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Guitar effects pedals, or stompboxes, are something that just about every guitar player has at least one of. Purists may say they only need the volume knob on their guitar and a warmly driven tube amp – Jim Campilongo does just fine this way for example – but effects pedals can take us to totally different worlds of sounds. Jack White and Tom Morello’s solos wouldn’t be the same without the DigiTech Whammy pedal. Hendrix’s name is synonymous with the wah-wah. Everyone and their grandma has a gain pedal of some sort, whether it’s overdrive, distortion or fuzz, and these too have defined the sound of guys like Tony Iommi and Kurt Cobain. They make exciting noises. They come in cool colors. They have wacky names like Super Hard On and Big Muff. And even when you think you’ve collected the Holy Grail of pedalboards, there will always be new pedals out there offering different tones to mess around with.
What keeps most of us from achieving true tonal bliss, however, is the cost of the little buggers. A standard mass-produced pedal sits around the $100 mark, while many boutique and vintage pedals can cost upwards of $300. Chaining up a few of these can easily out-price your guitar. However, if you have a little soldering practice and a free weekend, there are many pedals out there that can be replicated from scratch with your own two hands at a fraction of the cost.
I became interested in building stomp boxes after a friend told me he’d seen diagrams online to build a clone of a high-end fuzz pedal that I’d been lusting after for quite some time. I did my research and sure enough, a simple Google query reveals an immense amount of information on how to recreate many of the pedals we love so dearly, along with the parts you’ll need and where to buy them. Sweet! My band, The Stone Foxes, is gearing up for recording a new album this spring and I wanted to have some new sounds at my disposal in the studio. So I built a few different boxes for myself. I’ve been really happy with the results so far and since I’m a generous guy, I’m going to narrate here on how to go about building your own effects boxes. The type of effect you choose to build is up to you, so find a schematic you’d like to try and follow along.
·Google is your friend. Search for the name of whatever pedal you’d like to build, followed by the search term “vero layout.” (Veroboard or stripboard is a common type of blank circuit board that pedal builders use.) With a little luck you will find a layout showing the locations and values of all the resistors, capacitors (caps), transistors and potentiometers (pots) needed.
·Do another search for “stomp box wiring” to get a diagram showing how the inside of your box will be wired. This will also show you what parts you will need to build your box.
·Go online to Small Bear Electronics or Mammoth and order up your parts. I find Small Bear to be the best, but some of Mammoth’s parts are cheaper.
·When you get your parts in the mail, the first thing you will need to do is determine the values of each part with your multimeter and label them
·Take a Dremel with a cutoff wheel, hacksaw or utility knife and cut your veroboard to size. Remember to wear eye protection. SAFETY FIRST!
·Put on a record and warm up your soldering pencil. Use a small drill bit to make the “cuts” in the circuit where the conductive stripping should be removed. Now start soldering your components to the vero following your diagram. Try beginning with the resistors, and then move on to bigger things like caps and transistors. Take a part, spread its leads wide enough to slide through the correct holes, solder it in place on the conductive backside and snip off the excess.
·Don’t let the leads touch. Be careful to not use so much solder that it jumps the conductive strips; otherwise your circuit will short out. When you’re done be sure to UNPLUG YOUR SOLDERING PENCIL!
·Now for the real drilling! Using a hammer and center punch, mark out where you want all your pots, jacks, etc. Put your enclosure in a vice and drill a small pilot hole for each mark, then drill out to the desired diameter. Clean out debris.
·Fit all your pots, jacks, etc. into their holes and tighten them down.
·Following your stompbox wiring diagram, begin soldering in the wiring. It helps to use color-coded wire to keep things straight. Leave leads headed to and from the board about 3” long so you can bend them around to get the board nestled in there easily when you’re done.
·Finally, connect the leads to the circuit board and plug it in for a test run! If it works, paint some labels on it so you don’t forget which knob does what, then plug it back in and play away! If it doesn’t work, check for touching bare wires and retrace your steps to verify you’ve properly secured each solder joint on all diagrams.
·Pots can have an Audio (designated with an A) or Linear (B) taper.
·Polarity: Some capacitors are polarized and they will indicate this by showing the negative symbol (-) on one side.
·Other Panasonic and Topmay low voltage caps that do not show a marking can go in either way, as can resistors. Also, the longer lead on an LED is the positive one.
·Do a Google search to correctly identify the leads on your specific transistors.
·Caps used in pedals are usually measured in mf or millifarads. If you see uF in your diagrams have no fear, it’s the same as mf. Also, 1000 nf = 1mf.
·The little tabs on Alpha pots can be bent off with a pair of pliers if so desired.
I know that’s a lot of information, but alas, a true magician never reveals all his tricks – the rest is for you to have fun with and figure out on your own. Good luck, and when you hear fuzz on the forthcoming Stone Foxes album, remember you’re hearing a homemade stompbox from yours truly!
Spence Koehler is the lead guitarist for San Francisco’s Stone Foxes. He also builds custom stompboxes and does pedals mods under his own SK brand. For more info and videos of his work, check out skstompboxes.wordpress.com.