How to Install Onboard Effects

UPDATE: I’ve added a page listing all the “How To” posts on this site. Just click the cleverly titled How-To Posts Are Here! box at upper-right of each page.

There’s got to be a better way!

Several readers asked for more specific tech advice on how to wire up battery-powered effects inside a guitar or bass, so I created a step-by-step tutorial, which you can download here.

Some historical background: Since the ’60s, many guitar companies have toyed with the notion of installing battery-operated effects inside guitars.

And “toyed” is probably the perfect verb for it. Onboard effects have earned a reputation as cheesy, low-budget products. In many cases this reputation is justified. (And sometimes it’s not — the Electra guitars of the ’80s were never particularly popular, but their simple onboard distortion circuit has generated hundreds of “boutique” clones, not to mention our own Bad-Ass Distortion project).

And why would you want to put an effect inside a guitar or bass? You can use a stompbox with any electric instrument, but an onboard effect is married to one axe till solder-do-they-part.

I have an ironclad rebuttal to such concerns: 

Whatever.

There are many reasons you might consider mounting effects inside a guitar. Maybe you like playing through a particular booster 100% of the time, whether you’re Brian May, or just someone who can’t stand the sound of single-coils without a little extra oomph. Maybe you want to be able to manipulate controls on the fly without scuttling around on the floor. Or maybe you just want to freak people out by activating a hidden fuzz-bomb circuit on an innocuous-looking guitar.

Which was precisely my motive in installing a fuzz circuit inside a Hello Kitty Stratocaster, as demoed here. I’ve posted similar experiments before, like the onboard clean boost I put in a Gretsch baritone guitar, or the germanium-driven Rangemaster I embedded in the Pagey Project Les Paul. This time, though, I took pictures and made notes of the process, which is relatively simple, and doesn’t change much from effect to effect. You should be able to use these guidelines to install whatever you like wherever you want.

Note that this tutorial does not explain how to make or customize effects, though there’s plenty of info on those topics on the DIY Club page. These tips explain what to do after you’ve assembled your effect on perfboard (or pilfered it from inside someone else’s stompbox).

Any of you guys have experiences, good or bad, with mounting internal effects? Are there cases where it lets you do things you can’t with a conventional stompbox? Or do feet on the floor provide everything you need?


24 comments to How to Install Onboard Effects

  • Ardiril

    At one time (mid 80s?), Adrian Belew had a phaser mounted inside his guitar that was activated by a button-type contact switch. That allowed him to tap out a rhythm with one finger rather than using two fingers on a conventional switch.

    Could such circuits introduce clicks whenever switched in or out? How could  that be fixed?

  • I’ve had fuzzes and preamps with bass and treble controls in guitars, and most of my basses have preamps.

  • http://www.strawberrywalrus.com/ebay/tigerguitar5.jpg

    This beautiful guitar which was owned by the late Jerry Garcia was a piece of genius due to its wiring and onboard FX (also in his other customs), if you can, check them out. b-e-a-utiful.

     

  • Ryan

    I read this and instantly pictured a bass with an E.H. micro synth or something along those line’s installed in it. :0 Would take alot of routing, but would be interesting to be able to adjust something like that on the fly.

    • joe

      I was thinking something similar — or rather, a much simpler effect, but one which has a really radical filter effect accessible by a knob a two, as opposed to a whole bunch of sliders. Maybe one of these

      :satansmoking:

  • Chris

    Matthew Bellamy of Muse has a number of custom guitars with built in effects (fuzz, phaser, wah, whammy etc.)

  • Nate.

    So am I right in thinking I could pull the guts out of a boss pedal and shove it in a guitar? What about multiple effects, or would that involve too much hacking and multiple batteries?

    • joe

      In a word: yes.

      But remember, any knobs on the effects will have to be replaced by new knobs on your guitar, unless you can settle on a static value you like. How many effects you can power with one battery depends on the effect. You could do, say, a wahs and a clean booster and an overdrive, and it would probably work fine on one battery and run for months and months. On the other hand, the sorts of effects that drain a battery in a couple of hours (delay, chorus, and pretty much anything digital) will burn batteries just as fast, so unless you’ve added some sort of easily accessible battery compartment (or mounted in, say, the trem cavity of a strat), you may regret having to rip your guitar open to swap batteries for every gig.

      Again, in a word: Depends. :)

  • Chief Karawara

    Great idea, if you’re only using one guitar!

    • joe

      At risk of repeating myself: ;)

      There are many reasons you might consider mounting effects inside a guitar. Maybe you like playing through a particular booster 100% of the time, whether you’re Brian May, or just someone who can’t stand the sound of single-coils without a little extra oomph. Maybe you want to be able to manipulate controls on the fly without scuttling around on the floor. Or maybe you just want to freak people out by activating a hidden fuzz-bomb circuit on an innocuous-looking guitar.

  • zyon

    I would love to conjure up a small wah pedal that mounts half recessed in the body where your forearm rests against the guitar. I think you could really get some cool tones with a setup like that. 

  • Aceman

    I have a phaser module (or maybe an eq or something…) for an Electra guitar around here somewhere.  Anyone remember those?  

    Les Paul thing with two switchable modules – distortion, compressor, phase, maybe a few others… 

    • joe

      Hey Aceman! Nice to see you.

      Well, the Electra wasn’t much of a guitar — but do you have any idea how many frickin’ boutique overdrives are basically teensy-weensy variations of the Electra distortion circuit? 

    • My brother owns one of those Electras.  Needs a bit of cleaning up and soldering, but it’s a pretty cool junky axe.  The phase switch on the guitar is actually to set the pickups in or out of phase, not to operate a phaser, though. I actually plan to steal it from him (he’s a drummer, no harm, no foul).

      • joe

        Yeah, and what’s a drummer doing with a musical instrument in the first place?

        • Oooh, I’m gonna’ tell him you said that…

          • Oops… i’m not sure it’s an Electra.  There’s no discernible name plate on it anywhere.  It has both humbuckers on all the time with the only choice being in or out of phase.  Effects include fuzz, echo, tremelo and one other weirdo one that I forget.  Retrofitted pickups of unknown make.  Bolt-on neck. Sounds AWESOME!!  Gonna’ clean it up,strap on some cables and tune it to open C. I’ll do a blog post on it soon! inspireformation.blogspot.ca

  • Sam Geese

    Talk about ‘on board’effects.  How about Mark from Devo with the duct taped(big muff?) stomp-box on his Tele, way back when.

    And I love your “whatever” retort.  Pithy indeed, sir. :thumbup:  

    • Peter

      It was actually a “Frequency Analyzer”, as used for the ring modulated guitar in the We Are Devo song.
       

      • Jim Williamson

        D E V O

        • joe

          Like this?

          Easy to mistake for a Muff — it’s that distinctive ’70s Electro-Harmonix enclosure.

          Hmm — maybe it’s time for a post ring modulation — an effect that (to paraphrase Mark Twain) is better than it sounds. ;)  

          • cool arrow

            Am I seeing things, or are the pole pieces on that Hello Kitty guitar positively enormous?

  • I have a Bilt Relevator with the built-in delay, fuzz and osciallator that is killer;

    http://www.biltguitars.com