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5 Boutique Stompbox Builders You Should Know

5 Boutique Stompbox Builders You Should Know

Mad Professor
Harri Koski (above) and Bjorn Juhl started Mad Professor with the aim of building the ultimate guitar amplifier. The result was the original CS-40 pictured here. Resting atop it are (left to right) the Mighty Red Distortion, Snow White Auto Wah, Mellow Yellow Tremolo, Forest Green Compressor, and Sweet Honey Overdrive.
Finland’s Mad Professor company is just eight years old, but in that time the company has built one of the most extensive lines of pedals offered by any small-scale, independent stompbox maker. The company is effectively a partnership between founder Harri Koski, amplifier specialist Jukka Monkkonen, and electronics genius Bjorn Juhl, who designs the company’s pedals.

Koski started Mad Professor after his experience operating Custom-Sounds, a company he founded in 1996 to distribute highend guitar gear in Finland. Custom-Sounds was also one of the first online boutique dealers in Europe, and had a web shop up and running by 1996. But for all his love of boutique and vintage gear, Koski was still frustrated with the limitations of much of the gear he was hearing. Meeting fellow tone obsessive Juhl led to creating the Mad Professor CS-40, the amplifier that put the Mad Professor brand on many guitarists’ radar. Since then, Mad Professor has built a roster of 12 stompboxes that includes three flavors of overdrive, a phaser, a fuzz, an analog delay, a tremolo, and even auto wahs for guitar and bass.

Juhl still masterminds most of the pedal designs. He’s self-taught in the ways of effects building but has worked with musical instruments since the age of 16 and studied electronics for 30 years—ultimately drifting away from his electronic service shop and into design of his own effects pedals and products for Mad Professor.

Bjorn Juhl is an electronics autodidact and the principal designer behind Mad Professor’s pedal line.

“If I could have gotten the sounds I wanted to get at the time, I wouldn’t have bothered trying to build stompboxes,” says Juhl, recalling his earliest investigations of effects. “Back in the late ’70s, I could look at Electro-Harmonix, MXR, and Boss pedals, which are all still very good today. And I also read the excellent book Electronic Projects for Musicians by Craig Anderton. But I learned by process of elimination, too. I built little models of amplifiers to investigate exactly why certain things sounded bad and removed everything that sounded bad until just the good stuff remained.”

Like many of the builders profiled here, Juhl rejects the notion that the best pedals have been made—that the stompbox frontier was conquered decades ago. Tones that inspired him include Pete Townshend’s Live at Leeds sounds, Billy Gibbons’ vast palate, and the aggressive, monster grind of the Sex Pistols. But he’s always on the lookout for the ways in which existing pedals come up short, and listening for sounds he can imagine but doesn’t hear in the collective soundscape. “I’d actually say that the biggest inspirations for me are the most uninspiring sounds,” Juhl says. “I’m always trying to figure out why certain combinations of guitar and amplifier work, why some really don’t work, and some work just fine. Because you can change those things when you’re in the know.”

So far, Juhl, Koski, and the rest of the Mad Professor team have been successful in uncovering the little differences that pique the interest of a sizable number of tonehounds. Pete Anderson, Jerry Donahue, Marc Ford, and Jim McCarty are just a few of the players who have stocked their quiver with Mad Professor pedals. And the company remains committed to adding new tools to their line, including a forthcoming EQ pedal that found Juhl considering, among other things, the impressive bandwidth of Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin’s tape echoes.

But just as Juhl and Mad Professor look for inspiration in odd places, they look to make their products inspirational so that players will unlock their imagination when they plug in a Mad Professor box. And Juhl hopes that commitment will help players push themselves instead of relying on gear to solve problems. “Back in the ’70s, stores had one fuzz pedal and they’d tell you ‘Take this, son—this is just what you need.’ Then you’d go home and read Tom Wheeler’s book where he says there may be a little more between you and Jimmy Page than a fuzztone pedal.”
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