What is a buffer guitar pedal?
You have either never heard of this, or know what it is but don't know what it's actually used for.
What a buffer pedal does is fix a very common problem that happens when you run multiple pedal effects. This problem I speak of is frequency loss and/or loss of signal strength.
This loss happens not only from multiple pedals but also from use of long guitar cables. When the cable is longer, the signal has to travel further, and signal strength weakens as a result before getting to the amp.
A buffer pedal mainly concentrates on preserving the higher frequencies.
How do you know if you actually need a buffer pedal or not?
You have to perform a test in two parts.
The first part is playing your guitar regularly through all your pedals in the off state (meaning plugged in but effect not applied) using your existing guitar cable that you have. Strum some chords. Don't solo. Just strum and listen for a few minutes.
The second part is plugging your guitar direct-to-amp using a short guitar cable (10 feet is fine). Do the same test. Strum and listen.
If your guitar sounds more clear and bright when plugged in direct-to-amp using a 10ft cable compared to the sound when playing through your pedal effects rig, then you need a buffer pedal.
To put it another way: Does your guitar sound like you just installed new strings with the direct-to-amp test using the 10ft cable? And does it sound "muddy" when you play through your pedal effects rig with all pedals in the off state? If the answer is yes, what you're actually hearing with the direct-to-amp sound are the higher frequencies and proper signal strength that is being lost when running through your pedal effects rig. This is indicative that yes, you need a buffer pedal.
Let your ears decide if you can actually hear a difference with plugged-in-to-pedal-effects vs. straight-to-amp. If there's "mud" when running through your effects, you will hear that difference.
Does a buffer pedal change your sound?
No. The whole point of the buffer pedal is to preserve (or said another way "undo") the tone-wrecking that happens from some pedals and/or long cables. You get your higher frequencies back and proper signal strength.
Where does a buffer pedal go in a chain of pedal effects?
Short answer: Front of the chain (as in the first pedal). Most of the time, this is where it goes.
Long answer 1: After fuzz and not before.
Fuzz effects don't "agree" all that well with buffer pedals, so if using fuzz, put the buffer after that effect and not before it.
Long answer 2: Wherever the signal gets wrecked and needs "rejuvenation". This takes a bit more explanation.
Sometimes it's the case where just one pedal effect in your rig is the culprit for wrecking your sound. It's probably a real-deal vintage pedal effect of the low impedance type. If you notice every other pedal you have in the chain is OK except just one that just drains the life out of your signal, you put a buffer pedal after it so the signal frequency and strength can be brought back up to normal before moving on to the next part of the effects chain.
And if it happens to be that your "tone wrecker" pedal (as in the one you identify as either cutting out high frequencies and/or weakening signal even when its off) is at the end of the chain, then you put the buffer pedal at the end.
There is no hard fast rule that says you must put a buffer pedal in any one specific position in the chain. But when in doubt, try it at the front first (unless using a fuzz effect).
Should you "sandwich" your pedal board with two buffers?
Sandwiching a pedal board means to put one buffer at the beginning of your effects chain, and a second at the end.
Given how cheap buffer pedals are, yes, this is an OK thing to do.
Many buffer pedals are small enough to where you can easily mount two of them of the no-control variety (meaning no control knobs) under your pedal board.
Sandwiching a pedal board with a buffer at the front and the end is definitely the easiest type of buffer installation. Get two buffers, install, done.
The only time this doesn't work is, again, if a fuzz effect is in use.
A buffer pedal is not a booster pedal (even though several have a "boost" control on them)
The boost you see on a buffer pedal is "clean boost only" for a better sound in the overall mix, or at least that's what it's supposed to be. Or to term it more accurately, "clean gain only".
A traditional booster pedal on the other hand drives the signal, as in not-clean gain.
Other things you can try before running out and getting a buffer pedal
If you have the problem where your high frequencies get cut off and/or the signal strength is weak, there are a few other things you can try first before getting a buffer pedal.
- Switch guitar cable. Is your guitar cable old? Try replacing that first.
- Are you using short cables for the pedals in your chain? If you're not, you should, because any unnecessary cable length between pedals is doing nothing but weakening your signal.
- Do you have "dirty power"? An improper power draw can make pedals (and sometimes amps) act all sorts of weird. You may want to try a power conditioner.
Remember: A buffer pedal is not some whiz-bang exciting thing
It has been said by many, very accurately, that a buffer pedal is one of the most boring guitar pedals to ever exist. Why? Its sole purpose is just to fix signal problems and nothing more.
Yes, a buffer pedal is boring, but for those that run many pedals and/or use long guitar cables, it's a necessary evil to get the higher frequencies back and keep the signal strength proper.