Jamie Stillman is the founder and president of Earthquaker Devices. In only a few short years, Earthquaker Devices went from being a modest, boutique company to having their name associated with the likes of heavy-hitters that have been in the game for decades. I took the time to talk about how he grew his business, how the name and iconic logo came to be, their comedic take on instruction manuals, and more!
Ben Ash: What inspired you to make effect pedals, even before the business?
Jamie Stillman: I had an old DOD250 overdrive that I used a lot and it broke, I bought a replacement, it didn’t sound like that one, so I thought “Who’s going to fix a pedal? No one.” No one fixed pedals by us so I looked it up.
B: And this is in Akron?
J: In Akron. I looked it up online for “schematic for DOD250”, I took the pedal apart; it was just a broken pot but it didn’t have the value on it and I found it in the schematic and replaced it on thought “That was fun! And it works now!” so where I found that was GeneralGuitarGadgets.com which is a DIY site.
B: What year are we talking about when this happened?
B: Oh it’s more recent! I’m thinking this is the late 90s
J: Not at all! I mean I have no formal electronics training. I have no formal training in anything but I get obsessed with stuff and figure it out myself
B: So you’ve only been doing the whole pedal building and fixing and repairing for not even 20 years. Most of the stories I’ve heard are “I started when I was a kid” or “my dad taught me.”
J: When I was a kid I was a tinkerer, I played drums first and then built model rockets and stuff like that. I lived in my grandparents’ house where I had a big workshop so I used to take stuff apart. They had a car in their backyard they let me take apart and put back together again. I was always one of those people.
B: So you’re essentially an amateur engineer, if you will?
B: Without the insulting aspect of “amateur”, just the idea that you’re a guy who figured it out on his own.
J: Oh I’m totally an amateur engineer; I went to school for graphic design. That’s about as close to any formal training that I have but it’s still somehow engineering. That’s what I found when I found GeneralGuitarGadgets.com was I found the schematics and it made a lot of sense to me because it’s following a path.
B: Speaking of graphic design because I know that the pedals and your site have a lot of detailed imagery: is that you or a team of people that help you out?
J: I started the branding and then I stopped doing any of the real design work probably completely about 2 years ago but I started phasing myself out of it because I was getting too busy for it. I kind of oversee all of it. I get to approve ads and it’s all kind of based on my ideas and I work with our graphic designer, Jeff, then Matt Horak who does pedal illustrations is now doing comics for Marvel out of our offices.
B: Which series?
B: Oh wow!
J: He just got that job a year ago and it’s really taken off so that’s what he kinda does full time and he still works out of our office and he does our pedal illustrations and any time there are special things that need to be done we just give it to him. He does the illustrations, gives them to me and I do the pedal layouts and that’s kind of my last involvement in doing the art because it all plays into the layout of the circuit board or the way I want the pedal to be intuitive. I’ll lay out the controls and how someone sees it first and then go in and lay out the circuit board and that goes to him for the art. It makes sense to me to do all of the enclosure graphics and circuit board art.
B: Of course there’s circuit board art because I know you guys like to throw in some little Easter eggs once in a while.
J: Yeah, everyone once in a while I put something in there but it all depends on how crabby or not crabby I am by the end of laying down a circuit board [laughter].
B: How did the iconic Earthquaker Devices logo come to be with the octopus and what does it even mean?
J: It’s a piece of clip art I found. Before I did Earthquaker Devices and I was doing graphic design, I ran a punk rock record label and the whole aesthetic in the 90s was a collection of clip art. There was a guy who really started it for me at SST Records whose art I really liked so I was kind of copying what he did by finding pieces of clip art all over the place and making collages and I had saved this thing-
B: I remember that! On a side note, I’ve been reading The Sandman and a lot of the artwork is serial killer-esque where you cut out letters and reorganizing and it was a big skate punk zine type of thing.
J: Exactly! That was what I was a fan of so I had all of these collections of clip arts and there was this thing from the 90s called Crap Hound and they just collected thousands and thousands of these clip art images and put them in a magazine in a really nice order and buried in there was this little octo-skull thing and I just kept that forever and later blew it up, redrew it in Illustrator and found that font and put it together. When I started Earthquaker Devices, I had no intention of actually starting a business. Even the name I wasn’t sold on but after making some pedals for friends in 2005 and just put “Earthquaker Devices” on it.
B: Where does that name come from?
J: I used to tour in a band called the Minus Tide and our friends on tour would joke us all forming a fake heavy metal band called “Earthquaker” and it was somehow it was close enough to the time that I started making pedals and decided, “Yep. ‘Earthquaker Devices’. This will be the name of this pedal company!” When it started to become a thing and people were talking about it, I thought, “Man, I wish I had a better name for this!” Nowadays, I like it.
B: I’ve heard a similar story from Dave Grohl who used to say ‘Foo Fighters’ was just a fun name but wouldn’t have been the name he would’ve chosen if he was taking it seriously.
J: I’ve seen that before and I kind of feel the same way.
B: But your name works! As far as it sounds, “Earthquaker” relates to sound; it’s a big enough sound that it shakes the earth so it’s appropriate on a sound level.
J: I think it makes sense. I also like the way it looks when it’s written down. I’m very specific about what’s capitalized and how the words are connected.
B: That being said, what was the first type of pedal you made for yourself and what was the first pedal you made for the company.
J: The first type of pedal I made for myself was a clone of the DOD 250 so after I fixed it, I just used the schematic and they have circuit boards you can etch and I bought all of the stuff to do it and it worked and it was awesome! It sounded just like the old one. The next thing I built was a fuzz face and I built 50 of those things before I got it to work because they’re deceptive; they seem simple with 8 parts but all 8 parts make a total difference.
B: There’s a reason there’s an infinite amount of different fuzz faces.
J: Yeah! I still build them for myself all the time because they always sound different and something unique about them.
B: One little part can change the whole aspect of the tone.
J: Exactly! That’s really kind of what got me interested and trying to get that to work and seeing all the different things that happen in between and that’s how I learned what everything did. It’s so simple but you might ask yourself, “Why is it sputtering? Oh, I have to adjust the voltage!” The first pedal I built for the company was I think in 2006 and it was on eBay including a Rippler Tremolo, a fuzz face bass pedal called Fantastic Beast, and a one-knob fuzz I can’t remember the name of at the moment. I have all these pedals in a drawer in my basement. No one bought any of them but I have the originals.
B: I would not doubt after this article people will be asking, “Will you sell them? I’ll buy them!”
J: I also made a Germanium booster called Amp Hammer and put them up on eBay just to see. At that point, I made these pedals for friends and they like them so I figured other people would be interested. I got a lot of questions from people but no real sales so I pulled them down. About a year later, I also built a J-Fet Overdrive called Spectre, the Hoof pedal, and another fuzz pedal called Tusk. That’s when I re-invisioned the branding. I started using the font but hadn’t used the images yet. I sold a couple of those and then people started talking about them on HarmonyCentral.com which is a forum and it was very popular. That’s how it all started and eventually it was the Hoof that stuck.
B: Who was the first artist to use your pedal?
J: That’s kind of a weird thing. I was tour managing for the Black Keys at the time I started the company.
B: They’re an Akron, Ohio band too, right?
J: Yeah so Dan [Auerbach] was using whatever at the time I would make off and on I think just to be nice but he played the earliest version of the Hoof and that was one of the things on HarmonyCentral.com where someone posted a video and he just happened to be using it in the video and I said, “Oh, I made that pedal!” and people were saying “No you didn’t.” [laughter] and when I convinced them I did that brought in some orders.
B: That’s a pretty big name and that makes sense how his sound is defined because he has that growly, rough tone that he gets and obviously if anyone has heard the Hoof pedal, THAT’S his sound.
J: I will say after that I heard that Juan Alderete from The Mars Volta and he ended up being a great friend of ours but at the time I was a fan of the band and he sent me a letter about him and Omar using our pedals and wondered if we could talk. I kinda got freaked about because I was thinking, “I like this band but I don’t know what to talk about”. I’m really reclusive [laughter]. I’m definitely one of those people that thinks, “Oh, that’s so nice that someone wrote me a letter and wants me to call them” but I’ve never done it. I usually meet them eventually and we’ll talk and hang out but I was always pretty quiet about this kind of thing so it made me nervous.
B: They always say never meet your heroes but once in a while it’s okay to meet your heroes.
J: Granted, a month later I wrote him and he’s a super nice guy and ended up being a good friend to our brand. He’s so well connected and everyone he knows is really cool.
B: Juan is in a LOT of different acts and it’s not all the same type of music; he’s involved in multiple genres in some aspect.
J: He’s great and that’s how he can be in all of those things just by being a genuine, nice, talented guy.
B: When you were touring with the Black Keys, what album were they supporting at the time?
J: I started at the end of their second record.
J: Yeah. At that time they were still very DIY so I went with them just to drive their gear across the country so they could fly and then I saw what they were doing and told them, “You need a tour manager”. That was 2002-ish. Eventually, they started getting bigger and bigger and the crew was still kind of small so I was tech/tour manager/production manager/babysitter all the way up until “Brothers” came out (not that they needed a babysitter, of course).
B: What is your proudest achievement with the company?
J: Starting to work with digital things was a big achievement for me being totally self-taught when I could actually tackle that. Making the “Arpanoid” I thought people’s minds would melt by it and they were sort of like, “Meh”. However, to me that was a thing I wanted to do forever and I always wished I could find and I made that thing with the help of a really awesome DSP engineer and that was a milestone for me.
B: I have that pedal and it’s NUTS!
J: Moving and hiring our first employee with us who’s our promotion manager named Jeff France and I’ve known him since we’re 12-13 years old and we call him “Fej” because that was his nickname. Moving out of our basement into the shop and 2 years later growing out a pet shop and moving into that. Now, my wife Julie and I run the business together and I think that is a pretty good achievement.
B: That’s a list of achievements! You went from being a hobbyist with a placeholder name and products to then within under 5 years you’re not just a name in pedals (because there are hundreds if not thousands of people making pedals) but you actually have a name that stands out in guitar magazines, online, people writing about your articles, people getting excited when you put out a new pedal; your name is now something that people when they say “Earthquaker Devices” instead of going, “Who are they?” they’re going “What do they have now?”
J: I would also say that is another big achievement in my mind. To me, I don’t want to do anything different than when I started. I know a lot more, but I still make everything the same way and all the same people who were there consecutively in our basement to the first shop, then to the bigger shop, and now we’re 50 employees; all of that happened in the last 8 years.
B: That’s impressive that not only has it been 8 years with 50 employees but you’re churning out so much product frequently and internationally.
J: We’re super lucky to have all the people we have working with us and for us. I couldn’t have done any of this without any of them. It’s cool that we have some new people who feel so strongly about it that they’re willing to put in all of the hours that it takes to do all of this stuff. I think a lot of people think we just start making some stuff, people get interested, etc. but it takes a LOT of work. We’re talking 16-20 hour days.
B: That’s insane! Every day there’s a new pedal company but not everyone can say they sell their gear at Sam Ash Music or internationally. What did you and your company do to help you stand out amongst the hundreds of pedal companies in the world?
J: Part of me thinks in the beginning it was right place, right time. It was not that long ago, 2005-2006, there weren’t anywhere NEAR as many companies and there was hardly any competition. I didn’t even know “boutique pedals” were a thing, even though that’s how MXR started; you don’t think about that that way. I knew there were Effector 13, Death By Audio, Fulltone, and others but there was nowhere near the noise there is now. It was very much a community and while I wasn’t a huge participant, I was definitely on these forums and people would take people’s word for it and be like, “This guy can make a pedal! Go buy it from him!” Right place, right time. The word for all of that stuff spread naturally. We didn’t put an ad in a magazine until 2012. We didn’t do anything. At that point, we had 15 employees.
B: You had the benefit in the early 2000s that the internet had only been around for 10 plus or minus years. Amazon wasn’t the company it was today and eBay was still a place you sold random things. You were even saying you sold some pedals on eBay but pedals didn’t really sell because that wasn’t the marketplace for that kind of product yet. There wasn’t the community yet for people to discuss making pedals like, “I make this pedal and I’m from here!” You came in with perfect timing because it was the beginning of all ages understanding the usefulness of commerce on the internet and making a product that’s unique.
J: Everything I make is something I want or some sound that I think sounds cool. I’m lucky that people are also interested in these kinds of things that we make. We listen to everybody who works for us. We have a lot of creative thinkers and artists. A lot of this stuff changed when Julie came in and took over the business side of things. She came from a totally different background but was around musicians all the time and she has a pretty innovative way of thinking and doesn’t have all the baggage of an artist or musician. She’s not afraid to go out and try things. I think a lot of people like myself wouldn’t really be willing to do certain things in business and that pushed us out ahead of everyone else.
B: Safe to say she’s an extrovert?
J: Oh yeah! [laughter]
B: One of you has got to be! Every Earthquaker Devices pedal’s instruction manual comes packed with quips and humor. With that in mind, can you explain the vibe of the company?
J: While this seems crazy because we’re probably the most active boutique pedal company in marketing since we have so much stuff out there, I really detested marketing when I started it but it’s a necessary evil. If I’m going to have to talk, I’m not going to be one of those people that puts a famous person in an ad holding a pedal saying, “You NEED this for your tone!” I hate that stuff and I’ve always hated that stuff.
B: That was like the 90s thing to do. EXTREME TONE!
J: I worked with marketing people when I was a graphic designer. That stuff used to make my stomach turn with all this bragging. I’m obsessed with comedians and standup comedy-
B: You’re talking to the right crowd.
J: And I really liked this show in the 90s called “Mr. Show with Bob and David”.
B: HELL yes!
J: There’s a ton of “Mr. Show” references in our manuals and I also really like Arrested Development and there’s bunch of references as well.
B: I’m going to read a bunch of these manuals online just to see them.
J: One of the biggest ones is the Rainbow Machine and it’s been brought up to me before by people who’ve picked out, “Oh! That’s from ‘Mr. Show’!” That’s kind of more my style, sort of tongue-in-cheek marketing. If you read it in the wrong context, it sounds like you’re bragging. That was my sell. Other people were responding to it saying, “This manual is really funny!” It makes you actually want to read it.
B: I had fun reading the Pyramids one!
J: I had written all the manuals pretty much up to Data Corrupter and now we have a copywriter Aaron Rogers and I’ll write the instructions like, “Here’s how this pedal works…” and he knows my sense of humor [laughter]. He’s much better at pop culture references today than I am. He did the Westwood-
B: Speaking of Westwood, who’s the Twin Peaks fan?
J: We all are but he did the manual for that.
B: I ask because I didn’t realize it was a Twin Peaks pedal until I started looking into it.
J: I’ve gotta tell you this; I didn’t realize it either until I read the manual.
B: Oh, the manual has blatant references.
J: When I read it, I thought “Oh this is great” but the name of it or anything about it was dumb luck that it had trees on it and the name “Westwood” but that’s the name of the street we lived on when I started Earthquaker Devices. He did a great job with that manual.
B: How important is it that all of your pedals are hand-built in the foothills of Akron, OH? Why is that such an important and proud staple for you to mention?
J: I think a lot of people think we just do that for the marketing, boutique, handmade aspect because that was the thing a while ago but I just wanted to get it across that it was just me hand-making these things and it was a funny tagline to me. Now, you don’t really see this much because it’s old manufacturing style in America. In most of those 50-something employees populating circuit boards doesn’t happen all that often with in-house manufacturing. I think that it’s cool. It’s a testament to the employees that they put a lot into it and they really enjoy working there and building all that stuff and we’re giving jobs to Akron which is not a booming economy. To me, it’s important that people understand all of these people they see on social media are all the people that populated their circuit board, wired their switches together, assembled them, etc. I do think it’s somewhat of a craft and I think it’s cool to have it all in house.
B: It’s just a lot of like-minded individuals who have the same passion because you’re that guy who just likes to build pedals and happen to make it into a business and a lot of other people who followed suit and enjoy that aspect. I’m sure it’s nice for them that they have people who work over them that the guy writing my checks cares about this. He’s not just a guy who’s like, “I’m gonna sit back a make a cool whatever”. It’s great to know that the people who run the company are musicians.
J: Exactly! That’s another thing; they’re all artists and musicians and most importantly we’re all friends. If there’s anyone that works there that wasn’t a friend when they were hired they were a friend of a friend. We all know each other.
B: It’s literally and figuratively a family business. Lastly, what’s in store for the future of the company?
J: There is no end to pedals in sight.