The Sunday Papers

The Mods that Broke the Brands

By Andy Perrin | October 27, 2017

Riff City Sunday Papers Vol.1 No.12

In the early 2000s, you could almost count how many major pedal companies were out there on one hand. Since then, things have exploded in gear culture: new pedals every day, innovation around every corner, and options beyond options. But how did we get from those dark ages to this present golden age?

This week in the Sunday Papers, we’ll revisit the beginning of three major players in the pedal business that have one thing in common: they all started with a pedal in need of a tonal mod or serious tune-up.

Two Contenders for Keeley’s Top Mods: A “Phat” Blues Driver and “More/Less” Tubescreamer

The world of 2001 was very different from our own. At a time when the idea of a boutique pedal company didn’t really exist, Robert Keeley began releasing some of his own designs—not least the now classic Keeley Compressor—and tinkering with the innards of some mainstay effect pedals. While Keeley’s profile in the early stages of the gear game is far from being the “mod guy,” his enhancements to pedals like the Boss Blues Driver BD-2 underscored his ability to hear the best in an existing design and make it even better. The Blues Driver “Phat” Keeley Mod has become one of the most influential and pervasive in recent gear history, however, it’s green cousin the Ibanez Tubescreamer TS-9 “More/Less” Keeley Mod is an honest contender for that leading spot.

For Keeley, mods to the BD-2 and TS-9 were largely about solving problems or complaints players had about what they wished the pedal could be. In some instances, the gripes were heard from developing gear communities and reviews online, in others they were handed down from on high. As Keeley shared with Premier Guitar in a 2011 interview, “I essentially became a dealer for Boss and Ibanez, so I could get them at a good price. Then I quickly got them to people like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and John Mayer— when he was still a little kid—and all the country guys, too. Like Brad Paisley. I heard their complaints and solved the problems they were having with the units.”

Back to Square One: Josh Scott of JHS and a Busted Up Blues Driver

Part of the excitement of the recent announcement of the Boss-JHS Angry Driver JB-2 was that the pedal was not only Boss’ first-ever mashup in their forty year history, for Josh Scott, the man at the helm of JHS Pedals, it was in a way going back to where he started.

In a recent interview with Guitars & Gear, Josh recollected the beginnings of his experimentation with pedal designs. Like many others, the first fix was one of necessity: a broken pedal can’t stay broken. “JHS is a beautiful accident. I’m a guitar player who did a lot of touring and session work. But then around 2006/07 I had a broken pedal and I fixed it, to my shock! From there, I just became obsessed with it…Now it’s an accident gone wild!” That broken pedal just happened to be a Boss Blues Driver, apparently a great gateway pedal into the modding world.

In the early days, JHS quickly established itself for making great pedals even better through their mod shop, a part of the business that still functions alongside the ever-growing line-up of Josh’s own designs.

Jamie Stillman of EarthQuaker Devices and a Dilapidated DOD 250 Overdrive

Before EarthQuaker Devices was pushing the bounds with pedals that aspire to make your six string sound like anything but a guitar, Jamie Stillman had a stompbox in need of a fix. In an interview with Gear Gods, Stillman succinctly recollected the origins of EarthQuaker: “I had a DOD OD250 with a broken pot. I looked up the schematic, found one on generalguitargadgets.com and thought, ‘That’s it? I could build one of those!’ Following that I started obsessing and building stuff for friends and myself.”

By 2004/05 Stillman was sowing the seeds for a brand by building custom designed pedals and selling them on eBay. While undertaking pedal mods was never really part of the business of EarthQuaker, like many other contemporary builders, it all started with a broken pedal. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that when asked about his design philosophy Stillman simply said: “In a nutshell: ‘Tinker ‘til it sounds right.’”

Whether you’re tinkering with your own pedals or toying around with different combinations and order of pedals on your board, I hope this #RiffCitySunday you’ll find a way to expand your playing by a little experimentation. Take a cue from Rob, Josh, and Jamie, who knows where it will take you.