Guitarist and gear guru Joe Gore got his start in pedal building by asking questions on forums like freestompboxes.org.
Murky WatersThat said, the online forums were not without controversy. Some builders were unhappy when their schematics were posted online, and spoke up, both online—delineating the real costs those posts had on their income—as well as to the site moderators. Others disagreed, and felt it was an issue of censorship, which led to new forums, likefreestompboxes.org, that took a different approach.
“While everybody enjoyed sharing circuits, there were a number of people who didn’t like the fact that their circuits got commercialized,” Nelson says. “Some of them would write me and beg me not to have it published. One guy wrote me directly and asked, ‘Please don’t post this schematic.’ A lot of people didn’t agree and saw it as censorship. Other forums came about where they didn’t want any kind of censorship happening. But the way it was worded was like, ‘This is my livelihood. I feed my family with this.’ What am I supposed to say? I’m a musician. I can totally see that.”
Joe Gore, who has a deep resume in digital audio design as well as his own line of analog pedals, got his start asking questions on online forums, particularly freestompboxes.org. He’s also, in addition to being an in-demand guitarist (Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman), a contributing editor at Premier Guitar. He says some pedal builders were very reluctant about schematic sharing. “One very influential builder I will not name, but who I admire immensely, was particularly active in trying to squash this sort of activity. It’s someone I look up to, and who has done far more for the field than I’ll ever do, but I don’t agree with his point of view. By and large, trying to contain information tends to be a losing battle. That argument can be reduced to absurdity, but more often than not, I think the free exchange of ideas is a good thing.”
A bigger issue is theft. Theft might not be the right word, because, at least according to the tight, nuanced language of copyright law, it’s not possible to copyright a schematic, but ethical issues abound. One issue is cloning, which is controversial, but accepted as part of the culture. Another, which crosses a line, is taking designs and marketing them as your own.
“What is less cool is when a large player comes in and plays copycat,” Gore says. “The most notorious example was Danelectro. About a dozen years ago, they came out with a line of pedals. Participants in the DIY forums realized very quickly that they had very literally gone through and picked a half dozen of the most popular boutique pedals and copied them. One of them was the Paul Cochrane Timmy, Frantone was another—she [builder Fran Blanche] is one of the few women builders, out of Brooklyn. They came, lifted everyone’s creativity, and made cheaper pedals that were exact look-alike, soundalikes, and got called out in the community. Danelectro initially denied it, then they copped to it and apologized. I don’t think these pedals are in production anymore.”
According to Piera, it’s also important to note that not every suggestion posted in an online forum is a revelatory insight that’s going to improve your sound. “One thing I noticed,” he says, “is a lot of times you’ll read articles about a modification, how it’s easy and great, and then you do it and there is nothing there. The point is about the technical aspect rather than the actual sound. It sounds great in theory, but you try it and it doesn’t really work. It’s not that useable, and there is a lot of stuff like that.”
eBay Points the WayAside from access to information and resources, the primary barrier to bringing pedals to market was sales. If you made a pedal in your basement, even if it was great, where were you going to sell it? Setting up distribution channels was challenging, but even if you did that, how did you keep up with demand making one-offs in your basement? For many builders, selling pedals on consignment at the local music store also wasn’t an attractive option.
But sales via web, first with the ability to reach a large audience of like-minded people via Usenet groups, email lists, and dedicated websites, followed by the rise of online marketplaces like eBay, changed everything. It leveled the playing field and allowed businesses—even loners hand-soldering pedals in their kitchens—access to customers. But bigger than that, and what no one expected, was that demand was, and still is, incredible.
“I was teaching at a tech school, a little private college, and I decided to list one of these compressors that I built on eBay, and it sold instantly,” pedal builder Robert Keeley says about the start of his company, Keeley Electronics.
“I was teaching at a tech school, a little private college, and I decided to list one of these compressors that I built on eBay, and it sold instantly,” pedal builder Robert Keeley says about the start of his company, Keeley Electronics. “I put another one up there, and I said it’s going to be a four-to-six week wait, and it sold instantly, too. I put another one up there, and said it’s going to be a six-to-eight week wait. Eventually, it was 10-12 weeks. People would click, and buy, all day long.”
“Robert Keeley jumped directly onto eBay and sold a million things there,” Piera says. “But they take a lot of your profits, so I never did that. I still don’t do eBay. I sell more than enough stuff without having to give a percent of my profits away to eBay, although the market on eBay is huge, but I just never needed it. But after Usenet, eBay didn’t really come out until after you had websites.”
Another important innovation is mass customization. Mass customization is a manufacturing technique, similar to, say, printing books on-demand, or one-off pressings of T-shirts and coffee mugs, except applied to more complex products, like circuit boards. That level of hyper-customization made it possible for pedal builders to up their game and produce small runs of quirky, glitchy, niche devices. It’s a technique that was unheard of in yesteryear—especially at a time when hand-soldered, through-hole circuits were the only option—but that, coupled with the ability to order online and import from overseas, changed the game yet again.
“It’s not hard to get circuit boards made,” Anderton says. “You can get a couple hundred made in India or China for pretty cheap and they’re not big to ship or anything. [It used to be] more complicated, because the circuit boards had to all be laid out by hand using tap and dots and things like that, and measuring them was difficult. Nowadays, you can whip the stuff off on computers in a few minutes and send it off to get a bunch made.”
These changes in manufacturing have also made it possible for companies to reissue discontinued transistors and have made once hard-to-find electronic components accessible and affordable.
“Electronics have become very cheap, and the parts are mightily available,” Keen says. “That was not true all the way up into the late 1980s. You could actually find electronics parts, but it was difficult. You had to buy them at quite high prices from the few places that sold transistors. Places that sold electronic wiring for an integrated circuit … there were very few of those. Today, you can find them everywhere through the internet. The effective price has gone down tremendously.”
Needless to say, with changes in technology and access to virtually everything, relying on large corporations for things like effects pedals is so 20th century. The internet may be a cesspool of hot takes and snark, but it gave wannabe pedal builders access to information, and experts to consult when they ran into snags. It also gave them a platform to sell their wares, cheap access to electronic components, and an opportunity to compete in the big leagues.
But better, pedals were the perfect product to spawn a boutique revolution. They don’t require advanced artisan skills like lutherie, and unlike building amplifiers, which operate at high voltages, they’re relatively harmless. If you have a soldering iron, a handful of transistors, good ideas, and a can-do attitude, the world is your oyster.
“The beauty of pedals is that they’re easy to work on and safe,” Nelson says. “You’re not going to get killed using a 9V battery. The empowerment of knowing you can swap a few capacitors and make a pedal sound twice as good—knowing that you can do that and you don’t have to be an electrical engineer—and the fact that you can go and ask questions, pretty much empowers everyone. You can make anything you want within reason.”