Interview: The Godfather of the Modern Pedalboard Speaks | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. These interviews will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months.

For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Phil Lynott, Robert Fripp, and Duane Eddy, as well as a talk with the man who prototyped the Strat.

I interviewed Pete Cornish in 1982 to find out about the man we might well consider the godfather of the pedalboard. He began making his now-famous boards in the early ‘70s, working with many well known British guitarists of the period. Pete would go on to make boards for Jimmy Page, Brian May, Andy Summers, James Honeyman-Scott, and many others. He built plenty of other custom gear, too—whatever bands couldn’t buy anywhere else—and he’s still going strong today.

Back in ’82, I braved a scruffy alley in Soho, central London, and sat down for a cup of tea and a chat. We decided to mark the 10th anniversary of Pete’s first pedalboard by taking a trawl through his record books, where he noted each one he’d made. But first: a little background.

Pete, I believe all this began when you started in the repair department at the Sound City shop in London in the early ‘70s. Is that right?

Well, before that, after leaving school in 1960, I did a three-year electronics course with the Air Ministry in Chislehurst [southeast London], where I mainly worked on radios. After that, I worked for a few electronics firms around Bromley, and then I got a job working for the Sound City factories, but I didn’t particularly like the environment.

Somebody who had worked at the Sound City shop told me there was a vacancy, and so the opportunity came up to work in the service department there. I got the job, and I was there from 1970 or ’71 until it closed in ’75 or so.

Note: Sound City was a central-London music shop, and from the mid ‘60s also a brand used by Dallas-Arbiter for amplifiers. The Sound City shop was originally at 24 Rupert Street, moving to 124 Shaftesbury Avenue in 1964, with the related Drum City at 114.

Were you doing general repairs there?

Well, that was when I started to make stuff. It was initially repairs and servicing, and then it became apparent that there was a need for good guitar leads [In Britspeak, a “lead” is a cable]. That was the first thing. I spent a long time investigating noiseless cable and discovered the Belden stuff, which now seems to be everywhere. Took me over a year to find that.

How did the need for a better type of cable become apparent?

I remember it well. Maurice Haylett, the road manager from Caravan, came in one day, maybe 1972, ’73, with a load of guitar leads that I’d made. He threw them at me! I realized then that there was something wrong with the cable [laughs].

What you could buy at the time wasn’t necessarily a hundred percent effective, because of cheap construction, bad design, whatever. So the hunt was on for a crackle-free cable. Every piece of cable I saw anywhere, I snipped a bit off and tested it, until I found Belden 8422—and that was the one. I discovered a piece in an old American guitar case that somebody had left in Sound City, and luckily it just had the number embossed on it. I tested it, found that was the one, and the hunt was on.

That led to this other family—look at those over there, see? [Here, Pete points to a store of cables on one side of his workshop.] It’s the same family, 8412 and 8410, which are the other rubber equivalents of that PVC one.

Word must have spread about the guy who makes good cables.

Yes [laughs], and we used to make a lot at Sound City. I can’t remember how many leads we used to sell there, but it was a lot, probably 20 a day. And I had ordered 100,000 feet of that cable. It was delivered in stages, maybe 8,000 a month or something. There was none left, I know that!

So obviously, there was a huge market, and I’m still foolishly making these today [laughs]. Look at those amp leads. [Pete points to a box of cables further along the bench we’re sitting at.] Those are for Scorpions. They phoned up from France yesterday, said they’re coming through on Friday, so those will be ready to pick up on their way up to Manchester.

Where did you go after Sound City?

I moved to Maurice Placquet’s shop in Acton [west London] for a while, but it was too far away from the centre, so I set up on my own at 38 Long Acre in Covent Garden, about ’76, and I was there for a long time.

Then they cleared out the building to redevelop it, and we had to leave. I tried to go over to the west of London, but again it didn’t work, too far out of the centre.

Long Acre in Covent Garden

This place where you are now [speaking in 1982] is certainly the area to be, very central. [Pete Cornish Musical Accessories was underneath the Marquee Studio, at 10 Richmond Mews, between Dean Street and Wardour Street.]

Yeah, it’s just right. And I got all my old business back.

I know you make whatever people want you to make, but you are best known for your pedalboards.

Yes, and we can look in some of my books for the details. [Pete goes to a shelf, heaves down some old ledgers, and opens the first one.] Oh look, there’s a picture of a Sound City lead tester! I take photographs of everything that I make and put them in these books. But yes, I started to make things, and that’s what I do. Bits that people can’t buy in a shop.

The things I make are all one-offs, impossible to mass produce. The offshoot is that I then look after the other equipment of that band. The people who I know, who are really the road managers, know that I can make things like good leads, and distribution boards, which is another thing that I make that you can’t buy in that form.

What was the first pedalboard?

There was a practice go, with Peter Banks, who I think was with Flash at that time. This would have been 1972, and I thought it would be the only time I ever would make a pedalboard [laughs], so I didn’t keep a note of it. [Pete wanders back to his shelf full of ledgers.] See, this one here had the same look, this one for David Cross [King Crimson]. The layout changed over the years.

Here’s another early one, just the one pedal, for John Wetton [also in King Crimson at the time]. Oh yes, I’ve got full records of all this—it was done as a set. Robert Fripp [King Crimson] was the first one. Fripp’s was my first pedalboard with batteries: one big battery to power all of it. Then he wanted a spare, and I made him a second one later on. The first was September ’73, and then the next year, in February, I made the spare.

How does it work when a musician comes to you for a pedalboard?

[Pete has his nose in another of his books.] Well, look at this, a beautiful drawing by Jo Partridge [Cockney Rebel] to show me what he wanted for his pedalboard. It was wonderful to be presented with something like this.

Usually, when someone comes to me, we have a chat to work out what effects they want and the order they want to connect them. Then I go to my drawing board and draw an actual-size layout on tracing paper. I mark everything on that: the controls, the power lines, circuit boards, the drill holes, whatever we need to include.

Cornish at his drawing board

When I make the board, I take the effects out of their cases so I can get to what’s inside: each footswitch, each set of controls, and each circuit. I put the switches at the front, and I mount the pots on etched aluminum, and then at the very back go the actual circuits, out of harm’s way [laughs].

Anyway, I made Jo Partridge’s pedalboard probably in 1977. He put a lot of thought into it. Four knobs for his MXR flanger, and the volume pedal was a wonderful thing, an Edwards Light Beam pedal, the first one I’d seen of that type. It was favored by the steel players in Nashville, has a bulb and a cell with a v-shaped shutter to let the variable amount of light through. Beautiful! Wish I could get a big sack of those.

Jo got it from America. He also had a standard Cry Baby, a Tone Bender, Phase 90, and a Dyna Comp.

You mentioned making Robert Fripp’s first pedalboard, in 1973. What was on that?

It had a Foxey Lady fuzz, which I think was a Guild version of an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. Plus there was a Cry Baby wah and a Farfisa volume pedal. That was a wooden-bodied pedal, and what a wonderful thing. Best volume pedal I’ve ever come across. They’re very expressive, those organ pedals, and it was perfect for guitar.

Robert Fripp with King Crimson (1974). Photo by: Steve Morley / Redferns. Getty Images.

The board had a bypass switch for the echo and the effects, but not for the volume, so the volume was left in, in circuit. The King Crimson boards were all done through Chris Kettle [road manager] at the band’s EG management.

Fripp’s second one had a DeArmond volume pedal on it. And it was mains powered, so that would have been later. I did the first board for Phil Manzanera [Roxy Music] a little later, in 1975. I remember that it had a no-selector-anywhere-in-the-world mains supply. Any volts from 70 through to 270—there was a circuit board that automatically selected the right volts to give the effects. And yes, it was tested and worked perfectly, giving 18 volts to the buffer stages and nine volts to the effects. It had an old Sound City Fuzz Face, MXR Phase 90, an echo send and return, and an output selector, which I remember was for the bright and normal channels of his Hiwatt.

So the early boards were battery powered?

Yes. Somewhere I have a picture of the underneath, with a screw-on plate. I used JBL T-nuts to hold it on so you could take it out and put these huge, enormous batteries in, which would last six months to a year. Because my early pedalboards had no lights on them.

Tell me about working with Genesis, because I know you made a board for Steve Hackett when you were still at Sound City.

Yes, it would have been about 1974. It had a Colorsound Octivider, Marshall Supa Fuzz, Shaftesbury Duo Fuzz, Cry Baby wah, a pre-amp, a Schaller F121 volume pedal, and the echo, which I think was an Echoplex.

There was also a later one, his number 2, which had an MXR Phase 90. Also around that time [Pete consults his books again] I did one for Labi Siffre, for four acoustic guitars. It had DI and output, mains powered again—and it had a footrest!

Mike Tomich’s board was interesting [Tomich was a bassist, probably with If at the time], and that was another early one. I heard him using that on the radio, and you could actually hear in stereo that it was working: the effects were on one channel of the stereo, and the clean feed on the other. With the wah, you could wah up and the image would shift across the stereo as you wah’d. Very nice sound—he had a Fender Blender fuzz as well, and two echo sends and returns.

How about the work you did for Bill Nelson, when he was still with Be-Bop Deluxe?

I made two boards for Bill, around 1976. The first one had a Uni-Vibe, a Little Muff, send and return for a wah, MXR Phase 100, echo, and a noise gate. But most of these boards would be modified later, and his was certainly modified many, many times.

I made a note here, look, of the first modification, which was to make it feed two amps. I last modified it last year, October ’81, and the original was made in September ’76—I put in a relay so that whenever he hit a Little Muff, it would automatically bring in the noise gate at the end, with one switch. The noise gate would be disengaged when that pedal was off, but it could be engaged by its own separate switch.

Bill Nelson with Be Bop Deluxe (1976). Photo by: Andrew Putler / Redferns. Getty Images.

Look, there’s my note [reads]: “When Little Muff is on, noise gate is put on at same time, always, even if its own switch is off. When the Little Muff is off, the noise gate may be on or off with its own switch.” So there’s a system of diodes there that allows that relay to switch-in only in the right conditions.

The second board for Bill Nelson was an angled one, and it was quite nice because it had foot-controlled phase-speed and flanger-speed changes, on two rollers linked to pots. I made the rollers out of some wood with some ribbed rubber glued round it. And there were volume controls, which were not meant for permanent use like a volume pedal, but just to finely adjust it.

Tell me about the Pink Floyd boards, Pete.

Ah, the first one I made was Dave Gilmour’s large board; it was quite complicated.

The biggest you’d made so far?

Er, yes. Certainly the most effects: there was a Fuzz Face, my own fuzz, an MXR Phase 100, UniVibe, Cry Baby wah, MXR Dyna Comp, send and return for something, a volume pedal that I made, another send and return, MXR noise gate, and a very complicated system of tone pedals.

Gilmour's Pete Cornish board. Photo: Gilmourish

What do you mean by "tone pedals"?

Well, there was one that hung on the guitar input, and in fact that was a Telecaster tone circuit in a foot pedal, so you could alter the tone. That definitely took some trouble to do! I had to have a special pot made. Phil Taylor [Gilmour’s tech] got us a reverse pot, eventually, after we’d figured out the only way to do it was to have a backwards pot made. Nothing else would work right, because I used a Cry Baby body for it, and the gearing meant the pot was working backwards.

That board had three Cry Baby bodies: one used as a volume, one as the tone pedal, and one as a normal wah. Very complicated circuit, whereby the master bypass—something I’ve always put in my boards, a master switch to kill all the effects in one—could be in two positions: in one position, it bypassed everything and connected the guitar straight to the amp; in the other position of this toggle switch, the footswitch bypassed everything but the echoes, so you could be left with just echo.

When did you make that first Gilmour board?

This was when I’d moved to Long Acre, it was July ’76. From that one came all the other Floyd boards. Loads of modifications, too. I’m just looking at my book here, and there’s an interesting note from October ’77 about the MXR 90: we also put in an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone with a switch. Not the footswitch—the footswitch selects a phaser, and then this toggle switch selects which one. And there were three different echoes, too, so there was an echo switch to select echo, and then you had three choices of echoes.

The biggest job of all was for The Wall tour [1980–81]. It wasn’t all done at once, but it gradually became 11 pedalboards, four of which were in front of the wall: two guitar, and a mirror image. On the other side of the stage there were two bass versions for Roger Waters. Then behind the wall, there was Dave’s big board, Snowy White had one, which was Dave’s studio board. There was an auxiliary one that we used to select all the acoustic guitars, plus Roger’s board, plus another one just behind the drums, another one the other side of the drums, and two spares, the send-and-return boards.

I think that ended up as 11 boards on stage. Well, nine on stage, and two spares. I’ve still got the gauge for the angle of the top [laughs], so if there’s any more required I can make them the same.

Any more we should mention in particular?

I did one around ’75 for Charlie Whitney, when he was in Streetwalkers, after Family. For his board the effects were still screwed on top, he had an MXR phaser with the switches removed but the box still screwed on the top. I think that was the first one where I actually put something inside, and I think his was probably the first one with indicator lights on the footswitches. There was also an input for a tape, a volume, for effects presumably.

Let’s see. Oh, I did one for Big Jim Sullivan [session guitarist], probably in 1977, a six-channel foot-operated mixer. Instead of footswitches, each effect had a volume pedal, so you blend in a certain amount, with a three-channel and a two-channel mixer. It gave him some very nice sounds, particularly fuzz. There was a strong fuzz pedal, with the addition of 50 percent of the clean guitar, and that sounded really good. You could have the clean guitar going through and a small amount of fuzz to give it that edge, or you could take the clean off and let the fuzz go on its own, or a little bit of echo, and there was an octave divider and a phaser, too.

Tell me about some of the boards you’ve made more recently.

I made a nice one for Bernie Tormé, when he was with Gillan a year or two back, and that one had a lot of batteries in—occasionally people still do want that, even though it is plugged into the mains via the amp. That had to be a double supply: one for the effects and the preamps and stuff like that, and another supply for the LEDs.

The latest board [speaking in March 1982] was only finished last Thursday, for Dave Murray of Iron Maiden. That was an absolute panic, I was up till 2 o’clock in the morning. Next day, well, then I get a cold. My wife says I get a cold every time I make a pedalboard. Or after it.

Dave Murray and Janick Gers with Iron Maiden (2005). Photo by: Karl Walter, Getty Images.

Anyway, the one before Dave Murray’s was for Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. And if I compare that to the earlier ones we talked about, I can see how things have changed. Where previously everything was screwed on top, now everything is let in to the board—except obviously a volume pedal or a wah, which needs to be on top. There’s a lid at the end, which allows you to plug in all the leads and then cover it. Stops all the leads getting trodden on.

Tony Iommi’s board looks as if it has some sort of multicore.

Yeah, I make those. It’s never been possible to buy exactly the right kind of cable, because you need mains and low-impedance balanced signal, sometimes an unbalanced signal. I’ve never found a cable that will do the whole lot, so I make it. I take the right wires—sometimes there might be some speaker leads in there, too, if there’s a voice box, say—and I take this black polymer pipe, which is French military, exceptionally strong, and I’ve never ever seen any damage.

I tested it the first time I got a sample, threw it on the floor, left it, humped cabinets and amps over it for a couple of months, and not a single strand was broken. Here’s some here, look. [Pete takes me over to a large box in yet another corner of the packed workshop.] These are for Queen. They just redesigned their stage, and they needed these. These are the five bass input leads, running round the drum riser. That will fit into a rack that I made them, which is in that blue case over there.

The top unit is the control unit, which receives the five bass signals, the signals run out to the top unit, where they’re selected, and then attenuated, and then each one is routed through to wherever they want it—Strobotuners, two valve pre-amps, two compressors—then out to two graphics, and then two power amps with lots of speakers.

Before that, Queen had the same sort of stuff, but spread all over the place, bits here, bits there. John Deacon was using five Acoustic 370 stacks, so again, four bass inputs with lights and switches, and a master volume and master on/off switch, so you could control the whole lot with one volume control, which seemed like a good idea. Now they have all that in one thing, and it’s easier to carry around. And one mains lead for the whole lot. So that’s an example of another type of work that I do, which is really making modifications of existing stuff. Again, it was something that was needed that you can’t just go out and buy.

Do you do much for keyboard players as well as guitarists and bassists?

Yes, I’ve done quite a bit of keyboard stuff. I did the pedalboard for Geoff Downes’s system, about 1980, when he was in Yes. At the time, he had three sides of a square with the instruments, and the fourth side the pedalboard. A couple of weeks ago I altered that, because the keyboards were opened out and added to, and now the pedalboard instead of being central is under one side. I had to take out his Morley phaser, because there was no way he could reach it. So I put a send and return in the board, and he put the phaser under where he was playing, but the board would be over there, and it’s got its own footswitch in the pedal rather than in the board. I usually take them out, you see, those integral footswitches, because it’s usually an embarrassment, it’s often better to have your own switch, then you can link it into the rest of the system more easily.

Do you have any views on the quality of the various pedals you’re asked to work with?

I don’t pass comment on things like that. I just work on whatever I’m given and try and improve it, whatever it is. If I see that there’s something not quite right, I’ll improve it. All these pedals are designed to work independently, on their own, in isolation. And usually they work very well.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, Rock Hardware, and Fuzz & Feedback. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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