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Fetish, Totem, Talisman: Stomp Box Design

By Angela Riechers

Any serious guitar store offers hundreds of brightly hued stomp boxes (aka effects pedals), lined up in rows as tempting as a candy display. Unlike guitars, which are visible to everyone at a performance, only the musicians see the stomp boxes—they're little private galleries of color, typography, and illustration. But there's nothing precious about them. Stomp boxes get used hard: Over time, they're beat up and worn down, their history of rehearsals and shows permanently embedded in their finishes.

Typically, pedals (operated by foot switches) alter the sound of an electric guitar with one or two effects, such as distortion/overdrive (also called fuzz); dynamics; wah-wah pedals and graphic equalizers that modify the guitar’s frequency range; and pedals for pitch modulation, frequency, reverb, and feedback/sustain. Adjustable knobs control the volume, tone, and intensity of the effects, Guitar slingers' effects choices are as personal and distinctive as a set of fingerprints. 

How do you draw a buyer’s attention to a small box? You decorate the hell out of it. It doesn’t hurt to give it a provocative name, either, something like Phat Phuk or Russian Pickle. “Musicians look upon these things as fetish items,” says Barry Cleveland, guitarist and former editor at Guitar Player magazine. “People develop irrational, magical obsessions focused on stomp boxes, almost as if they’re religious items.” 

If you were to pry open the housing of a stomp box, you wouldn't see much inside. These are simple devices: a small amount of circuitry and a battery (which most musicians replace with a power supply), living inside a clunky outer shell required by human ergonomics. The knobs have to be a certain size because our fingers are a certain size, the pedal’s width has to be a good target size for a person’s foot, and so forth.

GUITARS AND PEDALS FORM FAMILIES

Electric guitars, the most important instruments in pop music during the mid-20th century, are American design icons whose looks haven't changed much since their introduction. Like the streamlined form of the classic Louisville Slugger, guitar designers nailed it the first time around. Vinnie DeMasi, a New York City-based professional musician and guitar teacher who also writes for Guitar Player, says, “Standard electric guitars—the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul, and Marshall Stack—were developed in the early 1950s. Later in the '50s, Gibson introduced the Flying V and the Explorer. All of these capitalize on the angles and geometries of the space-age design trend of the time and are all still legitimate tools of the trade—for new bands and older ones too, one of these guitars from the '50s is a prize possession.”

Practically every pedal ever made is a variation on four classic designs: the original Tone Bender, the Fuzz Face, the Big Muff Pi, and the Tube Screamer. In keeping with the nostalgic design scheme of the guitars they pair with, all maintain a strong visual link to the past.

“Some of the classics are almost sacred, and changes in design can take away from the legend,” says Brian Yap, guitarist and a creative director for Adobe. “The Tube Screamer is a great example. Its green color and design are so much an expected part of a pedal board that if you don’t see it, your first thought is, 'That player isn’t using overdrive.' So other brands making the same type of pedal have to find more inventive ways of standing out.” For instance, Danelectro pedals have voluptuous curves, like a 1950s Cadillac or Chevy Bel Air, and feature automotive-inspired chrome script typefaces. 

Cleveland says, “The idea of compelling designs on stomp boxes goes all the way back to the beginning. The 1960s Tone Bender uses a cartoony bang/pow/wow look, like the graphics from the Batman TV show. The Fuzz Face from 1966 is anthropomorphic—it looks like a little face.” Retro imagery (rotary phones, cassette tapes, atomic symbols), product names (Quantum, Rototron, Echoplex) and typefaces (brush scripts reminiscent of '50s typography) make frequent appearances on stomp boxes, too.

Pedals from Blue Sky, Wren and Cuff, Boss, and Big Ear rely mainly on simple graphics, coherent type systems, and background colors to keep their branding consistent yet varied enough to avoid boredom. 

Many boutique manufacturers, including Alexander, Darkglass, Pigtronix, Zvex, Walrus, and Old Blood Noise Endeavors, go all out with graphic and type treatments that achieve brand recognition through consistent outrageousness. 

This design approach, while a slight departure from the classic stomp boxes, isn’t new either. “Band posters with outrageous art have been part of music culture since the 1960s,” Yap notes. “Stomp boxes are like an extension of that. I have a new Orange Fur Coat fuzz pedal, and everything from the loudness of its colors to the illustration on it reminds me what a colorful and huge sound it creates.” 

If this overview of stomp boxes has whet your appetite for more, mark your calendars for the June 2018 publication of Stomp Box: A Visual Exploration of The Guitar Pedal. The art book is by Eilon Paz, Brooklyn-based photographer and founder of the popular vinyl-collecting website Dust and Grooves