In 2004 Ohio musician Jamie Stillman started selling guitar pedals. At first, it was a hobby, selling mostly to friends and people he met online. Flash forward to 2021, Jamie is now President of EarthQuaker, a locally based but international facing business producing over 1,000 handmade pedals per week.
EarthQuaker is no longer a solo operation. It now employs more than 50 local musicians and artists. Stillman’s wife Julie Robbins, who began assisting Jamie in constructing pedals after finishing her day job at a local bank in 2004, is now the company’s CEO.
Still based in Akron, Ohio the quality and innovation of EarthQuaker’s pedals has transformed the company from a basement operation to the designer of some of the most sought after effects pedals of the last decade. What sets these gadgets apart from their competitors is not just their adventurous design. Nor is it their innovative takes on old and new ideas. It’s a feeling.
Eliza Klatt lives in Pottsville, New South Wales. Inspired by Garbage, No Doubt and Avril Lavigne, she co-founded Eliza & The Delusionals in 2015. She stumbled upon her first EarthQuaker pedal, the Rainbow Machine, watching a YouTube rig rundown by Paramore guitarist Taylor York. The striking design of the Rainbow Machine quickly caught her eye. York had nothing but praise for it. She knew she had to have one.
Image: Pat O’Hara / Supplied
To Eliza’s delight, EarthQuaker’s polyphonic pitch mesmerizer lived up to her expectations. “I loved the interesting, unique, signature sound,” she shares. “It really stood out from all other pedals.”
After mastering the basics of the Rainbow Machine, Eliza’s fascination with EarthQuaker grew. “I went to a music shop and asked the shopkeeper to get every EarthQuaker pedal out to see what I liked,” she recounts. “Then I fell in love with the Avalanche Run. I thought it was so sick. I looked around at other reverb pedals but the Avalanche Run stuck with me.”
A Unique Sound
As a musician who tends to throw away the instruction manual and toy around instead, Eliza found a natural match in EarthQuaker’s intuitive designs. She has since put her pedals to good use experimenting at home and in the studio. “That interesting sound that I can get from both the Avalanche Run and Rainbow Machine,” Eliza shares, “It helps me make a unique sound rather than just having a reverb, delay sound. I used these pedals to tweak them into something they necessarily aren’t meant to fit into.”
Eliza has since added EarthQuaker’s Dunes model and Data Corrupter to her collection. Despite these newer acquisitions the Rainbow Machine still holds a special place on her pedalboard. “I am fascinated by the Rainbow Machine,” she confesses. “I feel like every time I play with it, I can get it to sound different.”
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Despite its popularity, the Rainbow Machine came close to never being released. Jamie Stillman and his design team began working on the pedal in 2009 and early 2010. It lingered in development for a long time. “I wasn’t sure it was something we should release initially,” Stillman shares, “but everyone who played it was simultaneously confused by it and drawn to it. I think that was a good sign!”
Even today the irreverent pedal still escapes easy classification. “It’s turned out to be a very polarizing pedal,” Jamie notes, “and maybe the one that we are most associated with. It’s still one of our best sellers.”
The Rainbow Machine, like many of EarthQuaker’s designs, is the product of Stillman’s curiosity. “I really just design things that I need or that I think are cool,” he shares. The result is innovative and user-friendly pedals ready-made for creativity and experimentation. “You don’t need a manual to get started,” he adds, “every setting is musical in some context. I like to keep things interesting but not too wild or uncontrollable.”
A Personal Touch
It is not just the technical wizardry of EarthQuaker pedals that has placed thousands of musicians under their spell. The highly personalised and eye-catching illustrations, initially drawn by Stillman himself but now overseen by Ohio artist Matt Horak, are also a point of difference. Eliza Klatt admits the thing which impresses her most about EarthQuaker pedals is not just their technical functions but their striking artwork. Toying around with her Rainbow Machine one day, she was delighted to discover a small handwritten “Hi” written under beneath one of the pedal’s coverings.
“When you take off the back, for example, the Rainbow Machine,” Eliza shares, “someone had written the words ‘Hi’ – I think that’s really cool. There’s an extra element of niceness and if I ever designed pedals, I would probably do the same thing.”
This was no isolated instance of doodling. “We have a lot of different people that randomly draw on the backplates and inside the pedals,” Jamie Stillman enthuses. “It has become a thing people look out for and collect now. Not every pedal has a drawing or message inside so it’s pure luck to get one. It is a thing our boxing people started doing on their own, I think it’s really cool!”
Doing Things the Old-Fashioned Way
EarthQuaker now finds itself in a unique position. In 2021 it is bigger than a DIY operation yet smaller than an industry giant. Despite the new challenges posed by this success Jamie Stillman and his partner Julie strive to keep their business local. “It’s not necessarily the most cost-effective way to do it,” Jamie confesses, “but it’s the way that we think is best.”
EarthQuaker pedals remain handmade. This is something which makes an artist like Eliza Klatt happy to support them. “I love supporting them,” she shares. “They do things the old-fashioned way or the hard way. To me, that is extra special. It’s that extra bit of TLC that has been put into them which I really like”
A Welcome Escape
EarthQuaker has carved a sizeable niche for its handmade products. Run primarily by artists and musicians it offers something more than mass-market models, offering an escape from digital technology.
“Personally, I love physical,” Eliza reflects. “Having my pedals right there so I can see what I’m doing, having that feeling of turning the nobs. I could not get rid of my board. I love being able to see it and play with it and I know how it is set.”
“In the digital world,” she continues, “there is so much to it. I may feel too lazy to keep up with the times with it. The pedals are easier to use and I can get so much more out of them. My band members have their nice pedal set up, but they are more inclined to trying out the digital productions. I have to keep up with them in some way or another.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Navigating the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic has not been easy for EarthQuaker. Nevertheless, Jamie Stillman has managed to build a safe environment for his employees to create and distribute pedals to isolated musicians around the world. Despite these turbulent times, the demand which has driven EarthQuaker’s growth over the past 16 years seems to be at no risk at letting up. “Business never slowed down,” Jamie reveals. “Despite the craziness, we had one of our best years ever.”
EarthQuaker’s Plumes overdrive pedal, for example, has sold 10,000 units in the first 7 months of its release. “It’s well on its way to 30,000 right now,” Jamie beams, “maybe even over. To put that in perspective, it took almost 12 years for the Hoof Hybrid Fuzz to cross 10,000 and that was our first pedal.”
Stillman, it seems, will continue to create his magical and mysterious machines whatever the future may hold. “I’ll probably keep doing that until I die,” he shares, “then I hope to be cryogenically preserved and put in a glass case inside Disneyland’s Space Mountain.”
An Invitation to Do Things Differently
To what does EarthQuaker owe its success? An EarthQuaker pedal is something more than just a product, something more than a functional design. A playful sense of fun and irreverence surrounds them. Jamie Stillman’s proclivity for tinkering as well as curious nature seems to have flowed outward and into his company itself. From here it has struck a chord with the thousands of likeminded musicians who have now integrated EarthQuaker’s playful products into their own creative process. EarthQuaker pedals are, in a few short words, an invitation to do things differently.
Delay/Reverb: Dispatch Master
Fun: Data Corrupter or Rainbow Machine
“I think that covers some well-loved staples and one weirdo to experiment with.”
Delay/Reverb: Avalanche Run
Fun: Data Corrupter or Rainbow Machine