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August 01, 2022 6 min read
For themonth of August, we have a Q&A with Philippe Herndon, the founder and owner of Caroline Guitar Company, which makes handwired boutique guitar pedals and just launched a new fuzz pedal called the CROM.
What drove you to start Caroline Guitar Company, and more specifically, what potential did you see in the boutique pedal market?
I started the business because I had just spent a lot of money to get a MBA during a financial crisis, which should tell you how poor my judgment is when it comes to business. So I made a few pedals as exhibits of ‘thunkware’, kind of as a proof of process for product design and market evaluation. I was going to make pedals, get a real job, and move on with my life. I guess we skipped part two!
Is there anything special about this industry that keeps you in the game?
I like being able to run our own shop, working with our team and collaborators, making cool things that my teammates and I like, and then being able to accept credit or blame as to their outcome in the marketplace. I very much like not being at mercy to the editorial whims and gatekeeping of a board, a record producer, a VP of A&R, or upper management.
What does the creative process for designing a new Caroline Guitar pedal look like for you?
It mostly consists of lengthy procrastination, self-doubt, some hustle, a reminder of what we have loved about some old or lesser known things that are out there, and how we wished they (or our own past work) could be different. For example, I’d been a longtime user of the Deluxe Memory Man since the 1990s, but one thing I didn’t care for back then was how the preamp section – which is great, by the way – affected both the clean and wet signals and was easily overloaded and a bit too crackly . So when we made our Kilobyte delay in 2012, I knew I just wanted just the wet part of the signal to be overdriven, and overdriven rather than overloaded. That idea hit me in the shower and I rinsed out my hair, raced to the workspace, and had that part breadboarded within the hour.
Tell us about developing the CROM. What was the driving idea behind its development?
We were the first pedal company to fundraise for a pedal with Kickstarter with our Olympia in 2011, and Ben and I always wanted to revisit that pedal. One day, an Olympia came in with a broken switch. It was always either bypassed, dead, or weirdly pinched sounding. So I fixed it. We sent it back and the customer was like “what is this junk? This isn’t my pedal. This is way gainier. This isn’t what I liked.” What we discovered was that they LIKED that pinched, high passed, crackly sound. So I worked up a way to get that and the classic, full, roaring Olympia sound for them, but also to dial up that kind of choked, lower gain, brighter sound.
What is the name CROM in reference to specifically? What made you choose this name for the pedal - are there any parallels between the CROM’s function and style?
CROM is the Cimmerian deity from the Conan The Barbarian series of books, comics, and movies. I so love that Crom is an angry god that lives in a mountaintop, couldn’t give less of a sh*t about the mortals underneath him, but in the mythology of the books, Crom has gifted the people with free will and the strength to defeat their enemies, should they choose to do so. I love that Conan and Crom deeply resonated with John Milius, the writer and director of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) and the inspiration for Walter Sobchack from THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998).
I think this thing really makes me want to write and play swords and doom and black magic heavy music and Crom is the perfect name for it.
How would you describe your musical preferences, and what sort of personal musical influences have had an effect on the development of Caroline Guitar pedals?
I love a wide variety of popular music of the last century, and I think I have some contrary and unorthodox opinions about a lot of it. What I have come to realize as a gear maker, is that while my influences may influence the development of the tools we create, once the customer buys them, the tools belong tothem more than us - they simply have our brand on them. For us to take credit for how creative people use those tools is as curious to me as a maker of a saw taking credit for the house you built!
What’s something that you enjoy most about your work?
The customers. I love getting to make things for them. I love the constructive feedback, the excitement, and when they use the tools in ways I wouldn’t expect. They push the devices further than I could or would. I love that a couple decades ago I would have been considered a zany or wild guitar player and that now my playing might be considered relatively conservative compared to our customers and peers.
What’s your favorite piece of gear to play with?
I’ve really loved my Novo Miris guitar, and I think they are among a genuinely intriguing wave of retro modernist boutique guitar builders such as Kauer, Bilt, Dunable, BA Ferguson, and others who are building genuinely interesting alternatives to the traditional market leaders.
All of Caroline Guitar Company’s pedals are made in Columbia, South Carolina; is there a reason why you decided to base yourself in SC, and do you think there are any Carolina regional influences on the gear you make?
We’re here because my wife and I both attended the university here and then chose to make it our home. I think it’s a place where people who want to do interesting things can do it, but they have to really earn it.
This city has some very curious internalized attitudes. Culturally, Columbia can feel like it’s in Charleston’s shadow. During football season, USC is in Clemson’s shadow. Entrepreneurially, South Carolina is in North Carolina’s shadow. So that (like everything else these days!) leads to two polarized, diverging reactions: a kind of circular, naive cheerleading (“well, I just think Columbia is the best cause Columbia is the best, it’s just so great”)or a knee jerk defeatism (“this place just sucks at everything, anything from anywhere else is better”) that are BOTH wrong.
There are people who do incredibly cool things here – make cool independent films and art, launch and run really good restaurants and welcoming venues, host cool festivals, fight for noble and worthy causes and rights, work to preserve the state’s natural resources and beauty – in spite of those headwinds. Everybody who’s done something cool here had to ice skate uphill. So I take inspiration from them. I remember our very first in person meeting with a NYC retailer and their surprise and “oh shit, this stuff IS really good” reaction when they tested our work. I knew when they had met with us and they had low expectations, and I loved beating those expectations and delivering something excellent and thorough.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers, either about Caroline Guitar Company, the pedals you make, or yourself?
Every pedal we make is signed with a note by the person responsible for its construction and testing. That’s a person who goes home every night to friends and family and loves getting to be responsible and accountable for our work. The exact same standard that goes into work that gets used by our noteworthy customers is in every pedal we make. We’re in a fortunate industry niche where people value our work and service and are willing to pay more for it. We don’t think we’re owed anything except the opportunity to make this stuff, and we’re glad and grateful to the customers and retailers who’ve allowed us to do so.
Our work isn’t for everyone, but if you’re on board with us, let’s have a good ride!
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