[interview] Lenahan: James Lenahan

Here's FXDB's interview with James Lenahan of Lenahan:

How did Lenahan start?

When I was about six years old, I saw the Rolling Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show. I thought they were much cooler than The Beatles, and had a cool, bad-boy/bluesman type of image. They were the first ones that I heard use a "Fuzz Tone". I also saw Big Brother And The Holding Co. about that time, who were pretty psychedelic. I wanted that sound. About this time, because of my Father's job, we were transferred from Memphis, our home town, to Detroit. As fate would have it, The MC5 lived in our neighborhood, Lincoln Park. This is where I first saw Marshall amps, white Gibson SG/Les Pauls and heard the most rebellious Rock guitar tones on Earth. My uncle had a TV shop back in Memphis, and I was there every summer hanging out with him, looking at tubes, etc. I was trying to describe the sounds I wanted to make on my own guitar. No one seemed to know what I was talking about. Then an engineer friend of ours gave me a Heathkit catalog that had a fuzz-tone kit in it. I scrounged-up the money and ordered one. My uncle let me use his tools and a bench, and I built the kit. It sounded so good to me that I started learning everything I could about musical electronics. I've been building stuff ever since. I didn't start building stuff for sale until I was a little older and had taken some electronics classes at a community college. When I moved to Los Angeles, I got an education about musical electronics that money just cannot buy. It was in Hollywood that I first started trying to sell my pedals and amps. I did tons of repairs and mods, guitar repairs, you name it. Hollywood taught me "How it's done", and as I said, you can't buy that kind of knowledge.

My uncle helped me get started and answered a lot of questions I had as a child, but he definitely didn't approve of what I was trying to do. Once I showed him the first Jimi Hendrix album, he kind of wrote me off, if you know what I mean. So, I started collecting every guitar amplifier schematic I could find, and studied them until I fell asleep every night. I still do this a lot. LOL. Later, when I moved to L.A., I worked at some electronics places, selling tubes, capacitors, TV parts, etc. Some of the old, ex-Navy WWII guys I worked with would look at the schematics I'd bring to work and answer all my questions. As time went on, stars and big names in the music business would eventually come in and I'd start pestering them. A lot of the electronics shops in L.A. then were really hip and I learned insane amounts of information from installers, studio owners, rock stars, etc. I was fortunate to be in L.A. during Rock's last hurrah, so to speak. It's so different now. Kind of sad, really. London's the same way. I also learned that it pays to do your work in a totally professional manner and do it better than everyone else. Some people whom I worked with and/or became friends with who really inspired me to do the best job I can include: Howard Alexander Dumble (just the coolest guy in the world); Michael J. Soldano and Bill Sundt (from Soldano amplification); Obeid Khan (a very cool guy from Ampeg/Crate/St. Louis Music); Richard Oblinger (R.I.P. I miss you, OBE! A keeper of Leo's secrets); Gary Hurst (Sola Sound, an artist). A lot of insight can be gained from working with/playing with guitarists. These guys have lots of gear and know lots of people who are artists and innovators: Terry Reid (his voice is a GIFT from above, but he also knows EVERYBODY); David Lindley (I wouldn't know where to start...), Jackson Browne (a TRUE gear head...), the list goes on and on. As I mentioned, I was really lucky I moved to L.A. when I did.

Where do the name and logo come from?

"Lenahan" is my last name. It is Gaelic, the original Irish language. At this point in time, it was simpler just to use my name on my products. Also, if it's got my name on it, it has to sound great and last a long time, because I want to stand behind my work. So, it's a professional thing.

The Lenahan logo has changed several times, and it may indeed not even look like a logo to some people. The type of lettering I use was inspired by some old British gear that's not too well known. I thought it looked professional and neat. That type of type set or what they now call a "font" was part of what made some of the gear from the 1970's look cool, to me, anyway. I'd also seen this type of lettering used at formula car races in the U.K.

What sets Lenahan apart from other builders?

Philosophy for sure. I want to make the best stuff out there. I want people to say, "That's a Lenahan, you know you can count on it for reliability and great sound."

My stuff is built like a tank. Now, I know there are people out there who are talented, they can tear-up a steel ball with a rubber hammer. I try to avoid those people. However, I've had less than 1% returns on any of my products, and they were due to accidents or abuse. One guy, for example, plugged the output of his Marshall head---the speaker outputs---into the input of one of my booster pedals. The inside of the pedal looked like charcoal. I can't help people like that. Lol.

How do you start on a new pedal?

New ideas/designs usually come to me in the middle of the night while I'm sleeping. It's always been that way.

The names are pretty easy for me. I have a university degree in rhetoric and writing and I've studied a lot of languages, etc. Also, I've been involved in the music thing for so long that an appropriate name will usually pop-up. 

At this point, I can possibly go from inception to production in a day to a few months. Sometimes, I'll experiment with the cosmetics for awhile. It's got to LOOK cool, you know... LOL.

How do you name your pedals?

Well, the Psychotic Snatch is probably self-explanatory. LOL. Really, most of the names allude to what the pedal does electronically, so it's pretty deep as to where the names come from sometimes.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I build absolutely everything one at a time by myself. I'm not set-up as an assembly line, nor do I have the time to teach people what amounts to 1940's U.S. Navy electronics technology. Since I'm responsible for my stuff, I do it myself.

Some of my pedal circuits are hand-wired, but some almost certainly must use a PCB because of their complexity. I do as much hand-wiring as possible. The amplifiers are all discrete parts and hard-wired like the old days.

The pedal enclosures are cast aluminum, and are powder-coated for durability. I use the absolute best parts possible: Switchcraft jacks, etc. Nothing but the best, with no cutting corners. It has my name on it, so it has to be the best work I can do. Out there tonight is a musician who is using something with my name on it. I cannot let him down.

How important is the look of your pedals?

VERY important. I have a lot of trouble representing them photographically, as they usually look way better in person. They were always neat and clean, but over the years I'd say they've become better-looking cosmetically. Especially with the new powder-coatings that are available today.

How important is parts selection?

My years of working in the electronic parts industry enabled me to learn a lot about the parts I was selling from big-time engineers in the music business. They would ask for certain things and then tell me why they wanted a specific part and what it was made of, etc. Most people never get to hear about this kind of thing, but since I was surrounded by major recording studios, I was immersed in it. As I've mentioned, you can't buy this information for ANY amount of money.

Which of your pedals was your t

oughest build?

Probably one of my Triple Effects pedals. Mainly because of the sheer amount of parts and labor involved. You know, on this type of stuff, you have to have many years of experience, both in fabrication and in parts buying. It takes a very long time to learn all of this. It's a mixed-bag of skills and you must be dedicated to it, or you'll most likely never get there.

Technically the most challenging would probably be something like a compressor. There is a whole lot going on in even the most "simple" compressor. Getting it to act right and sound right at the same time can be a challenge. 

Which of your pedals is most popular?

The biggest seller I ever had was the Clean Boost. I sold hundreds of those all over the world. It stood out because it looked great and was a very simple idea. Couple that with the build quality and the price and I had a winner on my hands. I remember having trouble keeping up with production on that one. Those are the kinds of problems to have!

The next most popular was my take on a modified Tube Screamer called the 808. VERY popular. Those take too long to build, in my opinion, especially at the price I was selling them for. As far as labor versus income, the Clean Boost was a winner.

One weird thing I've noticed: I'll get emails asking for a particular pedal from several people at once. Then, a few months later, the same thing will happen but they'll want a different pedal. It's like a certain model of pedal will get popular, then a different pedal will get popular. It's a strange occurrence.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I suppose you could say my products are aimed at a specific set of folks, classic rockers, maybe.

Some pop artists have used my stuff. Even bands like Mercury Rev, which would be hard to categorize.

Let's say that the intelligentsia of music tend to really like my stuff.

I couldn't tell you the first famous user of one of my pedals or mods, because I lived in Hollywood at the time and I met so many famous people. Since I don't trade gear for the right to use someone's name, I'd better steer clear of that. I've been paid for my work and that's how that works.

What does the future of Lenahan look like?

My short-term goal are to keep building a few things as I see fit. I'm currently focusing on vintage-type designs, as that seems to be what sells. The modified, high-gain amp thing no longer interests me, and it appears that it doesn't interest nearly as many people as it once did. At this point, I tend to get requests from individuals who ask me to build them something. As far as building as many units as I possibly can, and hoping to sell them, no. The economy is horrendous at this point in time, and the impetus to be in a band isn't anything like it was years ago. I still build my stuff for professional use and I have had maybe two units returned for repair out of all the products I have built over the years. Any returns I have received were from abuse, and not because of the way they were built. This is what I am most proud of. I am a very busy person, so I don't build things as frantically as I did in the past, but that may be a good thing. However, I have never ended production entirely, and I don't plan to ever stop.

Are you working on any new products?

Constantly. I'm always experimenting, thinking, etc. As far as what they are, or when you can expect them: the beauty of working the way I do is that I don't have any deadlines with regards to developing new products. I just do it when I feel like it. I feel you get a better product in the end.

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