I think most people are a little scared to open up and tinker around with their guitar pickups and effects pedals. It’s like there’s some sort of special voodoo magic inside the components that shape our tone. Truth be told most of the time there’s nothing too crazy to deal with, and as long as we are careful and methodical anyone can experiment and modify.
Let me start off by saying my family jokes around and calls me “Tim the Tool Man Taylor”, the hilarious main character from the nineties sitcom “Home Improvement”. As anyone familiar with this show would know Tim was a well meaning DIY kind of guy with his own cable TV program, who couldn’t help but continually break and destroy whatever he was working on. Now I am not that bad, but I have had my moments. My Dad and brother definitely got the handy man skills, but I’m not completely useless, and I usually know my limits.
I’ve been playing guitar for nearly two decades now, but I’ve only in the past year or so gathered up the courage to try some guitar related electronics DIY. I wanted to write a couple of articles for those of you who have thought about getting into DIY, but haven’t felt confident enough to actually embark on the journey. I want to let you know that even if you are clumsy, and a bit of a “Tim the Tool Man Taylor” like me you can still give it a go and have lots of fun doing so.
Part 1: Effects pedals – the common first step into DIY
My first expedition was where many may start, modifying a relatively simple distortion pedal, in my case the Boss DS-1. The Boss DS-1 has a number of well-known modifications, but I wanted to see if I could capture a certain sound from mine. I started off by talking via twitter to cubisteffects, a pedal builder and modifier from Sydney, Australia. We ended up with an idea to modify the DS-1 to give it a JCM800 kind of sound, and cubisteffects was kind enough to send me a package of parts and instructions to complete the modifications to my pedal.
To get started with soldering there are some things you will want to have on hand:
- Soldering iron – 25 watts will suffice
- Solder – lead free if you can, the lead stuff can give you a headache!
- De-solder braid – for getting the old stuff off
- Needle nose pliers and cutters, handy for holding and cutting things
- Some sort of third hand – helpful when your hands a full
- A well lit and well ventilated area – you don’t want those fumes bothering you, and you need to see what you are doing
- Patience, lots of patience!
I’m not going to give a tutorial on soldering, there’s plenty of those out there. Do a Google search and you’ll find heaps of articles and videos on it.
My first pedal modifying experience definitely taught me a lot, the main lesson was do with soldering. My DS-1 is nearly 20 years, and the solder points a little tough to heat up. Keeping the soldering iron on the points resulted in liquefying the solder, but also damaged the solder traces the process. This meant that connections between electronic components were broken, resulting in the pedal not working as it should.
In my initial modifications I was able to save the one broken trace I had around a diode by using some conductive glue, and I was able to finish the modifications that cubisteffects had supplied me.
What I learned I should have done when trying to heat up the solder points was to add a little new solder to the joint. This helps heat up the old solder and get it flowing easier, lessening the risk of damaging the trace underneath.
I was quite happy with the new tone, there was less noise from the pedal, and the tone was a considerable improvement on the stock pedal. It now had a nice roaring Marshall amp like tone. The only thing I wasn’t 100% happy with was the range of the tone control. I found that the modifications resulted in a lot of bass, and not enough treble, so I set out on doing some research to find out what could be done to adjust the tone stack of the pedal.
Once I had the information required I set about installing two secondary tone controls for bass and treble. I wanted to install two mini potentiometers on the side of the enclosure, and set about drilling the holes after measuring the space needed to fit the pots. I made one critical mistake while doing this, I forgot to check the inside of the enclosure to make sure I wasn’t going to hit the corner points that the screws for the bottom plate screw in to. I left everything in the enclosure since I didn’t think I would hit anything inside of it, and that was my worst mistake.
As I drilled the through the enclosure I suddenly hit the corner points resulting in knocking my pedal around, and one of the original pots was damaged in the process. After all of this I decided that installing the extra pots was too much of a hassle for me, and removed the wiring, and tried to reinstall some of the original resistor components, and I replaced the tone pot. When refitting the resistors I lifted more traces, and made a bit of a mess of things. I ended up just putting the pedal aside for quite some time, thinking that fixing my old DS-1 was going to be too much hassle. I eventually had another crack at it, repaired some solder trace lines, and put in some new resistors, but it still didn’t sound quite the same.
The lesson here is to measure three times, AND don’t risk the circuit, take it out of the enclosure. If I hadn’t tried to cut corners in the time it took to complete this work I probably would still have my DS-1 working, and have a flexible tone stack.
Thankfully all the other pedal modifications I have done have not resulted in catastrophe, and I’ve even come up with some pretty sweet modified circuits through some experimenting with different components. A couple of these are integral parts of my pedal board, and get used with my band all the time.
I hope this article helps give some of you out there to have the confidence to start playing around with DIY projects. They can be very fun, extremely rewarding, and most of all, a great way of getting boutique tones on the cheap for us poor musicians. Just remember to be calm, patient, and always check and double check things before you start drilling! Learn from my mistakes. 😉
Keep an eye out for part 2 of Confessions of a noobie electronics tinkerer, where I delve into pickup modifications.