Fun with Onboard Boosters!

Put more ELECTRIC in your guitar!

Lately I’ve been obsessed with mounting boosters inside my electric guitars.

Why bother? Especially when you can just get a clean-boost stompbox and use it on all your guitars? Because:

    a) certain guitars just seem to sound best with a particular boost circuit;
    b) you can “play” the booster by riding the gain setting, and;
    c) why leave well enough alone when there’s an exciting opportunity to screw things up?

Two examples: a squeaky-clean boost inside a lipstick tube Strat (which I previously wrote about here), and a dirty little germanium overdrive inside an old Les Paul (a guitar I previously wrote about here).

Listen to the results!

We recently built a simple clean boost circuit in tonefiend DIY Club, and I mounted one inside a Gretsch baritone guitar (you can hear the results toward then end of this video I posted a few weeks ago.).

The Firestorm uses the same circuit as Seymour Duncan

This time around, I used a pre-made booster circuit, a little-known Seymour Duncan gizmo called the Firestorm, which has appeared as an onboard booster in some Jackson guitars. It’s the same circuit found in Duncan’s Pickup Booster pedal, minus the resonance switch. It’s a great-sounding circuit that strikes a nice balance between brightness and fatness. I had a hunch it would sound perfect in the lipstick-tube Strat, preserving the cool high-end content, but adding the extra oomph that, to my ear, is necessary to make the lipstick tubes really sing.

In the Gretsch installation, the booster didn’t include a gain control — I simple connected it to a push/pull pot, and set the level with the guitar’s volume pot. But the Firestorm includes its own dedicated gain control, plus an activation switch. I could have desoldered the device and installed it as before. Instead, I rewired the Strat for single volume/single tone (come on — does anybody really use both tone knobs on a Strat?) and replaced one of the tone pots with the Firestorm.

Take a tip from someone who learned the hard way: Verify that you have room inside the guitar for the components and a 9v battery before embarking on a project like this. Luckily, you can tuck the battery between the 5-way switch and the pots on a standard Strat.

The soldering was easy. The only tricky bit was drilling a hole for the switch. You can’t remove a misplaced pickguard hole! If you screw up — well, that’s another great thing about stickers.

Dang, I love the results! The booster highlights the pickup’s treble sparkle, and there’s enough gain on tap to get yourself in serious trouble. I think it’s the liveliest, most expressive lipstick-tube guitar I’ve ever played.

The Les Paul was an entirely different project. Unlike the lipstick tube Strat, ears didn’t tell me that its pickups needed a boost to sound their best — these Seth Lovers sound pretty awesome just as is.

Amazing how much crap you can cram into a Les Paul cavity!

But since I pretty much can’t pick up a Les Paul without longing for a Rangemaster-style germanium boost, I resolved to always have one of those dirty-yet-dynamic overdrives within reach. I used the same method as with the Gretsch baritone: I replaced a tone pot with a push/pull, and placed the booster last in the circuit before the output jack. Next time, though, I think I’ll nix a tone pot add a dedicated gain control. (Come on — does anybody really use both tone knobs on a Paul?) :smirk:

Is the time, money and effort justified, when you can get many of the same sounds via stompbox? I’d say yes if you a) like to manipulate gain controls while you play, and b) are confident you’ve found the perfect booster for a particular guitar. Anyway, I’m having a blast with these amped-up axes!

So — has anyone else ventured down this slippery slope picturesque highway?

13 comments to Fun with Onboard Boosters!

  • Aceman

    No – but I was thinking about it.  And now you have me thinking about it again.  I have a Blackout going in a guitar here sometime soon.  I wasn’t sure what to do with the three way switch (single HB guitar).  Now…Off/On/Boost.

    I was aware that Duncan made the pup booster as a stand alone.  That’s what i was going to use. 

    Seriously, when the guitar is on 11, and the amp knobs are all on 11, where can you go?  ‘click’

  • Aceman

    Can I do this with a volume pot only?

    • joe

      Do you mean specifically with the Firestorm? And do you mean NO controls except a single master volume?

      • Aceman

        Yes, and Yes!

        Blackout => Volume => 3 way toggle [firestorm] off, normal, YOWZA => Output jack

        • joe

          Well, you’d need to make a tactical decision: If you want just one volume knob total, and the ability to turn the booster on and off, you’ll have to either a) give up the use of the volume control when not in boost mood, or b) replace the pot in the Firestorm with a fixed resistor and use the regular volume pot to control everything. I’d listen to the Firestorm on breadboard, set the pot to whatever sounds best, desolder it, measure it, and replace it with the resistor nearest that value. It’s easier than it sounds.

          Actually, this is pretty much the strategy I used here in the DIY Clean Boost Project 3 video. It wasn’t a Firestorm — but a clean boost WITHOUT adjustable gain. Works great, actually. I like both methods.

  • Octopus

    I did it once in an old Japanese Squier Strat, 86 maybe. I used a LPB1 schematic with lower values on the input and output capacitors and other transistor. Sounded awsome, but turned it into a pedal cause got a second guitar and it was too damn awsome to just be in one guitar, I’ll put it back in sometime soon, maybe tonight. I did with just a master volume, so it was on all the time, think I’ll use a switch next time.
    It’s easy to do, and if you don’t like it in the guitar you can fine tune it until you like, or just rip it out and turn into a stomp box and use it when you want.

  • Stevie

    I have a couple of active circuits in my guitars & i am always looking for new ones. I have an EMG PA-2 in my BC Rich strat & a little 15dB boost that is wired in at all times in my Ibanez RG-500, it is called GT Nitro Boost &  has a mid boost, flat boost & treble & bass boost, it’s really cool.

  • DohminSemper

    A question. A booster isn’t just make the output louder in volume like turning up the amp?

    • joe

      Like turning up your amp, a booster does make your tone louder. But sending a louder signal TO the amp, as opposed to boosting it in the amp, changes the tone significantly. In the youtube clip above, the boosted sound of the lipstick-tube guitar sounds “clean,” but in fact, has quite a bit more distortion than the unboosted sound.

  • Bryan

    I’ve thought about this a lot, just haven’t done it yet. I’ve got all kinds of ideas for curcuits to do it with, as well as low-z balanced output and phantom power, just to make things complicated. Actually, with the right pickups and internal wiring, a “balanced” guitar might be very useful in noisey club environments. Just a thought.

  • Hey Joe,
    Admittedly I don’t have a lot of experience with onboard boosters, but I DID install an Eric Johnson Preamp into a Strat for a student of mine. I am more of a humbucker guy than a single coil guy, but that preamp turned that Strat into a fire-breathing monster! It replaced one of the tone knobs with a dedicated gain control and I toyed with the idea of trying to buy the guitar from the student, hahah.
    Ever try that one out?

  • Jerry Dunaway

    Joe — regarding placement of the 9V battery, I have two strats that my guitar tech modded for me, both with active controls. I rarely use my tremolo, but even when I do I have found that two of the five springs are sufficient for me. If anyone else finds that to be the case, you can install the battery in the backside routing, which makes for an easier battery change than taking off the entire pickguard. And to keep things from rattling around, I had him install this beauty (and I MIGHT be turning you on to yet another parts source here — check out the rest of their site)…

    http://www.parts-express.com/pe/showdetl.cfm?Partnumber=140-982
     
     

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