Found on Reverb: Saturnworks' Bryan Wallis on His Problem-Solving Pedals

Today it seems as if pedals are the most important gear for electric guitar players. For a musical tool that was new and scarce for professional players in the 1970s, today’s player is generally more identified by their pedals than they are by their amps or even guitars.

But as all heavy effects users know, getting a large selection of pedals to play nicely together can often be a problem, resulting in bypass issues, level differences, or any number of other unforeseen sonic issues.

Bryan Wallis in his workshop, where he works
on an antique desk.

Bryan Wallis of Saturnworks set out to solve these problems for himself, and accidentally created a business. He is now one of the leaders in the emerging field utility pedals. We chatted with Bryan about how his business started, how he sustains it, and how he plans to grow in the future.

Wallis has a familiar story of how he got into pedals. In his small town growing up in the 1990s, finding pedals was difficult, and pedal information was even more scarce. He did manage to get his hands on a vintage Electro-Harmonix Big Muff with a design flaw—even when off, the pedal boosted the signal about 10 decibels. "I was researching on the internet, detailed schematics and information was really rare those days, and could not find how it fix it. I saw a website where a guy described a true-bypass looper. I was not sure what that was, but I thought I could build one."

Wallis went and purchased all of the parts, again with difficulty, as dedicated pedal parts suppliers did not really exist yet. "Thinking back, I think I spent like $100 to build a pedal I now sell for $30," Wallis laughs. He decided to make three or four to sell, in an attempt to make back the cost of his tools. Lucky for him, he soon found that he was not the only one who needed this type of utility pedal. (For those unfamiliar, bypass loopers allow you to isolate and bypass any pedal in your chain or, more creatively, turn groupings of pedals on and off with one click.)

Saturnworks 2 Channel Active Mixer
Saturnworks Latching + Momentary Mute Kill Switch

"I decided to make some more pedals on the side to help with expenses while getting my PhD. I also laughingly looked at a guitar in my local store that I had been coveting, a Mexican Jaguar, and wondered if I could buy it just through pedal sales. I was shocked that I was able to buy the guitar and also stop taking out student loans," Wallis says.

He began putting more effort in the pedal building after receiving his PhD in literature, building a website and marketing on Reverb and similar sites. Soon the pedal business was paying more and growing each year, and he decided to make it his full-time profession. "When I looked at the numbers, I was able to make a living—a good living—with the pedals, and the teaching job just wasn't able to compete. I ran into an old instructor of mine in a grocery store and had to laugh to myself, as the pedals were paying me a better salary."

Saturnworks True Bypass Looper + Soft Touch Momentary
Stutter Kill Switch

On the marketing side, Wallis has a very simple and effective business plan. He sells via Reverb and other online sources, has some brick-and-mortar shops that carry his pedals, as well as a direct sales website. He also takes commissions for custom builds.

"It has all grown so organically that I’ve never had the need to advertise in a magazine or on forums. Being on a place like Reverb has been great outreach in itself. My business is driven by people who find me." He also wants to keep the business simple and easy to run. "I want to be more successful, of course, but not so much that it gets out of hand, and I don’t enjoy running it any longer. I want a comfortable and sustained business."

One of the key parts of keeping his business manageable is limiting his offerings. "I resisted the urge to do what other builders do, and make like an overdrive and distortion. Everyone does that, and most of these things have a niche appeal. My utility pedals I’ve sold to metal guys, reggae players, worship players. My pedals are potentially needed by every player, regardless of genre."

Saturnworks Arcade Button Tap Tempo
Saturnworks Reversed A/B Pedal

This focus has led to Saturnworks becoming that standard of well-made and affordable problem-solving pedals. His most popular offerings are the true bypass looper, tap tempo , A/B swtiches, and kill switches.

While Wallis has started to make a few wah, distortion, and boost options, these are more for fun than the focus of his offerings. Wallis shows that if you dream of making a business in music gear, solving problems is a great entry point. Once you build a good product that people need, you can then build a client base organically.

But Wallis's best piece of advice also doubles as the key to his success: Keep your business manageable, and you'll never stop enjoying it.


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