EarthQuaker HQ: (L to R) Gavin Smith, Ben Veehorn (circuit builder), Mike Stangelo (PCB population, wires, assembly), Steve Clements (circuit builder),
Jamie Stillman (founder/pedal designer), Julie Robbins (business manager), Elsa (support), Justin Seeker (senior circuit builder) Jeff France (production
manager), Brad Thorla (assembly). Photo by Stephanie Falk
“Affordable” is not a word often associated
with boutique effect pedals.
Nor is Akron, Ohio, normally associated
with bands that fill Madison Square
Garden. But while Akron’s Jamie Stillman
was road managing just such a band—the
Black Keys—he was simultaneously starting
a line of great-sounding, handwired boutique
pedals that would retail for little more
than those of the mass-produced variety.
Despite boasting some deliciously cryptic
names (Grand Orbiter, anyone?), Stillman’s
effects often tend toward the meat-andpotatoes
fuzz, modulation, octave, and overdrive.
But Stillman certainly has his own take on
these stalwarts, often pushing the limits of
their parameters on both ends.
Inspired by Electro-Harmonix
founder Mike Matthews’
Stillman has likewise proven his mettle
as both a designer and manufacturer: His
EarthQuaker Devices stompboxes are as
appealing to junkies on pedal forums as they
are to those more worried about how their
purchase will affect their pocketbooks. His
is a classic entrepreneurial success story, with
worthwhile lessons about carefully monitoring
growth while staying true to your vision.
How did you get started
Around 2004, I had a DOD
Overdrive/Preamp 250 that I
loved. When the volume pot
broke, I decided I would just
replace it. I opened it up and
discovered there was nothing
much in it. I found the schematic
online and, for some
reason, it just made total sense
to me—so I decided to build
a new one. During my search
for the schematic, I found
websites like geofx.com and
got obsessed. I would stay up for
days reading about electronics—
I was constantly going to forums
to learn as much as possible.
Did you have any technical
None, but I am able to understand
schematics like any
electrical engineer. Put me in
front of a microwave oven, and
I doubt I could rebuild it. But
put me in front of an effect,
and I can work on it. I can
also work on some amps and
guitars. I have been a tinkerer
my entire life. My folks have
photos of me taking apart an
abandoned car in the backyard
when I was in kindergarten. I
was always dismantling things
around my grandparents’ house.
What’s your musical
I have been a musician forever.
I started on drums when I
was 5 or 6, and I started playing
guitar when I was 10 or
11—about 20 years ago. Until
about two years ago, I had
spent pretty much my entire life
touring in indie-rock bands—
from age 17 until 33. I played
drums in Harriet the Spy, and
guitar in Party of Helicopters.
More recently, I was in a band
called Teeth of the Hydra, and a
band called Drummer with Pat
Carney from the Black Keys. I
am currently in a band called
Relaxer. I also worked as a freelance
graphic designer and as
tour manager for the Black Keys
from 2004 to 2010—but any
spare second was spent learning
about electronics as they relate
to musical instruments.
Were you working on Dan
Auerbach’s equipment when
you were with the Black Keys?
I was not a true guitar tech—I
didn’t string guitars or anything
like that—but I helped
set up the equipment and
handled emergencies. I also built
tons of pedals for Dan. The
EarthQuaker Hoof Fuzz is based
on his green Russian Big Muff.
What was your next project
after the DOD clone?
I then started with the standards.
I built a Fuzz Face clone,
but I had to build that one 50
times to get it to work right
[laughs]—[it was, like] “The
first one was so easy, why is this
one so hard?” That taught me a
lot about transistor biasing and
how something so simple can
be such a pain in the ass.
Fuzz pedals are notoriously
difficult to get right—even
for experienced builders.
From the sound of the Dream
Crusher, it seems like you
eventually nailed it.
When you get them right,
they are awesome. The Dream
Crusher was my version of the
Fuzz Face. I try to get as much
range as possible out of the
fuzz and dirt pedals we make,
and while I’m in there I end up
cleaning them up. They are not
as gritty as a lot of other distortion
pedals, and I like that.
After that, I started building
all kinds of things. I took pieces
from one circuit and attached
them to another—all the weird,
mad-scientist things everyone
who gets into this kind of stuff
does. I spent about a year messing
with different circuits, and
out of those came the three pedals
I used to start EarthQuaker
Devices. One was the Spectre
Overdrive, which was basically
a couple of JFET [junction gate
field-effect transistor] boosters
driving each other … it didn’t
work out so well.
In terms of sound or sales?
It sounded pretty good, but at
the time I really didn’t know
what I was doing. We built four
of them and they all went to
friends, but the JFETs ended
up frying each other—I wasn’t
treating them properly. Looking
back, I see every stupid mistake I
made. The second pedal, the discontinued
Tusk Fuzz, ended up
being part of our line. It wasn’t
really based on any other pedal.
The third was the Hoof Fuzz,
and that really set it all off in
2005. I launched the company
on breaks from Black Keys tours.
I basically put a bunch of pedals
up on eBay and sold mostly
the Hoofs. It got around on the
forums that the Hoof sounded
good, and then people found out
I was working with the Black
Keys and that didn’t hurt.