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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 variety—boost/EQ, delay/reverb, 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’ screw-the-noise-if-it-sounds-great MO, 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 generalguitargadgets.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.