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Blue Collar's D.I.Y. Effects Pedal Primer!
By Mick Polich - 05/07/2010 - 09:52 AM EDT

Long live d.i.y effects pedals!

I know some of you are thinking ( especially the younger ones, or the ones acting in hipper-than-thou mode…),” What’s with Polich? Record shops? Vinyl? Old school recording?” I can’t help it – I am a certain age from a certain musical era. Doesn’t mean that I have to live there all the time, but it’s sure nice to visit to see where you’re from.

Effects pedals – especially d.i.y. kits – have been gaining ground over the past 15 - 20 years. As we proceed into the future with plug – ins,  rack mount, and floor units no bigger than your foot housing 200 effects programs, it’s still nice to see some fuzz box, phaser, or gain boost unit surface that’s made in someone’s garage. I love it when recording engineers talk about moving a fader, or twisting a knob, and calling it ‘old school’ – love it, because it’s funny, yet it shows how far technology has come in recent years.

Another good ol’ Iowa native, Tim Tierman, is helping me out with this article. I’ve gotten to know Tim over the past few years, and we’ve discussed a variety of topics. Tim is a musician, engineer, and amateur effects designer, but boy, he’s built quite a few. I’ll let him take the ball now.

Thank ya, Tim!

Have you ever wanted a vintage pedal?  You know, an original tube screamer. A Univox Super Fuzz.  How about a Univibe?  If you've ever looked at vintage models, you know that their owners are VERY proud of them.  And if you've ever taken the time to try some of those vintage pedals out, you'll find that a lot of them sound pretty crappy.  It sucks to be a guitarist on a tone quest.  You can't just have any old thing.  You've got to have that grail.  That mecca.  That mysterious box of magic that's finally going to transform your tone into Stevie Ray or Jimi or ...  

One day, I decided my life couldn't continue without a univibe.  You know, that swirly, throbbing Hendrix / Trower thang.  I immediately went to our friend, the internet, to see what I could find.  I was kind of surprised to find how many there were.  Sweet Sound, Mayer, Dunlop, Fulltone, Danelectro, ...  just to name a few.  Cool!  This won't be so hard.  Now I just have to figure out which one is the real McCoy.  What to do?  Read the reviews, of course.  This one's great.  This one sucks.  NO!  That one sucks.  This one's great.  This one's pretty good but...  This one's a tone sucker.  No it isn't!  You're deaf.  If you've ever played a real one...  You get the idea.  Okay.  To heck with the copies and reissues.  What about the honest to goodness real thing?  Let's try eBay.  When I realized that an original univibe would cost me more than my monthly mortgage, probably my marriage, and might still sound like crap, I decided there had to be a better way.  I know.  I'll build one.

Whoa!  Slow down there, Tex.  You mean, BUILD it?  MYSELF?  Like wires?  And solder?  And those little flux capacitor thingies?  Well, yeah.  Sorta.  Actually, I had built a few pedals before deciding to build a univibe, so it wasn't that hard of a decision.  But why build your own when there are so many already available?  I'll tell you why.  But first, let me rewind a little further and tell you how I first started building my own pedals.

My first tone quest was a tube screamer.  Everyone makes those.  So why build it?  Because you can put it in a box of your own choosing with colors and graphics of your own choosing.  Plus, after doing a little research, you'll find that a lot of people have done this before and they've already figured out how to modify this pedal to give it some really cool twists.  You mean I can have a tube screamer that sounds like the original, and also like one on steroids, and just about anything in between.  Really?  Cool!  But how do I get started?  It's pretty easy.

If you google "DIY pedals", you'll find a number of sites that provide all the parts, boards, jacks, knobs, enclosures and detailed instructions to build some of your favorite pedals.  All you need beyond their kit is a good soldering iron and some solder.  Based upon my own experience, you can get a really great sounding pedal for a good deal less than the original.  And even though it isn't foolproof, the instructions from these sites are very detailed, making it pretty easy to get it working right the first time.  It's pretty much paint by number.  All you need to do is take your time, be careful and patient.  When it's done, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you built it yourself.  And, I gotta tell you, there's a bit of thrill when you finish this thing, plug it in and hear the result.  Hey, lookit this!  I built that!

The cool thing is, after a little practice and a little more internet research, you'll find these really cool mods for these pedals and most of them are really simple to incorporate into the original design.  Instead of that regular old tube screamer that everyone else has, you can have one that has some extra switches on it to select fat boost, or LED clipping or additional gain.  You can modify a Marshall Bluesbreaker clone to be equivalent to a Fulltone OCD distortion pedal.  Fuzzes, chorus, reverb, phaser, distortion, even wahs.  They're all out there.  Even that ubiquitous univibe!

So, like me, after a few successes, you'll want to do more and more ambitious designs.  You can find schematics and board layouts for any number of designs by searching the forums.  There's a whole world of players out there that are just like you and find doing this sort of thing to be a blast!  You can even find directions on how to make your own printed circuit boards (PCB's).  I haven't done this myself, but it doesn't look that hard.  There are detailed videos on several web sites.  And, like me, you may find yourself tinkering and figuring out some of your own personal mods that are a little different than anyone elses.  I've got a few tweaks on the univibe and a couple distortion pedals and a leslie simulator.  Now I find that I'm building these for my friends and their turning their friends on to them.  Once you get started, it's hard to stop.  Time and money may become the only obstacles.

Here's my recommendation on how to get started:

Check out my favorite pedal kitting sites at generalguitargadgets.com or buildyourownclone.com.  They have a number of different kits and examples of most of these can be found on youTube.  Check those out and you'll have a good idea of what you'll be getting.  Best of all, these sites provide very detailed instructions including a number of common and useful mods.  The parts they provide are really good, so you'll be guaranteed to get a good result from their kit.  Just take your time and be patient and you'll have a success.

If you decide to customize things, there are any number of suppliers for parts.  I buy pre-painted enclosures from pedalpartsplus.com.  I get most of my electronics parts from smallbearelec.com and mouser.com.

You can also buy circuit boards from a number of places and make your own pedals from these.  Take a look at tonepad.com.  There are also a number of individuals that make their own PCB's for their favorite designs and sell them at reasonable prices.  Really, the sky's the limit.  There's so much out there once you start looking.

So clear off the kitchen table.  Turn on some good lights.  Warm up that soldering iron and melt some lead!  I think you'll be glad you did.

Didn’t he do a nice job, folks? Thanks, Tim, for helping drop some knowledge on us on the d.i.y. pedal front.

Not much to add to that, kids – my suggestion is to hit the ‘net, hit some stores, and start doing some research to see what’s out there for mom-and-pop pedals, kits, instruction, blogs, and advice. Have some fun with it, and I’ll see you next time!

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