Never has it been easier for musicians not only to play their instruments, but to play with the sounds they make.
The electric guitar is less than 100 years old, dating back to the 1930s, but it wasnÂ’t until the 1960s that technological innovations lead to the development of effects units, which players could use in the studio click here tonal and dramatic effect on the sound of their instruments.
Photo: Donato Bicegla assembles an OD-1 distortion pedal at Black Cat Pedals' production facility/shop in East Haven.
The most commonly used and recognized of these would be the distortion effect — the loud, fuzzy sound most associated with rock guitar — though echo units, wah-wah pedals and various other sound modulation devices have become the norm.
These days most musicians use signal-processors in the form of foot-controlled stompboxes, or pedals. Some of the coolest and most popular come from major multi-national manufacturers, but the Elm City has its own among them.
Tom Hughes owns the boutique brand Black Cat Pedals, which he runs from East Haven. Hughes’ interest in music dates back to his childhood, but he was at first mostly interested in natural, acoustic instruments. Even so, he was a self-described “gear junkie,” and would collect as much musical gear he could lay his hands on. The Black Cat shop is testament to that; an entire room is devoted to an outlandish number of vintage keyboards and synthesizers.
But his interest in electronics and guitar pedals blossomed when he started working for Bethel-based Analog Man, an effects company that was among the first in the area that not only created its own effects, but made custom electronics modifications to signal processors of other manufacturers based on customer requests.
“That was a vehicle for launching something else,” Hughes says. “I invested a lot in this boutique pedal scene and amassed a lot of information. I laid the groundwork for making a career of it.”
Hughes even wrote and self-published a book on effects units, Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Effects in 2004, amassing information on almost every pedal to the beginning of pedals.
The Black Cat brand originated in the early 1990s by Fred Bonte in Texas, But his mostly one-man-show was fading by the early to mid-2000s, which Hughes attributes to quality-control issues.
“Three out of five pedals he would make wouldn’t work,” he explains. “I watched him run his business into the ground, and it deserved a better reputation than he was giving it. He was working in hotel rooms with a soldering iron, drilling the enclosures with a hand drill.”
When Hughes convinced Bonte to sell him the brand in 2007 (the first wave of products under the Hughes regime hit the market in 2009), he first concentrated on making improvements to the weak spots, including packaging, design and manufacturing.
“The packaging was atrocious — big clunky boxes with press-on graphics,” Hughes explains. “That doesn’t cut it in the boutique pedal market where it’s about the presentation. I also thought I could improve the production process.”
Black Cat’s pedals are made by hand in small batches, and the crew there makes custom modifications to some of the pedal designs based on customer requests as well. There are roughly 12 pedals in the Black Cat line, and several have waiting periods of up to two months for orders. A majority make distortion sounds, though there are some that make vibrato and tremolo effects. The price range per pedal runs from about $150 to $300.
The East Haven space is replete with workstations set up with electrical gear, wires, stacks of circuit boards, and drawers of bolts, screws and empty pedal casings yet to be filled.
While Bonte’s schematic designs have been retained to preserve the brand legacy, Hughes and his lean crew (five employees in all) had to recreate the circuitry by reverse-engineering existing pedals, since Bonte had no written schematics. But as brand owners, they are working on new pedals to introduce to the line, such as the “Bee Buzz,” a fuzz distortion pedal that updates and recreates a long-out-of-production pedal.
“It’s about improvements — if I don’t like this on the original, can we change it?” Hughes says. “Part of the appeal to me, as a guitar player and someone with an ear, I want to hear something that’s suited to me. I want my custom thing, even if it’s using a different type of transistor. And if I have to buy a business to make it happen, okay.”
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