There are a few types of guitarists in this world. Most of us are content with getting a starter guitar, upgrading to something nicer and finally finding what we like and sticking to it. So it is with amps and effects pedals. Then some of us (way too many) wind up buying or being given expensive equipment, only to let it collect dust, wasting the potential of years of design and craftsmanship.
But then there are those on the positive extreme. Some musicians, with a knack for technical work and an attention to detail, value the equipment so much that they begin to make their own. And a few of them, embodying the best in the entrepreneurial spirit, make a business out of it.
Nicholas Williams is the leading man behind Dunwich Amplification, a CT-based custom amplifier and effects pedal outfit. Even if you haven’t heard of Dunwich, you’ve probably heard Dunwich equipment in use, as Nick’s clients have included members of bands like Nails, YOB, Conan and others. Not a lot of custom-gear people can say that! And it’s not just about the sound, the designs have a definite, bewitching character to them as well. The amount of work that goes into both the technical and artistic side of custom-equipment is astounding, and we are all in debt to creators who diversify the marketplace with new ideas for building great gear.
So with that in mind, I decided to chat with my fellow Uconn grad about his expert-level tinkering abilities:
Hey man, thanks for agreeing to chat! Tell us a little about Dunwich Amplification. Do you work alone at the moment? If someone was in the market for amps and/or pedals, how would you describe your products?
When I first started building tube amplifiers and effects pedals for friends (and eventually customers) I worked by myself. Once I began to offer standard effects pedal models, I asked a guy who goes by Magic Spiegel to build my production models (he has his own effects pedal company called Magic Pedals as well). This was also due to my workload in graduate school (and now at work), which prevented me from keeping up with full-time pedals. This only applies to production effects pedals. Any tube amplifier I have ever built was a custom order. At the moment, I build small runs of unique effects pedals in batches of 10 to 30 units. I have shifted the majority of my work to effects pedals, as amplifiers are incredibly labor intensive and lack the financial incentive to build at this time.
As far as effects pedals go, we offer a range of overdrives, distortions and fuzz pedals designed mostly for heavier tones. The aesthetics vary from model to model, with some referencing Lovecraft themes due to the Dunwich name while others are more in the vein of amplifier-worship. I have tried to vary the graphics with each new run so that the aesthetics look fresh. Sonically, they reflect my personal taste in music (e.g. stoner, doom, and sludge metal) and thus are all designed to get a variety of heavy guitar and bass tones. Personally, I don’t think they are limited to those kinds of sounds but we do cater to that approach. I plan to offer a few non-dist/od/fuzz pedals in 2017 but am not yet ready to announce any concrete designs.
Amplifiers are a whole different beast, since each customer gets to mold the sound and aesthetics to meet his or her criteria. I’ve had requests to construct amplifiers from as low as 18 watts, and as high as 300 watts, and everything from classic amp design to obscure symbol-based panels. I do not limit the choices and ideas for amps, since customers get significant input into the design.
When did you get started? I seem to remember some tinkering beginning toward the end of college or right after.
Near the beginning of my undergrad at UCONN, I started to research DIY tube amplifiers and I focused mainly on the information from a site called AX84.com. At the time, they offered a tube amplifier kit with instructions aimed at first-time builders. I bought and assembled that kit and, in parallel, I also bought a kit to make a Tubescreamer clone to go with it. I figured the amp would not have a sufficient amount of gain/distortion, so I would use the pedal to provide an additional boost.
After I built both the tube and pedal kits, I attempted my first ground-up amplifier design. Suffice to say that, while it was functional, it was not a great build. Years later, I disassembled the entire amplifier and reused the parts to create a new one. Once my friends saw that I was building amplifiers and pedals for myself, they started to ask me to build ones for them. They provided me with my first orders. I initially focused on making amplifiers, with effects pedals being a side task.
Through social media and guitar gear forums, I was able to connect with a bunch of other people who built pedals and amps. Some of the people who helped me in these early years included Mark at BlackArts Toneworks and Sonny from Sanford and Sonny (I may not remember everyone since it has been quite some time). I decided to create a Facebook page for Dunwich Amps and that started to spread my name around. Soon enough, I created my first small runs of effects pedals and sold them to the small group of friends who I knew from gear forums and Facebook.
What inspired you to make your own stuff? Was it simple curiosity or dissatisfaction with what was available?
One driving factor was that I was never really satisfied with the gear I owned and always sought out new pieces to try out. It’s very costly to buy vintage and/or high-end amplifiers, so I figured I could teach myself to build amplifiers to design the tone I was looking to achieve. Of course, there is something to be said about hyper-focusing on gear and not actually playing guitar – but that discussion is probably a bit outside the scope of this interview.
Another factor was that I am an electrical engineer by profession, and designing/building guitar equipment is just an extension of that thought process. I am most likely an engineer who enjoys playing guitar rather than a guitarist who dabbles in engineering. Therefore, I tend to view music and playing music through the lens of an engineer rather than vice versa.
What still inspires me to continue to design and build effects pedals is that I am still searching for the holy grail of tone (to me). I don’t think I’ll ever find it, but I will continue to pursue it and try to create music gear that creates really interesting sounds along the way. I would love to work with some of the bands and musicians that I enjoy listing to. Collaborating with musicians is a really rewarding process and successfully creating a design that a musician values is one of the most enjoyable parts of building music gear.
I also really enjoy the engineering challenge that goes into developing new ideas and some of the business aspects of owning my own company. There is a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with being the captain of your own ship. Along with that, I also like to collaborate with other pedal and amp companies in both a public and private capacity (behind-the-scenes design work).
Have you had any high-profile or cool musicians reach out to you to buy your products?
I wouldn’t say I’ve built gear for a very high-profile musician (i.e. someone that my parents might listen to), but I do have a few relatively well-known clients in the music niches I tend to enjoy. Jon Davis from Conan contacted me a few years ago to create a custom fuzz pedal that became the FuzzThrone, and he still uses this pedal live and on the last few albums. Through Sonny Simpson I was put in contact with Kurt Ballou of Converge and GodCity Studios and I have sold him a few of my production pedals, and designed a bunch of projects for his brand. An example of that would be his GCI business card that doubles as a DIY pedal project, which was a collaborative effort by Kurt, Scot from S&K pedals and myself. Todd Jones from Nails asked me to create a signature pedal for Nails based on the Boss HM2 called the Tyrant. It was used on the latest Nails release (You Will Never Be One Of Us), and was also a limited edition run released along with the album. I collaborated on an effects pedal design with Mark from Black Arts Toneworks for Mike Scheidt in YOB a few years ago that was called the Quantum Mystic and is currently available through Mike or Mark to purchase. I currently have a prototype pedal design in the works with Brian Izzi from Trap Them.
There are also a bunch of other musicians who may not be as well-known even in the niche music world. Ron Vanacore from Curse The Son is one of my oldest customers (and good friends), and owns two amplifiers and a multitude of pedals that I have designed and built. I created a signature fuzz pedal for Chris and Dave of the Slomatics called “Ye Great Olde One,” which I released in a limited run. I created a signature overdrive/distortion pedal for Tom in Sea of Bones (also Mammoth Cabs) called the Mammoth Overdrive. I could go on and list more examples but I think this gets the point across.
Your designs remind me a lot of doom and stoner metal. Are your products geared (no pun intended) to these styles?
Yes, the pedals and amplifiers I build are geared toward doom/stoner metal and their associated subgeneres. That is a reflection of my own taste in music and so it happens to be that my designs tend to go in that direction. As I mentioned before, I do not think the sounds are limited to only those genres of music. Pedals are just tools that musicians use to create the sounds already inside their heads. Nearly any pedal can be used for any purpose or genre with the right mindset. That being said, our designs are biased towards heavy, low-tuned, and high gain/distortion/fuzz type sounds.
What advice would you give to other custom design people out there who want to try and sell their wares (e.g. guitars, amps, pedals)?
Assuming such a person already has a grasp on building/soldering and basic electronics, the first idea would be to develop a unique hook that is his or her brand (to the best of one’s ability). The pedal and amplifier world is a heavily saturated market with thousands of companies in operation, and new ones entering the market every day. Differentiating your product is the key to achieving a bit of success. Focus on a single product (e.g. a single pedal or a single amp), and try to develop it as best as possible before pushing it out into the world.
As far as gaining some exposure, try to do this in the most organic way as possible. I never intended to be as big (relatively speaking) as I am in the gear world (bigger than a “nobody”). I have only grown via world of mouth through friends and the Internet. I have never tried to force anything too hard and so have had a very positive experience. That kind of grassroots-based process allows for some commercial success without the perception of being a big sellout. It’s a decent balance of art and business.
If you have no experience with pedals at all and no real experience with electronics, then you should consider a ground-up approach. I would suggest starting with kits from General Guitar Gadgets, BYOC (for pedals) or Ted Weber (for amps) to build experience with soldering and assembling pedals. Along with that, try to spend some time learning about the fundamentals of electronics. A bit of book knowledge is crucial to growing beyond being a clone of famous designs. I luckily have formal engineering education (BS and PhD. in Electrical Engineering), which is very helpful when I need to design newer ideas. I don’t think a formal education is needed to build/design pedals but some form of learning will be necessary to be successful. I am always looking to learn and improve my skills, whether that be soldering, PCB layout/design, circuit design or acoustics. That kind of mindset is important, not only for pedals and amps but for any type of challenge in life.
Once you have a bit of experience building the classic pedal or amp designs, the challenge is to start to take basic electronic building blocks to craft “new” ideas. I say “new” because it’s extremely difficult to come up with truly unique ideas in the electronics world. If one did come up with a very unique idea, he or she would patent that idea. I have never patented any ideas when building amps or pedals. So while I may have created some “new” ideas, I have not made anything truly unique. However, I don’t like to directly clone classic designs and repackage them for others to buy. That approach to building pedals and amps has already been done successfully by many other people.
As far as the business aspects of designing and selling pedals, the Internet has created such low barriers for a single person to create a webstore and sell to customers all over the world. There are a variety of sites (e.g. BigCartel) that create quick and simple webstores that link to PayPal accounts. There are also a good number of electronics/component sellers on the Internet, from Mouser and Digikey to SmallBear and Mammoth Electronics. It’s extremely easy to find the required suppliers to get any project up and running.
Finally, the most important ingredients are hard work and effort. Without those two factors, nothing will get done. Building pedals is often an interesting and even intellectually satisfying process but at the same time there are also long hours of monotonous soldering and assembly that go with trying to sell a product. At the moment, I work a normal 40+ hour engineering job and run Dunwich Amps in my spare time. I spend a few hours after each work day attempting to do a bit of work on whatever is on the docket. It can feel like working two jobs at times but I have to remember that Dunwich Amps is my own dream.