Effects guru “Analog Tom” Hughes chronicles music’s most influential time machines—from rockabilly echo chambers to space-rock oil cans, ’80s racks, and modern stompbox marvels.

“How sweet the answer Echo makes

To music at night,

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Tom digs into pedal guts and says goodbye in his final Stomp School column.

1. Here’s a point-to-point wired Triangle Big Muff, built by my friend Alex Carpenter (ATC). Alex built this pedal using terminal strips laid out in the shape of a triangle. Pretty cool, huh? 2. Look! Some builders actually want you to open their pedals and poke around. The Foxrox ZIM has several interchangeable modular cards that the user can swap out to get different sounds. 3. The “guts” of this Landgraff Dynamic Overdrive reveal a truly impressive example of a well-crafted, handbuilt boutique guitar pedal. Nearly all of the components are socketed on a tiny piece of perforated board.

Greetings students of stomp and welcome back to Stomp School. Your homework last month was to look inside one of your guitar pedals. Did you do your homework? Good! This month we’ll continue discussing what’s inside your pedals, and check out some more photos of what we gearheads refer to as “pedal guts.”

Let’s face it: In this day and age, if you’re using any type of gear it’s essential to have a certain amount of technical knowledge. Back when Zachary Vex first introduced the Z Vex Machine, he declared, “Pedal users in 1999 are very sophisticated ... we’re living in a ‘been there, done that’ pedal world.” Well, that was 12 years ago. We should be even more sophisticated now, right? Well, maybe.

No doubt, anyone using electronic music gear should probably have some degree of technical aptitude. But there seems to be a further assumption that guitarists should also have a basic understanding of electronics, as if our guitar lessons naturally included a course in Electronics 101. In truth, our education in “electronics” has been given to most of us in the form of advertising and other questionable sources.

Over the years, manufacturers big and small have converted various bits of electronic lingo into marketing jargon and then bombarded us with it. We’ve been told, for example, that our gear is “germanium powered” or that it uses MOSFETs. Seriously, do you know what a MOSFET is? I mean, everyone knows a MOSFET is a Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor, right? Even if we happen to know that particular acronym, how many of us can actually explain what it is, or more importantly, why we would want it in our gear? Marshall thought we understood well enough back in the ’80s when they offered us the Marshall Lead 100 MOSFET amp. A few years later, we had the MosValve series of amps from Tube Works, and more recently we’ve been given the Fulltone Full-Drive 2 MOSFET overdrive. Clearly, there are some things guitarists are just supposed to know.

For the most part, I think Zachary Vex is right—we pedal users really are a pretty sophisticated lot. The technical expertise required to set up and operate even a modest pedalboard is usually quite a bit greater than the average person needs to hook up a DVD player, or assemble IKEA furniture. But knowing how to operate a complex gadget isn’t quite the same as understanding electronic circuit design. Likewise, developing a large vocabulary of misappropriated terminology is a poor substitute for true knowledge.

Still, as guitarists we inevitably pick up these random bits and bytes of tech-speak, often taken out of context and given a brand-new definition that’s been conveniently translated for the uninitiated gearhead. Thus, the meaning of MOSFET becomes “sounds like the thing has tubes in it.” Never mind the acronym. There often is quite a bit of validity behind the techno jargon, but it’s easy to see how a little knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing. The language of electronics is a strange and mysterious sound, and guitarists seem especially drawn to its magical appeal. We’re also more prone than most to superstition and mythological folklore. This tends to make us particularly susceptible to electronically enhanced snake oil. Even the savviest of us can fall prey to the electro-hype machine. I see it happen all the time, especially on certain internet guitar forums, with players who I thought should know better.

The bottom line is we’re responsible for our own education. The goal is to gain a better understanding of what goes into our gear so we can make more informed decisions about the gear we choose to play. But nobody said you have to know Ohm’s Law or own a soldering iron to do that. You can start anytime, right from where you are, and just keep moving forward. There are some great resources available to help you along your way and Premier Guitar is definitely one of them. Of course, a vast amount of information (and misinformation) can be found on the internet. A little diligence and common sense will help sort the mumbo from the jumbo. Then there’s always the hands-on approach—go pop open a stompbox and take a peak at some pedal guts.

This concludes our final semester of Stomp School. Hard to believe, but it’s been four full years since our first day of class. We’ve managed to cover a lot of stomping ground in that time. I know I’ve learned a ton of new things about the gear I use—I hope you have too. It’s time for us to graduate, but remember, your education doesn’t end here. There’ll always be new things to discover and learn—it will continue for a lifetime. And though our classes have come to an end, you’ll still have access to the entire Stomp School archive, available for reference anytime on the PG website.

I’d like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be your “Personal Purveyor of Pedals.” I’d also like to thank my colleague Mike Piera (Analog Man) for his collaboration on many of the earlier Stomp School columns. Finally, special thanks to Premier Guitar for providing this space for our virtual classroom. That’s all for now ... class dismissed. And until we meet again, keep on stompin’!

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Greetings, pedal stompers, and welcome back to Stomp School. It occurs to me that I might have lost a few of you in last month’s discussion of technologies such as

Greetings, pedal stompers, and welcome back to Stomp School. It occurs to me that I might have lost a few of you in last month’s discussion of technologies such as surface-mounted devices (SMDs). I initially considered addressing this by following up with a lengthy dissertation on the history of surface-mount technology. Then I thought, “Wait a minute—I’m not an engineer, I’m a guitar player!” My interest in electronics and technology is mainly focused on how it relates to music gear, and I imagine the same is true for most of you. Obviously, there are a number of bona fide engineers among us, but most of us are not electronics wizards—and some of us are downright technophobic.

A subset of guitar-playing gear enthusiasts have a heavy interest in DIY stompboxes, and there’s plenty of info on the web that caters to them. But, based on my experience, along with feedback I’ve received on the column, most players aren’t inclined to pursue that degree of dedication and expertise in music electronics. Basically, we want as much information as will get us by. The question is, “What will get us by—and how and where do we find it?”

Fortunately, you don’t need an engineering degree to get a better understanding and appreciation of what makes your pedals tick. In fact, you can start right now by doing this: Grab the pedal closest to you, open it up, and take a look inside (you’ll probably have to get a Phillips-head screwdriver first). Why would you want to do this? Because it’s one of the best ways to become a more informed buyer. Even if you know nothing about electronics, it’s a habit that can eventually become very instructive. It can also help demystify a lot of what would otherwise be a bunch of marketing spiel. Think of it as reading the ingredients on a label in the grocery store instead of relying on a TV commercial for the product info.

The first thing I do when I get a pedal is pop it open and look inside. I think I’ve always done it. Curiosity gets the better of me and I can’t help it. It took a very long time, however, before I had the foggiest clue what I was looking at. I was at least able to discern such things as build quality and the number of little doohickeys on the circuit board, and that was usually well worth the five minutes it took to take a peek.

If you’ve never done it before and the idea makes you a little skittish, don’t worry. Unless you’re unusually clumsy or careless, you won’t hurt anything. And if it’s a regular 9-volt-battery- powered pedal, then there’s nothing in there that will hurt you. (Note: AC-powered gear is another story, and guitar amps often carry voltages that could potentially be lethal. Let’s just stick with pedals for now.)

The next best thing to looking inside a stompbox is to look at pictures of what we lovingly refer to as “pedal guts.” They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so rather than using a thousand words to describe what I mean, let’s look at the pictures below instead.

The first photo is of my beloved circa-’79 Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, and inside it you can get a glimpse of traditional “through-hole” electronics on a single-sided printed circuit board (PCB). Here you can see most of the components found in the majority of guitar pedals. For the uninitiated, resistors are the green things with colored stripes that are standing on end, electrolytic capacitors are the tall lightand dark-blue cylinders, film capacitors are the big green and reddish-brown things that look like Chiclets gum, and transistors look like little black beans. If you look carefully, you can also see ceramic capacitors, a few diodes, and (hiding in the electronic underbrush) a Texas Instruments RC4558P IC chip.

The Electro-Harmonix POG2, on the other hand, is a cool pedal that incorporates digital signal-processing circuitry. It makes more sense to use SMDs in effects like this.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got old-school devices like the above gut shot of a vintage Marshall Supa Fuzz, which proudly sports three Mullard OC75 germanium transistors. That’s hot!

It’s good to know what goes into making your tone. These pictures (along with your own research) should help provide a visual reference for our future discussions. With an open mind and enough willingness, you can easily learn enough to be informed without giving up all your valuable time to practice and play music. We’ll get more into various types of electronic components next time. Until then, keep on stompin’!

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The points most often discussed when comparing boutique versus mass-produced products are, first, the method of production and, second, the type and quality of components.

The MXR Custom Shop '76 Vintage Dyna Comp is an example of the handwired reissue MXR pedals Dunlop is building in its Custom Shop.
Last month we raised the question, “What is boutique?” Exploring this topic, we discovered that as the stompbox market has changed and grown, the term’s meaning has become vague and imprecise. We also found it’s not as easy as it once was to outline a set of standards that would qualify a particular product as boutique. Now, let’s see if we can reevaluate the meaning of boutique, both as a concept and a definition, to better understand its relevance in today’s market.

The points most often discussed when comparing boutique versus mass-produced products are, first, the method of production and, second, the type and quality of components. Let’s look at the method of production first.

Most people assume that mass production involves the use of automated machinery for the purpose of rapidly assembling products in high volume. Cheap labor may also be employed, and it is usually performed by unskilled individuals with little understanding of the end product. And of course, the majority of mass-produced products these days happens in China. This view, while not inaccurate, is a somewhat oversimplified generalization.

A similarly simplified view, however, is the idealized notion of the lone boutique builder, performing daring feats of electronic wizardry while working feverishly on his next groundbreaking sonic innovation. He’s had a soldering iron in his hand since he was 7, and his point-to-point turret-board work is an architectural wonder to behold. He uses nothing but new-old-stock parts in all his builds— the best of the best of the best. Finally, he makes his own enclosures by bending a sheet of metal with his bare hands, and then paints it himself to create a one-of-a-kind artistic masterpiece. This is an exaggerated depiction, no doubt. The truth is usually far less glamorous, and in some cases isn’t much removed from what most mega-corporations are doing, the only difference being in scale.

At this point, an explanation of the most common mass-production techniques currently used in electronics may be in order. Traditional methods of automated assembly involve the use of “pick-and-place” machines, automatic insertion, and wave soldering. These techniques have been commonplace since the 1970s. Yet, while an entire printed circuit board could be populated and soldered through automation, quite a bit of off-board wiring (of pots, jacks, and switches) was also needed, and this work required an individual skilled in electronics assembly. We should note here that more than a few of these anonymous solder jockeys undoubtedly rack up far more experience than many of our beloved boutique heroes.

Some of the larger manufacturers eventually developed designs that would allow virtually all the hardware to be soldered directly to the circuit board, thus eliminating the need for any skilled labor whatsoever. Many products by Dunlop and Danelectro, for example, have all the electronic and mechanical components soldered directly to the PCB. So final assembly would then require little more than popping the fully functioning pedal guts into an empty enclosure. And these companies are not alone—dozens more outfits are doing nearly the same thing. In fact, most big companies that manufacture consumer electronics these days use a similar approach.

Even without the use of automation, the ease and efficiency of eliminating off-board wiring has understandable appeal. This may be why a growing number of larger boutique companies have started using PCB-mounted hardware. However, some purists frown on the idea of allowing any hardware to have direct contact with the PCB. They reason that any user-accessible parts on the outside of the pedal would naturally be subject to the rigors of use and abuse, which could easily cause the board to crack or otherwise be damaged. Critics say the PCB-mounted approach is the hallmark of cheap, disposable electronics. This sentiment has been strong enough to spawn a cottage industry of “re-housing” cheap pedals in more durable enclosures with upgraded hardware.

Now let’s talk about parts. Aside from new-old-stock (NOS) parts, nearly all currently available electronic components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, ICs, etc.) are manufactured in China or, to a lesser extent, Taiwan and Japan. So it’s generally accepted that most pedal manufacturers, boutique or otherwise, will be using at least some components produced in Asia. Electronic hardware such as pots, jacks, switches, knobs—and even die-cast enclosures— now come mainly from the East as well. Today’s global market makes most alternatives impractical or prohibitively expensive, and except in the case of certain specialized products (vintage fuzz replicas, for example), it’s generally not of great concern to consumers.

While the origin of components is usually not in question, the quality of components often is. The best example of this comes into play with effect modification. The whole philosophy is based on the concept of taking a relatively inexpensive, mass-produced pedal and upgrading certain key components. The days of stompbox mods may be limited, however. Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic development in technology that will forever change the way all our gear is made. Surface Mount Technology (SMT) has profoundly altered not only the manufacturing process, but also electronic components themselves.

A full discussion of SMT is outside the scope of this column. The point here is that SMT practically demands automation. Surface Mount Devices (SMDs) do not lend themselves easily to being soldered by hand. And the equipment used for SMT is out of reach for all but the largest manufacturers, which means the work must be outsourced. Though many feel this is the antithesis of boutique, several ostensibly boutique brands have already jumped on the SMT bandwagon. At the same time, a few of the mega-makers have been waving the boutique flag. Danelectro pedals are touting true bypass, and Dunlop now has its Custom Shop making handwired reissue MXR pedals.

Yes, it’s all a bit confusing, and still leaves us wondering what is exactly “boutique.” Perhaps boutique is in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder.

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