Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Adventures in Guitar Pedal Building

At my age I often look back and get angry with my younger self for thinking we had all the time in the world to accomplish all the things we wanted to do. In my early twenties I wanted to go to luthiery school, an idea that I went so far as to seek out financial aid to make happen, but I never took it seriously. In 2013 I purchased my Kalamazoo Model 1, an amp I have grown more and more enamored with the more I play through it, and waited six years to actually repair it. In the mid-2000s I wanted to start building my own effects pedals after I ran across the BYOC website offering DIY guitar pedals kits at, back then, extremely cheap prices. At the time of writing this there is a three year old draft in my blog account about a DIY ABY box I had planned and even put together, but never once did I actually solder anything inside of it.

Sadly, I feel the time for most of those things has slipped away, but has it? You see, this is the year 2020, a year that has put the world at an almost complete standstill, a year that should teach each and every one of us that the time to do what you want is NOW, and not a day later. At the beginning of the new year I toyed with the idea of building my own guitar pedals, but again I felt I should just put it off and wait, like everything else I've wanted to do. Something within me awoke and  told me I better take charge of that and make it happen before it becomes just another regret. I decided the least I could do was purchase some basic parts from Amazon, such as: LED holders, input/output jacks, potentiometers, knobs, solder-in sockets for component testing and some DPDT foot switches to test true bypass wiring without LEDs.

The next thing I needed to do was find the easiest pedal to build and see if my parts bin had what I needed. After some research I found the Bazz Fuss seemed to be the easiest guitar pedal to build, and my parts bin had pretty much everything I needed, except not the exact same transistor. After throwing the pedal together I tested it out and even though I actually despise Fuzz as an effect I was pretty impressed. After tossing the thing into an old Sucrets tin I decided to call my creation "Fuzzy Throat".

I continued to build a few more Bazz Fuss circuits and none of them sound the exact same. Although all the parts are the same specs, again except the transistor, each component's varying makeup has its own unique way of coloring the signal. This has taught me the importance of trying different types of the same thing to see what happens. A beginner like myself would possibly be blown away by how much of a difference a ceramic capacitor, polyester capacitor or metal film capacitors can make on the overall sound of a pedal circuit.

While fiddling with my Fuzzy Throat pedal I somehow managed to ruin the diode, which turned it into essentially a boost pedal. Before I replaced the diode I played around with it as it was and decided it was time for me to build my first boost pedal. The circuit I ended up settling on was a clone of the Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 pedal. Four resistors, two capacitors and a transistor all put together from the layout I found online and I somehow managed to build an amazing boost that could lower the volume, boost the volume as well as throw my amp into overdrive. Again, I used transistors I had laying around, but the pedal works and I made sure to use sockets so I could swap out transistors.

Although I live with many things in my life I wished I had done, or done earlier, at least I finally managed to build some guitar pedals for myself. I'm also extremely glad that I fixed my Kalamazoo so I could test these pedals through a genuine tube amp. With the world being paused momentarily while we sort through many hardships in the year 2020, I'm glad I finally took the time to try something I had always wanted to do. Now that it's finally started I hope that it doesn't stop any time soon, and I hope this also opens the door to completing other things in my life I've left blowing in the breeze.

Two different Bazz Fuss builds.
Note the use of completely different parts
to see what sounded best.

Addendum June 21st 2020

Recently I purchased some 1590b style enclosures from Amazon (my first attempts at using real enclosures to house my pedals) and I'm actually quite happy with the results. I had previously purchased a 1590a style enclosure, but since I couldn't build a circuit small enough to fit inside comfortably I decided to just turn it into an A/B line selector. At this point I've created two fuzz pedals, although I'm not finished tinkering with the way I build and modify the circuits so I can get the most out of them, as well as two EHX LPB-1 boost clones and the aforementioned A/B line selector. Once I create a fuzz circuit that I like I will use my final 1590b enclosure for that.

From Left to Right: A/B Line Selector, EHX LPB-1 Clones
with blue and orange LED, Joy Fuzzer (play on Joy Buzzer)
and finally Fuzzy Throat.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

My Failed Attempt At "Operation: Yngwie on a Budget"

Since the age of 15 I've been a fan of Yngwie Malmsteen, and as soon as I found out about the Yngwie signature Stratocaster I wanted one. Hell, as soon as I saw the DOD YJM 308 on Zzounds for $25 (some 13 years ago) I bought one and only recently started using it with my Kalamazoo Model 1. Being the cheap bastard I am I could never justify the price for the signature strat though, so I decided to attempt the next best thing. In 2009 I decided to start Operation: Yngwie on a Budget, which meant I would buy an inexpensive Stratocaster style guitar and fix it up as closely to Yngwie's signature Fender as I possibly could.

I knew I wanted quality wood and a close match in color, so that meant nearly every Squier on the market at that time was out of the question. Internet research lead me to RondoMusic.com where I found the SX SST57, an alder bodied guitar that was available in what the site listed as a vintage white. Reviews for this guitar seemed extremely favorable and for $100 I almost couldn't turn it down. On the site, the contrast between the white pickguard (triple ply too!) and the so called vintage white was exactly what I was looking for. It looked as close to Yngwie's buttercream as you could possibly get. What arrived was a dented, slightly piss yellow mixed with pure white colored strat with a neck more orange than an Oompa Loompa's dick.

After sitting down with it for a while I didn't really hate the guitar, but there were quite a few problems with it that needed addressed before this guitar would become anything near what I envisioned. However, the more I played it the more I liked it and the more frustrated I became due to the color being completely wrong. The idea of having to repaint it, swap out the neck and replacing all the electronics actually turned me off to the point I used that to rationalize leaving it the way it was. I had grown to love this guitar for what it was, as it was. It's not a top notch Stratocaster by any means but I've since played both Squier and MIM Fender strats that didn't feel as good as the SST57.

Ten years have passed and I recently acquired a Squier neck with the CBS headstock, which I felt would breathe new life into the YJM on a Budget. Sadly, a huge gap in the neck pocket is just too big for me to use anything other than the original neck. That has officially sealed the fate of this guitar. Instead of using this as my YJM clone I'll just be upgrading parts and trying to make this thing a good, cheap strat clone. Sometimes, when the light hits it just right, the paint does seem to be more yellow than it was all those years ago but still not enough to change my mind. I did swap out the bridge for an official Fender PW-29 but the zinc block made the guitar sound way too thin compared to the smaller steel block it originally had. There is also a noticeable gap between the Fender trem and the body, which the original one covered. I like the look of the official trem, but not the tone of the zinc block or the huge gap it won't hide.

Squier neck on SX body.
That gap is far too big to make it work 

For now Operation Yngwie on a Budget has been put on hold. I've thought about finding a candy apple red strat body to pair with the Squier neck, as well as using the PW-29 tremolo, to make a clone of the lesser desired CAR Yngwie Signature model. With some DiMarzio HS3s and the right electronics I think it would make a suitable clone for myself. I may even dabble in scalloping the Squier neck, but all those are just plans right now as I focus more on dialing in the SST57 to be a good stratocaster clone.

Failed Childhood Investments in the Future

When I was a kid I was an avid sports fan, so collecting sports cards was not only a fun little hobby, it was also highly encouraged. I remember nearly every adult who saw me buying sports cards telling me to keep them in good condition because someday they would be worth a fortune. If only those grownups could have seen into the future and saw any and all value of 99.9% of sports cards fall below that of the cardstock they're printed on. To this day I still have boxes of (now vintage) sports cards that are in great or near mint condition that I couldn't sell for maybe more than a few bucks total.

Another investment I bothered to dabble in was comic books. While not a comic book reader myself I had heard much the same thing about comic books as I did about sports cards. For a very brief time I purchased them in large packs sold by Toys R Us to flesh out some semblance of a collection. I even bought those little bags to keep them all in and bought some cheap, dollar store backing to keep them from creasing in the bags. Like I said that was a very brief endeavor as I soon sold all my comic books off to a friend who originally inspired me to start collecting them in the first place. From what I remember I may have made $5 profit selling these to my friend, if that.

The one thing I did collect that no one ever really saw coming was video games. Now I'm not going to lie and say I saw the trend coming, because I didn't. I sold and traded away games I didn't play for games I would play more often, even if they were for a 10 year old system. So I just kept the games that appealed to me and most of them are still with me to this day, over 20 years later. As a kid I remember buying games from other kids who were more than happy to fork over NES games for super cheap because they thought they were junk and just taking up space in their closet. I, however, was overjoyed to be playing any video game whatsoever.

I think the view on video games at the time was that they were a fad and not something that would become the mainstay they are today. Video game consoles came and the old ones were pushed aside or thrown in the trash. Nobody knew, nobody cared. Moreover look at consoles that failed like the NES top loader that was sold in small quantities because the SNES was already out and not many people wanted to go backwards in technology. Or even the Virtual Boy, which failed altogether just based on itself. Nobody knew the failures of the past would be so highly desirable in the future.

I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self and tell myself that video games are going to be worth a lot of money, and they're an even more fun hobby than sports cards. Trade off those sports cards in the peak of their value and invest that money toward video games, because by the time you're in your late 30's your closet will have a lot of worthless sports cards because you sat too long on the egg and it never hatched.

Back in the Driver's Seat. Driver 76 Review

In the past I've admitted that Driver Parallel Lines is one of my favorite games of all time. I'm guessing Ubisoft is quite fond of their acquisition too as they've spread it out throughout at least three additional games. Driver 76, C.O.P. The Recruit and Driver Renegade 3D all have pretty much the same thing in common: Driver Parallel Lines is their father. I own C.O.P. The Recruit and it's actually fairly good. Ubisoft tried to scrub the Driver smell out, but it's still deeply ingrained in the DNA of that game and it shines through quite clearly. I've been debating buying Renegade 3D, but I'm not entirely sold on it. I might purchase it sometimes down the road, just not today.

So what about Driver 76? Well that opportunity came when I recently received an old beaten and battered PSP from a friend. After replacing the cracked screen I finally had the chance to sit down and give Driver 76 a try. Immediately I was blown away at just how good Driver 76 looks on the PSP. For some reason I wasn't expecting much, but it genuinely looks really good.

The game is a prequel to the events in Parallel Lines and shows how the city was setup just before TK shows up. It's also setup more like Mafia with comic book style cut scenes, by which I mean you go from mission to mission without the free roam ability unless you actually choose the free roam option instead of the mission. Personally I preferred how Parallel Lines showed me where missions were on the map and allowed me to pick when I wanted to do them.

Completing missions gives you rewards such as cars and weapons, which I found a bit odd but I guess is ok. Again, I much preferred the way Parallel Lines allowed me to connect with the city and carjack people to acquire these cars, letting me roam freely and feel the city, not just shoving me around from mission to mission and rewarding me with these things. Nonstory missions are rewarded throughout the game as well, allowing you to do them after you've beat the game or if you so choose to do them between story missions.

To be honest I was very impressed with how Driver 76 looked, controlled and reminded me of Parallel Lines. However, I am sorely disappointed in how it felt truncated and chopped up into little bits and pieces, instead of being a free roaming open world to explore.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Pancake Patch Cables and Guitar Cable Repair.

In a previous entry I took it upon myself to repair two guitar cables I had purchased from the Goodwill outlet store. Initially, quick repairs were done just to get them back to being usable, but over time I decided to fix them to a slightly better standard and move on to another type of cable project. With my guitar pedal collection growing from both buying and building my own, I decided that patch cables were something I would soon need. In my own true fashion I decided to purchase a 12 pack of 90 degree pancake ends from China and wait to see what arrived.

Upon arrival I noticed there were two different types in the bag. Three of them had both solder lugs for hot and ground, while the nine remaining only have solder lugs for hot. Of those nine two of them weren't assembled completely, four more were loose and the other three seemed perfectly fine. So this means out of the twelve I purchased only half were immediately usable. With some channel lock style pliers I was able to crimp the remaining half down to a satisfactory level of usefulness. Although I am extremely dubious about their longevity.

After some thinking I decided to use one of the better pancakes (the left in both above images) to fix my First Act guitar cable and the other two would become my first patch cable. Additional thinking, as well as watching a youtube video demonstrating this technique, gave me the clever idea of soldering the ground directly to the inside of the plugs of the other nine, which actually didn't work at all. My soldering iron could get plenty of heat into the plug (trust me, I know they were hot! ouch!) but the solder just wouldn't stick to the surface for very long. Realizing this wouldn't work on a long-term basis I thought about it a little bit more before I decided to just pinch the ground between the cable and the main body of the pancake end, which actually worked out.

My original idea which only
worked for a short period of time.

After a few burns, a few choice cuss words and some sweating outside to solder in an open-air environment, all the patch cables were finished. In the end I was able to make five patch cables from what I was supplied. I'm not sure if these things will survive very long, but if they do break down I'll just buy higher quality ends and use the same cables.