Tonefiend DIY Club: Project 1, Part 1

Okay, DIYers—get ready for Part 1 of our first project.

Warning: It ends with a bang!

Download the step-by-step instructions here. (You might want to print out a copy to use on your workbench.) Post any thoughts, questions, or curses in comments.

60 comments to Tonefiend DIY Club: Project 1, Part 1

  • I just finished reading thru the first lesson. Joe did a great job explaining things (which is much more difficult than it seems from the outside). There are a couple of things I do think would be valuable to add:

    1. First and foremost it should be stressed over and over to wear eye protection while soldering as solder can some time splash when heated and that is bad for the eye. I wear glasses and in 40 years of electronics work have scraped solder off the lens of my glasses many times. Also tools like wire cutters can occasionally launch a bit of wire at you. Beyond that there are other hazards like exploding capacitors etc.

    2. A way to limit the current from the power supply in case a mistake is made in wiring that creates a short circuit. This can save your power supply from burning up. This would be necessary even with a battery since a battery can actually produce several amps of current for short periods. A simple method to do this would be to insert a resistor in series with the + side of the power supply. On my service bench I actually use small light bulbs to limit current and protect things. Light bulbs work really well for this since you get a visual indication of a problem (the light bulb lights up). Also light bulbs are good because they actually change resistance as the heat up allowing the circuit to work normally even if the circuit draws a bit of current normally. In the case of this circuit a 9 volt lamp that draws 30-50 miliamps or so should work OK. I use lamps that have 2 wire leads for this purpose in my shop. {I actually even have light bulbs I put in series with the AC line when I am testing guitar amps it saves a lot of burned parts if there are still problems. Some techs use variacs for this purpose but IMHO they are not good due to a lot of technical reasons.} I will try to come up with a Radio Shack number for an appropriate lamp if you are interested.

    3. Test leads that come with most multi-meters are many times frustrating to use because the tips are dull. This a problem because all electrical connections have a very thin film of oxidation that acts like an insulator so the probe needs to break thru that to make a connection. Real professional probes are as sharp as needles to avoid this, in fact the used to make probes that used the steel needles for old phonographs as interchangeable tips. I also much prefer having the negative side be a alligator clip so you don’t have to juggle 2 probes at a time ( it is also safer as it is easy to cause a short with the probe). I also like to keep everything but just the tip of my probes insulated to avoid shorts (I use heat shrink tubing for this). This is one of my long time pet peeves.
    Sorry to be an old worry wart but I’ve seen some bad things happen in my career and they are easy to prevent.


    • joe

      What he said! 🙂

      Matthew, thank you SOOOO much for chiming in. I’m counting on smart, experienced guys like you to compensate for my vast areas of ignorance. Thanks for the excellent tips!

      • Your welcome. Don’t underestimate what you are doing here, your “my vast areas of ignorance” is actually an asset. Technical folk like myself write articles like yours but take many things for granted that are second nature to us. Someone like you is actually better able to communicate with the intended reader. In other words I believe you are better equipped to write these lessons than someone like I am and have them be understood by your target audience. Please keep up the good work.

  • Swen

    Put it together this afternoon. I’m getting a lot of hum with very little undistorted guitar. I checked my wiring several times. Hmmm.

    R3 is labeled 470R. Is that 470 ohms?

    Thanks for doing this.

    • joe

      Yes, “R” means ohms, for some dumb reason. 😉

      Double check your transistor connection, and make sure it’s oriented the right way around. If you snap a pic and upload it to a photo-sharing site and post a link, I’ll take a look. The circuit
      should be uncomfortably loud and distorted.

  • Swen

    I’ve rebuilt a couple times. Checking my resistor values each time. Let’s see if this link wil work with my photos.

    Thanks Joe,

  • Swen

    Well I found my problem. Typical Noob mistake. It seems that on my breadboard, the bus strips(?) for power and ground are split at the center of the board so no power was getting to the circuit. Move the battery connections to the other end of the board, and now it works.

    • joe

      I was JUST coming online to suggest exactly that after looking at your pics. Dang—I thought I’d come off as a great problem-solver, but you beat me too it! I should have mentioned that some breadboards split the bus that way. If it’s any consolation, you figured it out a lot faster than I did when it happened to me the first time!

    • Dirtbagg

      Swen, that’s good to know. I’m waiting for the rest of my parts and I’ll check mine too.

  • Swen

    I was really getting frustrated. I ALMOST started to doubt your design. But I knew it had to be me somehow.


    • joe

      LOL — you should ALWAYS doubt my designs! 😉

      But in this case, I’m glad it worked out. What you’re hearing so far is NOT what you’d call a refined sort of distortion (though I think it sounds pretty cool, actually). In Part 2, which I’ll post in the coming days, we’ll finesse the sound a bit more.

      In the meantime, try popping in the other transistors. The 2N5088 and 2N5089 share the same pinout as the 2N3904. Hear any notable differences?

      Thanks for hanging in there!

  • Swen

    I can’t say that I really hear a noticeable difference. Although it’s difficult to tell given the time it takes to swap out the transistors. Should I hear much difference.

    • joe

      Naw, it’s fairly subtle. And here, at maximum gain settings, the tone is so blown out that it’s even more subtle than it might be. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but while I get my act together with Part 2, there are two more things to try: Change C1 from a 104 to a 673 (less bass, and hence slightly more restrained distortion) and 473 (the same but more so). Also, try swapping the 470R cap with a 10K, or anything else in between. Less gain!

  • Swen

    I want to thank you so much for doing this. I’ve been reading a book ( a real one, with paper, and a cover!) It gets a little deep and theoretical, but being able to play with real components helps to get it into my thick skull. So thanks again for taking the time and effort to share with us.


    • joe

      Hey Swen — thanks a lot for your kind words!

      Trust me, I’ve been. I’ve been playing guitar since the Pleistocene EraI was very young, but I’ve only been doing this DIY stuff for a couple of years. The tutorials that helped me get started were the extremely boneheaded simple and clear ones.

  • Chad

    Mr. Gore,
    I am really excited about this series. I think you are doing a great job of breaking this down into manageable chunks that I think is really helpful for this of us who consider ourselves noobs. I can’t wait for the next installment.

  • Strings_Things

    Hey Joe,

    ran across Tone Fiend last night …. excellent idea! … i like your style of presenting information in the PDF file … i only have one suggestion: the schematic seems to suggest that the transistor has four connections ( the connections to the collector are separated ) …

    it appears as if you’ll be introducing a potentiometer next … and then your students will be able to get an understanding of resistors …

    to anyone that’s starting out doing this: don’t worry about not understanding all the technical stuff … build, create, enjoy, and if you make a mistake, that’s only part of the process …

    • Dirtbagg

      String_Things, I saw the same thing, but if you read the directions it tells you which resistors connect to the transistor and which don’t.

      I had to re-read to be clear.

      Keep rocking Joe.

    • joe

      Thanks for the tips, guys. I’m going to post a revised version of Project 1, Part 1, incorporating all your suggestions, along with Project 1, Part 2. Later today, if my brain is working properly! 🙂

  • Danny

    Just completed part one successfully! Yes!!

    At first, though, after plugging it all in, I had forgotten to remove the jumper that I used to go straight from the input to output (to test the jacks) 😛

  • Swen

    I kinda like it with the 473 in C1.

    • joe

      For good reason! In its raw form, the distortion is way too loud and wooly. The smaller 473 cap trims the lows, so they don’t swamp the sound, and also dials back the gain a notch.

      Congrats! You’re ahead of us, and you’ve learned one of the main lessons of Project 1, Part 2, which I hope to post later today. 🙂

  • el reclusa

    Can’t wait to get my feet wet, but between coursework, day job work, a pleasantly unexpected west coast trip soon, and the 1,001 other things that always seem to happen every time I think I’m gonna catch my breath, looks like I won’t have time to dig in until mid-December. The point is, you guys be sure to post lots about mistakes so I can avoid them! 🙂

    Seriously, though, really looking forward to it, when free time presents itself. Somebody post some clips of works in progress please!

    • joe

      Come on, man! Get your priorities straight! Work, family, education and life OR a hand-built fuzzbox? The choice seems pretty clear to me! 😉

      No problem on those mistakes, starting with the ones I made in the Project 1, Part 1 PDF, which I’ll be revising shortly.

  • BroKen

    Kewl! My first project kit and breadboard kit just got here from Mammoth…I’m good to go! With luck, I’ll be ready for Part 2 tomorrow, and hope you do get it posted tonight,Joe. Thanks again for the great intro to DIY guitar electronics, and for a gr8 site overall!

  • Swen

    Can’t Wait!! No, really I can’t.

  • BroKen

    Ah, sweet success! Many thanks to Swen for pointing out the split-breadboard dilemma; I suffered the same frustration, but thanks to you, only momentarily. Since Joe has bailed on us for the evening, guess I’ll “audition” some of the other optional transistors. Boy, does this rig sound phat! Thanks, and have a gr8 nite, y’all! BroKen signing off.

  • BroKen

    The 2N3904 trannie really hits the spot for me. Playing a custom T-type with an SD Seth Lover “PAF”-style humbucker at the neck and a single-coil bridge, the volume knob is letting me dial up as much golden dirt as I like. Like you, Swen, I can’t wait for Part 2!

  • BroKen

    Kudos on very clear directions, Joe. I was able to successfully complete Part 2 in about an hour, and I am a tOtal newb! One question: are we going to be using the 1N34A Germanium diode in Projects 2 or 3? I really liked the sound of it in this circuit; should I order additional? Something tells me I’m going to need to stock up on a range of components to play, I mean experiment, with. This could get addictive. Thanks!

    • joe

      Thanks, BroKen—believe me, you’re picking this stuff up way faster than I did. The germanium diode isn’t earmarked for anything in particular, though it’s one option to audition in Project 2. To be honest, it’ll probably sound better in Project 1, and if you’re digging it, I wouldn’t think twice about soldering it into the perfboard when we get to part 3.

      But if you can afford it, and think this might be an ongoing hobby, I encourage you to stock your workbench. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that a lot of parts that might cost 20 cents or so when purchased individually only cost a couple of cents when purchased in larger quantities.

      When I was starting out a few year ago, I found this list by Aron at DIY stompboxes quote helpful:

      His info about vendors is a few years out of date. Small Bear has really come of age, and been joined by Mammoth, Pedal Parts Plus, and other cool stompbox specialists. Meanwhile, Mouser remains a great source for the non-specialized stuff. Aron’s list of parts to keep on hand still holds up really well.

      Also, I believe I’ve mentioned the Futurlec Value Packs:


      The prices are unbeatable, but the stuff takes weeks and weeks to arrive from Asia.

      Jameco’s component cabinet kits are also a great value:

  • BroKen

    Aron’s list is just the kind of “keep in stock” inventory I was looking for. I was kinda blindly groping around the various resource sites yesterday, without a clue as to what would be handy/useful/sensible. Many thanks.

  • Nuno Carmona

    Hey Joe! Thanks for these series of posts. This is gold!

  • Tonechaser

    Hey all I’ve stumbled upon this a little late but would love to try the builds. Problem is all of the directions pages are blank. Am I doing something wrong? This really is a great idea. I’ve been looking for something like this to give me a little help getting started building pedals. It can be quite intimidating.

  • Lefty

    This is just too much fun! Besides… it’s pretty informative because I always wanted to learn a little about electronics.

  • joe! i just came across your blog, and i posted a little topic over at FSB to spread the word. great way to get these guys on breadboards straight away. who knows how many hours i wasted before i got on mine. now it’s my favorite place to be. i like the cheap guitar pickup article, too!

  • This will most definitely be my error, but I appear to be getting all amplification and no distortion. I’m trying to build using scavenged parts so this could be the issue (I quite like the idea of a ‘salvage pedal’) but everything I’ve used appears to match the instruction spec. Any ideas as to where I’m going wrong? (I’m going to go buy the proper parts tommorow)

    • I seem t have got it working, but there seems to be a lot of current that ‘leaks’ through the breadboard (I.e. I still get signal through even if I connect the signal wire to the opposite end of the board to everthing else and connect nothing else to it. Anyone else had this problem? I imagine the difference with the diodes would be more profound without this leakage?

  • Brent

    This was my first try at making a pedal and came out great. I love the tone.

    I am thinking of building another in a larger box and putting a vari-tone in the same box, before the distortion circuit. Any idea what I could use for an inductor in the vari-tone circuit?

    • joe

      Hey Brent — so glad it worked out for you! It’s so simple, but sounds so good…

      Hey, thanks for making me think of Vari-Tones. I should do an entire post on that. Here’s a typical schematic, as I understand it [see attached]. Not sure what you allude to regarding the inductor — it’s really just a tone switch that flicks between different capacitors, as opposed to a pot that fades in varying amounts of capacitance.

      Anyway, check out note #1 on page 19 of the project PDF:

      1. The circuit is quite fat-sounding—maybe too fat. You can tighten it (at the expensive of some overall gain) by lowering the value of C1 from 104 to 683. (Yes, that is a smaller value, for reasons that will become clear if you Google “capacitor values.”) You might even want to go down to a 473.

      That’s exactly the same thing — just add a few more capacitor values, distributed alone a rotary switch. In other words: replace C1 with a rotary pot featuring as many different caps as you like (let’s call them C1a, C1b, etc.) Should work great.

      Since the caps are soldered directly to the switch, it shouldn’t even take up much more room — you could still fit it into a small box.

      Most of the other Tonefiend DIY projects make use of this idea: i.e., using varying input cap values as a pre-gain tone control. Works great! 🙂

      • josh

        Woah I love the idea of the switch! How hard would it be to do this with the three different transistors? I suppose much more complicated…

        Thanks for the great articles! I have been building BYOC pedals but never really totally understood what I was doing. I’m loving the breadboard and customizing the pedal for my guitar / amp setup. Brilliant! 

        • joe

          A stompbox transistor switcher isn’t actually that hard — here’s a diagram of how to do it using a standard 3PDT:

          Doing it with three transistors would require more complex switching. The trick is, you have to switch all three transistor connections at once, as opposed to the capacitor switcher in the Vari-Tone, where only one connection needs to be switched.

          My advice: Pick your TWO favorite transistors on a 3PDT. It doesn’t need to be a footswitch — they also make toggle 3PDTs.

          • josh

            Awesome. That seems straight forward enough. I could use the LED hole for a 3PDT toggle.

            Quick questions: that article says 
            Change from silicon to germanium transistors with a flick of the switch !

            I thought silicon and germanium were diodes?

          • joe

            Like diodes, transistors come in both flavors. Theoretically, you could switch between a germanium and a silicon transistor in a circuit, though I practice, the tend not to both sound great in a given circuit without adjusting other values as well. (Just my opinion.)

            But the transistor switch would work GREAT in this project for, say, selecting between a super-high-gain 2N5089, and a more restrained 2N3904. A great mod, IMHO. 🙂

  • Brent

    From what I have been able to find out, Gibson uses an inductor in their Vari-tones to retain highs as the various capacitors are connected. My idea was to incorporate the varitone before the footswitch so that it can be used as a standard vari-tone when the distorion is off. Thus the larger box.

    (You may have created a monster!)

  • Christopher Haugan Lyngedal

    Hi! I was going to order stuff from Mammoth electronics, however, I couldn’t find the 470R resistor. Does 470R translate to other “names” as well? Like 4.7k or whatever?

    • joe

      R is a symbol for “ohms,” just like the Greek omega symbol. A 470R is one-tenth the value of a 4.7K resistor.

      You might see this value written as: 470R, 470Ω, or 470 ohms.

      Cool resistor trick: When you combine two resistors in series, you get resistance equal to the sum of there values. If you didn’t have a 470R handy, you could combine, say, a 100R and a 330R for a total resistance of 430 — which would probably work just fine in most cases.

  • Christopher Haugan Lyngedal

    Thanks! 😀

  • Christopher Haugan Lyngedal

    The diodes mentioned in part 2 of this project are not on the electronic component list in part 1 :O
    Should they be?

  • Armando

    Mine isn’t distorting. It’s sounding more like a boost. I don’t know what I did wrong.

  • Batman

    So, i’ve done building it with 473 c1 and b10k gain pots. But it’s still sounded muddy and bassy. I’ve tried to serialize the c1 caps to get lower values but there’s still mud left. And when i plugged in a strat, it’s acting more like a boost than distortion. Pls help :/

    • Batman

      Also, this is my first time building a pedal. And i tested things out straight to the mixer with all equalization knobs at 12 o’clock, except gain knob which is at zero.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




Click to upload a JPG

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.