[interview] HipKitty Products: Neal Logdahl

Here's FXDB's interview with Neal Logdahl of HipKitty Products:

How did HipKitty Products start?

I (Neal) was tweaking on tube guitar amplifiers back in the late 70's and learning along the way. Back then, Electro-Harmonix was making a splash in the stomp box world. Of course, I had several EH effects. They were very prone to cold solder joints, which I'd fix for myself and my friends. I'd look at the circuits and think that it was cool for someone to have the ability to create a circuit to do the things that these things did. At that time, I had no other access to electronics education other than what was in my local library (and later on, my stepfather's), so I'd check out books and learn what I could. Over time, I accumulated enough working knowledge of tube amplifiers and their designs by doing hands-on repair/mods and reading that I had a "light-bulb" moment... why not design a simple stereo headphone amplifier from what I know in tube knowledge, but translate the design into solid state. This became a project that I'd work out in my free time and when I had down time as a EMT and Paramedic in rural Pennsylvania. I had success. My next thought was to design a pedal that I could use with my Fender Champ during my band rehearsals. I wanted to have the clean of the Champ, but needed an overdrive and a lead sound. Again, working it out in my free and down times, I succeeded. This was what became our Java Distortion. This lead to requests from friends, and friends of friends and the word of mouth spread that I was building these more than rehearsing.

I had no help from the outside... only motivation from my friends that I've acquired over the years. I try to work the other direction that the mainstream builds. In other words, I don't want to copy or do what everyone else is doing and I work hard to design gear that separates itself from the group. This has it's ups and downs... many are not welcome to change. My latest amp design is a good example. Every amp designer around me seems to be shooting for the 5 watt/lower wattage amp designs. When this became apparent, I was wrapping up my 25 watt combo design. I made a firm commitment not to follow the pack, so I decided a 100 watt head was in order. Again, I don't do copies, so I thought, what guitar tones influenced me as a player in my early years? It was easy to answer... Mick Jones' early Foreigner tones and early ZZ Top/Billy Gibbons. Billy's early tones can be recreated with amps on the market already, but Mick's weren't.....this was where I was headed.

Where do the name and logo come from?

I love (New York-style) cool-jazz music. The term "Hip Cat" was applied to Jazz fans of the 50's that frequented the Greenwich Village Jazz Clubs. Later on the term "Beatnik" was applied as well. My father-in-law was one of those "Hip Cats", so I learned the "Hip Cat" culture from him. When pushed by my friends and acquaintances to start a business doing what I was doing as a hobby, the name HipKitty (no separation of Hip and Kitty) came to my mind quickly.

A good friend and fellow guitar technician designed the logo that we have to this day. It replaced a very rudimentary drawn cat's head with extended whiskers that Toni had hand drawn and was on our pedals for approximately 5 years. We have been offered to have the logo redesigned, but each time it comes up, we query our friends, clients and dealers and get the feedback to not make a change, it's too unique.

What sets HipKitty Products apart from other builders?

I think the designs, appearance (for the most part) and pedal construction (hand-etched pcb's). It's my understanding that HipKitty is the only true boutique amp company that has a signature amp for an artist at the level of Mick Jones.

How do you start on a new pedal?

I have "light bulb" moments and dwell on them in my head until I'm ready to put the idea to paper and then to the R&D stage.

How do you name your pedals?

Names are generally something that I turn to Toni for and then bounce what I'm thinking back at her until a name is decided on.

  • Java Distortion: I love coffee and the eclectic mind frame of the company made it a perfect name....it was the first "Java" pedal on the streets.
  • Cream Distortion: cream goes with Java....and the sound is smooth as well.
  • Chameleon: this pedal does more than just one trick so it was fitting....out long before a "Chameleon guitar" from a certain guitar company that I used to work for.
  • Kitty Box amp: Kitty from HipKitty and the fact that the amp is a fairly dirty amp.
  • Ocotillo amp: it's a desert plant that when the dry of the summer, it's thorns and skeleton is all you see...when the rain comes, it becomes a beautiful, lush green plant.
  • HeadKnocker amp: the Mick Jones signature amp... Kelly Hansen of Foreigner threw this name out and everyone connected loved it... Mick included.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Everything is done in-house except our amp cabinets. I'm the only builder.

We hand-wire our pedals and amps. We hand-etch our pcb's for our pedals and use turret board construction in our amps. The pedal enclosures are hand drilled and hand painted pieces of art. The only decal is the HipKitty "cat" icon on back. Again, doing something different from the pack, only control and jack labels that are hand painted are on the viewable parts of the enclosures...the rest is on the bottom. We did this so a guitar player will be engaged by inquiring minds... "What's that?".

How important is the look of your pedals?

It used to set us apart from the mainstream. Now, there are tons of hand painted effects out there. It's our heritage and for the sake of the art aspect, we have to keep it... besides, it has become a trademark look for us. Here again, some "get" the art, some don't.. .unfortunately.

How important is parts selection?

Important, without a doubt. I hand select each part for tolerances. Our transformers are custom spec, proprietary to us.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The first pedal... the Java Distortion... it was the pedal that proved my own theories can work out. At that time, there weren't any 3-channel distortions on the streets (there are now though). Bob Watkins and Rick White of the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies were my first endorsers.

Which of your pedals is your toughest build?

I'd say that the Glaze's R&D was the toughest. I already had a linear boost in our line... I didn't want linear, getting there took about a year.

Which of your pedals is your most popular product?

Our most popular as of right now is our Glaze. It's such a unique boost pedal and an remarkable achievement for me. It's a boost that doesn't boot the lows, yet boosts the mids and upper frequencies without being harsh or brittle. As of right now, we are unaware of anything like it on the streets.

Our second most popular (currently) is the Oxblood Distortion. It's a funny unit simply because there's forum opinion that it is a "Vox box"... cleans included. It's a true distortion; a design that I was trying to capture my old sound (from the 70's) of a Vox AC15 with an EH LPB1 plugged into it. There is not really any clean involved. In fact, my goal was to nail that tone and make a big amp turn into a small one. I achieved that goal, but it became a love it or hate it pedal because other pedals of the Vox-tone realm provided boosted output levels, mine didn't by design. Here again, some will "get" the pedal, others won't.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I make true boutique stuff. It puts our stuff into a niche market, but that's true art. I know the kids that frequent certain large music stores might not "get" what our stuff is about... and we've taken hits over the years by these kids in different forums... but players with ears will "get" the stuff. No offense to anyone.

We have several famous users. There is one pedal design that I've built for three separate artists... only 3 exist, it's THAT good. I can't put ALL of my good stuff out for main production sale... this design is an incredibly warm, harmonically enriched overdrive that I'll build only if asked.

"It's the BEST pedal I have" Blake Martin, A Plea For Purging (Custom pedal)

"Without my HipKitty Java, I wouldn't be me" Bob Watkins, Screaming Cheetah Wheelies (Java Distortion)

"Outrageous!" Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top (Java Distortion)

"Best described in one word as "musical," the amp massages the ears with a timbered voice fit for the angels." Tom Kettler (Ocotillo amp)

"So 'in your face'" Jeff King, Nashville studio ace, Reba McEntire (Chameleon)

"Buy if: you want a magical tone machine that can transform itself into just about any flavor at any volume" Steve Ouimette from a Premier Guitar review (Kitty Box amp)

"It turns my $1,000.00 amp into a $5,000.00 boutique amp" Joe Vest, Big Joe's Guitarworks (Glaze)

What does the future of HipKitty Products look like?

Though I currently don't have the 900 sq/ft shop (it's now a 350 sq/ft shop in our current location), HipKitty keeps moving forward. Some health issues put a kink in it's progress, but we still move forward. I see these things as a challenge to overcome.

Our short term goals are to find a farmette with a small barn that can be made into the shop.

Long term goals, simply get our name better known, but still remain a true boutique company. Get some overseas distribution in Asia.

Are you working on any new products?

We are working on some new finishes on our pedal line, just to shake things up. Looking at revisiting a "glitch" pedal we used to have years ago and a analog delay design that's been on paper for years

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