[interview] Steve McKinley Electronics: Steve McKinley

Here's FXDB's interview with Steve McKinley of Steve McKinley Electronics:

How did Steve McKinley Electronics start?

Actually, it was the part of the never-ending tone mining going upstream from tube amps. I started tinkering with tube amps since around '98 and later opened Atlanta Tube Amp, which I still run. But if you have an amp tweaked to its peak and you put a lackluster pedal in front of it, the amp's sonic glory gets pretty much whipped out. So in the early 2000s I dove into pedals head first. I learned about crucial components like a treble booster's transistor and the impact of different diodes, all good stuff. So it made sense to start hotrodding pedals and create new ones and is when Steve McKinley Electronics was born in '05. I've always kicked around ideas with my old buddy, Jean-Claude Escudie, who runs Hottie Guitars. He knows guitars like few do and I greatly respect his opinion.

An amazing thing about our information age is the easy access to the past and present so inspiration can come from past great minds like Lee De Forest, Everrett Hull and Leo Fender, ground shakers like Mike Mathews, Jim Marshall and Randall Smith and current day contenders like Bruce Zinky, Jean-Claude Escudie and Scott Splawn (Splawn Guitars).

Where do the name and logo come from?

I believe that true innovation and advancement comes from individuals and not so much from committees or groups. That at the heart of almost all great entities is what I call "the old man", the one who was inspired and dedicated to making it work. There's plenty of examples like Leo Fender, Everrett Hull, Jim Marshall, Randall Smith, et al. So I wanted people to know that a person is behind SME and what I have to offer.

The McKinley script font, which serves as the logo, is clear, easy to identify but shows that there's more under the hood than a stock motor. So when people see the McKinley logo it's a tip that there's some potent sonic formula brewing.

What sets Steve McKinley Electronics apart from other builders?

There is no question that there are top quality builders out there from Mike Piera to Robert Keeley and Mike Fuller so delivering quality is a given, without it and you won't even get out of the gate. Where I've found success is in listening. Listening to what people are after and helping them get it. From thunder chunk chords to soaring lead tones, it's about making it happen. When you see the smile on the player's face when they hear their sonic nirvana, you know you did good.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Wow, I lay away thinking about this stuff all the time. I'm not about creating another tube screamer clone as that's pretty well covered ground so I focus on pushing the limits and taking things further or in a different direction than what was previously done. The great thing about inspiration and that it can come from anywhere and at anytime. Like the scene in Amadeus where the woman is raising cain with him and from it he derived an opera. But when I get a solid idea I think about its applications and impact. From there I work to get to a sweet spot and there beyond to where I'll come back knowing that it's truly the right circuit. From there I'll prototype and get them into the hands of some trusted players for their input. Usually there's various tweaking but eventually it comes to a finished product. Needless to say it's not a fast process as you want to get it right, you can usually spot pedals that were rushed.

How do you name your pedals?

There's a story behind every name. With the Blonde, Brunette and Redhead it's like having three girlfriends who are always eager to please. But beyond the stories there's the responsibility to have the name give identity and character. A bad name can doom a great pedal while a great name can make a pedal legendary.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

As a one man show, I do it all... from soup to nuts.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

As previously mentioned that passive tone control was a personal milestone so I'll keep that one forever. Creating the Blonde, Brunette and Redhead mods for the BOSS DS-1 was a lot of fun and they all have their own temperament and personality. They blew the doors open for a number of other mods. But the Flexi-Quad was a crowning achievement for me because it's every wah I've ever wanted. It's common for me to dial it up differently and keep on experimenting. I'm as proud of the failures as I am the successes because without them, you won't have the others.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I don't focus or categorize to specific groups because it's not uncommon to find someone doing something new or using a pedal in a way different than intended. For example, I've found one of my high gain pedals to be popular with guitarists who play in church, go figure. I have little old lady customers from down the street and have shipped pedals worldwide so orders come from everywhere.

The great thing about notable artists is that most are pretty down to earth, regular guys but with superhuman guitar playing skills. Granted there are some goofballs but put a guitar in their hands and KER-POW, you get it. I would like to note some great players I've had the pleasure of making pedals for... the late Frank Moates (Atlanta Vintage Guitar), Greg Georgeson (Tommy Tutone), Chip Flynn on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label, Jerry Sorn (The Byrds), Kevin Kinney & Mac Carter (Drivin N Cryin) and lately for Joel Kosche (Collective Soul). All cool guys who play amazing well. I point out Joel as he built his own part Vox / part Marshall Sugarfuzz amps and some of his own guitars, who sound jaw-droppingly good. With Frank Moates, for most who knew him they have a "Frank" story, I'm no exception. He grilled me thoroughly about the Redhead I loaned him to try out, which he later bought. Even afterwards he'd interogate me about it which was his way of giving it a thumbs up. I heard from outside sources that he used it regulary with his trusty vintage Reverb-O-Rocket. RIP Frank, you played good.

What does the future of Steve McKinley Electronics look like?

The current state of SME is that I'm very excited about the future as I have a various creations to bring to light. There are number of repeat customers who have custom work requests which allow me to fly under the radar and have some fun making some cool circuits. I recently had a Flexi-Quad Wah guitar competition, which went really well and there were some smokin' guitar players, so I'll probably have more events, which are a lot of fun and allow players to shine.

Are you working on any new products?

I've always got something brewing. It's usually a matter of getting it past the prototype stage, that's where the bottleneck happens.

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