October 18, 2011
Over the past 10 years, Robert Keeley has watched his company grow from offering a few experimental pedals into a major effects manufacturer with products being sold in more than 200 US stores and nearly 100 internationally. Here he reflects on the journey, technological strides, and where he sees his company going in the future.
Robert Keeley wants to solve your sonic problems. His business is only 10 years old, but in the guitar-pedal universe he’s known as a guru at taking the most beloved effects and making them even better. He says it’s all the result of a serendipitous accident—a conversation he had with his wife one day when he was desperately trying to get his hands on a Ross Compressor. His inner voice of reason spoke loud and clear: “Didn’t you just get a degree for building those things so you wouldn’t have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on vintage ones?”
It was early 2001, and Keeley had recently earned his electrical-engineering degree from Oklahoma University. He had been hoping to break into the amp-building industry—an industry that was already highly saturated and becoming more so every day—but instead he was teaching. He enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as his music obsession.
“Sure enough, I did find the schematic and the parts for the [Ross] pedal, and I took off and built one,” Keeley says with childlike enthusiasm. “When I heard it, it was magical—I was completely stunned.” In fact, hearing his own handiwork generated enough personal excitement and fervor to convince Keeley to ditch his teaching career and start Keeley Electronics. At that point, few people were doing modifications and independent effects, so the lack of competition was reassuring.
“I had been wanting to get into the business one way or another, and it just so happened that guitar effects came together really nicely,” he says. “At the time, it was just me, Analog Man [Mike “Analog Man” Piera from Analog Man effects], and Mike Fuller [from Fulltone]—I had no competition. There was just nobody out there.” Keeley says meticulous attention to detail and a strong focus on customer service were the foundation of his business.
He sold a handful of units, and then a few dozen. He couldn’t believe how swiftly his name spread throughout the industry. Soon he had sold hundreds. He says his customers were so thrilled with the sound of his effects that, in almost no time, they’d made their way into the hands of some very influential players in Nashville and California.
Brad Paisley’s former guitar tech, Chad Weaver, attests to the rapidity of Keeley’s success. Curious as to whether he’d like the sound of true-bypass, Weaver ordered a Keeley Blues Driver mod (a modified Boss BD-2 Blues Driver overdrive). Imagine his surprise when he excitedly tore open the package to find an Ibanez Tube Screamer inside. “It was an honest mistake,” he says. “When I called Robert to let him know I’d gotten the wrong pedal, he said two boxes were mixed up in shipping, and he would immediately send the correct one.” Keeley also told Weaver that the Tube Screamer would be a gift for the inconvenience. “That alone told me a lot about the man, but it wasn’t until I met him that I realized how truly passionate he is about his work,” says Weaver.
“At one point,” Weaver explains, “I had only read about Robert Keeley and his products, but after actually hearing them I found so many other reasons to use them. Here was someone who was taking the effects I liked and improving upon them. My beloved Tube Screamer had more clarity, more bottom—and it even got a little dirtier than the stock one. It became my go-to overdrive pedal,” he says.
The range of modifications that Keeley eventually came up with was born of a simple process: He identified common complaints about popular pedals and then set out to correct them. He found that websites such as Harmony Central were great for this, as the millions of guitar players who post reviews on the internet weren’t shy about voicing their grievances. “I’d just get online and literally tally up the complaints and fix those little problems,” he says. “So our [Ibanez] TS9 mods or BD-2s are products of me simply listing out the cons and then putting tick marks in each column. One mark for bad phasers, etc., and that gave me the exact road map to then develop all of our mods.”
Keeley’s TS9 mod—one of his most popular—has been used by Peter Frampton, Jon Herington of Steely Dan, and former Frank Zappa sideman Ike Willis, to name a few. He starts by first changing the circuit to a Texas Instruments RC4558P. Then he changes the output resistors to metal-film ones rather than carbon-comp resistors, which add unwanted noise. This results in better bass response, a greater range of overdrive, and the ability to achieve a cleaner sound by turning down.
His process for developing mods naturally led him to working on kits for big-name brands. To this day, he simply watches what’s selling unless a player commissions him for a specific project. “There weren’t many people doing modifications to a variety of popular Boss and Ibanez pedals—at least not doing them en masse,” Keeley says. “I essentially became a dealer for Boss and Ibanez, so I could get them at a good price. Then I quickly got them to people like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and John Mayer— when he was still a little kid—and all the country guys, too. Like Brad Paisley. I heard their complaints and solved the problems they were having with the units.”
A few days before being interviewed for this article, Keeley was working on a mod of the popular MXR Phase 90 for Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. He laughs, because he was copying a design from 1974, but technology has come so far since. “The technology these days is just really incredible,” he says. “The projects I did in college that were guitar-related were all based on stuff that hadn’t changed since the ’80s, so I had to use microprocessors to control ancient technologies. There was nothing really new to experiment with. People who were making ICs were keeping them to themselves.” He admits that, due to these technological advances, building and modifying effects has become much easier than he imagined it would be when he was in school. On one hand, this reality makes his job easier, but on the other it was also enough to spawn an entire industry of copycats.
Adjusting to the Competition
Somewhere tucked away in Keeley’s closet is a T-shirt that reads, “Keeley, the House of Blue Lights.” It was a gift from a customer, referencing the blue LEDs that had become his trademark. At the time, no effects manufacturer was using blue LEDs—which is part of the reason he chose to do so in the first place. Today, blue LEDs are more common than he’d like. Keeley says he went from having almost no competitors to hundreds—people who apply his concepts and even his name to mods they hock online. He warns unsuspecting eBay users to beware. “College students,” he says, “are sitting in their underwear in their dorm rooms with a bag of Cheetos, copying my mods and putting them up on eBay, starting their own websites, or giving them away for free. They’ll say, ‘Hey, this has got a Keeley Mod,’ and people will purchase it, thinking it does.”
Initially, he says, he was flattered by all the impersonators. But after he was forced to start laying people off due to lost business, it lost its charm. He finally addressed the situation. “I tried to encourage them to come up with their own names and brands,” he says. “I even offered to help with designs and come up with new things so they’d be less inclined to copy our stuff.” He says that, for as many people as his confrontation deterred, an equal number are still out there. Maybe that’s just the price one pays for being a front-runner.
Though many would-be impostors might be able to pull off some of Keeley’s mods, most aren’t able to build effects from the ground up like he does. When it comes to his custom pedals, Keeley says he likes to keep things simple, while also incorporating the most recent technology. His philosophy today is to “create simple, straightforward things conceptually, but with hi-fi or commercial-grade fittings to make them better than the competitor.”
That translates to a product line that’s compelling but not elaborate. “We don’t have any wild and crazy digital delays or fuzzes with 20 knobs on them,” he says. Citing his very first unique design, the Katana Boost, Keeley says he envisioned it being unique but with a very simple function. Using a vintage doubler (a circuit with an AC input and a DC output of roughly twice the peak input voltage), he created a pedal that many players love for both the cleanness of its boost and its harmonic richness.
Left to right: The Keeley 4-Knob Compressor has sold more than 27,000 units since 2001. The Fuzz Head is a germanium fuzz with modern gain stages. And the Luna Overdrive features an ultra-flexible EQ section.
The Fuzz Head—another favorite of Keeley’s customers—is a simple blend of vintage germanium-fuzz design with modern gain stages that he says allow it to excel as a lead boost or to lay down thick, tubelike tones. “It’s just a very basic circuit,” he says, “coupled with stuff that I learned from modifying Boss and Ibanez stuff. At the time of its creation people, weren’t commonly using buffers or differential amplifiers with fuzz circuits.”
But of all his unique pedals, the Keeley Compressor is by far the most popular. He’s sold close to 27,000 since its inception in late 2001, and orders continue to pour in. He attributes its popularity to the quality of its components, which reduce the level of unwanted noise—a common artifact with high compression settings. He also says when he was first designing the pedal, none of his peers were using the high-end parts that he was going after. “They were trying to find old carbon-comp resistors and old caps with 20 percent tolerance,” he says. “Meanwhile, I was trying to go for the 1 percent precision or the even higher precision—maybe .01 tolerance—so the compressor did its job to the best of its ability. Ours was better than the competitors’, because we made those efforts. [At that time] no one had taken a simple design paired with hi-fi parts—it just wasn’t common to use high-end parts in the guitar-effects world.”
Given how popular quality compression is with country twangers, it’s notable that even Paisley’s former tech was surprised by the love-at-first-sound affair he had with the Keeley Compressor. “Finally, someone had made [a compressor] that didn’t color the sound,” Weaver says. “My tremolo pedal no longer had a level drop when I stepped on it.”
These days, Keeley resents that, with his company-running duties, he’s not able to experiment with new designs as much as he’d like—although he tries to reserve every Friday for tinkering. “Months have gone by where I don’t get to touch a circuit,” he says. “Every time it seems like I’m going to be able to experiment a lot more than one day a week, we undergo some growth or another and it just doesn’t happen.” Just such a situation arose recently when Keeley announced that Guitar Center is now carrying his stompboxes— but the amount of production needed to fill orders took over his ability to experiment. Instead, he has an engineer whom he says he can vicariously experiment through by making suggestions. “I don’t have to have my hands on everything to do the experimenting,” he says.
In addition to being excited about the new deal with Guitar Center, Keeley is also stoked about the newest addition to his custom line, the Luna Overdrive, which he began developing in 2008. According to Keeley, it’s different from anything else on the market—the fruition of his desire to combine an overdrive pedal with a hi-fi EQ. It took three years to get off the ground, but in March of this year the Luna became available to the public. Like all of his designs, it’s completely handmade, and his website boasts that the Luna is capable of operating as a smooth, subtle drive that provides plenty of warmth but can also achieve a grittier sound with two different drive stages and highly responsive Hi and Lo tone controls.
Though Keeley is thrilled by every new product he adds to his line, he says the future of his company lies in perfecting what he considers to be the staples of the guitar effects world. Despite the living he’s made based largely on modding Boss and Ibanez pedals, Keeley says he views his company as being more like Fender than Boss or Ibanez. “I want to stick to the basic tools that the guitar player needs,” he explains. “Fender doesn’t have new models and new shapes and designs every year. They have the same one or different variations on a theme, and that’s where I see myself in the future. I think I would like to stick with the basics like the preamp, the compressor, and the simpler concepts—and just do those really, really well.”