FilmInstituteGuitar pedals are more popular and more plentiful than ever before. There are long running YouTube channels that talk about little else, from That Pedal Show to DIY Guitar Pedals with countless in between. Large pedal boards are becoming ubiquitous and the need to fill them with pedals is no financial triviality, therefore there is no better time to consider building your own guitar pedal. Abbey Road’s Deputy Head of Technical Services Matt Kingdon provides a guide to assembling your own guitar pedal. Our in-house Technical Services Department provide round-the-clock technical support to all areas of the studios' business, with the team responsible for managing technical infrastructure and equipment installations across all studios and mastering rooms.
Where to start?
There are a few different ways to start building your own pedals:There are many websites that provide you with all the components, circuit boards, pre-drilled enclosure and instructions which can take you through the process so that all you have to do is solder it all together. Alternatively, there are sites that list various circuit diagrams or even Veroboard layouts leaving you to source the components and enclosure yourself.
Whichever route you choose, the message board or forum for the chosen site will probably be an invaluable source of information and assistance for every stage of the build of your pedal. You should choose where to start and this will be informed by your ability, knowledge and tenacity.
Should you start with...
Complete kit. The easiest. You get all the bits you need (apart from tools), all that is required is soldering and construction.
Circuit layout. Intermediate. Requires sourcing components, soldering, fabrication and construction.
Circuit diagram. Requires a bit of experience. As above but you need to work out the circuit layout as well.
Sites like buildyourownclone.com, generalguitargadgets.com and tagboardeffects.blogspot.com are good examples but there are many others. Wherever you start, you will need to start soldering components, be it onto a PCB or Veroboard or even the mighty point to point wiring and then fit that into an enclosure. Here are some tips to help you on your way.
Soldering iron. But which one? Why so expensive? You are going to be soldering the thin wires of resistors and capacitors and not huge speaker cables so a small tip should suffice. I would avoid cheaper soldering irons as they can break easily and heat up very slowly. Ideally a soldering station is a good way to stop dining room tables getting burnt and a soldering iron with a variable temperature can be helpful for getting consistently good solder joints.
A cutting mat or similar, to work on to preserve the aforementioned dining table.
Solder - Almost all solders come lead free and with flux these days. Flux allows the metal to flow over surfaces nicely. You may want to consider fume extraction, but you should at least make sure that the room you are in is well ventilated as the fumes can be quite unpleasant.
Solder sucker or de-soldering braid - Even the most experienced will require the use of one or both of these.
Multi-meter - Like the soldering iron, not too cheap but doesn't need to be too expensive either. The key features you would need would be continuity test (often with a beep or buzzer), measuring AC and DC voltage and resistance. It may also be handy to be able to measure frequency or test diodes, but this is less essential.
Blade or hobby knife - For clearing space between solder joints.
Wire cutters and wire strippers - For erm... cutting and stripping wires...
Screwdriver and small spanners - So you can secure the circuit board inside the pedal!
Drill and various drill bits - To prepare the enclosure for pots and switches.
ComponentsComponents will depend on what sort of pedal you are building but will probably include resistors, capacitors, transistors, op amps, diodes and potentiometers. Without going into too much detail, it is worth mentioning that the value of the component will likely have far more effect on the sound than the brand or cost of that component. I'm talking to you Orange Drop caps!
To bread board or not?Bread boarding is what some may have done at school where no soldering is required. It can be very handy to prototype your design on a bread board as it makes swapping components very quick and easy.
If you have the circuit already, it may be easier to go straight to soldering your components onto the PCB (printed circuit board) or a Veroboard (many holes connected with copper strips). You may still want to change a couple of components; for example, clipping diodes or transistors, and if so you can use header pins. You can solder these in place of the legs of the component you want to audition, and they act as individual bread board sockets so you can swap components easily.
Tips on Populating The PCBWhether you are using a PCB or a Veroboard you will be soldering “through hole” components onto your board and here are a few tips that I have found helpful.
Separate the components so that they don't become mixed up. It is far easier to tell what a component is before it is soldered to a board.
Start with the lowest profile components. You will need to turn the PCB upside down to solder the legs and so it helps if the component you are soldering is resting against the surface or highly polished dining room table so it doesn't move around too much.
Try to use as little solder as possible. It looks neater and it becomes easier to see any shorts between joints.
Tips on SolderingThe first tip is if you can smell fried chicken, you are holding the wrong end of the soldering iron! Before applying any solder to the component, melt a little onto the tip of your soldering iron and then apply the almost dry iron to the leg of the component. This will heat up the metal a little, making the solder flow onto it better when, after a second or two, you apply the solder.The picture above is purely for ironic purposes. Please do not hold as pictured!
The solder should flow onto the leg and the pad to form a nice even coverage that curves up the leg a little. If your solder joint bulges out, it may still be good but this is too much solder and you have more chance of getting air bubbles in the joint. These make the joint weaker and are often called dry joints. They tend not to look shiny but dull. Don't forget to trim the leg off with your wire cutters (side cutters are designed for this job specifically).
Tips on De-SolderingYou can use braid or a solder sucker. They both require the solder to be heated until it melts and either you let the braid soak up the solder like a sponge or you suck the molten solder up with a sucker. I would probably recommend the latter for through hole stuff and the braid for smaller more delicate items like surface mount integrated circuits AKA IC's AKA microchips.
Tips on ConstructionIt is a good idea to plan the size of your Veroboard so that it can fit into your enclosure remembering to leave room for pots, input and output jacks and the 9v battery! Again, it is a good idea to keep the cabling as neat as possible. Not just for the glamorous visuals but the messier the wiring is, the more likely it is to break or short circuit.
You have connected all your components and wired up your input and output jacks. You are finally ready to add power and listen to your handiwork for the first time. One good thing to note is that you are unlikely to be dealing with any more than 9v and, while component damage is possible, bodily harm is unlikely.
Everything works! Wahhooo, well done, now you rock. You may go and rock!
Or... it doesn't, now your multimeter comes into its own. But before you start probing, have a good look for one of the following...
Fault FindingMissing components, components in the wrong place, components the wrong way around, especially op amps and transistors. If everything is in the right place on top, have a look at the soldering underneath. Use the blade or hobby knife (or even clean up joints with the soldering iron) to check that there are no shorts between tracks. Even one thin strand of a wire or a tiny flick of solder can cause a short circuit.
Use the multimeter to ensure that your battery is good and you are getting the voltages to your op amps and transistors that you expect.
If you are still not having any luck and you have gone through the above more times than you have hair left, then it is time to hit the message board or forum. The chances are that other people have had exactly the same problem and will be more than happy to share potential solutions.
The final and arguably the most important part is the graphics. There are many ways to achieve the look you are after from a sharpie to chemical etching. Either painting or adhesive backed printing paper are probably the most convenient but whatever you choose, a good few coats of varnish to protect your artwork would be a good final tip.
Good luck and happy building!