When I was in high school my junior and senior years, I took my college prep classes half the day and did the rest of the day at a technical high school. I studied Electronics. My mother told me if I was going to pursue music for a living, I should have a trade to fall back on. I fancied the idea of being able to fix my own guitars,
amps, and speakers so I went for it. I got my two-year diploma, graduated, and
took off to the exciting new world of gigging in nightclubs. Except for the
occasional lamp or toaster repair, my electronics training largely just
gathered dust somewhere in the recesses of my mind. It would be another 13
years before I would return to it…and it was all Hendrix fault.
Somewhere around 2003, knee deep in the throws of the
relentless pursuit of good guitar tone, I started to toy with the idea of
learning how to make an effect pedal. I was so frustrated with buying guitar
pedals and they’d almost always be perfect except for (insert gripe here). I
figured if I knew how the sounds I liked were made, I might discover the
secrets to the really great guitar tones and finally be able to make myself
happy with my own sound.
It started innocently enough. I tried to build a work a like
of a Hendrix Fuzz pedal. I found the schematic on line. I took aim at this fuzz
pedal and just plain got stuck. I ordered the wrong parts, got pretty confused
and eventually had to shelf the thing and regroup. It took a while to get back
on the electronic horse. I remember buying a box of assorted capacitors and
resistors from Radio Shack, dumping them all out on the kitchen table and then
trying to learn how to read and identify their values painstakingly one by one.
The curve seemed so steep at that point.
Eventually, I got the pedal made and tried it on my stage
amp after a show. The guys in the band I was playing with at the time were
tearing down but, gathered around my rig long enough to give me a thumb up.
Little did I know the storm that was about to unleash. A tsunami of schematics
from the web and trips to the Shack that would both drain the checking account,
as well as inspire some of the high points of my musical life.
I slowly got back up to speed and found I was preoccupied
with understanding the mechanics behind the common distortion pedal. The need
to understand this, for some reason, was vital to me. I started to build every
dist. schematic I could get my hands on and slowly but surely, as if by magic,
the truth behind the mysterious little boxes unfolded. I suddenly found myself
able to understand the seemingly esoteric concepts like symmetrical vs.
non-symmetrical clipping, op amps, transistor biasing and the like. When I
finally got to the point I could build a distortion pedal from memory, I
remember commenting to my wife that the feeling had to be akin to early man
when he discovered fire, ha!
Well, this went on and on. I kept a copy of each schematic I
built and tweaked in a little green high school folder. I built almost every
kind of buffer, wah, fuzz, overdrive, distortion, chorus, true bypass box…you
name it. I was hooked. I learned something from each pedal for better or worse.
I would build things for my friends and I’d almost inevitably forget something
minor. Then I’d have to go home and fix it for them…my friends, luckily, were
always very cool about it.
I remember being blown away to find that a 20-cent capacitor
could change a store bought pedal’s sonic personality so drastically; enough to
the point you could turn a crappy pedal into one you’d guard with your life. I
realized there had to be an industry to, for lack of a better word, tune
these pedals up to their full potential. I realized there’s no way any big
pedal manufacturer could have the time and/or talent to tune these pedals like
they should. They find a generic middle of the road sound when all the while,
lurking $2.75 away, could be the Holy Grail.
Well, my little schematic folder eventually turned into 2
full-sized business binders. I have been building pedals from scratch for about
5 or 6 years now. I encourage everybody handy with a solder gun to give it a
whirl. There is a wealth of information on the net to help anybody motivated
enough to try. It’s so fun to be able to make a $275 pedal that has a 9-month
waiting list for $40 bucks and your time at home. I could have never afforded
all the pedals I’ve built. Most importantly it afforded me the opportunity to
understand guitar tones on a whole different level. I don’t have a problem
finding the tone I want and the liberation that comes from that is wonderful.
I am not a qualified electronics instructor, but I have
built a lot of pedals and been lucky enough to study with and excellent teacher
(J.G., you know who you are), and I would be more than happy to help anyone who
would like to get started in the crazy addictive world of pedal modding and
building. Feel free to call me at the shop if you have any questions or would
like to set up an appointment.