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Boutique Guitar Gear: Local Inventors Help Musicians Achieve the Holy Grail of Sound

Zachary Vex

Zachary Vex inventing

The Fuzz Factory pedal

The Jonny Octave pedal

One of the artists' desks

Technicians at work

Minneapolis musician Erik Sexe remembers the first time he tried out Z.Vex Effects’ Fuzz Factory guitar pedal in front of Zachary Vex, the pedal’s creator. After getting the settings where he wanted, Sexe plugged in his guitar and was greeted with an unpleasant squeal.

“It whistled like a teapot,” says Sexe, who now performs numerous tasks for Z.Vex, including sales and live and video demos. “I handed the pedal back to Zach. He smiled with a look like, ‘You’re not ready.’ Sure enough I had to learn how to be guided as much by what the pedal was doing as by what I was doing. It opened my ears in a major way.”

Welcome to the world of handmade guitar gear, where inventors bring a range of experience and creativity to products that for decades have been mass-produced. The Twin Cities has a small but well known community of innovators who make parts and add-ons for guitarists all over the world.

“In the pedal world, Minneapolis is pretty highly regarded,” says Sayer Payne, owner of Minneapolis-based Heavy Electronics. “I give Zack huge credit. He came out with some of the first boutique pedals I saw.”

Payne and Vex are at the forefront of a community of custom makers of pedals—or as some call them, stomp boxes—for electric guitars. Other local purveyors of boutique pedals include Minneapolis-based OohLaLa, which has sold guitar effects designed by such local inventors such as Lorren Stafford of Black Box Electronics.

Traditionally such pedals have provided a limited range of tonal varieties, usually distortion, delay, or a flanging effect. Local inventors have upped the ante by making pedals that perform a range of specialized functions. Take Z.Vex’s pedal Jonny Octave, which raises the pitch of the note played by one or two octaves. Or Heavy Electronics’ Rodeo Loop, which allows guitarists with a series of interconnected pedals to isolate or shut off any in the chain.

Custom pedals: tonal range, effects, and durability

Vex built and sold his first guitar pedal as a teenager, but waited until his 30s to start Z.Vex.  A subscription to Popular Electronics, courtesy of his mom, inspired Vex to build his own pedals. So did seeing first-hand how fragile mass-produced guitar pedals could be. He heard a guitarist playing what sounded like a Jordan Bosstone fuzz pedal, but saw it had been re-housed because the guitarist kept breaking off the knobs by dropping it.

Vex began to tinker. He refined an Apollo Fuzz Wah pedal, following the schematic drawing inside the pedal. His improvements enhanced the pedal’s tonal range. When he demonstrated the pedal, which he called the Octane, to the owner of a local music store, the owner ordered three.

“The Octane was my first pedal,” says Vex. “Suddenly, I was in business. After I’d sold him a dozen or more he asked me to do something else, and I stayed up all night to design the Fuzz Factory.”

Since then, Vex’s pedals have been used by such internationally renowned musicians as Robert Fripp, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher.

 "A better user experience"

The impetus for Vex, Payne and others to start building pedals was, in part, the lack of durability in mass-produced models. Similarly, the lack of stability in guitar bridges inspired another local gear maker, John “Woody” Woodland, to design bridges and create his own company, Mastery Bridge.

A luthier and guitar repairman by trade, Woodland started designing bridges five years ago. The bridge—the part of the guitar near the sound hole and that anchors the strings—can be a finicky piece of equipment. Woodland initially started making bridges for “offset” electric guitars such as Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar models.

“There was a need for a better user experience,” says Woodland. “I used to fix the bridges on those guitars and I thought they could be better. Musicians shouldn’t have to worry about their hardware. They should be worrying about playing.”

In the summer of 2008, Woodland sent prototypes of his bridges out with Wilco and Sonic Youth to take on tour. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline was an early champion of Woodland’s work, and remains so. Elvis Costello and Queens of the Stone Age are also on Woodland’s client list.

“Initially I just designed bridges for people I worked for,” says Woodland. “Nels talked me into selling them to other people. Almost overnight, I had more orders than I could deal with.” Today Mastery Bridge employs a dozen people and has seen production grow by a third every year since its founding.

The holy grail of sound

The growth in revenue and popularity for local boutique guitar-gear makers has as much to do with the quality of the products as with the inventors’ convictions about how their products should be made and sold. Woodland has been approached to source his parts overseas, but turned down those queries citing concerns over quality control.

Similarly, Z.Vex is careful to limit its mail-order sales to custom one-off pedals, concentrating most of its inventory in brick-and-mortar resellers.  “That’s where you find people who are most knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what we do,” says Sexe of Z.Vex’s retailers. “Some of our pedals have a steep learning curve, and we need people to be able to plug into them and try them out” in well-regarded stores with knowledgeable salespeople.

These retailers love not just the sound, but the hand-painted boxes in which the pedals are sold. Z.Vex employs a number of artists who custom design and paint each box.  

Payne says boutique gear is a good niche to be in, partly because a new pedal can be an inexpensive option for a guitarist who wants to tinker with a different sound but can’t afford a new instrument or amplifier. To enhance that experience, he sometimes creates slight variations in his pedals by using slightly different circuits.

“When a pedal has the perfect sound for a particular player,” he says, “we’ve achieved a holy grail of sound.”

Dan Heilman has been a professional writer and editor since the 1980s. He was managing editor of Finance & Commerce before starting his own independent writing and editing business in 2010.
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