Alan's DIY Guitar Pedal Gallery

Table of Contents

In 2021 I started a hobby of building guitar effects pedals. This page is a gallery of the things I've created so far, and documents some of my experiences designing and building pedals.

The Nastygram

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Figure 1: The Nastygram treble booster / distortion

This is the first pedal I ever built. It started with me buying a kit from Tayda for a screaming bird treble booster, but while I was waiting the long weeks for my parts to arrive from China, I cobbled together a breadboarding kit and started experimenting with the screaming bird circuit. By the time the parts arrived, I wanted to create a significantly modified circuit, with several switches to accommodate new features. I admittedly went a bit overboard, but when you name a pedal "Nastygram", you can get away with it sounding kind of bad.

The knob obviously increases the boost amount. The shrill/gruff switch drops the low-cut frequency, making the sound bassier as well as introducing some drive in the gain stage. The cool/loud switch increases the gain of the circuit, though not tremendously. It's a questionable modification at best. The clear/sizzling switch introduces clipping diodes, which I had learned about just prior to my parts arriving. So it's a pretty dirty boost.

The artwork is just an inkjet printout attached with mod-podge, which is how I've done graphics on a lot of my pedals so far.

The internals of the nastygram are a complete mess. I way over-estimated how much wire would be required between components and soldered it all up before mounting them. I also lacked proper wire and resorted to silly things like using breadboard jumpers, not to mention all the mods that just hang off the board (bolstered with a little hot glue).

The shrill/gruff switch went a bit flaky on me after a few months, so I hope one day to work up the courage to open the Nastygram again and replace it. Until then, it just adds to the nastyness.

The Beard-o

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Figure 2: My first Beardo build. I have since replaced the knobs with something less goofy looking, those were all I had at the time.

My second pedal, the Beardo, is a fuzz based on the classic Fuzz Face (but with NPN silicon transistors, because I don't have time for finicky germanium or reverse polarity power supplies). Once again, I started with buying a PCB and kit from Tayda, but by the time things arrived I had decided on several modifications that I'd come up with on the breadboard. Originally I was going to use a switch to go from "full mode" to "scraggly mode", the latter of which would drop the circuit bias to the point where the sound was gating nicely. This did not work out in practice for whatever reason. I also broke the trim pot for setting the bias, and had to add a lot of mods to prevent squealing and RF noise. Ultimately I ended up just slapping a 25k potentiometer in place of the BIAS pot and called it "cragginess".

Overall building the Beardo was quite educational. The original model is an unholy mess inside, just like the Nastygram; however, I redeemed myself a few months later by building a much tidier duplicate for my friend Jason McKinney.

Beardo is still a bit "untamed"; at certain settings it squeals like a stuck pig, at others it just kind of crackles and passes no sound. But in between you can get some magical and decidedly un-guitarlike noises from it, not to mention traditional fuzz distortions.

The case is once again a printed graphic attached with mod-podge. Although it's hard to see, it does feature a heavily-edited image of my own beard.

The Campfire Distortion

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Figure 3: Botched Campfire distortion prototype. It doesn't deserve knobs! (actually I bought 6.35mm pots by mistake, so I had none to fit it).

Every year my sons' Scout troop has a silent auction fundraiser consisting of donated or hand-made items. Part of my goal was to be able to create some scouting-oriented guitar pedals to contribute to the auction, so I made a prototype: the Campfire Distortion.

This time, though, I decided that I was through buying ready-made PCBs since I just modded the snot out of the circuits anyway and made a mess of them. So this one is built on protoboard. I didn't base this pedal on anything existing anyway. I had bought some LM386 chips with the intention of building a mini amp, but my initial attempts were buggy and uninspiring, so I decided to try out the LM386 as a distortion driver instead. The campfire uses the LM386 to drive some clipping LEDs, which light up proportional to the strength of the signal. This "flickering" effect inspired the campfire theme, and you'll note the lack of a status LED on this pedal. Under the fire graphic is a hole where the red status LED and the red and yellow clipping LEDs are all squashed in with a blob of hot glue.

The visual effect is sadly rather subtle, and I botched the drilling of the holes for the knobs and somehow managed to mislabel all three knobs, so the initial campfire distortion is just a prototype for now. The sound of it is OK; it's a rather bright distortion, especially at high gains, owing the fact that I designed the LM386 circuit to boost highs as the gain increased. The chip itself clips in a crackly way that has a bit of fluffle on the release. I tried to eliminate this, but eventually just gave in and lived with it. It's a very 80's sounding distortion, though with some tone adjustments it could be useful in other contexts.

More of what makes you happy

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Figure 4: It just gives you more of what makes you happy.

Running low on 1590b boxes, and realizing that a lot of my circuits were not really worth the trouble of them at this point, I got inspired to start using tins. I found a small pedal-sized tin during one of my thrift store outings that read "Do more of what makes you happy". This inspired me. I built a small clean boost on a scrap of protoboard and mounted a big knob right over the "Do". That's what you get in this pedal: just more of what makes you happy.

The circuit is a FolkUrban "boost-o-rama B" design, which I found to be quite nice and clean. It's also kind of boring, so I don't use this one much, but it was fun to do something mildly clever with a found enclosure, and I learned a few things about power filtering with this one. I also learned the ups and downs of working with the thinner metal of a tin. Easier to drill than a 1590b, but also easier to mess up if you're not careful. Fortunately this one came out pretty clean.

Bright-on

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Figure 5: Sing it with me: Bright-on (Clap-Clap) Bright-Off (Clap-Clap) Bright-On, Bright-off, the Bright-on.

Another thrift-store find that inspired a pedal. "Brighton" is apparently a company that makes some kind of doodads for women and delivers them in heart-shaped tins, so these show up at the thrift store now and then. Of course it immediately suggested to me a treble booster ("Bright On"), so I got to work on it.

I had a tiny scrap of stripboard, 2x20, from building my second Beardo, so I challenged myself to fitting a simple treble boost on it. I started with another screaming-bird style boost, but there was space left on the board. There was also the fact that Queen had a song called "Brighton Rock", so I felt guilty not making this a Brian May treble boost. After some fiddling, I was able to come up with a 2x20 stripboard layout for a Brian May treble boost. Thus my "Bright-on" Brian May treble boost was born. Someone suggested I write "Rock" under the Brighton, using the LED for the O. I may do this, but I don't have the best handwriting, so…yeah.

Double Drive / Pedal-to-the-metal

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Figure 6: My double drive in its pedal-to-the-metal pencil case.

My wife found this pencil tin at the dollar store and knew I'd want it for a pedal. I had played around with the MXR Distortion+ circuit for a while, but hadn't yet built a pedal based on it. The double-drive started as a D+, but I made a lot of changes. Most notably, I moved the clipping into the op-amp feedback loop and provided a switch to go between diode and LED clipping. I knew I wanted switchable clipping options, but I did a lot of auditioning to find two sets of diodes that sounded significantly different enough to warrant switching. Nothing worse than a switch that makes only a subtle difference (looking at you, Nastygram!). I finally settled on two combinations:

  • First option is 2 1n4148s on one side and a 1n4148 and 1n5819 on the other. This made for a squishy, warm, almost-symmetrical drive reminiscent of the Tubescreamer.
  • A white and blue LED. This is a more open, chunkier sound with less fizzle, though at the highest gains it sounds really asymmetric and almost fuzz-like (think "Spirit in the Sky"). At first I thought my white LED was blown, and I replaced it. It's possible I screwed up the circuit in some way, but ultimately I don't care because this option sounds awesome.

I added a tone control as well, which while somewhat subtle can at least take the edge off certain rather shrill settings. The circuit was built on stripboard and hangs unceremoniously inside the case, which precipitated the liberal use of splatter-pattern duct tape inside the case to deal with short circuits.

This things turns out to be one of my favorite distortion pedals so far. It can deliver a pretty standard rock drive and crunch tone, but the cranked LED distortion is just gorgeously nasty for riff-rocking.

Build-wise, this is a good example of the problems you get working with tins. The clearance on the lid was not quite enough to fit the quarter-inch jacks and power jacks, so at first the lid sat at a crazy angle on top and fell off easily. It looked bad and came apart easily. I eventually sawed some dowel risers, attaching them to the bottom with wood screws and to the top with velcro. They do a good job of keeping the lid on and supporting the controls, but taking the lid off is just a matter of ripping velcro. Not something I'd be confident selling, but for my own needs sufficient.

The Patina

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With my tin craze in full force, I had the idea that I could create a small, simple circuit with minimal components and house it in antique tins as a way to drum up a little scratch to "support the habit". This is how the patina was born.

My initial thought was to build a simple transistor boost and shove it through some germanium diodes for that vintage goodness, but the result wasn't that good or vintage. I did a lot of tweaking and testing, adding filtering caps and trying different clipping components until I settled on a simple 1n4148/1n5819 combination. I added some low-end and high-end cut so that the circuit boosted the mid-range.

The resulting pedal wasn't quite a dirt pedal, nor a boost, so I called it "The Patina". At minimum it thins out your clean tone, at maximum you get a cutting "just breaking up" tone. The clipping limits the boost capabilities, so it doesn't really need a volume knob. It's pretty much a "blues tone in a box" with no nonsense, but it also wakes up my duller drive pedals with some snarl and aggression.

I built the first one in an Altoids tin using a 3x16 flake of stripboard.

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Figure 8: The patina prototype in an Altoids tin.

My initial idea of building these in vintage tins didn't work out to be practical; it turns out vintage tins are in demand for various collecting, crafting, and home decor reasons, so I couldn't find a good cost-effective source. Altoids tins are readily available, but they're a touch small and tend to get warped and unreliable during drilling. A standard 3PDT switch just barely even fits in one.

In the end, I am doing a first run of these using puzzle tins from the dollar store, spray painted and adorned with a printed/mod-podged label, as you see in the first picture. I was able to assemble something much more robust; the circuit is attached to the LED, firmly implanted in its bezel, so it doesn't roam around the case looking for trouble. I've also coated the inside with mod-podge to discourage short circuits, and kept my wiring tight and neat.

No idea if they'll sell, or for what I'll sell them yet. Want one?

More to come ??

I've done my time with boosts and dirt, I am currently playing with PT2399 delay circuits and eventually want to build a phase shifter. I'll update this page periodically as new projects finish up, if anyone is curious.

Created: 2021-05-19 Wed 16:50

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