Billy Corgan, Jack White, Trent Reznor, The Edge, Daniel Lanois, Joe Perry. They’re just a few of the big name guitarists who swear by the strange sounds, textures, interfaces, and custom paint jobs of Zachary Vex’ boutique effects pedals.
“Being weird makes me stand out from other pedal manufacturers,” Vex says. “Weird sounds get people talking. There are a number of musicians who want to produce sounds that make them stand out from the crowd. Our stuff appeals to those players.” And those players are willing to shell out too: The pedals cost between $250 and $500 each.
The light bulb moment
The first pedal Vex ever built was formed out of a small plastic fishing tackle box. “My older brothers got me into electric guitar and they worked at an injection molding company so we had lots of these plastic boxes around, and they and my cousins played through a Maestro Fuzz Tone at my uncle’s house, which I found extremely exciting-sounding,” says Vex. “In high school I heard that sound again. A student was in a practice room with a guitar, amp, and some little box with sliders on it which sounded identical to a Jordan Boss Tone. I knocked on the door and introduced myself, and he explained he’d broken his Jordan enclosure so badly he had to re-house it. A light bulb went off for me. I realized I could build my own effects. I used a schematic from an article in Popular Electronics (my mom got me the subscription) and built my first fuzz in 10th grade, and sold it to that student for $10 a few weeks later. He loved it.”
Vex then went on to build and sell tube amps and amp modifications throughout the 1980s. He did electronics tech work, owned a recording studio from 1985 to 1991, and then worked as an independent recording engineer/producer until 1995. That’s when he started Z.Vex Effects.
Startup funds came from a strange source; The city paid Vex to relocate him and his roommate from their loft because a Federal Reserve Bank was being built next to the property. Vex lived off that money for a couple of months and was able to take a break from recording to work on electronics.
Vex: “My first Z.Vex pedal was an improvement on an Apollo Fuzz-Wah fuzz, which was the Octane. I showed it to Nate at Willie’s American Guitars in St. Paul and he immediately ordered three. I hadn’t planned on going into business, it just happened by accident. I started making a living within about two months after the pedal company started. A meager living, but a living. I believe my apartment was about $300 a month.”
“Being weird makes me stand out from other pedal manufacturers.”
That was in June of 1995. Vex’ signature pedal, The Fuzz Factory, was designed during a late night that November. He recalls, “I remember staying up all night working on it, falling asleep and, upon awakening, wondering if it still would sound as cool as it had the night before. It did! I was in heaven. I loved how weird it was. I had no idea others would like something that essentially sounds out of control on many settings.”
Become a viable business
At first, distribution came one store at a time. Vex explains, “My first advantage was getting into one very famous store, WIllie’s American Guitars, then into his friend’s store Make’n Music, and then going on a road trip and getting into Rudy’s Music Stop, which caused us to blow up as a result of PJ Harvey’s guitarist Joe stopping in and buying an Octane, Fuzz Factory and Super Hard-On, and then writing about them in Guitar Player magazine. That was probably 1996 or 1997. We were able to get into a lot of other stores after that. Now I’m not really the ‘little guy’ anymore.”
It was a viable business almost right away, according to Vex. By 1996, he had to hire an assembler and had already gone through three painters. Now, he employs six full-time people, three part-time, and a number of independent contractors, as well as partnering with a manufacturer in Taiwan for the Vexter products, a more affordable line of pedals that are hand-silkscreened instead of hand-painted.
The Taiwanese partnership raised eyebrows at first. Vex says, “Many of my dealers warned me off introducing the Taiwanese copies of our Fuzz Factory and Box of Rock, saying it would destroy our credibility. I saw it as an opportunity to introduce many other players to our products, people who knew who we are but couldn’t afford the hand-painted, lifetime warranty products. I knew it was a good idea. It was scary, though. Going into the unknown is always scary. But fun.”
Vex is now bringing an open-source mentality to the pedal world with The Inventobox. It’s a DIY pedal kit that lets you alter circuits and create your own pedal sounds. It also includes wires, tools, and spare parts you need to put it all together. Vex plans to give away his pedal recipes online for free too.
Vex envisions hackers will use the Inventobox, which ships in April, both for tweaking his designs and for developing their own pedals. The modules can be chained together, so people can layer multiple tone circuits on top of one another inside a single pedal.
Vex says he intends to eventually publish each of his designs for free on the internet, giving away the schematics and the instructions on how to assemble the circuits for every last one of his signature pedals. He is also creating an iPhone app that will let you purchase new pedal modules as they become available and view the published schematics.
“I’m going to be giving away all my secrets,” he says. “People are already hacking my pedals anyway, posting my designs on the various forums. So, I don’t care what they do to them.”
Why the push to get The Inventobox and this information out there? “I thought it would be a great thing to get people started understanding electronics and keep the spirit of DIY alive,” says Vex. “I thought about how wonderful it would have been had something like this existed when I was a kid and my dad and I could have worked on it together.”
“I thought about how wonderful it would have been had something like this existed when I was a kid and my dad and I could have worked on
He’s not worried about clones either. “Most people who ‘rip off’ pedal makers can’t provide the support – repairs, answering questions, replacement parts and pedals – for serious musicians. They tend to be fly-by-night. We have trademark protection in many countries and if someone insists on advertising using my name or the pedal names we just shut them down, and usually they end up paying us for years.
"It’s not about the schematics. It’s about the support, the history, the ability to get replacements anywhere in the world. Customer service is very important. If a player isn’t willing to pay $179 for a Vexter Fuzz Factory then they probably wouldn’t buy one anyway if they’re buying a $100 copy. You really do get what you pay for. You can sell Z.Vex Effects used for a very good price. Selling a clone is pretty difficult. People wonder: Why is the guy selling this used clone? Maybe because it doesn’t sound good? What if it doesn’t work? Who do I contact?
"That’s one thing that has really helped us over the years. If someone sees a genuine Z.Vex pedal on eBay at a great price and they’re not sure if it works, they know they can get it fixed right and fixed cheap (or free for life, if it’s hand-painted) so they don’t have to worry about the condition of the electronics."
The Minneapolis office
The Z. Vex offices are in a a building in Uptown, Minneapolis, on a long greenway. “It’s a hip neighborhood with a lot of fun performance venues and great bars,” says Vex. “My employees generally set their own hours, some arriving early, some staying late into the night. I usually come in during the afternoon and work into the evening with my engineer Joel. We like the later hours because there are less interruptions. I’ve always been a night person. People are often amazed that I answer their emails instantly at 3AM. Seems normal to me. I was up until about 8AM the night I designed the Fuzz Factory.”
Zachary Vex replaces a tube.
The kooky signature paint jobs on the pedals started out because Vex couldn’t afford silkscreening. “The reason I hand-painted them from the start was that I was producing so few that I couldn’t afford to have them silkscreened,” Vex says. “I just sprayed them in a cardboard booth with a little exhaust fan pointing out the window and used paint pens at first to decorate them. Later I found artists that made them more appealing, and now we have two full-time and several independent painters that put on some of the most beautiful designs we’ve ever produced. It’s really fun.” There’s even a custom paint store online now.
The company also threw up explanatory videos to sell pedals, long before YouTube existed. They were a result of Vex’ long-time administrative assistant and sales person telling him they needed video demonstrations of the pedals so she wouldn’t have to explain what they did and how to use them over the phone. “It was an instant hit for us,” he says of the videos. A self-described “natural joker,” Vex narrates all the videos himself (sample).
His goals for the company are modest: “Keep it running, keep it growing steadily. I’m not trying to get rich. Just keep it all steady and solid.” After years of trying to get signed with his bands or make it as a recording engineer/producer, Vex says, “This seems too easy. I guess it’s the thing I must be good at. It’s a blast! I love making pedals. I’m always working on solving some little production problem. My business is like a hobby where I get paid to be as weird as possible!”
This is part of our “Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud” series which profiles companies that have over one million dollars in annual revenues, didn’t take VC, and are profitable.