State of the Industry: A Chat with Caroline Guitar Company’s Philippe Herndon

  • By Phillip Dodge @tonereport
  • April 07, 2016

I caught up with Philippe as he was ending a (surely delicious) lunch at Five Guys and we covered a wide range of topics from guitar gear, to the need for younger and diverse players to be featured in media, to the Eagles documentary, and to the varied social media reactions to the deaths of Bowie, Lemmy, and Glen Frey. Together, we agreed that Bowie and Lemmy received the greater outpouring because of their larger than life personas and the impact they had on other artists. We also agreed that Don Henley is the world leader in surly humble bragging.

Tone Report Weekly: How long have you been building pedals and how did you get started?

Philippe Herndon: I officially started building things in 2010. I’d been repairing and modding things for a while beforehand. There might be a couple dozen modded pedals out there that I had done for friends here and there, but I don’t think there’s anything I could say I really made until the first time people gave me cash in exchange for product, which would be October in 2010.

TRW: You named the company Caroline Guitar Company. Did you purposefully choose not to mention effects or pedals in your name?

PH: Well, candidly, I originally had a guitar design planned. We had a provisional patent on something, but I just didn’t have the means to get it developed. Everyone I reached out to was more of a vulture, wanting to offer consultative services or waste my time with their novel “design” ideas as the alternative. I grew tired of being a vaporware company—it killed me every time people asked me about the guitar design—and so I planned on making the distortion pedal, making fifty of them, and if people wanted them, I’d get to make more. I thought I could use the pedals as part of a design and product development portfolio for a “real” job, but away we went.

TRW: Which of your designs are you most proud of? Why?

PH: I have to say the Kilobyte®. It really changed everything for our company and brand. I remember beating my head against the design, and struggling with it for a while. I think there was an element of trying to make fried chicken from beef, and really not doing anything that struck me as particularly special.

I’d pretty much given up on it and begun working on another drive, then I was fortunate to attend an exhibit by artist David Cianni at 701 Whaley here in Columbia. Over two decades, he had built a veritable squadron of incredibly interesting robotic, cyborg-like figures. They’d been made from seemingly anything: kitchen utensils, repurposed plumbing materials, old electrical wire. Then, he had turned the exhibition hall into the interior of a spaceship where his figures were based. It was astonishing, and it put my struggles on a pedal into a different light. I mean, we’re talking about a pedal. A pedal!

I then remember one day shortly thereafter, when I took a shower, and it hit me exactly what I wanted to do. I remember washing my hair in a hurry, getting dressed and racing to the shop, and I was pretty much done breadboarding in about fifteen minutes. And while I’m certain what we did can’t be that novel, or any kind of brilliant engineering, it had something that I haven’t seen in our business, and unlike any other delay pedal I had seen. And to have reached out to Jack DeVille, and Jon Cusack since, for help and assistance—this business can seem very ego driven—and I’d rather collaborate with smart people to make something be as good as it could be than impose a ceiling on its potential.

TRW: What are the challenges you see happening in this industry?

PH: This is an industry with limitless threats of substitutes, low barriers to entry, a small number of capable suppliers, limitless access to consumers, and according to my friend Bart Provoost at Effects Database, nearly five new entrants per week. Now, normally an industry niche that is this open would be thriving with innovation as virtually anyone should be able to get rolling with a novel, disruptive idea. But because it’s the guitar industry, it’s incredibly conservative and nostalgic. This is an industry subset that took thirty years to make pedals with preamp tubes or incorporate a synthesizer pitch wheel into a guitarist friendly foot treadle, so those new entrants are going with safe plays and frequently making more of the same old clutter with new wrappers. This is creating a lot of noise in our industry and sucking bandwidth, as the marketing language those people will then use to describe themselves is the same as what we should reserve for those who are truly technically knowledgeable and creatively gifted like Alan Turing, Roger Mayer, or Rupert Neve.

The second giant problem is the market. When you look at guitar mags and who is on the cover, they are frequently the same people who were on guitar mag covers when I was 18. I’m 43 now. They are still wonderful players and heroes of mine, but they are now older to a young musician than any rock god of the ‘60s was godlike to me when I was in high school. If you listen to a “modern alternative” or “modern rock” radio station, and chart the age of the music that gets played, it sprawls from anywhere from three weeks to three decades old. Compare that to a pop or hip-hop station, where if you haven’t been tuned in the last year, you’re not going to hear anything you might know. The fact that the pool of acclaimed, popular music in guitar driven genres has grown so thin, outside of country music, that they have to reach back that far to fill the airwaves should be incredibly troubling. And don’t even get me started on how people seemingly don’t want to pay for music, recorded or live. If musicians don’t get paid, they won’t have money for gear.

Now, there is promise. We can reach out to younger audiences. College radio still teems with interesting, guitar driven stuff. The pool of players has to become more female, more independent, and transcend the conventional targets that are just getting older and smaller. But that will take a leap, and it will take companies that are willing to pursue and support and take chances on art and artists whom younger players can identify with, while still recognizing this industry owes its legacy to its legends.