Sunday, June 26, 2022

Feel Like Makin' Fuzz!

I can be quoted as having said I am not a fan of fuzz as a guitar effect. While this notion is still mostly true, I'm starting to come around and become more ok with it. After building my EHX Muff Fuzz and Shoe Pixel clones I'm starting to appreciate fuzz, the better I understand it. I still won't go overboard and start making a huge amount of fuzz pedals, most of which I would never use over just a plain overdrive. However, there are a few fuzz pedals that I now feel almost compelled to build, such as a Fuzz Face clone and at least one iteration of the Tonebender.

For a handful of years now I've had a pair of 2SB173 germanium transistors I took out of an old Calrad 10-75 mixer. At that point they were worthless, so I figured the components inside were worth more to me by recycling it rather than reselling it. I sat on these transistors for the longest time, debating what type of project would be worth using them in. Germanium treble boost? No, I already built a silicon one. Germanium Fuzz? No, I'm not a huge fan of fuzz. Well, maybe? After watching a video about the history of the Tonebender I started to think maybe a germanium fuzz would be a worthwhile build, but there were issues.

Old fuzz pedals use a positive ground, meaning I would have to add more to the circuit than I felt was necessary. Why couldn't there be a way to built a negative ground vintage inspired fuzz pedal? Well, there is! The project requires very few components and I could socket the transistors, so let's do it! And so I did. The resulting pedal sounds fuzzy and bright, with far too much bass. Is that the signature of a vintage germanium Fuzz Face? I couldn't tell you, but that's what I got. Am I happy with the results? Not entirely. I don't hate it, I'm just not connecting with it. I've tried silicon PNPs and they have a much more mellow bass while sounding almost identical in the fuzz characteristic.

2SB173 Transistors in circuit

I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do with this circuit. Technically it's another pedal circuit that I've built and I'm proud of it, sure, but it didn't quite scratch the itch that I've had to use the germanium transistors, which was the whole point. Now that I know I can make a circuit using the negative ground I may just use silicon transistors in this one to finish it up and experiment with input and output caps in another to dial in these germanium transistors.


Yet again Kali, my Kalamazoo Model 1, pulls through and proves why I depend so heavily on her opinion when it comes to my pedal builds. After testing the pedal through my Mustang Mini I wasn't 100% sure about it, there was just way too much bass. After testing this pedal through Kali the pedal sounds great. I know there is a lot to be said about sending a pedal through real tubes vs solid state modeling, believe me I know. Most times I simply test my pedals with the solid states, it's just sometimes I get lazy and hope the Mustang Mini is good enough; it's not. Now I'm feeling better about this build and I'm also more confident this germanium Fuzz Face clone was the project these transistors were meant to be in.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Small Amp Repairs

Today's title is literal in both meanings. Firstly I will be repairing small amps, and they are indeed small repairs to said amps. Up first is my Fender Mustang Mini with an input jack booboo. With the amp being as small as it is, and the input jack sticking out of the top, sometimes things such as guitars can accidentally bump into the cable while it's plugged in and snap that input jack. It happened to me!

I continued to use the Mustang Mini this way for a quite a while. I finally got tired of losing the part that broke off of it in the first place, because it was still required to hold the guitar cable properly, and decided to change out the jack. Now I almost made a mistake, but I think I managed to redeem myself. I checked to make sure it was all going to fit, and it seemed it would, until I completely mangled the original jack to get it out. Even though it was broken it still worked, but after I removed it I was at the point of no return and had to make the new jack work, even though it was slightly bigger than the original.

After it was soldered in, tightened down and everything was put back together it seems to work just fine. I am a bit concerned about it's longevity, but I guess we'll worry about that some other time. As long as it works I'll use it. The only external difference is that the new jack has a chrome ring around it, but otherwise it looks pretty good, I think.



Next up is my Lyon AMP3. This is a little amp I've had for years and rarely ever use, because it's really just a novelty more than anything. One day, many years ago, I noticed it wasn't working properly, so I opened it up to see what was the matter. The only problem I could find was one of the capacitors was absolutely obliterated. It was just a pile of dust between two solder mounds. I was confused because even back then I rarely used it and it worked perfectly when I put it away. I decided to replace the capacitor with whatever I could steal from my collection of old broken electronics.

As you can see I didn't do the cleaned job installing the capacitor, but it worked and that's all that mattered. I figured since I was going to be soldering on the Mustang Mini I may as well give this little amp an adjustment. My SMD soldering skills aren't any better than they were when I originally repaired it, but it's somewhat more refined. Kind of? Regardless it works and I feel a little better about how it looks inside.

Small repairs that will hopefully extend the life of these little amps. The guitar pedal builds have ceased, for now, as I'm not sure how many more guitar pedals I need. I have some ideas, but they're currently just ideas. I felt I should use this nice sunny day and get something accomplished, so I did. Yeah, I do need to work on my SMD soldering skills.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Process

I've been wanting to share the process of how the guitar pedals I build go from idea to finished product. All the pedals I've built, with the exception of the one I built for my brother, are built for my own use and are not production models, nor are they production quality. This is simply a hobby that I enjoy, and hopefully will continue to enjoy for some time to come. I felt that if anyone out there came across this blog and were interested in starting the hobby, or wanted to acquire a little more knowledge to streamline their own process, perhaps I could shed a little bit of insight and help them out.

Initial Planning

The very first pedal I ever built was a Bazz Fuss, followed by a few variants after that. Since then every pedal I've built started off as a question. What type of effect(s) do I want, or feel that I need, or even want to try out but can't afford the genuine version? I had always wanted a tube screamer style pedal, and although the genuine thing and its many clones are ubiquitous, I decided I would take more pride in having built my own. I searched around online for a tube screamer layout and the first website to popup was tagboardeffects. I searched their extensive library of layouts and chose the tube screamer that I felt the most comfortable building and got started.

Cutting the Board

This part is fairly straight forward, depending on how big the layout requires the board to be. I usually use stripboard, which is a thin fiberglass board with strips of copper adhered to it. I've tried some other stuff and only ever had slight success with it, but much frustration, so I've stuck to stripboard as my main circuit board material. From here I will count out how many holes the layout requires, both horizontal and vertical. I do this with a toothpick, believe it or not, and I count out each way two or three times before I mark it with a sharpie, just beyond the required length. Once I am satisfied that the dimensions are correct I use wire cutters and snip along the row of holes just beyond where I marked. Sure, you lose a row of material, but it's better than making a mistake and needing to cut a whole new board. From there I'll snip off any rough edges, sometimes even using sandpaper for further adjustments where needed. Measure a hundred times, cut once!

Many layouts will require you to cut the traces on the board to reroute the signal of components on that row to somewhere else. I use the same toothpick method as I do for getting the board down to the right size here too, and I will then mark that hole with a sharpie and then count it off a few more times to make sure I've marked the right place. I usually reference the layout image and count both horizontal and vertical holes in all directions to make sure this one spot is where the trace cut needs to be. Once all the trace cuts have been marked and verified I use a step drill bit in a screw driver handle that uses interchangeable bits. With firm, but not too firm, pressure I place the tip into the hole and twist until I see fiberglass dust. I then blow the dust away and see if the trace looks properly severed. Once all traces have been cut, I use a multimeter to make sure there is no current being passed beyond the trace cuts. I then use an xacto knife and clean up around the hole, to make it less likely to be bridged while soldering.

Collecting Parts 

All guitar pedal circuits are made up of components, usually consisting of: resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, JFETs, op amps, and other ICs. I like to bag up my parts in little bags and write on a small piece of tape what the build is going to be. I start off with the lower laying parts, such as resistors and diodes. These components are the ones I solder onto the board first, so I like to find them first. Then I find the capacitors, then any transistors or JFETs and from there I wait until the main board is built to even think about op amps or ICs. I usually find these parts from old electronics, but I do have a collection of new parts just in case the old electronics I have can't yield the parts that I need. I will reference a part with online sources to make sure I am collecting the correct value. Resistors will have colored stripes that will calculate the value. Capacitors often have their code as well, for example 104 on a capacitor means that capacitor is 100nf (nf meaning nanofarad). Other components will also have their markings, so if you have any questions check online to cross-reference the component's code/markings to make sure it is what the circuit requires. A little wiggle room, or tolerance, is allowed on parts so don't be afraid to substitute something fairly close with what is required by the layout.

Populating the Board

Now that the board is cut, the parts are bagged and the soldering iron is hot, it's time to start soldering everything together. I start off with the links, which are simply thin pieces of metal, often the leftover legs I've cut from the underside of installed components. These are used to replace the traces we cut previously, and are the lowest laying aspect on the board. Then I start placing the components in a grid pattern, much the same way I used to cut the board. I start off with resistors and diodes, paying very close attention to the polarity of the diodes in the layout and how I place them on the board. Once I've made sure I've placed all the resistors and diodes in the correct places I begin placing the capacitors and other tall components. I use the previously installed components as landmarks to help align these other parts, while also minding the polarity of the electrolytic capacitors. The last parts I do are op amps or other required ICs, which I will often install sockets for, just in case I happen to have a damaged one and need to replace it quickly. Sometimes I will socket transistors and JFETs also, which allows me to test out different ones to see how they affect the sound. One thing to keep in mind when using sockets to test transistors or JFETs is that they will need soldered in upon finalization of the pedal. Believe me, I've had a few pedals stop working because a transistor wiggled loose from its socket. I also can not stress how useful a component tester is when soldering up the build. I test both resistors and capacitors to make sure the correct values are going into the correct places.

Prepping the Enclosure

Not every pedal I build will immediately have an enclosure to call home, but most of them will. Whether it's a Hammond 125, 1590 or even an old cookie tin your grandmother used to keep her sewing kit in, prepping the enclosure is usually one of the easiest parts of building a guitar pedal. The first step is to do a mockup to make sure everything will fit inside comfortably, and without grounding out the circuit, causing it to make no sound at all. Once you're sure everything will fit inside it's time to design your pedal. Do you want to paint it? Do you just want to keep it aluminum? Your choice, go with whatever you feel is best for you. Next you'll want to figure out the layout of your controls, footswitch, electric input and your audio jacks. There are plenty of templates online, or you can do what I do and freehand it. None of my pedals are 100% symmetrical, which gives them more of that DIY feel. I use masking tape to roughly mark out my control layouts, and use the step drill bit I used to cut board traces from there. It's not rocket appliance, but make sure you don't drill the electric input in the same end you've already drilled for your footswitch. That's a mistake I'll never live down!

The Dreaded Wiring

I feel since wiring is what stands between me and a finished pedal I enjoy wiring much less than I do any other aspect of the building process. There isn't much advice I can offer here other than to watch a few tutorials online and make sure you've grounded everything properly. I like to pre-tin the wires before I stick them into the board to be soldered, but be careful as sometimes that may cause them to be too thick to fit through the holes in the board material you're using. Pay close attention and don't mix up your input and outputs. Keep a pinout chart handy for potentiometers, power input sockets, the footswitch of your choice, etc. as they can be very useful. I would also advise investing in a good set of wire strippers, they're worth their weight in gold! Once you've wired up a few pedals it's usually straight forward, although every circuit does have its own quirks and wiring placement. Often if I need to troubleshoot a circuit I almost always find it to be a simple wiring mistake, which is a much easier to rectify situation than having to remove/replace a component packed deeply on a populated circuit board.

Initial Testing

Initial testing consists of me using my partcaster (Neo Classical Strat), my Fender Mustang Mini, a Danelectro Zero Hum power supply and hoping nothing within the circuit goes boom. I then plug it all up to make sure that signal is passing in bypass mode with a few chords from Neo ringing through the Mustang Mini. Once I feel I'm ready I click the footswitch and prepare for excitement, or crushing, frustrating defeat. Again, one of the most common mistakes I've made is wiring related. I've wired potentiometers in backwards, I've mixed up the input and output, I've forgotten to ground the input and output, etc. I won't say always, but a large percentage of my guitar pedals work first try and are good to move on to final testing. Some circuits however are either using test parts or aren't giving me exactly what I expected from them, which causes them to be put into troubleshooting mode.

Troubleshooting or Parts Testing

Usually a simple wiring swap cures what ills a pedal, but sometimes it doesn't. If a circuit sounds different than I was expecting I will go through the comments under the layout on tagboardeffects and see if anyone else is having the same problem, where I will often find the solution. The comments section on that site is actually just as useful as the layouts themselves. Honestly, it's a great site. If I'm testing parts I will swap them around until I find what sounds best and (remember!) solder them into the socket to make sure they don't wiggle loose down the road and stop the pedal from working mysteriously. I only solder transistors or JFETs into their sockets as thus far I've not had any issues with op amps or other ICs wiggling loose, but that doesn't mean it can't happen.

Final Testing

Once a pedal is tested thoroughly and put through its paces with the Mustang Mini I switch over to the true lie detector, Kali, my 1960s Kalamazoo Model 1 tube amp. I've found a few circuits work perfectly fine through the Mustang Mini, but sound rather dull and lifeless through Kali. In the case of my treble boost build I found it worked great on the Mustang Mini, but Kali absolutely hated it, which caused me to rethink and adjust some of my modification choices. Kali is the final word when it comes to my guitar pedal builds as she is truthful, unabashedly so. I give her a few minutes for her tubes to warm up, I plug the pedal and guitar in and see how she sings. If a pedal and Kali can make a connection I can usually find a groove that allows me to test the range of the pedal's controls and once I'm satisfied with that I consider the pedal to be officially done.


In every pedal I've built I've handwritten on the inside of the bottom case (lid?) the date the pedal was finalized, what I've named it, or what it's a clone of, and marked it with my faux brand Firebeard FX. I plan to get little boxes for each one and include a small printout explaining what the controls do and what it's based on. I've never painted any of my pedals, though I've wanted to. I'm perfectly fine with them as they currently are, which is functional and complete. That, to me, is when a guitar pedal build is finalized.

My thought is that someday I will cease to exist on this planet and only my former belongings and social media will remain. Someday someone might happen upon one of my creations and perhaps fall in love with it, making it a key part of their tone. Hopefully due to curiosity more so than needing to repair it, they will open the pedal and find my handwritten description of the pedal and the date it was built. They might take it a step further and research who Firebeard FX was and be directed to my social media, perhaps sending them on a grand adventure in understanding more about the pedal's creator and the process and care that went into creating it. As I'm writing this I have built thirty pedals in total and I honestly don't want to stop, I just need more reasons to build more pedals beyond sustaining a hobby I thoroughly enjoy (all except that damn wiring!). I would like to build a guitar amp, but that's almost entirely wiring. Ugh!

If you're thinking about getting into the hobby, or already are, and this has helped you, thank you for reading. It really is a fun, fulfilling hobby and I'm glad I took that first step in building my first Bazz Fuss. Trust me, it does get easier the more you build. Also, try to learn as much as you possibly can about what part does what and why when you build a circuit. Who knows, maybe someday we'll start a real pedal company once we understand enough about pedal circuits and how to build our own. It would be nice, no?