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In Conversation: An Interview with Alan Durham from Durham Electronics- Part 2

Alex Mitchakes
June 15, 2018
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38 min read
Charlie Sexton. Under the Wishing Tree. Image by Amoeba Music.

AD: Charlie was getting these fuzzy saturated sounds out of the Experience pedal and then he was using this TC Electronics 1176 delay to get long delay sounds and using volume swells and getting different sounds. You have to remember that people weren’t doing that live at the time. It was pretty innovative stuff. But he didn't have a pedal that would boost his volume up and not have a mid-range thing happening just like a tube screamer. Every pedal always seemed to have this mid-range frequency boost and the bottom frequency, even though it might have bass signal, it wasn't the full sub feel that you normally feel with an amp. Your sub frequencies tended to drop out when you turned these boxes on.


So, Charlie goes: “Hey Alan would you like to build me a pedal? Well Charlie, I've never built a pedal before. I love tubes not pedals! But I'll try to make one just for you.” So, I started working on it. At that point he had just started playing with Bob Dylan and I was trying to make this pedal for him. I would build these pedals and ship them to him at a gig. Then he would demo them at soundcheck with Bob Dylan, put marks on the pedal, and tell me his settings. He would tell me what he liked and what I should change. We were just going back and forth constantly to try and make it what he wanted. He had a real quick understanding of what was out there already and what would not work for his needs. There are people that talk that say well the SexDrive, that I named after Charlie Sexton’s last name, is just another Ibanez Tube Screamer and I'm like no… you’re way wrong!


MM: Those people have never even tried it. I hate when I read the Gear Page or forums like it. The information just isn’t there. Unfortunately, I’ve found my students read the Gear Page as if it's the truth. I have to tell them half the people you're reading on these forums are not actually playing these pedals. Yet somehow their comments are treated as if it has actual credence which is really annoying. That opinion is not the same as someone who has played one. Why that doesn’t automatically disqualify you from the conversation, I’m not sure. My favorite post truth thread that circulates the Internet is the Crazy Horse is a direct copy of the Electro Harmonix Big Muff. That irritates me because you know they haven’t played either unit, but particular side by side. If they actually had both of the units’ side by side and AB’d them they’d know that. Why these thoughts get bumped to the same level as opinions of musicians who use both? I don’t get it.


AD: Yeah, it's far off. Those forums they know, the internet did what it did. I go on record saying the internet is the end of the world, it truly is. It's created and taken away. As a musician at the beginning, it was really nice playing in bands who have been signed to major labels, but I've seen what happens when you signed your deal with these major labels and how these record companies take everything from you. So, it was nice at the beginning to see musicians taking their music back and distribute better than a record label could and get out there better. But really quickly, we saw all the record labels die and I think we saw the rock and roll dream die. We saw everything go away.


Like when I graduated high school in 1984, I had the luxury of seeing every band that anyone looks back on now as the real deal when they were in their heyday. When I was coming up and playing guitar it was happening. When I was learning to play guitar and dreaming to play guitar there were bands out there. Those bands were on tour, it was the real deal, and if you wanted to play guitar you had to be able to play the stuff on those records, and it was not easy to play. It's a far cry from what happened in the 90s to now. Like with Nirvana and the stuff that turned the guitar back into an elementary phase where no, you don't really have to be able to play… it's about the attitude! It kind of was the beginning of killing it [guitar and great playing for playing’s sake].


And the internet has done the same thing with the music of so many people. Looking at my business and going back to when I started building my stuff, I couldn't go online and look up every schematic that had ever been made. YouTube didn’t exist to get footage of some of this stuff like there is now. And in order to get walkthrough schematics you had to actually work on tube amplifiers and actually know where to get old books and actually look at old military electronics books, or service books to understand the circuitry to get the information because there was no way to find it. Now it's nice that the information is out there online for anyone who's interested to get there, but it also has taken something away- these people with the entitlement of getting things done. So, some guy in France for example de-gooped my Crazy Horse pedal after this many years, picks it up, and puts it on the internet. Everyone starts to go thank you, it's taken so long to get this circuit design and I'm building this and building that. People are saying mine doesn’t sound right, and by the way the schematic that was put out there was wrong, and then there’s this large group of people trying to recreate what I did. They are doing these little mods and saying they built it. It’s insanity.


MM: Yeah, and these people don’t even understand really how the unit worked, even if they were lucky enough to get the right schematic. They don’t understand how all the components work together in the circuit. You do. You put in all the work understanding that through trial and error, and also through a ton of difficult research sifting through old books that you had to find. That’s your intellectual property in my mind. You know if someone wants to look at it just to learn for educational purposes I guess that’s ok to me, but really, I find issue with the notorious cloning aspect going on in the guitar community. It’s just copying an idea, making units, and selling them online at a slightly lower price point to undercut the original product and designer. It’s insulting to the person who made it, as if you’re not worth what the pedal is worth.


AD: It's infuriating. There's a company in the UK that builds a kit called the Crazy Horse kit, with my name the Crazy Horse and they say it's a Neil Young sound and then they sell the whole kit for $30. Basically, it’s my idea. I contacted them up and they tried to tell me they weren't trying to rip somebody off, which really, it's my entire design and then they're selling it at a much lower price for profit. I did all the work and you are reaping all the benefits and then you're trying to say you're the good guys?? C’mon, you know you're not good guys. How do you have the guts to say you’re the good guys?? This is just ripping off my stuff. I got a guy selling stuff on the internet called I can't believe it's not a Crazy Horse. I got another one calling it a Mad Mule and they're just taking my stuff and ripping it off. There's another company making a Sexy Drive which is really the same thing as the flagship for my pedal line, the Durham Electronics SexDrive.


MM: I don’t understand this weird need for players to not understand that when you have a guy make you a pedal, you're paying for the guy that invented it to make it for you. It's not the same as having a guy look at schematic and make you his interpretation of how he thinks it's made. Another guy I know that other “cloners” like to do this to is Bill Finnegan from Klon. I have a few Klons that I own but I've never paid the ridiculous inflated prices they go for online. I had Bill make them for me personally. Did it take a long time for me to get them? Yes. Did it really matter in the end that I waited? No. If you just couldn’t be bothered to be on a waiting list to wait it out, and get the original designer who worked really hard on his designs make you a unit personally, maybe you just shouldn’t get one? Also, why would I trust Joe Schmo building me a SexDrive, or a Klon, or a Crazy Horse Fuzz when I can have the original guy make it correctly?

AD: Well they're just all about lowering the price further and further. The other problem is with the name Boutique pedals. I feel like that term is misleading now. It used to mean small batch, custom designed, handmade pedals made for discerning players. Like EarthQuaker devices are labeled “Boutique” when really, they're just mass-produced pedals marketed to the masses. How can these people market these devices as Boutique or handmade?


The reason they can turn out so many different pedals doing so many different things is because it's all digital code, it's not analog. The consumer doesn’t know what they're buying. I'm beyond frustrated with how the world of effects pedals has become. When I started out there was really 20 companies and that was it. But now it's really oversaturated. Now there's like over a thousand companies. Any store you call up looking to carry your product, I always say 1800 of your 2,000 units are not handmade “boutique” pedals, they are mass-produced pieces like Electro Harmonix or Earthquaker and you can drive up to your QuikTrip and get your you know, cheaply-made pedals. It’s not the same but for some reason people are equating them the same.

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