Popularity Grows for Handmade Guitar Pedals Made in St. Louis
This month David Anderson’s Tritone Guitars turns two years old. Tritone is really Anderson himself: repairing guitars, assembling guitars, and acting as guitar tech for local and national bands as they swing through town. National acts like Robert Randolph and the Family Band have called on Anderson to fix gear when they’ve suffered massive equipment failure in the middle of their set. At one time Anderson was offered the chance to tech for noted songwriter Steve Earle, an offer he turned down so he could stay in town with his wife and kid.
Recently, Anderson’s company branched out into producing the Tritone Drive, a guitar-effects pedal used to manipulate guitar sounds. Guitar pedals change the electrical signal sent from the guitar to an amplifier. The Tritone Drive is an overdrive pedal which can be used to add extra oomph to the guitar. The sound becomes beefier, thicker, without compromising tone. The Tritone is built in partnership with Gerald Good’s Physics Punk Pedals.
Anderson describes the pedal’s creation as an easy affair. “I gave him these three pedals and was like these are my favorites. Listen to them and take them apart and do whatever you need to do. Start there. Make that the foundation. And he kind of hit the nail right on the head,” he said of Good’s construction.
Anderson chuckles when remembering his pleasant surprise, “It was sort of like, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves but this sounds really good!”
As has been the case with Anderson’s tech skills, the Tritone Drive is gaining traction among local and national bands. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco expressed an interest; and Anderson is preparing to ship him one shortly. Anderson and Good are just a couple local musicians that have turned their love of guitar sounds into grass-roots supported businesses.
Physics Punk Pedals
“It’s getting to the point where we’ve got a little cottage industry of stuff just in St. Louis which is pretty neat,” said Good about the growing number of self-made guitar equipment makers in St. Louis. Good is an electrical engineer and former Boeing employee who teaches at Washington University in addition to running his own shop. Anderson says they’ve been friends for a while. He remembers when Good started Physics Punk Pedals. Good was visiting Anderson in the basement workshop below his home and expressed frustration with his job at Boeing.
“He’s like ‘Yeah, I’d love to just do what you do, quit my job, and make pedals.’ So I was like ‘Why don’t you?’ and he did.”
Anderson’s shop contains various guitar parts, pedals, chords, amps and a work table. Shelves against one wall contain CDs, tapes and records. A thick rug covers the roughly 15-by-20 foot space and an old fireplace sits behind a row of a dozen guitars. He sits near the work table and says his business is grown primarily by word-of-mouth.
“I’ve built this whole business on social media. I don’t even have a website,” he said.
Anderson runs a private Facebook forum where musicians discuss gear. He attributes some of the Tritone pedal’s success to the forum and other endorsements he’s received from the music community.
“It’s a lot easier to give it to a person who likes it and then they sell it for you because they’re into it,” said Anderson.
Gerald Good’s studio is a smaller scale version of Anderson’s workspace; Good’s workshop is in the basement below Shameless Grounds Coffee Shop in Benton Park, one room away from a washer and dryer and Shameless Grounds’ inventory. He has two small plastic cabinets filled with transistors and resistors, a slew of circuit boards, various metal casings and a soldering gun he uses to assemble his pedals. The Tritone Drive is a small cream colored metal box with knobs and forest green lettering. The Tritone’s screen-printed lettering is an anomaly among Good’s designs. He usually hand-paints unique designs on his custom-built pedals. The “Punk” in his company’s name is reflected in his attitude and his comprehensive do-it-yourself approach.
“In high school I really got into punk rock and always felt like an outsider. Building pedals in your basement isn't something you're supposed to do, only enormous corporations are allowed to build electronics, right?” he said.
Good believes his pedals stand out from both large manufacturing products and other specialty pedal builders.
“I'm somewhere between the DIY guy and the medium-sized boutique builders,” he said. “While most of my pedals are custom-built (maybe similar to what a DIY person would build) since I've built quite a few pedals, I hope that I have more insight into making them more mechanically solid and able to take some abuse.”
Good says he’s built more than 100 pedals in the past couple years. He attributes the interest in the Tritone Drive to David Anderson’s music connections and his own approach while designing it.
“I just designed the pedal so the player has more ability to control the tone, rather than banging my head on the table trying to figure out the tone that most people want,” said Good.
For Good, the joy of his work boils down to the connection between him, the builder, and his client, the guitar player.
“When you’re done you have a connection to the person who bought it. They have something that’s kind of an insight into the builder and I got some insight into what they wanted,” Good said.
Sarno Music Solutions
Brad Sarno, is another local musician who builds guitar pedals used by local and national musicians. He counts Richard Thompson, Andy Summers of the Police, Lee Ronaldo of experimental rockers Sonic Youth, and another Wilco musician Nels Cline as clients. Sarno works from a 10-b- 17 foot garage attached to his house in Webster Groves.
Sarno’s dogs barked inside his house while he discussed events leading to the Sarno Music Solutions Earth Drive’s creation.
Sarno started building pedals in high school, “just ripping off a popular distortion pedal,” he said jokingly, but set the hobby aside for years before picking it up again in in the aughts. Sarno only made about four pedals during that time and doesn't consider the high school hobby representative of his current work. His first professional foray into guitar electronics started with the Sarno Black Box, a device used to enhance guitar tone, making it sweet and balanced.
After Sarno started production on the Black Box, he was playing music with his wife, the musician Auset, and she wanted a stronger sound from her guitar tone. The couple tried out a couple overdrives – pedals designed to add a thicker, crunchier quality to the tone – but none had the right sound.
“So she sent me down to the shop and I built her a pedal and it worked. And other people liked it. And it just took off from there,” Sarno said.
Sarno’s production schedule can be erratic and depends on demand.
“It’s up and down, it’s really a kind of when it rains it pours kind of thing. We’ll have a little slump or then we’re just slammed and I’ll have an 80 hour week,” Sarno said. One major rush occurred when Nils Cline mentioned the pedal in a 2012 interview with Guitar Player Magazine. Like Good and Anderson, Sarno attributes the Earth Drive’s success to word-of-mouth support.
“Some of the bigger rock stars got wind of it and told their friends about it, and [they] told their friends, so I just keep getting orders,” he said.
Sarno, Anderson and Good are all proud of their companies’ St. Louis area location.; They each have families in the metro area and produce their work where they live, whether it’s near Benton Park or Webster Groves. Good and Anderson’s Tritone Drive even has the St. Louis Flag and the phrase “Made in St. Louis” printed on the pedal. As these pedals grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly likely that sometime in the future, your favorite band could be using equipment from right here in St. Louis.
Youtube demonstrations of each pedal:
Sarno Music Solutions Earth Drive: