Professional guitarists in the ’80s and ’90s were as likely to recognize the name Bob Bradshaw as Eddie Van Halen. In that era of refrigerator-sized rack systems, awash with glittering LEDs, “Bradshaw Boards” reigned supreme. Attending a concert featuring Dokken, Aerosmith, Metallica, Megadeth, Journey, Motley Crüe, Def Leppard, Toto, Steve Vai or the aforementioned EVH meant seeing, or certainly hearing, the result of Bradshaw’s work as a gear systems designer.

Nor were his customers restricted to the hard rock/metal crowd. You were as likely to experience a Bradshaw rig at shows by Steve Miller, Lee Ritenour, Duran Duran, Steely Dan, or even Gloria Estefan and Madonna. Touring guitarists in all genres came to Bob to have their pedals, rack gear, and amps wired together in a reliable, roadworthy, system—a system that offered instant access to any sound required.

With his company Custom Audio Electronics, Bob Bradshaw is still constructing hand-built systems for the likes of Billie Joe Armstrong, Dweezil Zappa, and Trey Anastasio at his live/work space in the Los Angeles’ Brewery Artist Lofts, a converted Pabst Blue Ribbon plant. We spoke to him about the rise and fall of rack gear and the bad rap that buffers suffer.

Where did you grow up?
I was born and lived in Florida until I went to electronics school in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late ’70s. I didn’t have any electronics knowledge, but I was the kid with the biggest stereo—I just loved music.

Were you a guitar player?
No, I bought a guitar just so I could hold it [laughs]. I bought a Tele Custom because I loved Danny Kortchmar and he played one. I bought an Acoustic 150 amplifier and built a cabinet but I could barely play a lick. I just wanted to be part of music somehow.

You say you built a cabinet. Were you always handy in that way?
No, I bought a Dynaco Stereo 400 power amp kit and it was too intimidating—I couldn’t do it. I had a friend at work put it together.

After high school, I wanted to get into engineering but there weren’t many recording schools back then. I figured if I learned what was going on behind the knobs; that would give me a skill to help me get into audio engineering, so I went to DeVry Institute of Technology.

I did very well there. My math skills weren’t great, but luckily the pocket calculator came along around that time [laughs]. I graduated at the top of my class and got recruited to come to California to work for Hughes Aircraft. I figured the music industry was in California, so if I got out there maybe I would find something I could do.

I worked for Hughes for a year, and then saw an ad in a newspaper for Musical Service Center—a place that fixed instruments. I went in with no experience, but they hired me to be a bench technician. I got thrown into the fire, getting the crap shocked out of me working on Marshall amps. Fortunately some guys there helped me.

Was this the early ’80s?
It was around ’79 or ’80. It was all pedals in those days—rackmounted pieces were just starting to come along. I might occasionally see an Eventide H910 Harmonizer, or an early Roland rackmounted delay.

I hated seeing guys bending over to diddle with their pedalboards in performance. The pedals were different sizes and different shapes, some had lights some didn’t; I’m thinking, “You have to get that stuff off the floor. Why not have a separate bank of switches to control the pedals?”