CLEVELAND, Ohio — The withering BF Goodrich smokestacks down the street are a constant reminder.
Not just of Akron’s industrial heyday — back when these streets were lined with factories and machine shops, and rubber turned this city into a manufacturing mecca.
Decades later, these old, out-of-commission smokestacks lord over the area like ruins from some long-gone era that’s good as dead…. No one makes stuff around here anymore.
Tell that to Jamie Stillman.
For two years, the founder of Earthquaker Devices has been operating down the street and flying in the face of time. Located amid an area that was once a hub in Akron’s rubber industry, the guitar pedal company is an anomaly.
Earthquaker generated $4 million in revenues in 2016 and has maintained a heady 28-percent year-over-year growth rate. It employs 54 people in a non-descript 15,000 square-feet brick-and-concrete building that once played home to an auto parts and industrial paint shop. It spits out and ships 1,000 pedals a week that are sold in North America, yes, but also Asia, Europe and South America.
And it proudly stamps the boxes that house them, “Handmade in Akron, Ohio, USA”.
It’s not uncommon to see handmade-isms tossed around in a milieu loaded with 21st century signifiers such as “hand-crafted” and “artisan.” But Earthquaker Devices is a world away from the local brewery or artisanal (fill in the blank) shop.
“I don’t call myself ‘artisanal — it’s more like an old machine shop,” says Stillman. “Maybe it’s because I feel like an old, elderly person.”
Actually, he’s only 40. But Kent native has been playing guitar and drums in music scene for decades – since he was 17, with the band Harriet the Spy.
“I started touring while I was still in high school,” says Stillman, a Kent Roosevelt grad. “That’s when music pretty much became my life.”
A number of bands ensued, from Party of Helicopters to Drummer to bands he currently performs with such as Relaxer and Fringe Candidate. The cycle was familiar with each band: play shows, record an album, go on tour, coming back home and do it all over again.
That is until a busted guitar pedal changed everything in 2005. Well, not everything, at least not at the time.
“My favorite guitar pedal stopped working,” says Stillman, referring to a DOD Overdrive 250. “And I did what most guitarists would do – I bought another one.”
As Stillman soon discovered, guitar pedals – even the same kind — can be wildly inconsistent.
“The replacement didn’t sound the same, and I was like, ‘How can I get that guitar sound again?'” he says. “So I found a schematic for the pedal and decided I might as well try to build my own version of it.”
For the first time, Stillman was forced to explore what he had always just taken for granted: What is a guitar pedal?
The rise of the pedal
Sound-altering effects units have been around since the 1940s, when recording studios would manipulate reel-to-reel recording tape to create futuristic sci-fi sounds and wild, echoes and delays.
They have also played a vital role throughout the entirety of rock ‘n’ roll. There have been built-in vibrato effects in amps that became staples in the guitar sounds of Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins. That magical echo in Elvis’ voice was actually a “slapback” delay effect. Dave Davies of the Kinks even famously sliced his guitar speaker – a sort of effect – to create distortion.
Keith Richards got that iconic “Satisfaction” sound with a Maestro Fuzz Tone. Jimi Hendrix had the Fuzz Face and Octavio pedals. Grunge bands revived the Big Muff. Indie-rockers and metal bands often hooked up a tangled pile of cords and boxes to get a new sound.
From an early age, Stillman was interested in the pedals and the sounds. The wiring and the innards – not so much.
“I was just a guitar player,” says Stillman. “When I didn’t like my sound, all I could tell you was that it sounded like bees in a box – and I really didn’t understand why.”
In the most basic sense, effect units alter the signal between the guitar and the amp – and, as a result, the sound coming out of the speakers. It’s why guitar players often lament that, as Kiss once famously sang, “they just can’t get the sound.”
“A lot of people that make gear are engineers and have a technical background – I came at it by trial and error,” he says. “But when I managed to build my own version of my favorite pedal, things started opening up for me.”
From a basement to a business
By 2006, Stillman was making pedals out of his home for himself and friends interested in his homespun curiosities. He was also working as a road manager the Black Keys and guitar tech for Dan Auerbach.
“I made this pedal for Dan and there was a picture of him playing it in this online guitar pedal forum – and all these people were like, ‘What’s that?'” says Stillman. “I went from selling one pedal a week in 2006 to 100 a month in 2007.”
Coldplay unofficially endorsed the company by using the pedals. So have members of Wilco, Eagles of Death Metal, Sleater-Kinney, Mars Volta and Death Cab for Cutie.
By 2008, he decided to turn a hobby into a business – with a logo and idiosyncratic art to adorn the metal boxes that house the knobs, screws and circuit board.
“I never thought of myself as a businessman,” says Stillman. “But I’ve always loved design and it made more aware of branding and having pedals that look unique and are immediately identifiable.”
Stillman, who studied graphic design while attending Kent State University, handles most of the research and development. His wife and business partner, Julie Robbins, supervisors the business side.
They have a marketing staff which targets distributors, music sites and social media. “We haven’t marketed ourselves all that much around here,” says Stillman. “We’re too busy working in the factory.”
Aug 5. is the exception, when the business hosts Earthquaker Day – an event that rolls out live bands, clinics and tours of the facility.
Welcome to the main floor of the Earthquaker factory.
On one end, there are shelves stocked with carboard boxes full of knobs and widgets and screws. At the other, there is the assembly room – a wide-open space that features workers sitting at desks soldering wires, working on circuit boards and ultimately testing each box… with an electric guitar.
It follows a blueprint you just as well could see in a machine shop from many decades ago, when manufacturing ruled and Akron was one of America’s most prosperous hubs of it.
It’s an era that often crosses Stillman’s mind.
“We do everything here, from the design to the building to the assembly,” he says. “I don’t see what we’re doing as all that different from the shops and factories that were here years ago.”
Of course, that was before many of them outsourced the factories and the jobs.
“Most people in our position would’ve done that by now, but we made a conscious decision not to outsource our work and to stay in Akron,” says Stillman. “We could never afford to do this in New York or Los Angeles – it’s too expensive – and it’s important that a company like ours makes its pedals by hand.”
The handmade thing has helped make Earthquaker the biggest boutique pedal company in America. Though Stillman is the first to admit he’s not much of a ’boutique’ guy – let alone the kind of tech entrepreneur that is often exalted as saving the Midwest from post-industrial collapse.
“To me, pedals are low-voltage gadgets you play around with: You turn a knob or step on something and you get a sound which,” he says. “They really haven’t changed all that much since the ’60s.”
“Which is fine by me,” adds Stillman. “Because we’re like some old manufacturing company in Akron that just happens to make guitar stuff.”
Earthquaker Day 2017
What: A party for music fans and pedal nerds that rolls out tours of facility, clinics and discussions and live music by Suffer Little Children (a Smiths tribute that features Stillman on guitar; 1:30-2 p.m.); Crystal Visions (Fleetwood Mac tribute) 2:30-3 p.m.; Obnox 3:30-4 p.m.; Thelma & the Sleaze 4:30-5 p.m.; Fringe Candidate (also featuring Stillman, on bass) 6:15 – 6:45 p.m.; EYE 7-8 p.m.
When: 1-8 p.m. Saturday, Aug 5.
Where: Earthquaker Devices, 350 West Bowary Street, Akron.
More info: Go to earthquakerdevices.com/eqday