As you might expect, one of the things we hear a lot from some people is “How can you charge $200 for a pedal that I can buy the parts for, for less than $50, and make it myself?”
Right, let’s get comfy and pick this apart piece by piece. I’ll do my best to remain objective and not end up in a socio political rant about ethics, but you know, if you poke the bear sometimes you get bitten! But, I’ll try to keep my muzzle on and remain professional! lololz.
Let’s take the Thirty Something. A pedal that we sell for $239 USD. The first thing you have to remember is that Brian didn’t wake up one day and have it all mapped inside his head, he didn’t just do a “Let It Be” and have it ready from a dream. I kid you not that Brian took almost 3 years to design that circuit, it went through more prototypes than any other Wampler I know of (and I’m pretty certain I’m up to speed on this stuff), it was tweaked, changed, restarted, thrown in the bin so many times I actually stopped asking about it. When it was finally ready I remember Brian saying “I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I just can’t see how I can make it any closer”. That being said, when it arrived in Wildling territory and I plugged it in, I was staggered how it reacted and how it felt. I still think it remains the benchmark in AIAB pedals, it does the job perfectly. And I was brought up playing Edge, Queen, The Beatles and Hank Marvin songs… so, I’m kinda fussy with VOX tones.
Thinking about that, and thinking about how Brian is considered in his field, can you begin to imagine how much investment that is? To import a design engineer and have them work at something on and off for 3 years would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, I can’t comprehend how much it would be, but just think about that minute, that is a lot of R&D work, and you know, with a large family to support and employees to pay, that kind of work doesn’t pass unnoticed by the company accountant. R&D aside, then you have to imagine that once again, the designs of everything else doesn’t appear out of thin air, the pedal logo needs designing, the box art, the manual, the marketing, the demo videos, the promo shots… it’s actually quite ridiculous when you think about it, costs a bloody fortune.
Here is a picture I took for the marketing for the release of the Thirty Something. I am very lucky that I live near Manson's Guitar Shop and have a great relationship with them (they stock us). I go in, take over a corner of the shop, use their stock guitars as backing and then spend a long time photoshopping the picture to make it look like this. It all adds up!
Now, we get to parts. Brian is RIDICOUSLY fussy about parts. He will only use parts that fulfil his requirements, and there was a stage at one point in time when we were ditching 2/3rds of a certain part because they didn’t come up to scratch - mere mortals like me can’t hear the difference, but let’s face it, I’m not Brian Wampler, his ears are better than mine and I expect most of yours as well, so you have to budget that as well.
So, let’s get back to the meat of this. You will find websites all over the internet that ‘kindly’ reverse every pedal ever made and post the schematic for all to plagiarise, errmmm, I mean “study". So, once we’ve spent ages designing and marketing a pedal and released it, someone can then probably go to their favorite online parts store and order the parts, an enclosure and get pretty close to how the original is. I say pretty close, because I can guarantee that the components won’t be to the spec Brian demands, it won’t be laid out as well and let’s face it, I expect the basic soldering won’t be that good. We stand by our 5 year guarantee, I bet the places the parts are bought from don’t!
Let’s now look at this from another angle. And throughout this, I’m not going to mention any prices, because people will jump on it, but just think about where we are and what we are doing in this, and where you can buy it. We are not a retailer. We do not sell to the general public (we do offer direct sales through our site, but they account for next to nothing in term of units moved compared to our international sales team). We are a manufacturer. We manufacture a product, and then sell it to people who sell it through their own stores. Sometimes we sell it to a distributor who then sells it to a dealer… taking local and international taxes, shipping, the price goes up. Then I must mention the 5 year guarantee again… So, if you want to try a product in store, have that store stay open to offer you a service, you see where we, and everyone else, is coming from. Having said that, some pedals are overpriced for what they are. I’m not going to mention anything or anyone specifically here, but there are pedals out there that are basic reworked clones, with minimal R&D, with a crappy box, labelled with one of those crappy Embosser Label Maker gun things that are for sale direct from manufacturers that are silly prices, but that’s their conscience, not ours!
Made in USA. What does that mean? You may have noticed we’ve shifted from Made in USA to Built in USA. Why I hear you ask? (and to be fair, it’s another question we get asked a lot at the moment.) Well, to be able to say “Made in USA” with complete honesty means that every component is made in the USA, and as far as I know (and I like to think I’m up to speed) most parts are impossible to source, let alone in the numbers we need them, from the USA. So, we source parts – as does EVERYONE else, from around the world - we just wear that information on our sleeves. The same burden of consistency and quality is applied, and we use only the very best. I would say that if a pedal is sourced from USA components (if it was actually possible) you’d be looking at a pedal that is at least 3 or 4 times the price, and you can imagine how many of them we’d sell! (worth noting that technically, it’s illegal for any pedal company to say “Made in the USA” due to the reasons above. We just found this out recently and changed the wording to be in accordance with US law).
When you think about a $199.97 pedal (also: inflation. www.usinflationcalculator.com a pedal that costs $199 today would have sold for $107 in 1990. Ever since 2007, we’ve had a main price of about $199 unless it’s a deluxe pedal. Accounting for inflation, that pedal SHOULD cost $235.10 in 2017, yet we’ve never raised that 199 price), remove the dealer margin, shipping, taxes and everything else (I’m not going to even go to how we manage to sell our stuff for virtually the same price all over the world, give or take $30 or so dollars) then start to think about production costs, there isn’t a lot of room to think about R&D and then the guarantee period. Now do the same with a pedal that is $149, $129 or $99 - think about how much it costs to build and how many compromises have to be made in those price reductions – kinda makes you wonder doesn’t it. Strip it back, work it out, and then you think about the Built in USA (as our stuff is) you’ll see that not only are we bringing you a quality USA product, but paying quality USA salary for the guys who design, build, test, market, sell and repair (which isn’t very often thankfully) our stuff… Then look at the guys who will sell you a clone of a pedal that is still in production for $50. Do you think that will give you the same pedal? Do you think that will encourage companies like us to continue to make quality products that will inspire you to sound the best you can do?
I had a lengthy post regarding all of the things I’ve learned since starting with Wampler over a year ago, but after reaching over 2,000 words, I decided to just condense it into a list of myths about the pedal industry I feel every person should know now that I’ve seen the other side:
- The builders aren’t any different than any other person. They all put their pants on one leg at a time in the morning. In general, all of the builders I’ve had to honor to meet have been nothing short of amazing, speaking as if they’ve known me forever. The key thing to remember? Most of them usually don’t WANT to be thought of any different. They’re tone chasers just like us. They’ve all just found their niche in the trade, just like skilled workers in other areas. When I met Brian and Jason and Max, I was sweating and nervous as could be. I tried to keep a straight face despite screaming on the insane, but they treated me as equals and like it was another day at work. It was all just a blur at the time, but looking back it drastically changed my perception. They don’t want to be famous, they just happen to be in front of a camera or on social media more than other people!I was nervous the first time I walked up to Robert Keeley, but he came up and gave me a hug and we talked like old friends. The pedal industry is by far one of the friendliest groups I’ve ever seen.
- Despite pedal costs, there isn’t a load of money in the pedal business. The big thing is that from the process of concept to having the pedal on your board costs a lot of money to create. Research and development, prototyping, PCB changes, mass quantities of parts (we’re talking thousands of a single part per order), building in the United States, paint (thousands of gallons of one particular color, per pedal), printing the graphics, boxes and instructions, and free shipping. All of it cuts off of the bottom-end of the money made. Dealers like to make a little on them as well, so you have to account for that cost too. You’d probably be surprised how little we actually get to take in! That being said, it’s more about the experience and the process than the money. Like Brian told me when I started “If you’re in it to make money, you’re better off outside of the music industry.” It’s a rewarding job though, helping people find the tone that they’ve been hearing in their head.
- Working NAMM is VERY different than attending NAMM. It’s mind-boggling. I’ve only been to one NAMM (Winter in Anaheim) and it’s a full sensory overload experience. There’s a noise ordinance at NAMM so vendors and patrons won’t go over a certain dB, and that threshold is usually exceeded as soon as people cut the amps on. If you get too loud, the NAMM police come around and give you warnings. If you get too many warnings for violating the noise level….not good (fines, etc). People are everywhere, where you have to scream over the noise of neighboring booths to talk to tone chasers that walk up to your booth. Working the booth can be very repetitive. You get the same questions over and over again, but luckily if you enjoy it you won’t mind answering them. There’s really no time to sit down, eat, or even go to the bathroom sometimes. At the end of the day when NAMM closes, your ears are clogged like you’ve entered an isolation chamber, and your voice is typically hoarse from talking so loudly all day. Rinse and repeat for the next few days. Some big name guitarists stop by, many of which are just insanely nice people who just excel at their chosen instrument. The same premise applies as the builders; MOST just want to be treated like normal people. It’s a balancing act to meeting your business contacts and creating relationships with new customers, so it’s always hectic. After NAMM is done you break down (several hour job) and head home. There’s one interesting fact I didn’t know existed. Inevitably if you work NAMM, you’ll end up with NAMMthrax. You’re literally shaking hands and talking face-to-face with hundreds of people every day, and everyone ends up catching some kind of head cold or otherkind of sickness that lasts for a few weeks after you get home. In my case, I ended up with a sinus and ear infection, where some people ended up with the full blown flu. It’s just the nature of meeting with so many people in a public space.
- You’d be amazed how hard it is to find an original name and color for a pedal. This process is often overlooked because the end result is what everyone sees. The process involves checking trademarks, and ensuring that no one has a pedal or music instrument out that already has that name or something extremely close to it. Each name has to be applicable to what the pedal is, and has to be able to have imagery to use along with it. There are loads of names that sound great, but there’s nothing graphically that’s feasible to put onto the small space the graphic takes up on the pedal. The goal is to make all of the pedals flow together visually and stylistically with names, so you have to be wary of that too. To give you an example, the cataPulp was originally going to be called the Pulp Friction…but after some searching it was a 90’s porno. Strike that one off!
- Social media content isn’t as easy to find as you might think. Being an international company sounds like it would be a breeze to find content to post every day, right? Not so much. With that many viewers, you have to take into account the varying ages, gender, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, political views, and any other thing that might trigger someone to be angry. With so many varying opinions in the world, your list of content gets whittled down before you know it. Content has to be relatable, provide something to the viewer, not tick anyone off, and still be relevant to the brand. So when you see those pictures and posts, give them an extra like :-)
- Guitar pedal companies don’t have days off generally. It’s a 24/7 business. We have customers around the globe, so there are constantly messages submitted to the main page at all hours of the day and night. When most people are on their holiday break, we’re working because the load increases due to people being off and having time to send messages. That’s not to say that we don’t relax some, but most days still maintain a consistent level of work at minimum. Closer to the end of the year and the holidays, it gets a bit crazier. I stepped away from my family getting ready to open presents on Christmas so I could take care of a couple of things. But if you love it, you do what you have to do!
- There’s nowhere near as much guitar playing happening as you’d think there would be. As much as I’d love to say it’s trying prototypes all day and getting to jam on free pedals, it’s not the case. It’s spreadsheets, statistics, insight tracking, blog writing, message responding, email typing, and general businessy stuff. I think we’d all go out on a limb here at Wampler and say that we play guitar LESS because of working, but it’s a tradeoff. We’re not playing, but we’re facilitating other players to play more.
- Just because there aren’t a load of steady new releases, it doesn’t mean they’re sitting idly. New releases take a lot of prep work (see 2nd bullet point). There are many pedals that will reach prototype phase and never see the light of day. There are also some pedals that have just been released that have been ready for years and it just didn’t feel like the right time to release until then. Pedal builders are always looking ahead, whether it’s their planned releases for months down the road, or researching new technology for something they have planned for a few years ahead. It’s all a chess game that requires patience and planning on the whole teams’ part to bring something to the public in a cohesive manner.
- Competitors actually like each other in most cases. Just because various companies are trying to reach the same demographic of players with their pedals, it doesn’t mean that they’re cutthroat and despise each other. Many times builders help each other directly, whether its needing help with a particular issue in a design, or just general chit-chat. The pedal building community is unlike any other I’ve seen. It’s a network of family in a sense, where in most cases they all look out for each other and are friends, and share stories of success and heartbreak. They also discuss customers, ones that are known to have fraudulent activities or sketchy dealings. You’d be surprised what builders have helped out on various releases over the years for other companies as well ;-)
As I wrote this list, I hope it didn’t seem negative, because it isn’t intended that way. I’ve been a tone chaser my entire life and my dream has always been to work in the pedal industry (specifically for Brian). These are myths that I had built up in my own head over the years that I had my eyes opened to and learned along the way. It’s an amazing business that requires quite a bit of work, but it’s unbelievably rewarding. Release day for new pedals is like a breath of fresh air, and is exhilarating to see the work that’s been done reach the people it was created for.
When it comes to pedals, there are endless possibilities of combinations to create the perfect tone for the scenario that you’re in, whether it’s just jamming at home with a jam track or in a live band setting in front of a packed venue.
One secret to finding that elusive perfect tone is to use two dirt pedals stacked together to cascade your gain structure instead of just running a single drive pedal with the gain all of the way up, or running a dirt pedal into a cranked amp. There are several advantages to doing this, including extra control of the nuances of your EQ to how the gain reacts in terms of the bloom of the notes. Here are a few tips when configuring your stacking setup to maximize tone:
- When stacking 2 dirt pedals together, the key thing to remember is that the 2ndpedal in the chain dictates the overall tone of the stack. What does this mean? Let’s use a tubescreamer and the Plexi Drive (JTM-45 style overdrive) as examples. If you run the TS before the Plexi Drive, whatever signal is leaving the TS is going to use the Plexi as a “gateway” of sorts. This means that the EQ and the clipping on the Plexi Drive will change the way the TS sounds. By nature the TS is mid-heavy, which is great for cutting through the mix. Once it reaches the Plexi Drive, the circuit itself will take that signal and adjust the frequencies it sees according to the knob position treble and gain positions. So if you have the mid hump from the TS, but have the natural light mid-cut from the Plexi Drive, that mid-hump will be less pronounced and the gain will just add to the overall level of saturation. This will give your gain a larger, “wall of sound” effect, while placing the TS AFTER the Plexi Drive, the TS will impart that more noticeable inherent mid-hump. If you have a favorite pedal that you like as your “base tone”, you’lll either want to put that last, or put a very transparent boost (even just a clean boost) after it.
- Cranking the volume on the first pedal in the stack will not raise the volume, but will increase the clipping (gain) in the second pedal. When stacking 2 pedals, remember that volume before dirt = more gain, where volume after dirt = more volume. Again, the 2nd pedal acts as a “gate” and dictates the overall volume. Cranking the output of the first pedal will push the input higher and clip the signal harder. This will make a big difference, because if you want a volume boost for a solo, you’ll want to put it 2nd in the stack.
- Using an EQ pedal after your drives can help better sculpt your dirt tones. When you add an EQ pedal into the stacking equation, your options open up tremendously, especially based on what EQ pedal you’re using. We live in the golden age of effects pedals, so there are loads of great EQ’s out there, some that just adjust basic 3-band EQ (Bass, Mids, Treble) and there are some that let you fine tune the exact frequency of the signal to add or cut whatever you want in your tone. Getting lost in the mix using a big muff? Crank up the mids a bit. Want a little bit of added depth in a smaller venue? Adjust up the bass frequencies to fill out the sonic canvas. This also applies when using the amp for dirt, by sticking the EQ pedal into the FX loop of your amp, then you have access to a boost and can adjust your amps gain tone to the closest detail to get that perfect tone.
- Stacking dirt pedals into an already distorted amp can add a depth and level of saturation to your tone only capable from stacking. Players have been using this method for decades to achieve their signature tones on classic records. A favorite of many people has always been a Plexi paired with a TS, which is used to boost the mids for solos. Another stack that happens often is using a Fender amp on the edge of break-up, and a Klon-style boost/OD to kick it into the stratosphere. One of the most popular and widely known stacks revolves around running a cranked fuzz face into most any type of amp (especially Plexi-style amps). The fuzz face provides a thick, wall of sound that’s great for fat sustaining leads or for chunky rhythms.
The main thing to remember is there are no wrong ways to stack your gain! Some of the most surprising stacks may lead to the coolest tones. Don’t be afraid to experiment and create unique combinations that can fit any scenario you need, from two low-gain drives to provide a base tone that you can stack on more gain for solos, or a boost hitting a distortion for sustain and saturation galore.
A few fun Wampler-related stacks that work really well together:
- Tumnus into the Pinnacle Distortion. It adds a low-mid presence that just punches through the mix and sustains for days.
- Clarksdale into the Plexi Drive. Reminiscent of cranked Plexi tones that have an added presence and depth from the EQ shape on the Clarksdale
- Velvet Fuzz into Plexi Deluxe.From tube driver-esque tones to full on Hendrix, this is the go-to combo for great classic fuzzy blues.
- Tumnus into the Euphoria. The perfect yin and yang. The Euphoria sounds like your amps natural OD with a D-style amp feel, and the Tumnus’s low-mid presence and warmth creates a 3D tone that works for a plethora of styles of music.
There are a lot more out there. What are some of your favorite stacks?