, most of the tone sucking happens between your guitar and that first pedal on your board. So the logical place to put your buffer is right at the start of your board; so that it can rejuvinate your tone before hitting the rest of your effects.
While this is true for most cases, there are a few exceptions...
You see, there are some pedals like old school fuzz that are designed to have a connection straight from your guitar’s pickup. If they don’t get that level of signal not only will you lose a lot of dynamics but generally the tone will just be bad.
The simple fix here is to put the fuzz before the buffer or invest in a more modern style fuzz that already has a buffered input (therefore doesn’t mind a buffer in front of it) or a fuzz that is more pedalboard friendly. Some fuzz pedals can work great with a buffer, others won’t.
Of course, the downside of this is that the negative filter effects caused by a single pedal will still be present but if you can’t bear to get rid of that vintage fuzz I am sure you can live with this tiny, almost unnoticeable filter.
I use a lot of cable/effects. Do I need a buffer there as well?
Surprisingly no. A lot of the issue is caused by the impedance change when your guitar pickups hit that first pedal or go down a long cable heading towards your amplifier. Unless you have some kind of insane rig that covers multiple pedalboards then one buffer should be enough.
If you do want to make sure that your signal is as clear as day one really great tool that has emerged recently is the double buffer. These boxes generally have an input and an output to take your guitar to your amplifier as well as a loop for you to plug your pedalboard into. This does not go into the effects loop circuit but it does help make sure that your amplifier is receiving the perfect signal out of your pedalboard.
Ok so a buffer isn't the most exciting addition you could make to your pedalboard. Nevertheless it's an essential tool for a gigging musician and anyone who takes their tone seriously. After all you've spent all that time choosing the perfect amp and the perfect guitar to create "your sound". Why waste that effort by losing your true tone to cable runs and pedals.