Circuit Bending: Joe Gore Talks his Boutique Pedal Designs

A master guitarist, a fantastic writer, an ever-curious tone fiend and now a boutique pedal tinkerer. GP sits down with Joe Gore.
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I’ve worked with Joe Gore at Guitar Player, spent some time in the studio with him, watched him play gigs here and there, and consider him a friend, but the dude still surprises me. Just when I thought I had him appropriately categorized in one of my mental file folders as a master guitarist, a fantastic writer, an ever-curious tone fiend, and an overall cool guy, he goes and transforms himself into a boutique pedal tinkerer, and then builds a bona fide company around his designs. I guess I need another folder.

While Gore Pedals still have the rough-hewn, mad-scientist look of something fashioned from his grandpa’s workbench, both Gore’s early DIY builds and the current factory-produced models have received fave reviews from GP and other publications, and they are used by top players such as Richard Fortus, David Torn, and Mike Keneally. Here’s a peek into his pedal process…

What triggered your interest in building stompboxes?

I went into it completely ass-backwards. I’d designed thousands of digital sounds for Apple, other clients, and my own use, often mimicking and mutating analog tones. Only later did I pick up a soldering iron.

I don’t believe you have an engineering degree, so how did achieve the circuit knowledge to start making this stuff?

I consulted old schematics, and I relied on the collective knowledge of the DIY stompbox community—especially freestompboxes.org. After 100 or so clone builds, you’ve inevitably concocted your own mutants and hybrids. I don’t sell clones, but I couldn’t have created anything fresh without having studied them.

When you started out, were you looking to fill a specific niche?

Yes. It was a very specific niche—sh*t I wanted the ones that no one made. After using pedals since the Pleistocene, interviewing countless players for guitar mags, and reviewing decades’ worth of stompboxes, there were still missing pieces for me. My jumping-off points are usually extant circuit topologies, but my designs can jump pretty far from their origins.

For example, my Cult pedal grew out of a fascination with the Dallas Rangemaster, but Cult sounds nothing like a Rangemaster, or any other overdrive I know. I loved the crackling presence of that minimal, single-germanium-transistor circuit, but I didn’t want a treble boost, per se, so I redid the input filtering. The original Gain control only sounds great cranked, so I reworked that, too, and I situated it at a different point in the circuit. Now every Gain-knob position sounds good. And while the original has phenomenal dynamic response, I tried to make it even more extreme. I got it to the point where rolling back your guitar’s Volume knob yields a sound nearly identical to bypass. So it’s a tonal expander. You have access to the normal range of the guitar Volume knob, while the knob’s upper reaches transition to harmonically rich, ultra-present distortion. In the end, after 20-some iterations, not a single part value was the same as on the Rangemaster, and the topology had mutated. But I never would have gotten to the Cult were it not for the Rangemaster.

That’s pretty typical for me. I steal from the past, but I strive to take what I’ve stolen in fresh directions. I won’t claim these are improvements or corrections, but they work better for me, and, I hope, a few other players.

As the designer, what elements do you feel make Gore Pedals unique?

It’s dangerous to claim you’re unique, because there are lots of pedals out there. But I never sell anything unless I believe it does something no other pedal does. I’ve aborted several projects when other builders beat me to them. One example was Carolina’s Olympia—a brilliant Big Muff variant. Another was Catalinbread’s Katzenkönig, which grafted an ’80s tone stack onto a ’60s fuzz. I wish those were my designs!

I definitely have particular obsessions, though. One is dynamic response. If I change my touch or guitar settings even slightly, I want to hear a dramatic change in the effect. Another is control range. On many pedals, you use only a small section of a knob’s range. I often restrict and fine-tune potentiometer ranges to yield usable sounds in all possible positions. I avoid energy-sucking passive tone controls, providing tonal variation via input filtering and biasing tricks. I fixate on relatively low-gain distortion, because, to my ear, many pedals are too gainy. Finally, because of my digital background, I emphasize effects where the digital equivalents remain relatively weak. This includes, for example, octave fuzz, vibrato, and almost anything involving germanium transistors.

How much experimentation and refinement goes into each build?

It’s always a long process of experimentation. I lack the engineering smarts to predict exactly what will happen if I alter a circuit—just like many electrical engineers lack the playing and recording smarts to know when they’re onto something cool. It can take me an embarrassingly long time to refine and troubleshoot. Fortunately, there are audiobooks. If I were a proper engineer, I’d probably never have made it through Anna Karenina.

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