|July 2007: Guitar Center chats with Fulltone founder Mike Fuller about his first pedal, his inspiration, the state of the boutique pedal business, and more.
GC: What got you into the boutique pedal business?
MF: I always liked the older pre-1970's amps and guitars and effects, and I didn't have enough money in the late 80's to buy that stuff. So, I'd go to these shows on set-up day and I'd buy Univibes and Fuzz Faces, Tube Screamers, wah wahs and all that good stuff. Nobody was really paying attention to them. I'd take 'em home and fix 'em up, get them sounding good again. Then I would resell them. You could buy them for $30 bucks, sell them for five or six hundred bucks. Great business, right? We're talking about 1986 or '87. I got pretty good at it. Then I said, "look at these, we could send something out that was half that price, that had more sound, that was more reliable."
I thought true bypass might be a cool thing, although no one was really doing it. I didn't like the sound of these things when they were switched off; all these wah wahs and stuff sounded pretty cloudy, screwed my tone up. I thought "You know, I could just wire around that." Then I started putting out the product.
A few people heard about it, like Billy Gibbons, a couple of local guys. A friend of mine said you gotta send this stuff up to Guitar Player magazine. This is '93 or '94. I said "You gotta be kidding me, this stuff looks like crap. No one's gonna buy this stuff." Finally, I sent them into Guitar Player. They gave me a great review. It was the first "Cool Pedal Alert" and they gave me this write-up from heaven that launched Fulltone.
GC: What was your first pedal?
MF: My first pedal was something called the Hybrid Fuzz, which was really my '69 pedal. I thought "I'm gonna be really cool. I'm gonna mix Germanium transistors with silicon transistors," and I mixed it into one thing, put out an ad, I sold them for like 200 bucks apiece. You know, I sold a few. Then I went into the OctaFuzz, which is the Tycobrahe Octavia. Tycobrahe was a company in Redondo Beach CA in the early 70's; they were a PA company. They got a hold of one of Hendrix's original Octavios, the thing he used on Band Of Gypsies, and they copied it and put it out as the Tycobrahe Octavia. Its legendary, it was only around for 3, 4 years. I was quoted $1200 for an original one, if I could find one, and I thought "I'm gonna knock this sucker off." So I knocked it off and its been one of my real strong sellers ever since.
GC: Do you know who has the first pedal you ever made?
MF: I do – I got it back. I walked into GC Hollywood about 8 years ago, looked in your vintage cabinet and there was this black pedal that said "NPN FUZZ," a black fuzz, and it was in your guys' cabinet and I freaked – you guys wanted $1000 bucks for it. I really wanted it, I wanted it back so bad. Somehow, someone got it and I got an email one day: "How would you like your first pedal back?" He sent me pictures and it was the one. He gave it to me for 200 bucks. I don't know where he got it, how he got it, or how much he paid for it, but I ended up getting it back.
GC: Where do you get the inspiration for your products?
MF: Need. I've been fascinated in the past couple of years with a particularly nice 1959 fawn-colored Vox AC15 with 1x12 speaker. It's the most screaming, the most harmonic, raging, beautiful sound. I just thought, "There's no pedal that can do this." It's so compressed, harmonics jumping out – it has this touch that pedals weren't getting. That led me to the GT500. I said "I've got to get this beautiful harmonic midrange." Wah wahs, when you hit this certain spot, you can get that great midrange. So I started working on the GT500. I knew I couldn't get it with I/Cs or clipping diodes, which all pedals use. Every overdrive/distortion pedal is an extrapolation of a Tube Screamer, a Rat or an MXR distortion. I didn't want to go that route. I started working with an FET circuit – really, if you look at the schematic, you could take the FETs, put tubes in their place, and it would be an amp. So it's really the topology of a very cool tube amplifier with an inductor midrange, which gives it that versatility.
GC: What was the inspiration for the OCD?
MF: It's no secret that the Fulldrive was born from the old TS808 from the late 70's – everybody was trying to get the Stevie Ray thing – so I said "I'm going to do an TS808 with a true bypass, and a little "More" switch where you can just beef it up if you want to – if you're in the middle of a solo and you want to go a little further, you can. That's where the Fulldrive came from. But, ever since then, other companies have been putting out versions of the Tube Screamer – like 50 or 60 of 'em. I wanted to do something completely different than the Tube Screamer. I wanted more bass, more highs, more realistic tone and also a sound for guys with really nice amps that already have distortion. If you put a Tube Screamer on top of a distorted amp, it actually makes it quieter. The OCD has so much raw gain, not distortion, but volume that you can get more out of an already overdriven circuit, which is something you can't get out of the Tube Screamer-based pedals. I wanted something very small, very simple that someone could stick in their pocket and take to any type of gig, from blues to rock, and it turned out very well. Has really good legs, I sold 12,000 in 3 years, and it's recently had a resurgence.
GC: What's your new product development process like?
MF: That's the hardest part. I have gotten into trouble before – and I try not to get in trouble. I don't put them out there to players and say "What do you think – should I change it? I just do it on that "need" basis – I come up with it, and I just have to trust my ears. If it sounds good with a variety of amps, it's ready. Hence the name "OCD." The GT500 should have come out a long time ago, but I've counted 27 different circuit revisions in the last nine months. And I'm not talking about slight changes, I'm talking about: full circuit done, sent off to prototyping, costs about $400 bucks to get 3 circuit boards, build it, and then start over again from scratch. Twenty seven times for the GT500. OCD, I don't know how many times. I have trouble knowing when it's time to release it. Today marks a good day – I sent off the first GT500s – three of them. It's like giving birth or sending your kid off to college.
GC: Is there a song or record that has a Fulltone signature sound that you can call out?
MF: I'm known, up until a couple of years ago, for making re-creations. That's something I'm breaking out of. It used to be 'Fuller makes an Echoplex clone or a Tube Screamer clone.' Like the TTE – it's a tape echo, but guess what? It doesn't hiss, it doesn't hum, it doesn't break, it's got stainless steel parts, it's hand made, it's got stereo outputs. So, you know, is it an Echoplex clone? Absolutely not. It's got two speeds – it's radically different. I'm breaking away from 'Fuller does remakes,' and really going with gut instinct as my abilities increase. I'm more interested now in design than I was ten years ago, because I think I have more ability now and so I want more challenges.
GC: So, any songs or records that one of your friends used Fulltone on?
MF: Joe Satriani has made the Ultimate Octave famous. Whenever you hear Joe Satriani with this almost harmonizer-like octave, it's the Ultimate Octave. Joe has been so good to me and for me, and even when I don't talk to him for a year or two, every album it's 'Thanks to Mike Fuller and the guys at Fulltone.' He's just a nice guy. Robin Trower is very loyal, and still to this day plays Fulltone, and I think his tone has changed because of that. He played live at BB King's last year and they're about to release a record, and the OCD is on the whole time. He's using Marshalls, but the Marshalls are so clean, its like a jumbo acoustic, albeit a two-ton one, and the OCD is on full blast, but with the volume all the way down, so he can get this full range from clean to sustain forever. People ask how he does it. He says, "my OCD." Sometimes people call me, saying something like, 'you know that new VW commercial?... that's me playing your CLYDE Wah on it.'
GC: The story about how Robin uses the OCD, that's a really good example.
MF: I didn't know that until a couple of people asked me, "Do you know what he's doing?" And I asked him. He used to have to do it with brute volume. He literally can't do that anymore and here's why – the venues he's playing won't allow him to do that. He said it's the first time since '74,'75 that he's been able to get his sound, because he doesn't have to turn his Marshall up to 10. He can back down the volume, put the Marshall on 3 or 4 and get what he considers to be his good sound with the OCD.
You know what's funny? I got scared the other day, and me getting scared is a common thing, because I do worry a little bit too much about this kind of thing and I take it very personally. I plugged in an OCD for the first time in a long time the other day because I was sending 2 over to Mike Landau and John Suhr, and I wanted to make sure they were ok. So I grabbed two OCD's, plugged both of them in and both of them sounded the same. But both of them sounded so damn good through a black face Fender – which is not notorious for great dirty tone – and it sounded so good I got nervous that the GT500 wasn't different enough, so I grabbed a GT500 and plugged one in and it was a totally different thing.
It's nice to make a comfortable living. I could just crank out Fulldrive IIs and OCDs and Clyde Wahs for the next 10 or 15 years, but I don't want to be redundant. I'm constantly going through the whole line because I actually want to try to update and upgrade in simple ways people don't know. We don't have many failures because our products are handmade and tested, and we use really good parts, most of them custom-made. The pedals I saw coming back for repair in the last few years were because of other manufacturer's power supplies, AC instead of DC. Some of these new adaptors will fry any pedal you plug them into. So I devised a circuit to prevent them from frying and it actually changes AC to DC, preventing that. Now you can't fry any of the new Fulltone pedals, something that will help them stay out in the world a lot longer.
GC: How do you see yourself in relation to other boutique pedal companies?
MF: I see those guys – Zach Vex is an artist, he makes all these different assorted colors – and I'm not talking about the look of his pedals; I'm talking sonic colors – but that is not necessarily my interest, although who knows what might happen if I get bored and want to do something different. I make tools. Tools for musicians. My hope for the GT500 is that it is the most versatile tool so that a guy who runs a studio, or who's a session player, or simply someone who wants to get all these tones for a gig just has to have it. If I can accomplish that with the GT500, then it will be a success.
||GC: What is your take on the state of boutique pedal business today?
MF: I feel very fortunate that I started out when I did. MXR created [the boutique pedal industry] in the early 70s, but there wasn't anything going on when I started. By 1999, there were 40 boutique companies, and now you will see hundreds of different companies, and I wouldn't want to be starting out right now, because there is a large field. However, boutique is exactly what it sounds like. Luckily, these guys aren't relying on it to make house payments. They're doing this on the weekend, and with the Internet you can put up a website that is official looking and you can move product. I don't know if we are boutique anymore. I don't know where the line between boutique and whatever else is, but I think it's more of an attitude where I am concerned about every single pedal being right instead of just churning them out. I could have accepted the offers to go offshore, sold the company, but I want it to be kind of cool still. I keep it at a certain level, but it is a level I am OK with. 4 days a week, 10 hours a day, and the rest of the time I'm in the studio.
GC: I guess could say you're like the Mesa/Boogie of your field, because they stay the size they want to stay and keep an eye on their components. People actually know who you are, your stuff is super high quality, you make tools musicians can't live without, yet you keep your company to a size that keeps it comfortable for you, and you're always creating even better new products.
MF: It is kind of cool because I make a lot of pedals, and it enables me to buy more parts. I've done well enough. I've gotten good with AutoCAD, Illustrator, Photoshop. For the Clyde Wah, we used to use skateboard tape, but now I've designed a 3D rubber pad for it. I can make anything my heart desires, my whole fascination now is with detail, getting these great parts made and having that freedom.
GC: Would you like to describe anything about the GT500 that you haven't already said?
MF: For a pedal guy, I have to admit that I don't use a lot of pedals. I have every single Fender blackface amp, every Marshall before '73, each in pristine condition. I know good tone and I appreciate good [amp] tone, and I know that certain pedals can kill that. And the idea with the GT500 was 'Is it possible on top of a clean amp to literally get a Brian May, Beatles, Tom Petty, Vox or Marshall tone, that were off limits to guys who played clean amps?' I want the GT500. I think it delivers very harmonically rich, realistic tones. I'm not interested in abstract. I'm interested in really juicy tones with high harmonic content and good touch and feel.
GC: What keeps you going?
MF: I don't know. Good question. Lack of ability, probably. If I were smarter, if I was schooled, I probably wouldn't go down the roads I go. It's been my curse and my blessing that I'm not a trained electronics engineer. I literally have to scrape, scrape, scrape. I try every combination. I have tenacity. I'll do 1005 different combinations of something simply because I don't necessarily know the easiest route to accomplish a particular circuit. I have guys that work for me who know stuff, they'll be like, 'That's not going to work, don't bother doing it.' Then, of course, that's the challenge, and I set about to make it work. So, I'm stubborn, and I don't know enough to quit. That would probably be the best description of what motivates me. It's fun to try to accomplish something. In '93, I said to a good friend of mine: 'I'm going to make a univibe pedal.' It looked a little too complicated for someone who rode mountain bikes and barely graduated high school. And he said 'Yeah sure' and patted me on the back, with a look on his face like 'This guy's insane.' But I told myself I'm going to do this, I did it, and you keep wanting bigger and better things.
GC: Will there be other Fulltone products like amps, guitars.
MF: I like really good stuff – I'm fascinated with it. I've built a few little mic pre's, some stereo rack mount univibe thing, with vibrato and chorus and stereo in/out, with weird little controls on it that flip the phase so it sounds like the amps jumping 20 feet apart. So, yes, the answer to that is, yes. The next thing I'm working on is bringing back the old Tri-Stereo Chorus. It's been done for one and a half years, but I got sidetracked with the GT500. As soon as the GT500 goes into production, I will be introducing an affordable version of the Tri-Stereo Chorus, also called Dytronix, Songbird, Dyno-My-Piano.
GC: We can't wait.
MF: Right now, original Tri-Stereo-Chorus' are $3000 and broken, usually. Mine will be well under $1000, a little quieter and made better. But it is identical. I've already procured 50,000 of the Panasonic delay chips they used and I'm procuring the same switches. I don't think it's a huge market, but I'm not driven by that. The TTE isn't a huge market; it's a $1200 tape delay. You could use a $100 analog pedal. But there are always guys that can hear the difference and know what a real tape delay does and what a real good analog chorus does. I don't ever look at what sales are going to be. The TTE cost $275,000 to tool up for. Maybe I've made my money back. I make 11-13 of those a week, with two guys working full time on it. It's a loser for money, but I make money on other stuff. I don't have a boardroom, any co-owners, I don't have to go sit down in an office and go 'I'm hoping to do this project but its not going to be a very good return rate, what do you think?' And they say, 'Screw you, you're not going to do it.' I'm stupid – I just do it.
GC: What do you see as your legacy?
MF: I guess we'd all like to be known as some badass guitar player, but if I get something between 'he built a better mousetrap' and 'he made some cool crap,' I'd be thrilled.
GC: I think it's going to be better than that. I think people are going to say the things he made inspired me to write great stuff.
MF: That would be fantastic. That's like the cool thing. I don't do many shows. For example, GC did a cool thing about 3-4 years ago in Dallas for one of the vintage guitar shows. It was in the Platinum room. Tommy Roberts, one of my good old friends, said 'Would you debut the TTE there?' We just had a line of people all day for four days. And I'd recognize someone's name: 'I sold you a pedal like 7 years ago.' 'Yeah man, this sounds so good, let me try it.' It's cool to meet people who use your stuff still and hang out with them and have them still use your stuff when they have 150 other choices.
GC: So talk a little bit about the record that you're making and what your musical aspirations are.
MF: I'm such a child of the 70s sonically. I still have 24-track Studer and a 1/2" ATR that I got from the Rolling Stones, which they mixed to all the way up to Steel Wheels. I love tape, but I am dabbling in digital. My goal is to make recordings that are warm, because digital recordings can be a little non-dynamic, so my goal is to have a clear, warm vibe. The new record is what I should have done 10 years ago when I put on my first record. But then all I wanted to be was Robben Ford or Eric Johnson or somewhere in between. I used to play a lot of guitar and I could half pull it off. Now I have gotten busy and have more responsibility so I'm kind of backtracked into a more guttural style of playing, i.e. lost all my technique (laughs). That's what guys say when they can't practice anymore; 'I've simplified my playing,' and in truth, I'm married now and I have no chops left. I have to focus on things like tone and sustain and kind of a more of a blues/rock thing. So this record is definitely R-O-C-K. I grew up with Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin, parts that come out of nowhere, different textures and timbre, and so that's what I'm doing on this record, without overdubbing too much just trying to create a more rock blues vibe.
GC: Are you singing on it?
MF: I'm not a good singer. My great friend David Robinette from Boise, Idaho, has been my singer for 25 years. He hired me when I was 19, I was going through Boise, and his guitar player broke his hand so I did some dates at the Air Force bases with him. I was scared to death. He's like Paul Rogers, man. He gets on stage, plants his feet, and just sings like Paul Rogers. I sat back and was petrified. We became friends, and later I moved on... he moved on to Nashville and all these other places and ends up back in Boise. I caught up with him 10 years ago, flew him in and did my first record in about 4 days. The second record we've been doing since 2002, because time is not something I have a lot of. I fly him down twice a year or so and we sit in the studio for 3 days. He's done all the vocal tracks and I'm in the mixing process and getting ready to put down some leads. So, I'm getting blisters on my fingers starting to play again.
GC: That's great. I can't wait to hear it. The sounds you were playing through the GT500 were so scary and gorgeous that I can't wait to put your record on. Your playing is really amazing.
MF: Thank you. You know what's good about digital? One thing. My first record, I spent all this time recording it, and didn't have much money. Had a 16-track, 2-inch tape machine. By the time I finished the record I played the tape so many times, it was worn out and the heads were bad so I had to mix the record off the monitoring heads instead of the actual playback heads, and for all that work I did recording it, the tone of it didn't quite come across; it was kind of murky. What I do notice about the new record is (because I tracked to tape and immediately put that straight into digital), you can play it as many times as you want and not lose the attack and the overtones, the little reverbs, and sounds that disappear after tape has been played a few dozen times.
GC: Any closing thoughts?
MF: I have a comment for you. People want to see GC as this giant empire because they see it everywhere, a faceless thing. That is not the case. You guys came to my shop and it was like, we could have just locked all the doors, shut down for the day, and had this horrendous great jam. Everyone that was there was a player and people need to know that. They need to know, yeah, they have a lot of gear at GC, there are a lot of people working there, so people think that it's this horrible big industry, but really it's just a collection of guys rabid about music and gear, and that translates to a successful thing.