A Short History of DIY Effects
Greetings, fellow pedalphiles! This month we’re going to discuss do-it-yourself effects and their influence on the current stomp scene. Pedals are more popular now than ever before, but this wasn’t
Greetings, fellow pedalphiles! This month we’re going to discuss do-it-yourself effects and their influence on the current stomp scene. Pedals are more popular now than ever before, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when a stompbox was considered by most guitarists to be a novelty at best, or more likely, a crutch for players lacking in skill. Today, of course, we see amateur and pro alike using pedalboard setups that range from moderate to elaborate. Very rarely these days do we encounter the old “just plug it straight into the amp” philosophy.
The current popularity of boutique effects reflects a new attitude toward the stompbox, and today’s bustling boutique scene has been enormously influenced by the DIY effects movement that arose in the early and mid-nineties. Of course, people have been building and modifying their own effects ever since there was such a thing. Stompbox legends Roger Mayer and Pete Cornish got their start basically doing their own style of DIY via effects modifications.
Many of today’s old-school DIY’ers cite Craig Anderton as the Grand Poobah of the early DIY movement. Anderton wrote prolifically on the subject of music electronics in the seventies and eighties, hosting a monthly column for many years in Guitar Player magazine, in addition to authoring the classic DIY tome Electronic Projects For Musicians. Another highly influential book was Nicolas Boscorelli’s Stompbox Cookbook, which is sadly no longer in print.
It seems there’s always been a cult following of isolated electronic hobbyists concocting pedal projects in their basement or garage, but it wasn’t until the advent of the World Wide Web that people from all corners of the globe suddenly found there were others who shared their interest in music electronics. What followed was an enormous sharing of information on the early message boards and a free exchange of ideas that had never before been possible. A little scene arose during this time which has continued to gain momentum ever since.
There were several early DIY effects pioneers whose hard work and generosity is still being enjoyed by thousands today, more than a decade later. Remember, this was a time when schematics and information about effects were not freely available on the internet. Somebody had to do the footwork to make that information available. People like R.G. Keen, Jack Orman and Mark Hammer launched and hosted dedicated DIY effects websites with a plethora of information for aspiring hobbyists. By the end of the nineties, Aron Nelson’s DIY stompbox forum was in full swing and the DIY movement was on.
What many people don’t realize is that a good number of today’s popular boutique pedal makers cut their teeth in this early DIY scene. Prior to this, there were only a handful of boutique makers, such as Fulltone, Prescription Electronics, Way Huge and Z Vex, offering high-quality, hand-built pedals; meanwhile Analog Mike was single-handedly starting the effects modification craze with his Tube Screamer mods. The scene was sparse compared to the way it is today.
Analog Mike recalls, “The original DIY web forums were kept polite and considerate of stepping on people’s toes. Legal precautions also did not condone reverse engineering of currently available boutique pedals. Now there are pirate websites best left unnamed, hosted overseas with no owner to be held accountable, where so-called ‘gurus’ will tell you that every pedal ever made is a modified TS-808. Hopefully, they will soon tire of removing epoxy goop from circuits and actually do something constructive, like design their own effects.” Another point of contention in the DIY community has been the rise of so-called boutique builders blatantly copying DIY designs from the web and passing the products off as their own creations. Unfortunately, many players are still unaware of this phenomenon and there are more than a few builders receiving high praise who are little more than glorified solder jockeys.
Be that as it may, most DIY enthusiasts are in it for the sheer challenge and satisfaction of being able to build their own stomp pedal, custom made to their exact specifications. With the information available on the web today, anyone who cares to put in the time and effort can learn the skills it takes to build an entire personal pedal arsenal from scratch – from circuit design and where to buy components to how to solder and create custom graphics. And when you’re stuck troubleshooting your creation, there’s always someone on the forums willing to offer advice. Support is available from the community for anyone who wants it. Not only that, but getting all the parts needed to build a project has never been easier. Analog Mike remembers, “Before the internet, finding parts was one of the toughest aspects of making effects, and it took a lot of effort to locate stomp switches and other effects-specific parts. Now, Google and the DIY parts Mecca of Small Bear Electronics can supply everything needed in just a few clicks.”
If you’re interested in getting into DIY effects, here are some good places to start:
RG Keen’s GEOfx -
Aron’s DIY Stompbox Forum -
Jack Orman’s AMZFX -
Mark Hammer’s AMPAGE -
General Guitar Gadgets -
Runoff Groove -
Check back with us next month when we’ll discuss effects modifications: concepts and philosophy. Until then, keep on stompin’!
(a.k.a. Analog Tom) is the owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only (formusiciansonly.com) and author of Analog Man’s Guide To Vintage Effects. For Musicians Only is also the home of the FMO Gear Shop. Questions or comments about this article can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
(analogman.com) is one of the largest boutique effects manufacturers and retailers in the business, established by “Analog” Mike Piera in 1993. Mike can be reached at AnalogMike@aol.com