First things first: Jamie Stillman, founder of Akron’s independent stompbox manufacturer, EarthQuaker Devices, does not want to be considered a “boutique” pedal maker. “Boutique,” for Stillman, is “a shitty word with a bad reputation.” This is partly because “major companies are now using it as a selling point,” he said, but also because it denotes builders who make “tube screamer clones, steal your money and never deliver. We’re not one of those companies.”
In Stillman’s view, boutique gear in general is a thing of the past, since “now there are so many startup companies and dudes building shit in the bedroom and selling it on Internet forums.” He mocks the marketing strategies behind these attempts — “Brand-new overdrive! Doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard!” — saying that, in reality, “it sounds like fucking everything you’ve ever heard.” Stillman believes that this kind of advertising has left potential customers jaded on the very indie gear they once coveted.
So if EarthQuaker Devices isn’t a boutique pedal maker, what is it? Simple: a pedal company. Although Stillman admits that there is a “fine line” between the two, he is adamant on this point, because, as he says, “I feel like we’re pretty sturdy.”
So is his gear. From analog guitar synths and modulation boxes of sci-fi proportions to a selection of fuzzboxes and overdrive units (not to mention a super-cool pedal that will make a guitar sound like an organ), the company’s products are awesome toys for guitar players and gearheads, and road-ready effects units used by players worldwide.
The genesis of the company came with Stillman’s frustration with an old DOD 250 overdrive pedal with a faulty potentiometer. Stillman, with no formal training in any kind of electronics, figured out how to change it himself and ended up rebuilding the entire pedal. “I’ve always been the kind of person who takes everything I own apart,” he said, “and then somehow destroys it in the process, and has to fix it.”
In reworking his faulty DOD 250 — which, incidentally, is now a highly sought-after vintage stompbox — he stumbled onto a talent for circuitry that would eventually become a career.
Stillman was accustomed to entrepreneurship: For 11 years, starting at age 14, he had his own record label. After that, he alternated between being a tour manager for rock bands and a graphic designer, then ditched managing and began a pedal-building hobby out of his basement. Eventually, the hobby won out over the day job, and in April he moved into his first outside-the-home workshop, allowing him and his six employees to move out of their cramped, 300-foot space.
Even before the company’s move, they were receiving favorable reviews from major gear publications. EarthQuaker Devices has now attended two of the major trade shows put on yearly by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), and plans to head to its third next January. With its notoriety and up-and-coming DIY spirit, EarthQuaker Devices is keeping Akron on the music map, and doing so among an exclusive group of gear aficionados. Local musicians and gearheads, meanwhile, are getting the message, as Stillman’s pedals are starting to show up on local pedalboards.
Even so, at times it’s been difficult getting local stores to stock his wares. “You know, somebody comes in, like ‘Hey, I own a company building pedals’ and they’re instantly like, ‘Yeah, sure you do, kid.’” He shrugs. “I’m not really the kind of dude to be like, ‘No, you need to take me seriously.’”
Still, taking EarthQuaker Devices seriously has been no issue for the musicians worldwide using the company’s gear, and Akron, like Stillman, is all the better for it. See the gear for yourself at www.earthquakerdevices.com.