Photo 1

A client recently asked me to install an onboard buffer in his Fender Strat, which he affectionately calls “the Zombie Caster” because of its remarkably hideous finish (Photo 1). By the way, this resulted from a relic job gone awry. My friends, please don’t try to relic your guitar with a blowtorch!

Despite its looks, the guitar actually sounds pretty good. However, its owner wanted to be able to drive long cable runs in the studio without signal degradation, and perhaps more importantly, he wanted to retain all the Strat’s highs and clarity as he backed down its volume control. As we’ll see in a moment, an onboard buffer circuit lets him accomplish both goals.

Photo 2. Photo courtesy of Creation Audio Labs.

Several companies—including CAE Sound, Bartolini, and Wald Electronics—make onboard buffer kits. Here in Nashville, a buffer called the Redeemer (Photo 2) is popular with studio and touring guitarists. After producer Michael Wagener at WireWorld Studios introduced me to the device, I was impressed enough to recommend it to my customers who want the benefits of a buffered circuit.

While it’s not the only game in town, the Redeemer offers superb specs and costs less than $50 direct from Creation Audio Labs, who manufacture the system. It even has a “dead battery” mode that lets you finish the set even if the circuit’s 9V battery is on the ropes.

Why an onboard buffer? Passive magnetic pickups generate a high-impedance signal. This signal quickly degrades as it travels out from your guitar through a cable—even expensive, high-end cables. Stompboxes can further load the signal and degrade the sound, and a high-impedance signal is susceptible to unwanted noise from lights and other electronic gear as it makes its way to the amp. Even if you plug directly into an amp with a single cable, a guitar’s high-impedance output is still subject to a significant loss of sonic detail. A buffered signal effectively eliminates these problems.

A unity-gain buffer circuit simply converts the high-impedance signal into a low-impedance signal—like that of a typical microphone. With a low-impedance signal, you can play through a 100-foot cable without losing highs, turn your volume knob down without the sound getting muddy, and even plug directly into a mixing console. Perhaps most importantly, you get to hear a sparkle from your pickups that had been previously masked. Because we’re used to the sound of a high-impedance signal, we accept it as normal, but once you buffer your pickups, you’ll be amazed at the presence and detail they’re capable of producing.

Many manufacturers sell buffer pedals, but to reach such a pedal, the signal has to travel through a cable and thus suffer the negative effects of cable capacitance before it’s buffered. Here’s the advantage of an onboard system: The pickups’ output is converted to a low-impedance signal before it leaves the guitar.