Behind The Iron With C. Isaac Nelson (Pt. 3 – Wiring)

Untitled-1For our 3rd installment, I will cover wiring! Let me preface this by saying I hate wiring. Hate! But it is a necessary evil unless you are clever enough to have created a PCB on which all of your hardware can be directly mounted with no wiring needed. If this is the case, you are not new to the pedal building process and are probably smarter than me so stop reading now! For the rest of us though, wiring is a necessary evil. The type of wire usually used is 24AWG stranded hook up wire. It’s small and flexible and takes solder easily. You can use bigger wire but it is harder to fit through many wire connection holes in PCBs and it takes more heat to get the solder to flow on it well. The basics of wiring are simple. The first step, while not essential, can help out with headaches and trouble shooting in the future.

#1 WIRE COLORS: Having many different colors of wires is highly recommended. There is nothing worse than opening up a pedal and seeing 15 black wires. Trouble shooting nightmare! Different colors help you keep track of what is wired to where and makes following wiring diagrams much easier.

#2 Tinning wires: A tinned wire is much easier to solder than a non-tinned wire. Tinned means that you have added solder to the wire before you place it wherever it needs to go. It also helps keep wire strands from fraying out and causing all sorts of problems. Tinning takes some practice because you just want to get enough on there to hold everything together, but not so much to where you have a big blob of solder on the end of the wire. See picture:

A Properly Tinned Wire

A Properly Tinned Wire

Now a good thing to check is the size of the wire hole in your PCB. Some are bigger than others. In some cases, even if you tin it correctly, you may not be able to fit it through the wire connector holes of the PCB, so test it first before you go tinning all of your wires.

#3 Attaching the wire: The correct way (or the way I was taught is correct) is to wrap the wire around the lug, clamp it down, and then solder it, thus creating a mechanical and soldered connection. The faster way is to just lay the wire in the lug hole and solder it in. It’s up to you. On some soldering irons you will need to turn the heat up a bit when connecting to a lug on a input or output jack as the piece of metal is bigger than a PCB wire connection or DC jack/pot connection.

#4 Running wires to the board: Some people attach wires to the hardware first, some to the PCB first. It’s personal preference on what works best for you. I usually find it easier to attach to the hardware first, but that’s just me. The main thing is to get your wires as short as you can. While wire noise isn’t usually a big deal, it is generally agreed that shorter wires cut down on the potential for wire induced noise. Now if you are new to building, you might want to leave them a little longer on your first few builds because you more than likely will need to trouble shoot something and having longer wires so you can look under or flip over the board helps there.

#5 Make it pretty!: This step is EXTREMELY optional. If you are selling this pedal/project to someone, you might want to have nice looking wiring. Some people like a nice sweeping flow to the wiring, some like right angles. I am more of a “Does it work and sound good?” kind of wirer. That is to say, I don’t care what the wiring looks like, as long as it works and doesn’t cause noise. I have worked with people who can make masterpiece pedals by doing very intricate wiring using only their thumbs. I don’t like those people, mainly because even when I try, my wiring looks like day old spaghetti. But have fun with it, be creative.

Next I will cover wiring a true bypass switch. Save your money and do it yourself! 

Behind the Iron With C. Isaac Nelson (Pt. 2 – Installing Hardware)


On to hardware! It’s a pretty simple process but there are some tips that can help out. I usually do pots first because they are normally the lowest profile part when it comes to hardware. I have been asked what to do about the little tab that is on some potentiometers, which is really just to stop them from spinning. If you have holes drilled for that, great! Align the pin to the hole and you are good to go. If you don’t have a hole drilled for it, break it off! It is not necessary, and is often more of a hassle than it’s worth. After the pots, I usually go onto the led bezel. For some reason the LED bezel on many drill layouts fights for room with the DC jack. Do yourself a favor and put the bezel in first. Then install the DC jack, input and output jacks, and the stomp switch.  On the stomp switch, use the two nuts that come on the stomp switch to adjust the height up or down inside the enclosure. You might also go ahead and install a 9V battery snap into your pedal as well (sometimes it can be really helpful to not have to rely on a power source being available)

Quick tip on trouble shooting that has to do with hardware. When you install an input or output jack, it might seem like it has enough clearance from the bottom of the enclosure. if the hole has been drilled to low, then when you put a plug in, the prong may bend enough to touch the enclosure and short out your audio signal. You either need to change the orientation of the pot, adjust the hole position upwards, or put some sort of protective piece (thin plastic, business card, electrical tape) under the prong to insulate it from the case.

Another time this can happen is if the jack gets turned when you are tightening it and the prong hits up against the metal part of the stomp switch, that will ground out your signal out as well.

And speaking of grounding out, another hardware problem that accounts for quite a few dead pedals sitting in closets is the pot turning and touching the side of the case. If you were messing with a pedal one day, turning knobs and what not, and suddenly your pedal goes dead, open it up. More than likely you will see a pot that has spun internally and is now touching the side of the case or another pot. Just straighten it out and it should work just fine.

On the next installment of ‘Behind the Iron’, we’ll talk about wiring. I hate wiring passionately, but it must be done!


The Nitty Gritty On Distortion Pedals

Hello All. Since we just released our new (and dare I say great?) distortion kit this week, the Dust Bowl Distortion kit, I figured I would talk about distortion effects for the new pedal builders out there. I was trying to think of how to talk about distortion without doing the “distortion vs. overdrive” thing but they are so intertwined it is almost impossible. So here it goes. Distortion effects are basically the extreme versions of overdrive effects.  Now some fairly consistent differences between distortions and overdrives that I have seen over the years are these (Note that these are not absolutes! I’m sure there are overdrives that can get insanely distorted and distortion pedals that can clean up perfectly. Feel free to list those in the comments below!)

  1. Distortion pedals don’t usually clean up as well as overdrives. Basically if an overdrive effect is designed to go from 0 to 10 on the amount of distortion it can produce, a distortion effect is geared to go from 4 to 14. Since their circuits are usually made to give the most distortion possible, even when the distortion control is turned all the way down, it will still be a little distorted. Or it just won’t sound very good. Normally an overdrive with the drive control turned all the way down will still have a pleasant, useable tone.
  2. Distortions usually emphasize the midrange a little less than overdrives, or have a “scooped” sound as in they cut the mid-range frequencies. This gives many distortions very buzzy highs and very chunky lows, which makes for heavy rocking action! On the other hand, overdrives tend to emphasize the mid-range frequencies, often described as having a mid-range “hump”. This gives it a very smooth, easy on the ears sound that cuts through well and is good for leads.
  3. Circuit wise (and as stated before, this is not always the case) it seems like a lot of the time, distortion pedals create their clipping via diodes after the signal leaves the IC. In overdrives, that diode clipping usually occurs within the feedback loop of the IC. I’m sure there are a myriad of exceptions, but in general, this seems to be true. Other circuits achieve the distortion without diodes at all by just pushing ICs and transistors to the point of distortion.

The good thing about distortion kits for new builders is that they are usually not very complicated. They normally don’t have very many parts, very much hard ware, or any complex wiring. So go check out our Dustbowl Distortion kit or any of the awesome distortion kits from GuitarPCB, GrindCustomsFX, Tonefiend.  Now go build your own distortion kit and go rock someone’s face off.

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The Down-Low On The Wah-Wah

So for the people new to building your own guitar pedals, let’s talk Wah-Wah pedals. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Slash, 70’s porn,  The voice of any grown up in a Charlie Brown cartoon. These are just a few places where you might have heard one of the most, if not the most popular guitar effects of all time.  How does it work? Well to put it laymen’s terms (of which I mostly am one), most wah circuits, through a strange relationship between the wah inductor, a capacitor, and a transistor, create a resonant frequency peak. By moving the wah pedal up and down via the treadle connected to a potentiometer, you are moving the peak up and down the frequency spectrum, which creates the very vocal “wah” effect. If you want to get deep into wah technology, check out this article from R.G. Keen that will tell you more than you ever needed to know about how wah pedals work. Prepare for math!

So, what can you do to help out your wah pedal? A big step is giving it true bypass switching. Wah pedals are notorious tone suckers so true bypassing them can really bring the life back to your clean signal. I will cover all things true bypass in a soon to come blog, so be on the lookout for that.

Sometimes you can improve a wah by changing the pot. Changing the pot taper or value can have a big impact on sound. Many boutique wah pedals come with ICAR or “S” taper pots that have a sweep that emphasizes many wah circuits and is very popular.  Our new Weeping Willow Wah circuit seems to sound the best (in my opinion) with a B taper pot. Vox wahs come standard with an A taper pot. Try out some different values and see which one works best for you.

A different inductor like our ME-6 inductor can give a circuit that little extra something it was missing. Other popular inductors are Fasel, Whipple, and Halo inductors. They all offer something a little different, although some are WAY more expensive than others. There are also those that say that the inductor really doesn’t matter that much at all and that the “magical” effects of certain inductors are all hype. I won’t get into that here but feel free to debate each other in the comment section below (be nice!).

So as you can see, if you aren’t that impressed with the $20 wah pedal you got at the pawn shop, there are several ways to spruce it up and tailor it to give you the sound you want. Or you can build your own wah pedal very easily via a wah kit that you can get at Mammoth Electronics, including the very versatile MoWah Kit from GuitarPCB, the rocking KWAWK wah kit from GrindCustoms, or our very own Weeping Willow Wah kit.

If  you haven’t ever messed with a wah, give it a shot. There aren’t a lot of parts and most parts are pretty easy to replace and experiment with. I will have some in depth videos/blogs on how to replace wah inductors, pots, and true bypass wahs in the near future so if you are stumped, just hold on a bit!

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Check this out! The newly revamped Super 70’s kit from Guitar PCB! An all in one tone machine featuring fuzz, overdrive, and a clean boost to push it all over the top. Here is how Barry from Guitar PCB describes it-

“In the early 70’s, fuzz was king. The fuzz portion of this board is highly “playable,” meaning that the response and dynamics can be controlled by pick attack and the guitar’s volume control.  Later in the 70’s the warm tubey crunch of a mildly pushed amp became highly desirable. The overdrive section of this pedal provides these tones. And best yet, you can mix the sounds of the overdrive, fuzz and booster in any number of combinations. Recreate tones produced by Jimmy Page, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Johnson, all from one box. This board provides the best variety of playable sounds from the 70’s.”

Here is the demo video we shot for it with our own guys throwing down some tasty licks. Get a fully customizable Guitar PCB Super 70’s kit right here at Mammoth Electronics.

Behind The Iron With C. Isaac Nelson (Pt. 1)


Some general guidelines for building an effects pedal kit for the first time: For the N00bs!

First off­—it always helps to make sure the kit that you are going to build has instructions that you understand. Most kit makers have good instructions and wiring diagrams to make everything as easy as possible.  Beware ever buying a kit with no instructions. There’s nothing worse than spilling out a random bag of parts, a bread board, and an enclosure only to think “Hey, I have no idea where any of this stuff goes!” You may be thinking “Well Isaac, that’s just common sense.” But believe you me; it happens.

Secondly—make sure you have some decent tools.  Don’t try building a kit with some dull scissors and blow torch—it will not turn out well! You don’t have to get anything fancy, but good tools make every job easier. When it comes to soldering irons, I recommend Weller or Hakko. I try to avoid the RadioShack “plug directly into the wall” style. If this is all you have, you can still make it work, but you may end up with a fried pad or two (or a hole in your desk.) Here’s a list of tools that aren’t to expensive that will make your life easier:

• The aforementioned soldering iron (The brands Weller and Hakko are both good).

Wire strippers and wire cutters (Excelite is a good brand for these tools).

• A screwdriver, almost any regular Phillips head screwdriver will do (We are talking about the tool here, not the alcoholic beverage, although that doesn’t hurt).

• A digital multi-meter (Again, you don’t need this if you do everything perfectly the first time, which some of you do. I, on the other hand, like to make things interesting and regularly make mistakes on my builds. A multi-meter is a tremendously useful tool in trouble shooting problems in effects pedals. There are good ones available for not very much money at RadioShack, Harbor Freight, or on the web. I will go over what you need in a multi-meter in a future post because they can do a lot).

• An adjustable wrench is very handy. That, or a socket set. Don’t scratch your new shiny enclosure (that you got at Mammoth Electronics of course!) by tightening your input jack with some needle nose pliers.


Tools Of The Trade


*Look for the next installment of ‘Behind The Iron…’ in the next few days!*

Tectonic Compressor Demo Video

The Tectonic Compressor gives you easy to use, transparent compression that works well with single coil and lower output humbucker guitars. Based on a compression unit from the 70’s, it is an “opto-compressor” because of its use of an optocoupler in the circuit.

If you are new to guitar effects, you may be asking yourself, “What does a compressor do?”  The simple way to think of it is that it basically tries to make all of the frequencies in your signal the same volume level, or in other words it “compresses” the frequencies into a certain range. So, if the low frequencies are not very loud, it raises the volume of those to where you want and if the high frequencies are too loud, it squishes them down to be even with the lows. The other effect of the compressor is that when it makes all of the frequencies the same level, it tries to keep them at that level as long as it can, which gives the effect of your note lasting longer or “sustaining”. Hence you see many compressors with a “Sustain” control on them. This is basically the intensity of the compressor effect. Turn it down and you get a little compression and a little more sustain of your notes, turn it up and you get more volume, more sustain, and a really squashed sound. Some compressors have several controls that can control the attack, release, and ratio of the compression as well. A normal good starting point with a compressor is just volume and sustain knobs at noon.

So to smooth out your sound and get better sustain for lead work without much effect on the tone of your guitar, a good compressor is the way to go.

Q&A With Barry Steindel From


State your name and business!
Barry Steindel –

Where is your company based out of?
Keystone State of Pennsylvania

Favorite color?

What is your favorite effect pedal of all time?
The Wah, for its many uses and versatility.

What do you think is the most influential pedal of all time?
The Fuzz Face circuit which inspired years of progress, varieties, mojo and guitar heroes.

What is the first effect pedal you ever built?
Something from Electronic Projects for Musicians?

Is there another company or builder out there that you admire or has influenced you in how you design your effects?
Tonmann, Craig Anderton, and many others.

In your opinion, are there such things as “magic parts” like germanium transistors, hand spun inductors, or ICs from a certain year or is it all hype?
The Magic, or Mojo is all in what you hear & perceive.

Do you have a favorite Spinal Tap saying?
Of course, “But this one goes to eleven.”

Buffered or True bypass?
A good buffer is essential with True Bypass in harmony. Like a Barber Shop Quartet.

What is your most important piece of equipment or tool on your work bench?
My Soldering Station

What circuit/effect have you made that you are most proud of?
The Stage 3 Booster

Any advice for people just starting out building effects?
Read, Print, look at pictures and practice till you get it just right. When you come across a problem go to the right places where you are made to feel comfortable to ask basic questions. GuitarPCB, BYOC etc…

Where can people go to purchase your stuff?!