Guitar Pedals

Boutique sound destroyers boom

EarthQuaker's demonstration pedal board - not the World's Biggest, but Doug Niemczura hauls it around nonetheless
EarthQuaker's demonstration pedal board - not the "World's Biggest," but Doug Niemczura hauls it around nonetheless (Photos by David Brendan Hall)

"The World's Biggest Pedal Board" appeared on Facebook Dec. 30, courtesy of ex-Cult/Guns N' Roses/Velvet Revolver drummer Matt Sorum. Taking a page from Dave Grohl's tome, Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy issued Stratosphere last spring, on which the tub thumper composed, sang, and played guitar. To facilitate the latter, his camp put together a guitarist's soft shoe soundboard.

Judging by the photographic evidence accompanying the announcement, Sorum may have set a record, all right. A beast stretching across two sofas joined at an angle, the gargantuan gadget looked to house at least 75 stomp boxes – sound altering devices guitarists dance across in concert. Every possible overdrive, distortion, fuzz, echo, and flanger gizmo sat on the custom grouping.

Only a drummer could devise the Neil Peart drum kit of guitar pedal boards.

Whether Sorum was joking or not, he made a point: Guitarists, hobbyist or professional alike, cannot stop messing with their sound.

Trem-Trol

Ever since Forties dance band guitarists began attaching microphones called pickups beneath the instrument's strings, and running the output to primitive, under-powered tube amplifiers in order to be heard above the horns, the axe class has subverted the clean audio signal engineers are trained to capture. Guitarists want rawness, and more volume. They want to sound huge, and occasionally warped.

Calaveras Guitar Boutique's Tednoir Martinez and wares
Calaveras Guitar Boutique's Tednoir Martinez and wares

The first piece of outboard gear marketed to guitarists was the Trem-Trol in 1948, which created a throbbing, volume fluctuation recognizable from Bo Diddley records to the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now." Reverb, a spring-driven delay that surf guitar originator Dick Dale developed with pioneering guitar/amp designer Leo Fender, similarly evolved from a large, clunky external unit to standard amp circuitry of most Fifties and Sixties guitar amps. It made Dale's Stratocaster sound like an echo canyon on instrumentals like "Miserlou," and underlined the deep twang of Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser."

Neither effect was designed to make an amp sound like a busted speaker, however. Guitarists had to figure out how to do that themselves. Fifties blues guitarists on the order of Guitar Slim discovered that cranking up primitive tube amps on tracks like "The Things I Used to Do" (later covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan) created an overdrive or distortion that made their chords growl and bark.

In fact, early rock & rollers went to destructive extremes to get that same sound. Paul Burlison pulled a tube halfway out of a socket prior to tracking the Johnny Burnette Rock & Roll Trio's rockabilly screamer "The Train Kept A-Rollin'." Link Wray punched holes in an amp speaker with a pencil to cut the three most dangerous chords downstroked in the Fifties, "Rumble." No word if this then inspired one Dave Davies to razor-blade his cheap practice amp's speakers to power the Kinks' 1964 proto-punk classic "You Really Got Me."

And it took an accident on a country session to usher in fuzz.

Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut, Nashville, 1961: Marty Robbins cuts a bluesy shuffle, "Don't Worry." Ace session guitarist Grady Martin comes in to play a six-string bass solo, likely in emulation of Duane Eddy. Prior to his cue, an output transformer on the three-channel recording console fries. Martin's solo sputters, rages, snarls. He's unhappy.

Everyone else hears the hook driving "Don't Worry" to the top of the country chart and No. 3 on pop.

Other clients clamor for "Don't Worry" engineer Glenn Snoddy to deliver "that fuzzy sound." He designs a device to emulate the fritzing transformer and sells it to Gibson Guitars, which markets it as the first fuzz pedal in 1962. Three years later, Rolling Stones tour manager Ian Stewart returns to L.A.'s RCA Studios from Wallach's Music City after Keith Richards complains that the three-note guitar hook he's tracking sounds anemic.

The ever-gruff pianist tosses the guitarist one of Snoddy's Maestro Fuzz-Tones. "Try this," he mutters. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and its raspy guitar drives the Stones' first worldwide No. 1, and fuzz becomes the favored weapon of every American garage band and aural terrorist beginning with a Yardbirds-era Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.

Ever after, sweaty musicians can't spit onstage without hitting another gewgaw designed to make an electric guitar sound like anything but an electric guitar. There's the onomatopoeic wah-wah pedal, pulsing on Cream's "White Room" and gloriously abused by Ron Asheton on the first Stooges LP. Echo bounces off Fifties vinyl to early U2 tracks. Phase shifters create Eddie Van Halen's whirling undertow on "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." Chorus rings in the 12-string-style overtones of early Pretenders and Hüsker Dü discs, not to mention the warbling underwater guitar on Nirvana's "Come as You Are."

Even so, the king daddy of all stomp boxes remains Glenn Snoddy's bastard child the fuzz, and its cousins overdrive and distortion. As long as there are guitarists dissatisfied with their sound (i.e., always), pedals will reign supreme. After all, in the hands of a skilled axe slinger, these effects are essential tools, brushes to dab colors and textures on audio paintings.

Sex Drive

Alan Durham's pedal to the metal
Alan Durham's pedal to the metal

The current big news in guitar circles is boutique effects: small, usually one-man home operations hand-building their wares one at a time. Boutique pedals are usually a classic fuzz or overdrive circuit given a new twist with higher quality than mass-produced gear. Their facades can also feature silk-screened or hand-painted graphics, giving your pedal board the effect of an art gallery at your feet.

Austin has more than its fair share of boutique pedal builders, and even an entire shop dedicated to them.

"During the Nineties, I had Black Cat pedals," says Tednoir Martinez of Calaveras Guitar Boutique, a Southside operation open since 2013. "Those were great, and nobody knew about them, because there was no Internet. Then there were Fulltone pedals, and Zachary Vex with the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory. And there was the Klon Centaur, which is very desirable."

A lifelong pedal buff with a claim to 500 stomp boxes in his collection, Martinez previously worked at a local studio as a sound designer who could get you any amp sound via judicious pedal use. When opting to go into business for himself, he avoided competing with Austin's many excellent guitar shops and paid particular attention to homegrown makers.

One local builder, Alan Durham, was on the ground floor of the boutique boom with Durham Electronics. The veteran guitarist enjoys a heady clientele – Keith Richards, the Edge, Joe Walsh, Mark Knopfler, among many – for products like the Sex Drive boost pedal, which raises guitar volume without distorting the signal more. Developed with its native namesake, Charlie Sexton, Durham benefited from field research via the former's endless touring with Bob Dylan, sending the prototype back and forth until the sound was the same as the one in his head. Guitarists ranging from Jon Dee Graham to the Stooges' James Williamson consider Sex Drive crucial to their rig.

"I'm a gigging, playing musician," says Durham, "so when I sit here and tweak, I know what I want it to feel like in my hand. I'm no engineer saying, 'Let's do this or that.' I want it to sound great."

Great sounds have the boutique business booming nowadays. Akron's EarthQuaker Devices hired Doug Niemczura as their Austin sales rep. Grown out of the Black Keys' camp, Jamie Stillman's flagship fuzz pedal, the Hoof, has sprung a line of 49 boxes and 20 employees to work them.

Joe Anastasio destroys the signal
Joe Anastasio destroys the signal

"The consensus at [musical instrument conference] NAAM was that gas prices are way down, so people are saving money and we're big babies. We're children who need pacifiers," Niemczura muses. "Pedals do that, because you can't afford to buy a new guitar every day."

Doom metal remains an especially gain-and-distortion drunk market, which has kept New Jersey transplant Joe Anastasio of Lone Wolf Audio busy. He works out of a Southside apartment with a hi-fi audio background ensuring that his extreme distortions and overdrives like the F.O.A.D. and the Plague Rat are of the highest quality. He's encouraged by the boutique boom, estimated by Durham as "something like 800 guys."

"We've kind of created the punk rock of pedals," enthuses Anastasio. "We're doing it on our own. We're doing it against whatever odds. Me and my wife, we don't have regular jobs. This is what we do. It's all I want to do. I work 70 hours a week sometimes. I don't mind it.

"I just wanna destroy audio as accurately as possible," he grins.

Klon Centaur

"I've never in my life used more than four pedals," huffs Jon Dee Graham. "Because what I'm looking for is an extremely good Strat plugged into a good-sounding amp. That sound, that's hard enough to get."

Among the four pedals Britt Daniel uses is one of the aforementioned and ultra-rare Klon Centaurs.

"The guy who makes them in Boston is kinda nuts," offers the Spoon frontman. "I guess he doesn't make them anymore. He used to come to our shows and bring them to me. I would pay for them, but he would bring them to me because I was a touring musician. That was the only way you could get them."

Jason Lamont, aka Bulemics/Flash Boys guitarist Ginchy, so desired a Klon Centaur that he had Joe Anastasio build a version, the Minotaur. He considers chronic dissatisfaction with tone and its tools as part of a natural progression.

"When you get good on guitar, you're never happy with your tone," he says. "You're getting to where it sounds good, but in the back of your mind, it can sound better. And by God, you love guitar so much, you love the gear that goes with it! You just obsess over it, and it never stops. I have eight to 10 amps, and 15 guitars. I don't need another guitar or another amp or another pedal, but that doesn't stop me from buying them."

ST 37's Bobby Baker (l) and Joel Crutcher liquefy
ST 37's Bobby Baker (l) and Joel Crutcher liquefy

"I like simplicity," drawls Joel Crutcher of Austin psych vets ST 37. "Get an amp you like to set the foundation, then you need some distortion to liquefy it. Then you need some echo to echofy it."

He adds that he's used the same distortion pedal for virtually all of the band's nearly 30-year history, including recent Cleopatra Records' release I'm Not Good.

"What we hear is what we go by," explains Fuckemos guitarist Brian McGee, who builds his own pedals out of economic necessity. "When the Les Paul came out, that was the thing. So everybody has to try to get that sound. The Telecaster, the same thing; it was all twangy, but there was something about it.

"Then the first amps were these Western Electric circuits that were just examples of how to use tubes to amplify sound. The first sounds we heard, we fell in love with, and we try to get those."

And have their delivery systems do something a little extra. Local country guitar scientist Redd Volkaert, honored to have Alan Durham's Reddverb named for him, sees that as the boutique builders' mission.

"It's kinda like hot rodders," posits Volkaert. "You buy a Chevy with a 327 in it, and you can't leave anything alone with it. 'Yeah, it's a good car, but if I put a four-speed transmission and a four-barrel carburetor on it, then I'd have a better gadget.'

"Think of these boutique guys as electronic hot rodders jacking with stuff. By them doing that, it makes the pedals do more than what the off-the-shelf ones do.

"It's like getting a handmade pair of boots. They just fit better."

The Minotaur

Bulemic's guitarist Ginchy unleashes the Minotaur
Bulemic's guitarist Ginchy unleashes the Minotaur

During the second night of Free Week last month, garage hot spot Hotel Vegas endured extreme claustrophobia waiting for the Flash Boys to unleash their expert punk racket. With half of Austin crammed into the microscopic space, Ginchy jacked a Les Paul Custom into his pedal board, fed in turn through a Fender Tone-Master amp, then engaged a Tube Screamer plugged into Joe Anastasio's Minotaur.

Keeerrraaannnggg!

Chords crash, notes shriek. The Tone-Master becomes a Tone-Monster. The crowd goes nuts, pushing frontman Frankie Nowhere's Iggyisms that much harder, and furthering Ginchy's reputation as a fine crafter of raw power. Glenn Snoddy's great-grandchildren destroy the signal with dizzying relish.

"I've heard people saying, 'We've been trying to make audio purer and undefiled,'" the engineer remarked to Nashville writer Peter Cooper two years ago in a story on his inventing fuzz. "'And then some so-and-so comes up with a way to distort it.' That so-and-so was me."

Thank you, Glenn Snoddy, for inadvertently ushering in the Age of Fuzz.

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