One of Hannah Haugberg's hand-painted, nine-pedal sets (photo by Lisa J. McGrath)
Hannah Haugberg's canvas is meant to be stepped on.
The 25-year-old Minneapolis artist paints effects pedals. Also known as stompboxes, they're the small electronic units that musicians, mainly guitarists, use to manipulate the sounds coming from their instruments: distortion, fuzz, wah-wah, reverb. The boxes, most no bigger than a few inches on each side, usually sit on the ground in front of a guitarist, pretty much out of view of the audience. But through them, a simple tap of a foot can turn a strum into an explosion of sound.
On June 1, the Museum of Making Music (museumofmakingmusic.org) opens The Art of the Stompbox, an exhibition that covers the early days of effects pedals through the introduction of signature sounds (like Jimi Hendrix's use of the wah-wah pedal) up through pedals' use in experimental music.
The show also highlights the work of “boutique” pedal manufacturers—companies like Dr. Scientist, Zvex (Haugberg's employer) and Mike Piera's Analog Man—whose limited-production, hand-made goods have earned them an almost cult-like following and sparked a sort of effects-pedal renaissance. A job like Haugberg's, for instance (she's one of two fulltime artists Zvex employs to hand-paint pedals), was unheard of until the Internet introduced smaller manufacturers to consumers.
Building pedals by hand has allowed companies like Zvex to be more responsive to users—on a recent Wednesday, Haugberg was filling a special order for a German distributor, translating the words on five of Zvex's “Fuzz Factory” pedals into German. Haugberg's handiwork adorns pedals used by bands and musicians like Black Eyed Peas, Robert Fripp and Sean Lennon, for whom she painted a white rabbit against the backdrop of a hybrid rainbow-sun.
“He e-mailed me, and was like, ‘Hey that's the coolest thing I've ever seen.' I'm just like, ‘Um, you're Sean Lennon; I think you've seen some really cool things in your life,'” she said.
A musician with a degree in computer science, Piera has spent the last three decades figuring out how to build pedals that that achieve an authenticity-of-sound that their mass-produced counterparts can't match.
“Everything we do here is custom-built,” he said. “We don't have a production line.”
Roughly three-dozen of Piera's pedals, from his collection of vintage units to Analog Man pedals, like the Peppermint Fuzz, with its understated psychedelic swirl, will be on display.
As for the trend toward pedals-as-art, “I do have customers who actually never step on their pedals,” Piera said. “They only use them by hand…. They're almost like collector's items. If I sell them the pedal and the graphics aren't straight on them, some of these guys will be like, ‘Oh, can you send me a different one? I want better graphics.' And I'm like, ‘OK, but you know it's a pedal; you're supposed to step on it and beat it up.'”
Curator Tatiana Sizonenko describes the exhibit as the next logical step in the museum's ongoing look at electronic instruments and how they've shaped modern music. On! The Beginnings of the Electric Sound Generation opened last year (and, along with the stompbox exhibit, remains on display through September), and an exhibit focusing on the legacy of synth pioneer Bob Moog closed last month.
“Most people, when listening to music, especially in our age of iTunes and iPhones and all kind of listening devices… people lose touch with understanding how the music actually is created and what it takes to create a certain expression, a certain musical form,” Sizonenko said.
She describes the form-meets-function aspect of effects pedals—the shape, graphic-design elements, even pedals' names—as “an overall artistic gesture.”
“It's not just about being technological; it's also about being artful,” she said.
The exhibition will include interactive stations designed by grad students from Calit2, a multidisciplinary institute at UCSD that focuses on bridging the worlds of science, industry and art. Visitors, for instance, will be able to see how a soundwave's pattern changes once a pedal's triggered. And, musician Nels Cline (Wilco, Nels Cline Trio) and experimental musician and guitarist Henry Kaiser produced a film to coincide with the exhibit that explores the culture of effects pedals in American music.