Best capacitors for guitar pedals: which one to choose?

I like to say that electronics are like Legos.

If you step on it, it hurts! Just kidding, it seriously works like Legos as well :)

You have to choose different bricks (the electronic components: resistors, capacitors, diodes, IC...) and to assemble all of them following a scheme (the circuit).

The only problem is: like there are different colors for the lego bricks, electronic components are declined in various versions, with the same value.

For instance, many many different capacitors can be found with the same capacitance value: Panasonic SMF, Wima MKP2, FKP2, MKT standard... What a mess ! Lets try to order all of this, and to see which capacitors are best suited for our use (guitar pedals).



The 6 elements of capacitors

There are globally 6 types of capacitors: electrolytic, ceramic, film, tantalum, polystyrene and mica capacitors.

The type of the capacitor is simply a description of what it is made of. In each of these categories, there are different characteristics to look after: precise material of the capacitor, voltage tolerance, and of course its value. 

Here are a few examples of through-hole capacitors. From left to right: 150pF ceramic capacitor, 1uF tantalum capacitor, 10nF Panasonic SMF film capacitor, 10uF Panasonic FC electrolytic capacitor and a 0.33uF Wima MKP2 film capacitor.

type of capacitors guitar pedals

Lets start:
  • Electrolytic capacitors: they are cylindric. They usually have high capacitance value, so I would advise to use this kind of capacitors for any value above 1uF. They also are polarised most of the time, so beware with the orientation. A good model which I use a lot is the Panasonic FC serie: top quality and a nice black and gold look! 
  • Ceramic capacitors: they are used for small capacitance value, around 10-500pF. They are not very appreciated by audiophils, because they do not let pass some bass frequencies: they work as a high pass filter at 100Hz. If you make your guitar signal goes through this kind of capacitor without any alternate solution (another capacitor in parallel for instance), you will loose bass. However, when placed at strategic points of the circuit, they are very practical to choose how many trebles you want to go through. Usually, they have a high tolerance, so I recommand to look after models with a low tolerance.
  • Film-mica capacitors: they are used for low values like pF like ceramics. They are better than the ceramics, however, they are much bigger and more expensive. I would advise you to stay with the ceramics and save money!
  • Tantalum capacitors: drop-shaped capacitors, used for values around uF. They are not very good for audio, and quite expensive. The only advantage compared to other capacitors of the same values (electrolytics, film caps) is the space saving. Sometimes, their defects in audio can be useful to create a harsh sound good for some kind of dirty fuzz like big muff (for instance, the black arts toneworks pharaoh fuzz uses tantalum capacitors)

 My 2 cents about tantalum capacitors:
Tantalum capacitors are great because they are so small, so they are use in many electronics devices like your phone or computer. However, they are many ethical problems with coltan (mineral used to make tantalum) mining, with human rights violations. More infos here. I try not to use tantalum caps because of that.

  • Film capacitors: the best ones! Their value is in a large range from nF to 1 uF. You will use this kind of capacitors a lot! Moreover, most of them are really good for audio applications: MKP2 from wima are a reference in the audio world. Panasonic SMF ECQ are also great, and have an easier-to-work-with shape with long lugs. Finallys, MKT standards are also quite good, and cheaper.

To resume :
capacitor diy types

Except when indicated of course.




    Examples of capacitors in commercial pedals

    Lets review a few pedals that some of you migh already have on your pedalboard! I will show you the guts of a few commercial pedals, and you will see what kind of capacitors they use.


    Mojo Hand Iron Bell (Big Muff inspired fuzz):

    Iron Bell gutshot

    Here, we can find ceramic capacitors (small yellowish ones) and Wima capacitors that are film capacitors as well (red squares). There are also Panasonic SMF (dark red capacitors). Very good capacitors overall!


    Fulltone OCD (overdrive / distortion)

    Fulltone OCD components

    Here, we can see ceramic capacitors (orange/brown ones for instance right of the top potentiometer), a lot of ceramic capacitors (blue "drops" everywhere on the circuit), and 2 electrolytic capacitors (black cylinders on the top of the circuit).


    Bearfoot Pale Green compressor

    Bearfoot pale green inside components

    Finally, in this Bearfoot pedal, we can see one tantalum capacitor (orange drop on the left of the circuit), MKT capacitors, probably Epcos (blue boxes), electrolytic capacitors of different sizes (small and big black and white cylinders). Good stuff here too!


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    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. - Hapus
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    There are 3 "kinds" of capacitors I've seen on the madbean PCB layout drawings: Circular, Rectangular, and Ellipse. What does this signify when it comes to the kind of cap to use? I'ven't seen this information.

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    Generally speaking, circular are for electrolytics capacitors (sometimes tantalum, but it should be specified in the build doc; 99% of the time, it is for electrolytic caps), rectangular are for film capacitor like Wima capacitors. Finally ellipse shapes can be used for ceramic capacitors, but also some film capacitors with different shapes like Panasonic SMF. Everything should be specified in the build doc though. Hope that it helps!

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    Sorry if I missed it, but what do you recommend in place of a tantalum capacitor? I never knew all that about what goes into making tantalum, so I too would now like to avoid it!

    Example - the Aion Refractor (Klon) recommends a 1uF tantalum cap. What could I use in place of that? Simply an electrolytic? Or, film? (I know tantalum are polarized, so maybe not film then?)

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    First, try to look where the capacitor is located. If it is located on the signal path, I would recommend a film capacitor over an electrolytic. But both can do the job perfectly fine :)

    I would recommend an electrolytic for the Aion Refractor as it is smaller than a 1uF film cap.

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    Thanks Benoit! One other question, though it's not capacitor related... what are your thoughts about using diodes from Tayda? I saw your article about parts suppliers along with the pros and cons, but I'm not sure where diodes sit in that picture. Are they closer to a pot, where it is mostly standard, or is it more like a capacitor where investing in better quality is suggested?

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    I think for classic silicon diodes, it is not that important to pick the high quality one. It is very standard component, and even high quality ones cost almost nothing when bought in bulk.

    I recently bought 1,000 Fairchild 1n4148 diodes that were around 0.01$ each!
    So, in my opinion, you can go with Tayda regarding diodes.

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    Alright, thanks! I love your site by the way. As a beginner pedal DIYer, this site is extremely helpful!

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    I am pretty sure that the blue caps on the fulltone are not tantalum, but rather multi layer ceramic capacitors, which are more than fine due to it is size and better performance than regular ceramic caps.

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    You are absolutely right! Old post, I did not have enough experience with ceramic capacitors back then. I will correct the post (I also noticed that a picture is missing)

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