Throwing Star Wars, retro video games and other vintage nerd culture designs on the enclosures of guitar pedals would probably be a hell of a good marketing strategy regardless of the quality of the products. People would likely flock to a Mortal Kombat-themed fuzz/overdrive combo, a distortion box named after The Shining, or anything with the Death Star as the phases of the moon on it — and that’s before they even get to the Ron Fucking Swanson Super Fuzz.
But Matt Shea of IdiotBox Effects wasn’t willing to settle for nostalgic sales.
Instead, the one-man operation gave up his career as an accountant to fill those unforgettable enclosures with some unique options that no one else in the industry is doing.
The aforementioned MK Fuzz Drive? It’s Shea’s take on a Big Muff fuzz and a Klon-like overdrive in one pedal with two footswitches — but with an extra toggle that allows the user to swap which one comes first when they’re both on. The Redrum? A RAT/HM-2 hybrid that provides a unique blend of two of the most popular heavy distortion pedals and makes them controllable with a single knob. But above all, the most identifiable IdiotBox product is the No Moon, the Death Star-themed mega-pedal that includes Shea’s Big Muff, Tube Screamer and RAT all in one enclosure — complete with individual controls and each running in parallel rather than one into another.
SPIN spoke with the Texas-based builder about nostalgia, standing out from the pack and his journey into the pedal-building scene.
SPIN: What was your path to getting into building some very unique pedals?
Matt Shea: I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with crap. I was the kid who knew how to fix the VCR and all that kind of stuff. So I started by making these super simple little noise boxes and putting them in old Atari controllers and such. Then I’d do a YouTube video for it, someone would buy it for like $25, and I’d build another. I’ve played guitar since 9th grade but was never really a pedal dude — especially back in the ‘90s when you just had whatever got left behind or your friend’s brother stole from somebody. So when I started doing those squarewave boxes, I was basically just figuring it out as I went. I learned I could use an oscillator to turn the signal on and off, and I knew from working on video games and stuff that those chips were powerful enough to really change the signal, and that was how the DeathRay came about. It was this weird squarewave filter, gated fuzz thing, and people saw it on YouTube and started getting really into it.
I remember sitting in my office trying to come up with a name for it because I’d just decided to go for it. I’d just made a connection that could get my stuff carried at a store in Chicago, and things just went from there with YouTube. I just kept getting hit up to do more, and I felt like my desk job was killing me. I was about to turn 40 at the time, and I was like “Man, if I turn 40 at this desk, I’m gonna die here.” I didn’t feel like I was really built for that, so I was just trying to do anything else and find any kind of side hustle I could. Then one day, my wife told me “Just fucking quit and we’ll figure it out.”
What made you want to go with the heavy Star Wars and video game artwork and such for your pedals?
I’m insanely nostalgic. I love old movies, Atari games, arcade machines, pinball machines and all that kind of stuff. I really dig that pop art style, like on the Cool Buzz Bass Fuzz with Spicoli [from Fast Times at Ridgemont High]. It’s just all stuff I think is cool, and it’s kind of a part of who I am. I’ve asked friends when I’ve been in pivotal moments and thought “Is this stuff too goofy? Should it look more like a serious piece of equipment?” But everyone seemed to like it and told me to just keep doing it. I always try to make sure that the outside is relevant to the inside, like the Lost Ark has a graphic from the Indiana Jones Atari 2600 game, and it sounds just like a retro video game.
How did you decide to do some big combination pedals like the No Moon, which is basically an entire dirt board in one enclosure?
Well, I was thinking “Man, I can do a couple of pedals with two things in them, so why not do the big three of the RAT, Tube Screamer and Big Muff? I could put them all in there, but run them in parallel.” I didn’t know how to do that, but I knew I could figure it out. I already had it laid out, and then I realized I’d need it to bypass each of them without having one big bypass switch. Somehow, in a manic moment, I made some transistor array type of thing that works for the whole thing. Then I had the idea for the graphic, and I looked it up because I was sure that someone had done the Death Star as the moon phases before — because “That’s no moon.” It’s a big, long graphic, so it fit perfectly both in size and name. It’s a cool name, and everybody loves Star Wars.
I feel like the Star Wars ones are probably big sellers for you…
They always seem to be. The Han-Taun Overdrive started as a joke between me and a friend because we were talking about Klon clones. Somehow, Han Solo as a centaur came up, and I was like “Oh god, Han-Taun just sounds funny, right?” So I gave the idea to a friend of mine who’s a good artist and he fucking killed it.
How do you go about differentiating your pedals from the million other pedal companies out there as far as sound and circuits go?
I just kind of do stuff that I want to do, and I hope I never stop doing that because that’s the fun part. The boring part is sitting here and building these out all day, but my favorite part is coming up with new ideas and names and graphics for pedals. So much stuff has been done, so that’s where I’m like “Let me change this a little bit and then put two of them in a box.” The only one I didn’t change from the original was the Ron Fucking Swanson Super Fuzz. A friend of mine asked if I could make a Super Fuzz and put Ron Swanson on it, but I’d never made a Super Fuzz before. Then I made it, and I was like “Damn, this thing rules” even if I didn’t change anything.
And you’re probably the only one making a pedal with Ron Swanson on it.
Yeah, and that one sells pretty well. I’ve seen some others that were one-offs or whatever, but no one who does one as a normal model. I did a giveaway of one on Instagram years ago, and I made everyone tag Nick Offerman, but that was before he was heavy on his Instagram. He seems to be there more often now, but I keep waiting to get a cease-and-desist on that one. I’ve always kind of wanted a cease-and-desist on one of my more popular pedals.