A Beginner’s Guide To Building Effects Pedals
Musicians often talk about finding new sounds, but we’re really only ever working within the remit that gear companies set out for us.
Sure, we can find some neat tones and wacky settings in our branded stompboxes, but they’re never anything the thousands of other guitarists with that same pedal won’t also stumble across. How can we truly achieve the avant-garde when we exist in this sonic petting zoo?
Well, one thing we can do to escape our artistic confines is to define its parameters ourselves by building our own guitar pedals. So, in the spirit of keeping things fresh, today, I’m going to talk you through…
- What you’ll need to build a guitar pedal.
- Chronological steps you should take in your building career.
- Essential pedal hardware.
- Easy effects to ease you into the building process.
Are you ready to redefine your sound?
Building Guitar Pedals — Equipment You’ll Need
Though building a stompbox can seem daunting, you don’t actually need all that much equipment to kick your pedal pilgrimage off.
Here are the minimum requirements…
Soldering irons are used to melt solder in order to form the electronic joints on the circuit board of a pedal. They’re easy to use and come at a variety of price points. As long as it’s rated for at least 30W, it’s all good!
This Anbes Soldering Iron Kit is super affordable and perfectly suitable for the job; however, if you can allocate more funds, I highly recommend a soldering station with a temperature dial, such as this Merece Digital Soldering Iron Kit. Better still, a few more bucks will get you this Hakko masterpiece.
While not essential, advanced temperature controls are absolutely worth the investment, as they reduce the chances of you accidentally damaging your components.
There are two main types of solder: lead-based and lead-free. I’d recommend choosing lead-based solder, as the lower melting point makes it more manageable. This WYCTIN 60-40 Tin Lead Rosin Core Solder is just the ticket!
Just remember to open your windows, as lead-based solder gives off some pretty nasty fumes.
Wire Cutters And Wire Strippers
Trimming and stripping wires is an essential part of the building process, so equip yourself with one of each tool. I’ve been using this Hakko Micro Cutter for precision cutting for some time now, and this IRWIN Stripping Tool takes care of the rest.
You’ll be using something like this AstroAI Digital Multimeter to test your circuit and make sure it’s wired correctly.
Now let’s take a look at some suggested requirements…
Needle Nose Pliers
You’ll be working in a pretty cramped environment, so think of needle nose pliers as a set of tiny hands.
Alligator clips make testing your components before placing them in the enclosure a total breeze.
You can get a friend to help you out if you want, but this KOTTO Third Hand Soldering Tool may be more forgiving. It simply holds things for you, keeping tool and component juggling to a minimum.
Headband Magnifying Glasses
If your eyesight isn’t all that, this YOCTOSUN LED Head Magnifier will be a great help.
A desktop fan will simply clear out the fumes from the solder, optimizing ventilation.
How To Make Guitar Pedals — Baby Steps
The world of guitar pedal creation is a vast one, full of nuance and intrigue. These little boxes of auditory magic can be as simple or as complex as you like, but as you’re just starting your stompbox adventure, it’s best you take things in stages.
Step 1. Modding Pedals
Most builders get their start by popping the hood on their favorite existing pedals and engaging in some light tinkering. There are plenty of pedal-specific mod ideas online, some as simple as adding an LED, others with more complex tone-altering goals.
Modding is a great way to refine your core building skills and practice with the necessary equipment before diving into your first full project.
Step 2. Guitar Pedal Kits
A pedal kit comes with a pre-drilled enclosure, all the necessary components, and in-depth instructions, making them the perfect next step. You can think of them as training wheels on a bike!
Step 3. Buy A Finished PCP (Printed Circuit Board)
After buying a finished PCB, you have the opportunity to essentially amass your own little pedal kit. You’ll have to source the components separately, which can be daunting, but there are plenty of quality DIY pedal sites that will guide you to the right gear.
Step 4. Etching an Original PCB
The next step is to etch the PCB yourself or have a company make your layout for you.
Step 5. Building A Circuit From Scratch
Finally, we reach our goal of creating something wholly unique! Building a circuit from a breadboard (sometimes referred to as a protoboard) is a complex task, but with the skills you’ve developed over the preceding steps, you should be just fine.
I’d recommend starting with the schematics for an existing pedal circuit, and making little customizations until it sounds like something new.
An Overview Of Guitar Pedal Hardware
Don’t worry if you’re still feeling a little jittery about making your pedal building dreams a reality; learning about the components will help to build your confidence.
The enclosure of a pedal holds the PCB. It protects the circuitry and provides a robust shell that can withstand our stomps for years to come.
Enclosures are usually made out of aluminum, but some experienced builders get weird with it, using plastic or even wood instead.
Here are the most common enclosure dimensions…
If you’re building a simple circuit, stick with a small enclosure to reduce its footprint on a pedalboard. On the other hand, if you’re going full Strymon, with multiple footswitches and knobs for days, you’ll need that giant 1590D pedal armor.
Footswitches are the main operational components of a guitar pedal. We tap them with our
toe, and boom…audio magic ensues!
There are two main types of footswitch: latching and momentary. Latching switches are a simple on/off or one-destination-to-another switch, while momentary switches only activate a function while held down.
Footswitches can be wired in a number of different ways, but the type you’ll most likely be dealing with (at least for a while) are known as 3PDT (Three Pole Double Throw) switches.
Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs)
A PCB is a laminated, sandwiched board made up of insulating and conductive materials. It provides the foundation for your circuit to sit on. Most of them also act as the blueprint of your circuit, telling you exactly where everything needs to go.
There are alternatives, such as veroboard or perfboard, but they can make a build more complicated, so, for now, stick with good old PCB.
Electrical Pedal Components
Some advanced guitar pedals can be positively brimming with a variety of complex electrical components, but the good news is that, to get started, you really only need to familiarize yourself with a few main bits and bobs.
- Capacitors — In a circuit, a capacitor stores electrical energy. They come in a number of shapes and sizes.
- Transistors — Devices of many talents, transistors are used to amplify, control, and forge electronic signals. Their three legs and silicon or germanium enclosure make them look a little like tiny water towers.
- Resistors — It’s the resistor’s job to restrict an electric current in a circuit. They arrive with different values determined by the number of rings around their body.
- Diodes — Diodes create a one-way system for electrical current. It can pass through, but cannot travel back. They’re composed of a small cylinder made from glass or plastic, with little metal stalks jutting from each end.
- LEDs — I’m sure you’re already aware of LEDs. These super bright, little lights offer a pedal user affirmation of a certain function. It could be a simple on/off indicator, or they can be set up in an array, à la the Hologram Electronics Microcosm, informing the user what mode they’re in.
- IC (Integrated Circuits) — You can think of the IC as the brains of your pedal. It’s a tiny microchip composed of many tiny versions of the components we’ve just discussed.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at a visual aid, so you can properly acquaint yourself with these key components.
What’s Sort of Guitar Pedal Should I Build First?
If I were you, I’d start with a basic fuzz or a clean boost pedal. These little monsters feature relatively simple circuitry, as their sound isn’t all that complex.
What’s more, there are plenty of fuzz and boost pedals that use less than 10 components in total, making them perfect for easing you into the madness of electronics.
How to Make Guitar Pedals — Summing Up
Making guitar pedals may not be the easiest task in the world, but it’s definitely one of the most rewarding. Just imagine what it’s going to feel like plugging in your first-ever build for an inaugural jam, hearing your handcrafted sounds — there’s truly nothing like it.
As long as you take things nice and slow, moving through the steps mentioned earlier in the article in sequence, you shouldn’t run into any major roadblocks. However, do bear in mind that you are going to make mistakes; everybody does, but that’s how you learn and refine your skills.
Press on, don’t let any small errors get you down, and who knows, maybe that first minor mod on your dusty old Fuzz Face will lead to you founding your very own boutique guitar pedal company!