As Fender itself will admit, the company has been a bit of a dilettante in the pedal space—not from a lack of innovation or manufacturing, but certainly from the standpoint of “we’re in the game to stay.”
“We’ll do a really cool pedal, and then 20 years later, we’ll do another one,” says Fender vice president of product innovation Stan Cotey. “There’s always a big gap in-between.”
But Fender is finally hitting the stompbox adventure with all burners set to hyperspace. Cotey is marshalling a series of six pedals this year, with a commitment to grow the line. In addition, these are completely new designs, and not clones of the obvious choices. Cotey devised each pedal—with the exception of an overdrive that was developed by Alex Aguilar—from his personal “wish list” as a lifelong guitarist looking for sonic solutions. Unlike many of us, Cotey actually has the engineering chops to build his dreams.
“I love designing, so I would just work on projects for fun,” he says. “Sometimes, I’d drag them to the office, and they’d turn into products. So I had this labor of love doing a bunch of pedal designs, and the executives decided it was finally time to come up with enough pedals to build a line and really gain momentum. No one wanted to tread the same ground we covered before by going in and out of the market.”
Cotey’s “educated tinkerer” approach to design is apparent in the signal-processing schemes he sought to amend, re-engineer, or completely rethink for the pedal line.
“As a guitarist, I like the squishiness of stompbox compressors,” he says, “but the slow attack time of some models bugs me, because your attack can overshoot the processor, clip the amp, and produce a burst of noise at the front of the note. I want to play quietly, and then slam a chord, and have the compressor grab it quietly. So The Bends compressor has a precision peak protector with a really fast, complex circuit that’s much better behaved.
“The Level Set Buffer may not be everyone’s idea of a pedal to include in the initial release, but it was something I wanted to do because I change guitars a lot—from Teles to Strats to some things with lipstick pickups or humbuckers—and I was always adjusting the level of my amps, or the gain settings of the pedals downstream. In addition to being a good front-of-chain buffer, I added Level and Hi-Frequency controls to the Level Set Buffer to allow for different guitar input levels and tones.
“For the Pugilist, my thinking started with that green overdrive that everybody loves, because it leaks a bit of the clean signal along with the diode-clipped distortion. That’s neat, because it gives you some clarity. Of course, if you switch to a louder guitar, you can’t control the proportions of the clean and clipped tones, and the overdrive sounds different to me. But I like the complexity of that circuit, and I’ve always liked blending multiple amps, so I thought about having two separate distortion engines inside the Pugilist. Then, you can set separate gains and tonal balances, and blend between the two sounds—say, bright and clean on one, and dark and grainy on the other. It’s gets a bit more three-dimensional and complex—power, sustain, and clarity!
“I went for a mixed-bypass scheme for the Marine Layer Reverb and Mirror Image Delay to preserve the reverb and delay tails, as well as a Dry Kill switch for amps with parallel effects loops, in order to keep the dry signal entirely in the amp.”
Although Aguilar is more known for bass products, he is actually a fantastic guitar player, and his current position at Fender opened the door for a “pedal partnership” with Cotey.
“I love what he did with the Santa Ana Over-drive,” says Cotey. “He included a stabilized 20-volt internal power supply that allows the FETs to operate consistently, and with more dynamic range than a simple 9-volt supply. There’s also an A/B voicing switch for working with amps that aren’t traditionally pedal friendly, and a footswitchable boost that can be assigned pre or post.”
Despite the big-company support, Cotey is often sitting at a garage workbench overcrowded with wires, sketches, transistors, and soldering guns—just like most emerging boutique builders.
“Yes, I work for Fender, and, yes, I need to deliver a successful pedal line,” he says. “But everything I do is still driven by curiosity. It always starts with, ‘What happens if I do this?’”