When it comes to boutique guitar effects pedals, and guitar effects pedals in general, the rabbit hole goes deep. And the deeper you go, the more shiny new pedals you’ll encounter, but, the thing is, they’re not all gonna be good (obviously).
On one hand, a boutique effects pedal might – and really should – indicate that its creator knows more than a little bit about the mechanics of guitar pedals, down to some really uber specific level of detail. And quite often, they do know their stuff – certainly more than the average consumer and even more than some manufacturers.
That said, not all boutique pedals are worth spending your hard-earned money on. For instance, despite performing some cool function, some lack aesthetic value (AKA they’re ugly). And then, there are those pedals that look cool but don’t function properly.
The ideal situation is a boutique line of effects pedals that have both the look and the functionality to satisfy even the pickiest players.
Enter Zack Vex of ZVex Effects.
Image Source – Gear Patrol
Zack has some skin in the game by now, having designed a wide array of music gear, and more than a few really kick ass effects pedals.
These pedals have found themselves being used by some of the biggest names in the music world, from Beck to Bootsy, to Nine Inch Nails, Steve Albini, My Bloody Valentine, Tame Impala, Radiohead, Jack White and the list goes on and on.
These artists see, or rather hear, something in Zack’s pedals that they can’t get elsewhere, and so they are become part of these artists’ rigs.
And so, we have the good fortune of being able to grill Zack about his pedals and other aspects of his business. Lucky us! Here’s our Q & A with Zack Vex, enjoy!
Q: How did you get into making your own guitar pedals?
I built my first one in 10th grade. My brothers had used my cousin’s Jordan Bosstone with their Gibsons and I loved the sound of that, and when I discovered that an older student at my high school had re-housed one I realized I could build a guitar effect for fun, so I made one from a circuit project in Popular Electronics magazine and sold it to that student for $10.
Q: When did you turn your love of making pedals into a business?
I was a recording engineer/producer in Minneapolis from 1984-1995 and when I developed tinnitus, I took a break and started making pedals for myself. I took one (the Octane) to a local store, Willie’s American Guitars in St Paul, and Nate the owner ordered three on the spot. It was completely unexpected. So I built him three pedals and suddenly I was in business. I made 16 Octanes between June and November of 1995 and then Nate asked me to design something new, so I created the Fuzz Factory that night, and it’s my best selling product to this day, out of more than 40 active products.
(Here’s a quick demo video of the ZVex Octane 3 from ProGuitarShopDemos on Youtube – Ed.)
Q: I’m assuming you grew up in some sort of artistic environment, based on your output. Is this a fair assumption?
My brothers both played guitar and one played upright bass, so I started playing cello in 5th grade and was eventually first chair in high school. I loved music and electronics more than anything else, so they made a great combination for me. My mom was a housewife with four kids, a former secretary, and my dad was a math teacher in middle school.
Q: How long does it typically take to design a single pedal from the drawing board to being able to use it?
Sometimes it takes overnight (Fuzz Factory), other times it takes several years (Lo-fi Loop Junky). I never know. The brass sculpture device called the Candela Vibrophase took a few months from conception to operation. The Super Hard-On was a one-afternoon design.
(Here’s a demo video of the Zvex Candela Vibrophase courtesy of EytschPi42. – Ed.)
Q: How do you come up with your ideas for the function of a pedal?
Sometimes it’s need (the Super Hard-On was definitely based on my experiences as a recording engineer) and other times it’s just sheer creativity (Candela). Often it’s expansion of previous ideas (the Double Rock) or adaptation of the sound of another pedal (Instant Lo-Fi Junky based on the sound of the Lo-Fi Loop Junky).
Q: The visual element of your pedals is very strong. Do you come up with that as you’re making the pedal itself, or is that taken care of afterwards?
Q: You have a number of different types of pedals. Is there a “type” of pedal that you enjoy making more than any other type?
Over time I’ve shifted toward devices that are particularly unusual. There’s a lot of things that never made it to market, like my candle-powered portable tube amplifier (for camping, perhaps). Right now I like working on weird things more than anything, but out of sheer practicality I have had to introduce vertical versions of my most popular pedals just so people can fit them on pedalboards better.
Q: You seem to have a lot of famous admirers who use your gear, and each of them seems to have their favourite that they use as part of their rig. Are you ever surprised as to how certain people implement your pedals into their sound?
Not really. Except for Matt Bellamy (turning FF knobs during performance and incorporating retuned squealing into the melody) and Alan Sparhawk (who uses the Octane to get this texture I’ve never achieved myself) most performers use sounds that are similar to the demos we make at the shop.
(Here’s a video from back in the day of Alan Sparhawk of Low playing with sound and using some Zvex pedals. – Ed.)
Q: Your pedals themselves seem to be the result of some experimentation on your part. Do you feel the same way about the people who use your pedals – that they should experiment?
Q: How durable do you feel your pedals are?
We try to make them pretty sturdy. When they come back for repair we study what their weaknesses are and redesign them to solve any problems we identify. Now that most musicians use pedalboards, physically pedals are pretty well protected during travel.
Q: Do you have a favourite of your own pedals, or are they all like your children and you can’t choose a favourite? 🙂
Candela Vibrophase and the the newer Vibrophase pedal, by far, right now.
Q: You seem to have fairly far reaching distribution. How long did it take to set up that network?
We’re not done yet! 23 years so far, in June of 2018.
Q: Is this all you doing this?? No, it can’t be…
At the shop, working our way from west to east, the offices are Erik, Charles, Lisa, Fran, Tommy, Ali, me and Tracy. Outside the shop there’s Dan, Shoua, Mike, and Kris, and someone whose name escapes me at the moment. Beyond that there are tons of people who are outside vendors… I couldn’t begin to identify all of them.
Q: At what point did you integrate “design your own custom pedal” into your business?
Are you talking about the Inventobox? That did not sell. We’ve only sold a handful. It was not a good idea… maybe for a school or something.
Q: How strong is your affection for things that contain tubes?
I think that they’re wonderful for driving speakers. I only use tube amps for audio of all types, except in my car or in PA systems.
Q: What would you want people to know about your pedals that they might not already know? (ie. they are built for zero G environments)
We use a lot of pure gold leaf for decoration on some of the hand-painted units. We buy lots of strange things off Etsy and Ebay to decorate with as well. Some of our paint processes include floating the pedal enclosures in water. Lately I’ve been experimenting with explosive processes.
Q: How does someone get their hands on a catalog of yours?
I’m sure you can get the 2018 NAMM catalog from Erik or Charles by writing to sales at zvex.com.
Q: I see you have some warranties in place, as well as a FAQ for common problems, but I see you also do repairs. That’s pretty cool of you to offer that. I take it that part of offering that is to make sure, on your part, that repairs are rarely necessary (hence always aiming for the highest quality product possible). True?
We have lifetime warranties on our hand-painted products (my lifetime) and two year warranties for other products if you register them with us (on the website). All sorts of things go wrong with pedals. Bad power supplies can blow them up, water or beer can short them out, they can be crushed by the band van, get their knobs kicked off by steel-toed boots… who knows! We’re here to help. We’ve even done a warranty repair on a woolly mammoth that was destroyed by a basement flood and lost under a washing machine for more than a year. It was completely destroyed inside by corrosion, but we replaced everything after cleaning up the box. The paint job was interesting at that point but the customer wanted to keep its patina as proof of it’s destruction.
(Here’s a cool demo video of the Wooly Mammoth pedal from Thiago Consorti over on Youtube. – Ed.)
Q: Does your rig have any pedals that aren’t made by you?
Sure! I have a few pedals that have been part of my collection since the early 80s. The Pearl PH-44 phaser and EH Attack-Decay come to mind. I’ve always loved the Big Muff Pi and I have a couple of chrome ones with black and red silkscreen, and I occasionally use the POG and HOG and have modified both for external voltage control. I’ve got an MXR green analog delay (with AC cord) and an old grey ROSS compressor, an MXR rack mount analog flanger-doubler, and I used to have one of those MXR touch-knob pitch shifters but I replaced it with a BOSS half-rack thing that sounded amazing in reverse mode but after I blew up a bunch of them with too-tall signals I gave up on that unit. It actually couldn’t take a Big Muff Pi signal without frying after a few hours, sadly. I have a Pearl Octaver that was modded extensively by Chuck Zwicky so that the high octave is mind-blowingly bright, and in the opposite direction, a Maestro Octave Box which I modified with a twist-tie (that’s right, a wire twist tie like you find at the grocery store) that has the most glorious unpredictable sub-octave shakiness. I used to use that with a Fuzz Factory when I jammed with John Kuker, who died a few years ago, sadly. Strange story about John… he was the drummer for the Breeders for a few months many years ago, and they practiced in Minneapolis, and John asked me to audition to be the guitarist and I passed because I was too busy with my company to tour. He was adamant that I’d be perfect for the band because of my weird chords and strange sounds. The choices we have to make, right?