Interviews

In Beard We Trust: A Chat with Tone Slinger Nick Greer

Nick Greer has a hard time talking about himself. Ask about his business and he’ll tell you everything you want to know—and maybe a bit more—but when asked who he is, well, he doesn’t really know where to start.

“I feel most at home when I’m in the mountains, climbing on a trail, in an area of the world with no cell signal.”

And he’s got the beard to prove it.

Just a guy from South Georgia, Greer feels equally comfortable at home with his wife as he does at a loud rock show and gets anxious if his hands are idle for too long.

“Whether it’s a pedal, an amp, some furniture, or a guitar—my hands need to be making or repairing something in order for my mind to be content. I suppose that is a part of the drive behind the business.”

The business, of course, is Greer Amps. Headquartered in Athens, Georgia, the eponymous pedal and amp operation will celebrate its 18th birthday this May.

“To many people, we are a new company, but that’s kind of crazy when I think about it.”

Greer got his start in pedal building the same way as many other builders.

“I had a distortion pedal that broke many times and for some reason, in my head, it made sense that if I was going to be using a product that had failed me so many times, I should know the guy that built it, so I could get it fixed easily. Nobody around was doing that, so I decided I would build my own pedal.”

So, on his father’s pool table, using whatever components he could find, Greer designed his first pedal. And as the story so often goes—word got out.

“When I showed it to friends, they asked me to build distortion pedals for them. Then one or two of them made it up to North Carolina, and a dealer called asking about ordering some. So I said yes and the next thing I knew, I had a business—and I had taken over my father’s pool table.”

His father, retired USAF veteran Ronnie Greer, has been a partner since the beginning, drilling all the boxes for those first pedals. He continues to drill most Greer pedal enclosures to this day, only under a new name: Drillmaster 5000.

And the company hasn’t gotten much bigger than the father-and-son duo.

“In our shop, there are four benches, including mine. When some companies say that they’re small, we kind of smile. We’re tiny, I suppose.”

Today, Team Greer is made up of a few of the younger Greer’s best friends, breaking the first rule of hiring in most business books, he admits. But as the company has grown—from the pool table to the 150- and 400-square-foot spaces it has now become too big for—those friends have been along to drive the evolution. And while everyone is involved in the pedal creation process, actually designing one tends to be a bit more one-sided.

“The creative dynamic is interesting. It seems that an idea pops in my head, or I hear a sound on an album, and the next thing I know we’re prototyping out a new product.”

For original designs, Nick builds the first prototype, then hacks it to pieces to make the math work and find the sound he’s looking for.

“By the time the very first prototype build is done, it’s a mess. But it’s just a proof-of-concept that’s never going to leave my bench or my shop, so that’s fine.”

Classic designs are birthed similarly, starting with the idea of a classic sound and taking cues from vintage pedal circuitry, but always seeking to improve the concept in some way, by solving issues or shifting things around a bit instead of producing an exact copy of the original.

Once the prototype is tested and finalized in house, and the aesthetic concept is nailed down, well—nothing says Greer like surviving the fire of battle.

“We always ship out prototypes to be road tested long before the product ever hits the market. The creative part of this business is fun, but the products we build have to last, so we make sure they’re road-worthy, before they ever see the light of day.”

Nearly 20 Greer pedals—mostly drives, boosts and other compression-based designs, along with a tremolo, fuzz and delay—are available to date (not to mention eight droolworthy amp designs) and the team has a positive outlook for the future.

“Business can be interesting and stressful, but when we take stock of where we were, where we are, and where we’re headed, it’s all worth it.

“We’ve had people fighting right beside us from day one and I’m thankful for that. Those people are constantly pushing us to do bigger and better things, and we are excited about what’s around the corner.”

Greer is still growing, hoping to provide more jobs to local musicians, build more pedals and amps, and provide amazing tones to the rest of the world.

More about Team Greer:

Tone Report Weekly: Your pedals underwent an aesthetic overhaul awhile back—how did that happen?

Nick Greer: That was something we had thought about for a while. The hand-painted look was cool—and honestly, I still dig it quite a bit—but there are a number of things that were working against us, so we realized that we had to do something that was more consistent and not such a time-intensive process.

One day I looked at the material we had been using for the faceplates on our amps for six or seven years and wondered why it couldn’t be used on our pedals. I spoke with my friend Casey Meyer and he designed a faceplate template with some pretty cool graphic work for us. They looked amazing, so we went with it.

TRW: The Black Tiger ships in a coffee can. Why?

NG: The coffee can has gotten a lot of attention! We decided to use the coffee can as a nod to the fact that the Black Tiger is a mix of sounds—a couple of vintage tape delays and an oil can delay. We were originally going to limit the coffee can packaging to the first run, but we started getting messages from people about how they were re-using their Black Tiger cans, so more products may end up in coffee cans in the future. It’s a pretty cool looking package.

TRW: You’re now into custom wound pickups. How did that part of the business come to life and how did the collaboration with Porter Pickups happen?

NG: I used to hand wind humbucker sets for artists. I did quite a few sets for a number of people and at one point, had some extra ones. I offered them up for sale on a forum and people bought them. For years after, we’ve received emails asking for Greer pickups. I honestly just didn’t have time to wind the pickups and Brian Porter and I had met at Summer NAMM a couple of years ago—so I asked if he could replicate them. He said yes and we struck a mutual agreement that we would have the exclusive rights to the recipe, since it was based on what I did years ago. It’s a pretty killer pickup set, and it replicates some of my favorite humbucker sounds.

TRW: Speaking of collaborations, you’ve got an impressive list of artist users. Any stories you can share?

NG: There are many hilarious stories with different artists—most of which are not really suitable for print—but one meeting involved Modest Mouse. We got a call, saying that they wanted to try some pedals out, but couldn’t make it to the shop. So we loaded the demo board up in the car and headed to the Georgia Theatre. We got there, met the band and spent some time running through pedals. We didn’t take an amp with us (a mistake on our part) and they demoed the pedals through a powered monitor. I stood there cringing as the powered monitor had no tone controls and was not built with the idea of having a guitar running straight into it, but apparently the pedals impressed them enough that they decided to snag quite a few. We had to get back to the shop as fast as we could to finalize their order—there were two pedals that we had to build from the ground up for their order—and we only had about two and a half hours to get it all done. By the time we delivered the pedals, we were exhausted and sweat was pouring off us.

TRW: Last question. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far?

NG: Oh man—this question is something I’ve thought about for years. My biggest mistake was believing in people that didn’t believe in me. That sounds simple, but it’s difficult for some of us. I’d go so far as to say that most small business owners, regardless of their industry, have fought this same battle. There were quite a few people along the way that told me that I couldn’t do what we’re doing right now. There were times when I believed them and I’d look at what I had built and see some pretty negative things. The greatest success came when I decided to prove those people wrong. When I finally got around to examining what had happened since the days of building on my father’s pool table, I realized that it wasn’t a matter of something I couldn’t do. Rather, it was something that I had already done. It was a work in progress, and it still is—but it was working and people liked what we were doing. Now, we are collaborating more and more with dealers and seeing more products heading all over the planet. The future of Greer Amps is amazing.

Go to www.greeramps.com to see the full lineup and learn more.