March 16, 2023
Guitar pedals are simple beasts for the most part, but there’s plenty to understand when it comes to how they do what they do. You don’t necessarily need to understand them to use them, but a little deeper dive might help achieve the sounds you want quicker, and possibly help you avoid or solve problems faster. Or perhaps you’re just curious. Either way, let’s dive into the anatomy of a guitar pedal here.
There are four main components of a guitar pedal: the enclosure, the connectors, the knobs and/or switches, and the circuit board.
Pedal enclosures are typically made of aluminum or steel and serve to house the electronic components that make up the pedal. The enclosure plays a critical role in protecting the circuit board and other sensitive parts from damage, as well as shielding them from electromagnetic interference. These enclosures are built to be durable and long-lasting, with many featuring a powder-coated finish that resists scratches and corrosion. Enclosures can vary in size depending on the number of components they need to house, but most feature a standard rectangular shape with screw holes for mounting the various parts inside. Carvin’s MACH100 100W Stereo Pedal Amp, for example, is housed in a standard 2.9”x4.9”x1.7” enclosure.
Obviously, the knobs give you control over settings on your pedal such as volume, tone, gain, modulation, wet/dry mix, and so on. Control knobs are typically standard potentiometers with plastic tops. Meanwhile, pretty much every pedal is equipped with a footswitch (that’s the point after all!) that you can stomp on while you play to toggle the effect on and off.
Typically made of durable metal, footswitch construction typically starts with the underlying mechanism made of springs, contacts, and wiring, all of which must withstand years of maniacal stomping. The interface portion (the part you mash) is usually built as a super durable metal button, but can also be a bigger mechanism covering the width of the enclosure, such as in certain classic distortion pedals.
There are two basic categories of footswitch: momentary and latching. A latching switch, such as the one on the MACH100, is a simple toggle. Press it once, the effect stays on. Press it again, it turns off. A momentary switch only stays engaged while you hold it down. Think wah pedals or tremolo as examples.
On most pedals, you’ll find quarter-inch tip-sleeve (aka mono) female jacks for input and output. Typical single-channel effects pedals have one input and output, but you could find any number of other jacks. For example, Carvin’s VLD1 Legacy Drive Preamp Pedal has mono input and output jacks as well as a bypass jack and an extra footswitch input.
Input can be taken from the guitar or from another pedal (designed this way so you can chain them), and output can go to another pedal or to a direct box like Carvin’s FDR60 for interface with a sound system.
Generally, inputs have high impedance levels and outputs have low impedance levels. The reason this is good to understand: you can indeed use the wrong cable. To bottom line it, use instrument cables, not speaker cables. You’re not going to blow yourself up using mismatched cabling, but you could severely affect your sound quality.
The circuit board is the heart of any pedal. The board contains all electrical components such as transistors, capacitors, resistors, diodes and integrated circuits (ICs). They’re typically made from fiberglass or phenolic material with copper traces that connect the components together. The components are soldered onto the board and connected to each other via these traces.
There are two main types of circuit board designs for guitar pedals: through-hole and surface mount. Through-hole designs have larger component leads that pass-through holes in the board and are soldered on both sides. Surface mount designs have smaller components that sit on top of the board and are soldered to pads on one side.
Pedals are rugged and built to withstand rough handling, but that doesn’t mean circuit boards are indestructible. Some care is necessary. It's important to keep the board clean and free of debris or moisture that could cause damage or interfere with connections. So keep your pedals dry, blow the dust out occasionally, and avoid touching the board with your fingers as oils from your skin can cause corrosion over time.
And that’s about it! Guitar pedals are pretty simple creatures on the surface, but underneath there’s quite a bit that goes into them. It doesn’t take an electrical engineer to use one, of course, but having a basic understanding of what your pedal is made of is at least a little fun, and can help you maximize the life and function of your rig.
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