[interview] California Valveworks: Derek Donohue

Here's FXDB's interview with Derek Donohue of California Valveworks:

How did California Valveworks start?

I've always loved guitar and got my first guitar when I was 11. In college I got really into guitar and songwriting, especially after my friend Eric Sargent (from Ekoostik Hookah) and I became roommates, as he was already enviably good. At the time I was pursuing a major in physics, so I was learning E&M theory and electronics. On occasion I would muse about building a pedal board full of my own effects pedals. It kind of worked out that way and kind of didn't.

A few years later when boutique pedals were starting to become a thing, I was in a phase where I was really enamored with some of the classic guitar tones like Townsend, Brian May, and Jimi Hendrix. Believe it or not I was working as a nuclear physicist at the time, and making decent money, so I set out to own the same gear those guys used. I ended up (much to my wife and neighbors' dismay) with a Hiwatt, a Fender Band Master, a Rickenbacker M-11 and Vox AC15, trying to capture old tones. California Valveworks Free Range ChickenBut when I started looking into the pedals they used, it occurred to me "hey, this stuff is super simple and I can make my own". These words have gotten me in trouble so many times, but in this case they proved to be true. Like many amateur DIYers I started with building treble boosts out of my love for Brian May and Queen. I built one for myself that took days, and sounded like crap. But I learned a lot and pretty well had it mastered by the time I was totally done. I built another one for Eric to try, and one for my brother since it was around Christmas time 2006. For the one I built for my brother, I found some 'chicken head' knobs and decided to use it. I gave it to him, I asked him what he thought and he said something to the effect of "who wouldn't like a free range master with a chicken head knob?" That was how the name Free Range Chicken was born. It became our first and most successful pedal, and the springboard for what California Valveworks does and all it has become.

Who inspired or helped you?

When I set out to make a treble boost, I bought an Analog Man Beano Boost, and having spent some time in product development really dug into the quality, detail, assembly, components, etc. Analog Man makes quality stuff and I have always held his pedals up as the standard of quality we try to meet or exceed. I've never met or talked to him, but I tip my hat to him for his great pedals and inspiring me to make my own.

Like all DIYers I buy a lot of parts from Small Bear Electronics, who has been indispensable to me, as has John at Effects Connection. Eric is a walking encyclopedia of gear knowledge and has maybe the best ears in the known universe. He has been a major factor in determining our direction and assuring our pedals can meet the challenge of the big stage. Also, many of our customers have kept in touch and provided valuable input over the years. We aren't the biggest operation in the world but we will hear feedback from anyone who cares enough to provide it. In that regard California Valveworks is as much the product of its own customers and peers as it is of anything I've done. I'm just the guy who sweats over the soldering iron.

Where does the name come from?

The California Valveworks comes from a conversation I was having with Eric about starting a pedal business. I was in San Jose at the time, and he noted that anything with the word 'California' in the name had instant cool factor. I had always thought it was cool how the British referred to tubes and transistors as 'valves' and wanted to incorporate that somehow. Not long after I was driving around San Jose and passed an old industrial pipe fitting shop that said "tube works". My mind immediately jumped to "valve works", then "California Valve Works" and the name was born. I remember picking up the phone and calling Eric. As soon as he said "hello" I said "California Valveworks". All he said was "Yup!", and the name was born.

We don't have a logo so much as a slogan that our customers have come to know well: "Step on it!" I don't imagine it takes much explaining.

What sets California Valveworks apart from other builders?


Value is the ultimate standard for all that is good in the world. When I bought my first Beano Boost I found it to be extremely well constructed, tuned, and detailed. It occurred to me that the only way to compete with it was to make something of equal or better quality and sell it for less money. I've spent years buying up OC44s from the four corners of the globe to get that little bit of extra authenticity. I literally bought a powder coating setup and learned to powder coat, to make my enclosures just a little more durable. And from day one I offered this additional authenticity, equal features, and comparable quality for less money. This is not a knock on Analog Man, but a testament to how good he is. Thankfully some folks took a chance on us, and recognized that value. This helped us build a reputation as providing great pedals that are a great value.

In addition to value, we are also committed to values. And that rests on our commitment to total customer satisfaction. I'd rather eat every dollar I spend making a pedal than leave someone dissatisfied or give them a substandard product. Doing anything less will catch up to you and keep you up at night. I've only ever had one issue with a pedal I built and it was a Free Range Chicken I sold to a guy in France. The 3 way switch crapped out on him a week after he got it. He seemed hesitant to even ask if there was anything I could do. I ended up sending the pedal back and forth to France twice before everything was worked out and he was totally satisfied. This ended up costing more than he paid for the pedal. But in the end he was so grateful and so sold on our brand that he bought another pedal a week later. I think there is a belief that doing things like this will lead to people abusing it. I have never found this to be true, and furthermore believe that if you have that much contempt for the people who support you, then why even be in the business. Our customers are the reason we exist and we will do whatever it takes to satisfy them. It starts with providing them value, and it ends with treating them like people instead of just an ATM.

How do you start on a new pedal?

New ideas usually come on a whim or from a new crush I may have on some person or sound.

Because I have some experience with the systematic principles common to all product development (I've worked in everything from tires, to paint, to nuclear medicine), we can prototype and launch a new pedal in about a month. The stepwise process is pretty innate to me so it generally moves along quickly. But this is often gated by my motivation and a hesitation to take on too much at the expense of providing great value and service to our existing products.

California Valveworks Bone TenderHow do you name your pedals?

I already provided the backstory on the Free Range Chicken name. Obviously the Fried Chicken came from it being a 'crispier' version of the FRC. The Bone Tender is based on the Tone Bender so obviously that's just word play. The same with calling our new Big Muff clone the Furr Burger, though I admit its a little crude. And Daddy 2.O (Danelectro Daddy O mod) doesn't take much explaining either.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Every single pedal we make is hand built by me, inside and out. Call it a labor of love. It sounds crazy, and its not the most efficient model, but we've never had a return or a dissatisfied customer in 5 years.

Our Free Range Chicken and Fried Chicken treble boosts are both hand wired on a 6 lug terminal circuit faithful to the original Dallas Rangemaster. We also use vintage Mullard OC44s and Texas Instruments CV7003s for maximum authenticity. All other components are industry standard including Switchcraft Jacks, Alpha Pots, Mountain toggle switches etc.

We use standard size enclosures purchased from Small Bear Electronics. We powder coat all of our enclosures, which is much more durable than paint, and do most of this work in house. Our logo graphics are designed in house and printed onto transfer paper, applied to the enclosures then coated with 3-5 layers of clearcoat. While this has some disadvantages over traditional screen printing, it does allow graphics to retain their integrity and appearance under heavy use and wear.

Where PCBs are used, we typically get our boards from Francisco Pena at Tonepad. Francisco makes highly authentic, high quality boards that we see no reason to try to improve upon. This frees up more time to apply our own tricks and tweaks.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I'll answer that question with a question. How important is the look of your wife or girlfriend? 'Nuff said.

Is parts selection important?

I've covered much of this already, but again we aim to use the highest quality components, in delivering the most authentic product. Even at that, passive components are cheap and costs are not a big consideration in doing this. Without question scouring the world for good Mullard OC44s requires the most effort and consideration. For anything that is widely available like switches, pots, etc, we simply go with industry standard or above. Pretty straightforward.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

Without question the Free Range Chicken is closest to my heart because it is where we started. It represents our brand by being creative in some ways, highly authentic in others, and overall a superior value even amongst its many peers.

Surprisingly our Daddy 2.O mod has been our most successful venture. Its a simple mod, but it does a lot for an otherwise great pedal with just a few shortcomings. We have multiple album credits from them and hundreds of satisfied customers.

Perhaps our most famous pedal is relatively unknown even to longtime customers. It is our one-off ValveScreamer X2, built custom for Eric Sargent. It features two independent TS8 circuits in a single enclosure. One is modded, one is not. Each circuit has a separate footswitch and independent controls for switching between symmetrical or asymmetrical clipping. This pedal has been a staple of Eric's sound for some 4 years, and through countless gigs on big stages, has never had a single issue. It's pretty massive and looks super cool. Furthermore since he no longer had a need for his old tube screamer that I had modded for him, he gave it to Steve Sweeney, Hookah's legendary lead guitarist. Steve's been using that Tube Screamer for years without issue and loves it. Though to this day he doesn't even know it was modded by us and I've never told him. We don't make a point of trying to taking credit for other people's sound. We're just happy they chose us, and if they're happy with our stuff, we hope they tell others. But these are the two biggest names using our pedals on a nightly basis. So if you ever go to a Hookah show, you will likely hear a lot of our products at work. California Valveworks Fried Chicken

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

Our pedals are pretty simple by comparison. I won't even try to act like anything we do is complex in the grand scheme of things. There are pedals out there that blow my mind, and are far beyond anything we would endeavor to do. I'll just tip my hat to those guys. We make simple pedals and try to make them as good as possible. This is a labor of love and more enjoyable than tough.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Daddy 2.O mod. Mostly because the Daddy O is pretty good to start with and we help it realize its true potential. Being a product of 2 great pedal makers logically makes it a winner.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I like to stick to clones of classic effects used by my rock heroes. I choose to do one (or a few) thing and do it well. There are so many great new pedals out there, and so many creative minds behind them, I'd wear myself out trying to keep up with those Joneses. We aim to stick to a few pedals and mods and make them the absolute best. This comes from a combination of my taste and business experience.

What does the future of California Valveworks look like?

I am a serial entrepreneur and as such California Valveworks has never been fully brought to fruition. We have never stopped making or developing pedals, but have moved to a leaner "made to order" model. This allows us to keep the business maintained, while affording customers a more 'custom' experience when ordering pedals.

Are you working on any new products?

We are in the process of producing a small run of Free Range Chickens to commemorate their 5th anniversary. We also plan to offer a Big Muff Pi clone, the Furr Burger on a made to order basis, as well as our Valve Screamer 809, which allows switching between both TS8 and TS9 circuits and symmetrical and asymmetrical clipping. Basically a TS8, TS9, and Boss OD-1 in a single box.

Look for this and other updates to our website in the near future.

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