Jamie Stillman of Earthquaker Devices on-stage with Relaxer (Photo: Nick Garcia)

Fuzz Pedal Design with Jamie Stillman of EarthQuaker Devices

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This restless innovator and his crew of obsessives hand-build astounding guitar effects pedals out of their headquarters in Akron, Ohio.

Jamie Stillman, founder of EarthQuaker Devices, revels in being headquartered in the heart of the Rust Belt. A riff on the EarthQuaker website speaks to a certain maverick Midwesterner sensibility: “…we make them one-at-a-time, by hand, the hard way, in the idyllic post-apocalyptic wasteland metropolis of Akron, Ohio, USA - where the soldering smoke blocks out the sun, and the fiery Cuyahoga River pumps white-hot liquid magma into the steam engine that powers our great riff factory in the sky.”

EarthQuaker backs up this rock swagger with pedals that deliver on all counts. Built like tanks, they’re steadfastly dependable, easy to tweak, and above all, very musical. We recently talked to Stillman about his early years building pedals, and his general approach and ethos for designing some of the hottest fuzz pedals on the market today.

The HUB: You’re someone who learns by trial and error; famously building 50 Fuzz Face clones before you were satisfied with the results. In those early days of pedal building, what kept you motivated to keep at it? How did you keep going instead of saying, ‘Why don’t I just go and buy a Fuzz Face?’

Jamie Stillman: I think the trick there was that the first few things I built actually worked. The excitement I got out of building stuff also helped. It was fun; it incorporated what I was doing in graphic design and playing guitar.

The HUB: I’ve read that you learned a lot of stuff on Geofex.com and various forums. How did you make the leap from ‘I’m doing this for fun; I’m learning,’ to ‘I can really do this; I should be charging people because these pedals sound darn good’?

JS: Good question. I still haven’t totally made that leap in my mind. I didn’t really intend to start a business, the business sort of started itself for me. Originally I did put a name on the pedals and put them up for sale on the Internet. Prior to that I’d been selling used silverware on eBay and I looked at this as another kind of supplemental income. I was like, ‘I’ll make some fuzz pedals and if anyone wants them, I'll figure out how to turn them into a production run or whatever.

The first time I did it, no one really bit. Friends were buying them though, and they had the EarthQuaker name. Then later, when I was on tour, I thought a lot harder about it and considered taking it more seriously, still in hopes of selling a pedal here and there on eBay.

I think it was the Harmony Central forum where EarthQuaker really got its start. I was selling more stuff to people who were private-messaging me there than anywhere else. 

The HUB: At that point, was it just people looking for vintage clones?

JS: No, it was always going to be a fixed line of pedals. I did some custom work for people early on, but it was always things like combining a Hoof and a Grand Orbiter in one box. But I don’t take requests for other effects; that seems overwhelming. To this day we still get requests to build specific things for people, and I always say no.

The HUB: It seems like dealing with expectations for that would be a problem. The Tone Bender the customer is hearing in their head may be something different from what you ultimately deliver, for a variety of reasons. Then it’s, ‘I gave you my money, why doesn’t it sound like that vintage Tone Bender I heard in my head!’ 

JS: Exactly. I still build pedals occasionally for myself and they never come out exactly the way I imagined. And sometimes I’ll scrap them altogether.

Empty Pedal Cases at EarthQuaker Devices in Akron, Ohio (Photo by Tim Fitzwater)

Pedal cases waiting for their circuit boards at EarthQuaker Devices HQ in Akron, Ohio (Photo: Tim Fitzwater)

The HUB: In thinking about a new pedal, are you thinking about circuits and components first, or is it a sound off a record or in your head? 

JS: You know, it’s all of that stuff. I never really have a set formula. My favorite things come from experimenting, where I pick apart the heart of the pedal and just see what I can do with it. For a lot of the fuzz and overdrive pedals, I might have an idea in my head. Take the Gray Channel. It’s basically two DOD-250 circuits in one box. That concept already existed, but I modified it with different diodes to make it clip and compress a little differently. Then also being able to switch between two settings in the one box. That’s probably as close to a “stock clone” as it gets. But when it’s a widely known circuit, I don’t try to keep it a secret. We usually mention what it’s based on or inspired by. I want to be very clear. 

But what I like is experimenting. I have all these parts and I know what they do. I’ve started liking these old paper in oil capacitors; they do something really nice to the high end. We don’t have anything in the line like that; it’s things I’ve been working on for myself. Lately I’ve been obsessed by parts.

EarthQuaker Devices Gray Channel

The HUB: Seems like you anticipated my next question. Where do you source your parts? Are you browsing various websites, or do you find them in local collections? 

JS: I have bought some private collections, but I haven't got into them yet. I just keep them because the cases look nice. I’m a nerd; I used to be a parts hoarder. Like on eBay, somebody’d say they had some cool caps, and I’d buy like 10 of them and hang onto them. But that was for my own curiosity. In terms of designing a new product, that can be problematic because of quantities. In the early days, if I could get a thousand of some component, that would be amazing. But now I have to have the ability to gets tens of thousands. 

The HUB: Do you ever work with that limitation and say we’ll make 500 units, and that’ll be it? Or do you say we’ll build as many as we can?

JS: It’s a little of both. Germanium transistors are a good example. I keep my fingers crossed that I’ll always be able to find enough to keep the Hoof in production. I’ve always been able to find more when one source runs dry. And if I have to have them made, I know where to do that too. I’m pretty good at sourcing parts.

The HUB: Have you ever run out during production and had to change parts mid-run?

JS: Yeah, we’ve had to do it a couple of times, but it’s not been a massive setback. I’ve always been able to find something equivalent. The paper in oil caps are what has me worried a bit because it’s such a big part of the sound and I don’t think anything else can do it. Today, though, if we couldn’t see making two thousand units, we probably wouldn't put it into production.

A peek inside the EarthQuaker Devices factory in Akron, Ohio (Photo by Tim Fitzwater)

A peek inside the EarthQuaker Devices factory at their headquarters in Akron, Ohio. (Photo: Tim Fitzwater)

The HUB: Looking at silicon versus germanium, how do they differ tone-wise and what are the availability factors? Do you have a preference?

JS: I don’t know that I have a preference. The thing that I like about germanium—and this is totally throwing science out the window—they’re low gain. If you’re going to make a fuzz circuit, which is a pretty brutal use of a basic amplifier, the lower the gain the less grind-y it is and the smoother the sound. Silicon transistors are almost always too high-gain—even those with the lowest gain. Which means it takes a couple of extra parts and some math to smooth it out. I feel like I can make silicon circuits sound like germanium and no one would ever know. I like the low gain sound of germanium but I like working with silicon transistors because they are less temperamental, easier to get, and I feel I can make them sound just as good.

The HUB: So romance aside, silicon would be your preference?

JS: Yeah, and silicon doesn’t shut down if you play outside in the summer.

The HUB: When you’re getting into voicing a fuzz, do you have specific rigs or pickup configurations that you run through?

JS: I pretty much design everything using a Telecaster through a Deluxe Reverb; for me they’re the lowest common denominator. And I know those things inside and out. I know their sound and how the pedal reacts to them. Therefore I can sense how that rig’s going to react to a lot of other things.

I have a ton of other amps and guitars at my disposal personally and at EarthQuaker, and I’ll run it through that stuff, but that’s my main test rig. 

The HUB: When you’re testing a new design, do you have go-to styles or riffs you play?

JS: I like to play chords with a lot of notes in them, and if I can hear every note in the chord, I’m usually happy. If the notes kind of blend together and the harmonics start bouncing around weird, that’s when I’ll look at the circuit and say, ‘I love these power chords and single notes, but with these open chords it’s just turning into garbage. Can I fix it; is it worth going down that rabbit hole?’

But I think I’ve got a pretty universal way of playing guitar; kind of a mix between a lot of different styles. I do a lot of different stuff at high volume, so I’ve got a pretty good sense of what it’s going to do. The only thing I don’t feel I’m very good at is by-the-book blues. So I’m sometimes surprised what the pedal can be coaxed to do by someone in that realm.

The HUB: Do you get this feedback or examples from customers directly, or do you go on YouTube?

JS: It’s more like when I see people do it at shows. I try to stay off YouTube. [Laughter] Of course, we have a ton of guitar players here at EarthQuaker, so just seeing what they do can be surprising and inspiring.

The HUB: When you’re doing your take on a classic pedal design, what’s your approach? Are you gathering as many vintage units as you can or are you looking at schematics? And once you get to voicing, are you voicing based on the original intent of the product since these vintage units’ component values have drifted. Obviously there’s a difference between the sound of a vintage pedal recorded back in the 1960s and the sound of a vintage unit today that’s drifted quite a bit.

JS: It’s case by case, but more often than not, I go off the vintage schematic. I usually start from there but usually it doesn’t sound like any vintage unit I’ve heard. [Laughter.] At that point I try to go toward what I hear on records. I can only think of two times in my life where I’ve actually measured the parts of pedals. For one thing, I think it’s more work than it’s worth. And two, I don’t want to destroy the pedal. Thirdly, I’m not going to spend the money on old, vintage pedals and usually I won’t even buy one if I can borrow it instead. I’m a deal-scourer; I won’t buy one unless I can get it for super cheap. I’ve never bought a vintage Fuzz Face, don’t have one. I’m not going to by a $2,200 Fuzz Face, not knowing how it’s going to react.

There have been a couple of exceptions. I bought a Uni-Vibe because I didn’t think my clone sounded like one. So I got one and I was right, it’s not like any of the other clones either. The Park Fuzz was another case. I was able to find one at a reasonable price to confirm how close I was sound-wise. I needed to play them side by side a lot. That’s one of the few pedals where I tried to get them as close together as possible. 

 

The HUB: When you listen to records while developing a pedal, do you take the original amp, the mic, and other gear used in the recording into account?

JS: You can drive yourself crazy with that if you have to figure out the room size and the air pressure and the humidity and all these other factors. I just try to run them through as flat of an amp as I can and try to A-B the two pedals. I don’t think ours nails it [the Park fuzz] one-hundred percent; the original has a spongier top end. But I felt that it was close enough. The gain range was close and it kind of reacted the same way. Rarely have I played a pedal where someone's said, ‘This is to spec!’ Those old circuits are always different—they’re even different from each other.

Also, it should be said that the sound on the record is that person playing that guitar; it’s their picking style, their attack. No matter what gear they’re actually using. I used to tour manage and tech for The Black Keys, and I knew their guitar sounds having heard them a million times. But when I played through the rig, it sounded like Iron Maiden.

The HUB: When you discontinue a line, do you incorporate those circuits into future pedals? Or when it’s done, it’s done?

JS: A little bit of both. A lot of things we discontinued were brought back later. And then maybe discontinued again, like the Crimson Drive and the Black Eye. Sometimes they’re discontinued because I’ve come up with something in the same vein that I think is better. That’s usually when the new pedal doesn’t comfortably fit under the old name. But we’ve been turning some of our discontinued pedals into kits that people can buy and build. The kits include the actual production circuit boards and they seem to be selling well.

The HUB: So discontinuing older models in the same vein helps the clarity of your product line. You don’t want to cause decision paralysis for your customers!

 JS: I experience the same thing, even with our stuff. Of course I’m in the position just picking them off the shelf. 

The HUB: When you design pedals like the Hoof Reaper where you can stack other fuzzes, how does that come about? Is it by experimenting on your own pedalboard with various boxes? And what’s your own favorite combination of stacked fuzzes?

JS: Yeah, that’s pretty much it; we’ll try different effects together. With the Hoof Reaper, I think it was a special unit I made for a store. It was a limited run of 20 of these things. I tried everything; I still have all those prototypes lying around. Some things worked, some things really didn’t work but somehow the Tone Reaper and the Hoof was a really nice combination. But only in one specific order. I think I had an Ampeg Scrambler at the time and I really liked the way it swelled with the Hoof and Tone Reaper so I put in an octave-up circuit also, and it sounded great.

The HUB: So were you breadboarding it or working with the individual pedals on your board?

JS: In that case I put all the pedals together. Then I took the pedals and put them in a box and wired them in series and hoped it would work. And it did. Other times when I do something like that, I’ll breadboard it. Sometimes there are weird intricacies; it sounds good only up to a point. 

The HUB: When you put these units in one box do they sound any different now that you’re working with different power distribution?

JS: To me, it sounds the same as the pedals do separately. It’s when you run them together that obviously things begin to change, but I don’t know with a fuzz circuit given its very low current draw that it’s audibly different. But layout changes can be a pain because they can drastically change the sound. Maybe not the sound so much, but the expected operation in terms of noise floor and things like that. The first version of the Hoof Reaper was a little noisier than I expected. So as I remember it, I copied the layouts of the individual pedals and put them on a big circuit board and it worked perfectly.

The HUB: What’s your favorite fuzz by someone else; do you have one? 

JS: My number one would be the Fuzz Face.

The HUB: Just a standard one?

JS: No, my absolute favorite is that Jimi Hendrix version in the blue case. That Dunlop reissue’s my favorite. Aside from that, I’ve got an ‘80s Cornell Fuzz Face I like, and a Schaller Fuzz from Germany that’s great. Among modern production models, probably the Death by Audio Apocalypse.

The HUB: A lot of guitarists are getting into mono synths. A colleague of mine is getting deep into it, adding pedals to his signal chain. What’s your take on this?

JS: I’m usually only thinking about guitar, but I have a lot of friends who are into modular synths. That’s what the trigger effect on our Pyramids is from. The guy who does all our DSP, one day I came in and he was playing the radio through this pedal. The radio was triggering the flange. He says we should build this in and that’s how the feature got built into the Pyramids. We’re seeing pedals being used more and more with things that aren’t a guitar. And sometimes they sound even cooler.

We make this fuzz pedal called the Terminal that has a real harsh and grind-y sound that I love on guitar. It’s disorienting at high volume. You run a synth through it though and it sounds amazing. You get this really smooth square wave that sounds like another oscillator. That’s a case of pedal use that really shocked me when I heard it.

Any of these pedals on horns gives you a totally different thing, too. And I’m all for it. The world is changing and it’s not all guitarists. There are laptops and turntables and vocal loops and things like that.

The HUB: It’s interesting that with a synth you’re dealing with a far wider range of frequencies, especially when you’re getting into overdrive- and fuzz-type circuits. You’re going to get a very different kind of response going down to 20 or 30 hertz.

JS: Yeah, I usually try to be sure the pedals will pass very low frequencies because I really like a lot of low end out of my guitar. Most of the things will pass a signal low enough to handle a bass guitar.

The HUB: Very cool. Well, that was a fun talk about fuzz. Thanks for your time, Jamie!

Tags: Electric Guitars Effects Pedals

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