I assume there is a certain amount of pride in being able to make pedals that are appreciated by people with very discriminating ears, but at the same time, business is business – there is money to be made, right? I imagine it must be hard to know when to not cross that line for the sake of quality?
Achieving even a small amount of success with an enterprise like building pedals, I’m discovering, is forcing the question over and over again: why are you in it? And I got into this thinking that at some point the decisions I make as a builder and what I like and how it sounds, if that reaches enough people and enough people agree with that and like the pedals, that alone would mean commanding a higher price tag. But I’m finding that runs into conflict with my first principles which are about taking these sounds -- which may have been relegated historically to the cork-sniffers among us all -- and making them available to people who really just want a pedal that sounds good without sacrificing the quality and attention to that sonic detail.
A lot of guys out there, if you read their lit, would have you believe they’re successfully reinventing the wheel with every product they come out with. But I noticed that when you describe your products you’re very mindful to note when something started off as a clone.
We all grew up hearing these sounds. They’re part of our vocabulary. To me, their significance is that they were the building blocks of what’s now become a musical tradition and has been the soundtrack of at least a couple generations of youth now. I’m interested in why some people found some of those particular devices to be "the ones." What was it about them that made them musical? It goes well beyond electrical design and well beyond mojo or anything like that. It’s about the human ear and preference. To some degree I’m paying homage to those things by building them but I also think they’re still the elemental building blocks of rock n’ roll in so many ways. They are the primary colors of tone that people come back to time after time because we all know them. They are points of departure for people to make new music and new sounds but they serve as anchors within the realm of all possible sound out there.
Let’s talk about mojo. What's your take?
I’m an agnostic. I think there’s a high degree of subjectivity in building, playing, and listening, and ultimately the ear is deciding what sounds good to an individual. So to the extent of that, a builder’s ear is involved in their creations. I agree that you can like one person’s Tube Screamer over another’s -- in fact, I would argue that’s kind of cool. If it were all the same it would be a boring thing to explore. But as far as mojo goes, if that’s simply a placeholder for something I or we don’t understand yet about how an amp or a pedal or a particular sound works then I’m not satisfied with stopping there and attributing it to some mysticism because, well, I’m curious. So I guess you could say I don’t believe in mojo but I believe in the magic of music and that everything that’s not the actual music itself can be explored in a fairly empirical way.
I noticed that you don't give your pedals funky names. The names pretty much describe things as they are while perhaps educating players as to what’s going on under the hood -- Germanium Fuzz, Silicon Fuzz...
That’s kind of you to say, and I hope so in a way because my involvement in this has always been about learning and I’ve always been grateful that I learned from people who were imparting their knowledge and experience to me. For me, as a guitar player it’s always been about why things sound the way they do and if I like or dislike something to dig a little deeper to try and understand if there’s a principal involved so that I can make better decisions.
Your Germanium Treble boost was a limited run, due to the black glass transistors that you came across. Does that mean a player is hosed if he hasn't already bought one?
The limited run of the original Mullard black glass did end in the fall of '07, but I have been getting more back in and they’re actually the mil-spec CV7003 Mullards and I still have quite a supply of the Philips and Valvo black glass. More recently I’ve been adding Mullard OC71s, which were also used in original [Dallas] Rangemasters, most notably probably the ones used by Tommy Bolin and T-Rex, and another Germanium transistor called the OC76 which also has very complimentary electrical characteristics for use in a Rangemaster and sounds pretty good. The sourcing of the old stock parts… I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a pain in the ass but you can’t really get the singing kind of action out of the transistors that were made as a replacement in the mid-seventies or more recently. And I’m not saying that it couldn’t be done, but it hasn’t happened yet – I haven’t heard it so until I do I have to keep going back to the well for parts.
How long does it take you to build a pedal?
It comes down to however long it will take me to screen a transistor pair in a Fuzz face, for instance. It can range anywhere from an hour to a couple of hours. I’m probably making about 50 pedals a month right now.
Things in this industry are somewhat cyclical. Any particular trends you’re happy to see right now?
I’m glad to see a resurgence in interest in pedals versus rack gear, and this of course is a pendulum that is bound to swing back and forth for eternity, but this migration back to the floor from the rack has been a cool thing to see. The digitization of classic sound is the other trend that I’m really interested in. This is going to come across as heretical from the standpoint of a fuzz builder but while I would assert that none of the digital modeling out there has achieved the behavior and the feel of a Fuzz Face, I am a firm believer that it will. It’s only a matter of time and I think that’s great.
I really don’t have any predisposition toward dragging the 1960s, in terms of its machine-age building processes, along with us into the 21st century. If we can do it with new tools, we should. As much as I don’t dig how a lot of digital DSP stuff sounds, I’m excited about it as a trend because therein lies the future and it’s only a matter of time until we crack the code that allows us to recreate some of the subtleties that people experienced with analog equipment that they are rightfully unwilling to let go of.
What's next on your horizon?
This year there will be some original designs. I will probably continue to put out some pedal designs based on some of the early one, two and three transistor fuzzes, but I have a backlog of my own ideas that are starting to find their way to my workbench. I'm taking a swing at doing a tremolo pedal in a way that it hasn't been done before. I'm also taking a look at some of the clean and semi-clean boost circuits to see if what's out there today is working and if there is room for improvement.
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