Photo 1: The Electra MPC, a late-’70s/early-’80s guitar with built-in effects, has been largely forgotten. But many boutique builders have borrowed its simple yet great-sounding distortion circuit.

Building stompboxes from scratch is easier than you might expect. So is customizing the circuits to suit your style and taste. This project walks you through the process step by step. When you’re done, you’ll have a killer distortion pedal—and enough knowledge about using and choosing stompbox components to build countless other pedals.

Anyone of average intelligence with functional hands and eyes can complete this project. But there are many steps—more than we can cover in a conventional magazine article. So we’ve created an illustrated build guide in PDF form, which you must download to complete the project.

To download the entire build guide in an easy-to-use PDF, click here.

What you’ll build. This project is a modernized and tweaked version of a distortion circuit that originally appeared in Electra's MPC (Modular Powered Circuits) guitar, a Japanese axe with built-in effects that was imported into the U.S. by Saint Louis Music in the late ’70s and early ’80s (Photo 1). The guitar was never very popular, but at some point savvy boutique stompbox builders realized that despite (or maybe because of) the circuit’s simplicity, it offers terrific overdrive tones. It’s a fine alternative to the Tube Screamer-influenced designs found in perhaps 90 percent of today’s overdrive pedals.

Photo 2: I built my PG Distortion into a pre-painted and pre-drilled enclosure and decorated it with stickers.
Because stickers!

We’re calling our Electra variation the PG Distortion (Photo 2). Compared to a Screamer, the PG Distortion is less compressed, less midrange-heavy, and more responsive to variations in your playing dynamics. It preserves note attack and has an edgy grind that cuts through onstage and in a mix. It’s been used in several highly regarded boutique pedals (just Google the phrase “based on Electra distortion”).

What you’ll learn. The circuit’s simplicity makes this a perfect starter project. But the goal isn’t just to build a cool pedal from a few modestly priced parts. From the very first steps, you’ll make design choices to suit your style and taste. You’ll learn how common stompbox components work, and how to choose the right ones for your needs. Making stuff you like is a prime motive for DIY.

Now, if your goal is simply to build a cool pedal as quickly and cheaply as possible, you might consider a prefab DIY kit rather than this project. (I’m especially fond of kits from Build Your Own Clone because of their clever designs and excellent documentation.) But usually, kits like that only tell you the next step—not why you’re doing the step, or how you can apply the procedure to future builds. Also, kits usually come with a printed circuit board (PCB) for mounting components, while we will make connections manually using a blank piece of perforated circuit board—a more laborious process, but a more informative one. So think of this as a stompbox-building class, with the PG Distortion as our case study.

Watch the Video Demo of the PG Distortion: