“It’s been like getting shot out of a cannon.”
This is how Stephen Pettyjohn describes the last two years. That’s been the span since Tone Report last caught up with him and, in that time, his eponymous company has gone from humble upstart to serious contender.
The key to success? Keeping it simple.
“I come up with the products—and how to build them—and Chris figures out how to sell them,” he says with a laugh. “We collaborate heavily during new releases, but Chris and I are quite different, and that serves us well.”
Chris, of course, is Pettyjohn business partner Chris Hoff.
The two entrepreneurs met five years ago, socially, but didn’t talk much until a mutual friend connected them based on Stephen's interest in starting a pedal company. And from there, it just worked.
“Chris brought business leadership and manufacturing experience to the table, which I lacked,” Stephen says, “but in general, our roles are mostly defined and separate. We each have different strengths and give each other space to do our job to the best of our ability.”
It seems like the formula is working. Last year, the plan was to release four new Pettyjohn pedals. Together, they launched five.
By splitting one of their original releases—the PettyDrive Deluxe—in half, Stephen paved the way for a modular and expandable series of pedals that were both functional, aesthetically pleasing and more marketable. This also allowed him the opportunity to make some significant upgrades.
“My process of designing a pedal has morphed over the last few years as my skills and knowledge have improved. I have the basic building blocks that I designed and can use on any pedal: power sections, input and output buffers, a handful of filter types—even our knob layout is basically standardized. It really comes down to what the special thing each pedal is going to do now. The magic, the function, the control interface—that’s what takes the most of the time.”
A growing line and increased production meant expansion, so Pettyjohn has already added four employees to keep up with demand—and has plans to add another by year’s end. They've also moved production to a new shop space in central Oregon, where Stephen lives and can more effectively oversee the manufacturing process.
“Most days are a rollercoaster really,” Stephen says, “but I am honored, humbled and amazed that we get to play a part in inspiring people to make music.”
And that, in a word, is the Pettyjohn goal—inspiration. The big idea is to create premium tools for musicians all around the world, but it's Stephen's background as a recording engineer that drives the development process.
"I draw a lot of inspiration from high-end analog recording gear I’ve used for years," he says. "My little thought experiment is—if I play a multi-thousand dollar guitar into a nice boutique or vintage amp, why would I force my signal to go through electronic pedals that don’t match the performance?"
In a crowded marketplace, Stephen believes his obsession over the minute details and voicings of studio-based circuitry is what sets Pettyjohn apart.
"In my studio, I experience audio magic with analog studio equipment and, in the end, I am trying to recreate that experience in our pedals. I think there is—and always will be—a place for analog magic the guitar effects market, so I study my favorite studio circuits and try to understand where the 'magic' comes from."
Moving forward, Stephen hopes to continue pushing the status quo, challenging what's “normal” in the pedal world and attempting to try things that no one else has dared to try before.
To that end, he sees his company in a different light. In a strict business sense, of course, he understands that every pedal company is a Pettyjohn competitor, but his approach is to try and transcend that competition through innovation.
"In my view, if you create something fresh—something that doesn’t exist on the market—then you aren’t really competing with anyone. Sure, there may be options that customers have to weigh between when choosing what to buy, but in the end, if we come out with creative, innovative products that have a fresh spin on an effect, then I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone."
But he admits this isn't something he consciously thinks about every day. Instead, it's a mindset, a nuanced way of approaching the decisions he makes.
"I don’t want to be in the game of trying to do something everyone else does while shaving a few cents of in the process—there’s no creative reward for me there," he says. "In the end, I think every product Pettyjohn Electronics puts out comes from a sound I hear in my head but cant quite find on the market, and that’s what makes it worth making, and making it well."
Let's dive in and learn more about Pettyjohn Electronics:
Tone Report: Can you tell us about The Foundry Series?
Stephen Pettyjohn: The Foundry Series is a single pedal format that a lot of thought went into, as it is the core of our growing brand. I split the original PettyDrive Deluxe into two individual pedals—Iron and Chime—and made some significant upgrades in the process. Then we released the Lift—which is basically a PreDrive V2 with simplified core features—and the Fuze, our first higher gain distortion/fuzz release. Eventually, we hope to offer more dual pedal options from the Foundry series.
TR: What’s the most rewarding part of this job?
SP: One moment we hear from someone saying they just found their new favorite pedal, which is so rewarding. Then, an hour later, someone emails and maybe the same pedal just doesn’t work at all for their rig. At the end of the day, every player is looking for a different sound and a sonic experience that inspires them to draw new music out—and sometimes it’s ours. I think that may be the most rewarding part for me.
TR: You just announced a new pedal. What can you tell us about it?
SP: The new Crush is something of a milestone product for us. I consider myself somewhat of a compressor geek; possibly my favorite part of recording is working with compression. Being able to offer a compressor that I like and feel is on par with some of the great studio compressors is very exciting—even if just for me personally. The Crush is an extremely smooth and transparent compressor with a musical saturation curve and tone shaping options that I believe are quite unique in the current market. This was easily the most complex design I’ve done yet and I needed some help from some engineer friends to walk through the concepts. [It] turns out it's not so easy to design a high-end RMS-detecting discrete VCA-powered compressor guitar pedal, but the result is one I’m very happy with.
TR: The Pettyjohn look is particularly unique. How did you come up with the giant jewels and angular boxes?
SP: Thanks! We love our boxes. In a way, our pedals are a creative art project and the main medium is tone sculpting with electronic parts—so I think the box should look as good as it sounds. Seriously though, matching a classic look with practical performance is as important as the circuit itself to us. For our first pedal, the PreDrive, we hired an industrial design firm to assist us and stirred the process until it produced a practical and sharp looking box. I designed The Foundry Series pedal box, drawing on the lines of the PreDrive, thus keeping our brand’s look, but in a smaller format. The jewels, although they have popped up on a few more brands since we started, were once a pretty fresh idea. And actually, it took a lot of effort to figure out how to mount those silly little jewel domes, but we’ve got it down now and still love the classic, amp-inspired look.
TR: Where is Pettyjohn headed as a company?
SP: Well, we have had the best possible first three years a startup could ever hope for. That being said, we hope to continue to provide good jobs for our workers, income for our families and continue producing what we consider to be some of the best pedals on the market. Make a living doing what we love—that’s a dream come true and we are so grateful to our customers for trying us out.
To learn more, visit pettyjohnelectronics.com