The Fuzz that Broke the Brand: A Conversation with Spruce Effects

Garages used to be where bands started. Now the garages in Silicon Valley are instead producing countless dot-com startups. But in the San Francisco Bay Area, at least one company has found a happy medium between the worlds of rock and roll and the tech sector.

In just a few years, Brian and Katie of Spruce Effects have become the fuzz pedal aficionados of the West Coast. I recently chatted with Brian about all things fuzz and his thoughts on turning a DIY pedal building hobby into a boutique gear business.

How did you get into the pedal building game?

I built my first pedal back in 2005 when I was in college. I found a kit for this overdrive pedal based on an old Supro amp. I’d only soldered once or twice before when I rebuilt an old Telecaster with my Dad.

Spruce Effects Salt Water Fuzz

Looking back, I can’t believe that first pedal worked. What I remember most about finishing that build was a sense of accomplishment mixed with a bit of a strange sensation. You would think that I’d have played that pedal for days, but after messing around with it for a few hours I was like, “Okay, what’s next?”

From there, I started modifying pedals for friends and posting ads on Craigslist. I’d offer to build for the cost of parts just to gain experience. I probably made twenty pedals in that first year for random people; I don’t even know where those pedals are now.

I formed Spruce Effects as an idea around that time, but I didn’t really think of it as a company or a job. I just wanted to have something to call it. As far as its current evolution, I started to take it really seriously and have been investing in it in the last two or three years.

When you look back over the last decade of gear culture, what factors fed into this new era of hand-built pedals in small shops?

In general, I think that the internet contributed to people being more curious and informed about their gear. Instead of getting the latest recommendations from catalogues or artist endorsements, it was some guy on the internet saying, “My buddy just built this pedal – it’s really great, you should check it out.”

The web also changed how people could source out vintage or hand-built gear. It wasn’t like you had to hunt around for those treasures in pawn shops anymore. Suddenly, there was this open world of gear that could be shipped right to your front door.

I think this also opened people’s minds to seeing that gear choices were always between big brands. So you could get a Fender or a Marshall, which would be great, but you could also pick up something totally different, like an old Silvertone or quirky Gretsch amp. Around that time, the lights went on for early pedal DIYers who realized, “People might actually want what I’ve got.”

I think the trend has been good for both players and builders. More and more guitarists are using pedals as creative tools, and boutique builders are developing really diverse and unique sounds. The options of what to put on your board are more than they have ever been.

The pedal line-up of Spruce is all about germanium fuzz. Is it risky building a brand on a particular effect that has some notorious challenges to its sustainability and consistency?

Spruce Effects Lichen Fuzz Overgrowth

It is a real challenge sourcing out new-old-stock germanium transistors, and it’s gonna run out at some point. But when I started, I wasn’t thinking about a product line. I was thinking, “I can’t afford a top-of-the-line new or vintage Fuzz Face – guess I’d better build one.”

Since then, I’ve come to enjoy the hunt for those transistors as part of the experience. When you have the wildcard of a component that is 30 years old, it could be pricey, might suck, or be impossible to find. It’s super satisfying every time I build one and fire it up. The end user doesn’t really see that, but for me, that variable is the fun part.

Our approach to gear at Spruce is all about the full spectrum experience behind the pedal – from researching, to sourcing parts, to burning bandwidth watching demos, to daydreaming about graphics, to burning your fingertips with solder. The end product matters, but it is that journey to get there that makes hand-built products so special.

What has the response been to your all fuzz line-up?

As far as popularity, the Salt Water Fuzz has caught the most attention. But if you ask me, our most unique pedal has got to be the Lichen Fuzz Overgrowth. Sometimes people are suspicious of dual effect pedals, but I think fuzz paired with boost is a really elegant way to add warmth, depth, and color to your tone.

Sometimes people are suspicious of dual effect pedals, but I think fuzz paired with boost is a really elegant way to add warmth, depth, and color to your tone."

With the Lichen Fuzz, I was playing around with what it would sound like to feed a germanium boost and germanium fuzz into one another. It just worked. There is a real experience in kicking on a quality boost and letting it do the talking. For me, that’s why this pedal is our flagship.

Though fuzz has been our bread and butter, I’ve also got some other ideas in the mix. I’m working on one project – it’s not totally a secret but not really announced – that’s going to be released as a collaboration where fuzz is involved. I’ll hint at it, but you’ll have to keep an ear out for when it’s released.

So far, the response to our take on fuzz has been really positive. I’m looking forward to firming up that aspect of our brand and building on it in new directions.

What advice do you have for newbies in the DIY or boutique pedal world?

Spruce Effects Rainier Fuzz

One of the coolest lessons I learned was with what became the Rainier Fuzz. I was hunting around on pedal groups on Reddit and found a guy who was asking for some help with getting up and running with circuit design software. I remembered what that felt like – not knowing anything about it but really needing it to move forward. So I messaged him saying that I’d be happy to show him the basics of the software to get him started.

It turns out that this guy lived in Japan and was trying to build up a Jen Jumbo Fuzz. We hit it off and spent hours online playing around with the design. I continued tinkering with it and ended up developing that into something that was my own. That all started by messaging someone I’d never met, and I wasn’t even the one who needed the help!

People are kind of afraid or nervous to reach out to small or even mid-sized pedal companies for advice. But for most of these operations, there are people that are active on social media all the time who’d field questions with no expectations in return. They’re less than a phone call away. If you have questions, why not ask?

In terms of where to get your hands dirty, get ahold of a kit and build a fuzz. There’s no better place to start. The circuitry is pretty simple, there’s so many great clones on the market, and the end product will leave you wanting to build another.

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