Interview: Penfar FX: Tone Master at Work

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by Jim Woods. Check out Jim’s blog for more guitar-related articles, reviews, and interviews.

Penfar FX are handcrafted from start to finish by builder Chad J. Leavitt. Chad produces some of the very best effects pedals available in the market today. From Musictoyz to Prymaxe Vintage, Penfar FX pedals are now available in several retail outlets. You can also order pedals directly from Chad himself at his website. He takes pride in his customer service and offers five great pedals at affordable prices.

How did you get into building effects pedals?

At one point I had a 60w Fender Hot Rod DeVille amplifier with four 10” speakers. It was way too loud for the house and I couldn’t get a good tone from it at lower volumes. I started looking for effects pedals I could use so I could play at bedroom volumes and still get the tones I wanted. I looked for a long time. I found pedals I either didn’t care for, or if I did like them, they often cost more than I wanted to spend. I decided to save some money and look into building a pedal.

I remember watching a lot of Gearmanndude videos on Youtube and he mentioned a site called buildyourownclone.com. So I went there to see what it was about. I got the idea to buy a PCB and house it myself. I found a place that was selling some Wampler PCB’s and purchased and built a Wampler “Cranked AC”. After that I decided not to rely on someone else’s PCB and started looking into vero/stripboard.

Are effects pedals difficult to build for the complete beginner?

Well, at first I had no idea where to start. I had no electronics experience and had used a soldering iron maybe twice. I befriended Paul, a guy from England, at buildyourownclone.com. He helped me out a LOT! If it wasn’t for him and the help of some others I wouldn’t know a capacitor from a diode. Learning how to read schematics was something I did on my own; looking at well-known circuits and figuring out what all these lines and symbols mean. I did a lot of searching on the internet and fired lots of questions to Paul.

You currently have five pedals in the Penfar FX lineup. Most new builders don’t have such a diverse lineup, but rather focus on one or two pedals. How did you decide to build so many different pedals?

I didn’t decide to make more than a few effects; it just happened. I’m always drawing up ideas and thinking of something I want to try. I wanted to have something for everyone, I guess. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as just a fuzz builder or just an overdrive builder. Sometimes I come up with the name and graphic before I develop a circuit. I like to stick to simple circuits with a nice amount of versatility. I don’t like effects where you have all the bells and whistles, but when it comes down to it you only use half of what’s available. If I’m developing something and I find a part of it to be either not that effective or just something I’d set and forget then that’s exactly what I’ll do; figure out what sounds best to me and set that value in the circuit.

What is your favorite recorded tone? Is that what has inspired you to build some of the pedals that you have?

I don’t know if I could pick a favorite tone. I never set out to make my effects sound like anything specific. I just get an idea of something I want and work on it until I like what I hear. For example, the Aces High just started as me wanting a higher gain rock distortion pedal. I wasn’t trying to make it sound like anything specific. Most, if not all, the feedback I’ve gotten on it has been how much like a Marshall it sounds. Now, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Marshall and a Mesa by ear. I’ve never owned any well known, sought after amps. I figure if I set out to make something sound like “blank” it probably won’t and will get ridiculed by the gearheads.

How do you dial in effects pedals for both humbuckers and single coil guitars?

Lots and lots of hours huddled over a breadboard switching caps and resistors out until I’m satisfied with how it sounds with either kind of pickup. I can spend half my time developing a circuit swapping out components in a tonestack trying to get something I’m 100% happy with.

What kind of gear do you use to test your designs?

I don’t have a lot of gear to test different types of amps or guitars. I own two electric guitars; a Les Paul and a Tele. I have a small Blackheart Handsome Devil combo. If I want to hear something on a bigger rig I have a few friends that let me come over and use their equipment. I need more equipment! I’d like to get an oscilloscope and some decent recording gear. Right now everything is tuned to what my ear likes best without all the fancy technical stuff. That’s what it all boils down to anyway, right?

What have been your biggest hurdles to overcome when building pedals?

I’d have to say time and satisfaction. I’ve had several projects trashed because I was never 100% satisfied with how it sounded. So it gets trashed and I move on to the next. I say time because I have a family and a full time job along with running Penfar FX. Finding time for the family and the obligations that come with having a house along with everything else involved in building effects is tiresome sometimes. It’s worth it though when I get that email or see a comment somewhere from someone saying how much they like their Penfar FX pedal.

Will there be any new pedals added to the Penfar FX lineup soon?

Of course! Right now I am about to release a new overdrive; the RagnaRok. It’s got a Norse/Viking theme to it. Watch for demos for that soon. I went a different direction with the finish and etched the enclosure. I think it looks pretty sweet. After that I have at least 3 more ideas I want to try to develop. I’m always drawing something up. Very often you’ll see me on the floor at my house with my trusty graph paper and pencil scribbling an idea down. It’s actually become quite relaxing to do it. (Laughs.)

Any advice you can give to any future effects builders?

Knowing is half the battle? (Laughs.) Research, learn and experiment. If you don’t already have electronics experience find a good forum, like the one at buildyourownclone.com, and ask questions. Most people are happy to help. Find some electronics manuals for general electronics and effects pedals. There’s a few good ones out there. I know Brian Wampler has one or two, Craig Anderton does too and some of the forums usually have links to online manuals you can download.

Start small by building a Fuzz Face or a boost. Learn how to read the schematics and what each component does. Get a breadboard and experiment. Don’t be afraid to try things. I’ve fried a transistor and IC or two since starting to build. Live and learn.

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