In conversations among guitar pedal nerds, the name “Tom Cram” is generally spoken with reverence. Whereas many brands may be respected and well known, the people responsible for them often remain unknown, save for some single-person independent builders where the individual is the brand.
But Cram isn’t like most people in the guitar pedal world — the industry he’s built his career in since the ‘90s. After spending about a decade-and-a-half working in various positions for DigiTech/DOD, Cram ended up in charge of the classic pedal brand’s resurgence in the early 2010s. He received the lion’s share of the credit and gratitude for bringing back classics like the Overdrive Preamp 250 and Phasor 201, while also expanding the company’s catalog with some new products and updates to the older models.
So when DigiTech/DOD shut down production at the end of the 2010s, the Utah-based pedal guru went to the music equipment world’s biggest industry event, NAMM, in the summer of 2018 to look for a new career. Instead of accepting any of the jobs he interviewed for that week, Cram decided to start his own company.
Nearly five years later, Spiral Electric FX has elevated Cram’s name in the boutique pedal world as one of the premier builders of fuzzes, overdrives, and various other dirt boxes. So it’s no surprise that when a new owner (Cor-Tek, the folks behind Cort Guitars) announced the intention to relaunch DigiTech/DOD last year, they asked Cram to come back to the helm.
SPIN caught up with Cram via Zoom to talk about launching Spiral, returning to DOD and everything in between.
SPIN: Back in 2018, what was that decision like to start Spiral Electric FX rather than taking a job with another pedal company?
Tom Cram: I don’t know if it was PTSD or whatever on my part, but every interview I did at NAMM felt like they wanted me to do stuff I’d already done at DigiTech/DOD. If I’d been smart, I probably should have taken one of those jobs and just did what I know — but it just didn’t appeal to me at all. So on the drive back, I took my time and spent the night in a couple different places, — just thinking a lot. I called my wife at like 2:00 in the morning while driving through Texas, and I said “I think I want to start my own pedal company.” She was like “Oh… Shit.” But then she said “OK, don’t just say it. Come up with a business plan, and we’ll talk about it.” I had hours of driving to think about it, and it’s funny, because the second I thought “I’m going to start my own pedal company,” the whole idea of what I could do with Spiral just fell into place. I knew exactly what I needed to do, so I called her back the next day — as I was driving through Colorado — and laid it all out for her.
How did it feel to have 100% control over everything after so long working for a larger company?
It was amazing, but also terrifying. There was nowhere to hide. If I screwed something up, it was my fault. If I pissed somebody off, it was my fault. But if I did something cool, then it was also my fault. It was cool to not have to answer to anybody, and it was incredibly freeing and very validating. I had a lot of ideas that didn’t fit with DigiTech/DOD, because their audience and their market is very well known. In some cases, that makes it easy because you don’t have to think a ton about what needs to be done. But from the Spiral side of things, I was making stuff for a different audience and at a different price point. I was making stuff that I wanted to make, and I had no idea if that would translate to a greater audience. Just because I think something is cool doesn’t mean that the market or anyone else will. There was a period where I would come up with an idea, play it through my stuff, and think it sounded cool to me, but fuck knows if anyone else would get it. As I released more and more stuff, I started getting feedback and realized that I was doing something that appealed to other people. I’m still really small — so it’s not even remotely close to what DigiTech/DOD do — but I can make a living.
It seems like what you really wanted to do with Spiral was make some unique and distinct fuzzes and other dirt pedals, which people have taken a liking to.
Well, I’ve been collecting fuzzes since I was first playing, and over the years, I’ve learned both what I like in a fuzz and what can be lacking. I was like “OK, I want to make something heavy, and I want it to be a fuzz, but I don’t want to make another Big Muff or something. I want to do something that’s unique, but still occupies that category.” One of the first pedals I did for DOD was the Carcosa Fuzz, and that was based on a Maestro FZ-1 circuit that I tried for the first time when I was at Chicago Music Exchange in 2009 or 2010. It was heavy. It was articulate. It had enough mids that it didn’t get lost in the mix. So when I first played that, I was like “This has to be the basis for the new DOD fuzz,” and that eventually happened. But when I was doing Spiral, I’d been experimenting with that circuit. I was like “I like the Carcosa, but I wish I had more clipping options and better tone control.”
I had all these different ideas, so I built that into the first Black Spiral Fuzz and it just went from there. I wanted it to be an anti-Big Muff — not in opposition to it, but just in that everyone knows what a Big Muff sounds like. I wanted something that can work with it but doesn’t sound like it. I’m a huge fan of ‘70s biker movies, and they always have the coolest sounding fuzz tones in all those movies. I didn’t even know that the Maestro FZ-1 was the fuzz they used in a lot of them until I began researching the circuit, but it has that fuzz tone where it’s really aggressive — but still weird sounding and buzzy. It’s the opposite of a Big Muff’s huge wall of distortion, so I’ve just been chasing stuff like that and whatever else I’m interested in.
How did the pandemic and the ensuing “hobby boom” affect you just a couple of years after launching Spiral?
I still haven’t processed it yet, because I’ve been too busy. Since I work alone, I didn’t have to lock down. I could still go into work, and I was busy making pedals. There were a few months at the start of lockdown where they said “Everybody has to stay home,” so I did. But after a while, I realized it didn’t make any sense when I could just go into my shop where there’s no one else. I just went into the shop and started building — and I’ve been busy ever since. I think the pedal market grew like 25% in 2020, and that fueled a lot of startup companies. But to be honest with you, the more the merrier. I didn’t feel that at all other than the fact that I was getting emails from people who were starting these companies, and it felt like the pedal community was really growing. My pedalboard went through 1,000 different iterations during the pandemic, just because I’d be like “What if I try this? What if I do this? What if I build this?” I was right there with everybody else getting stuff I had never used before.
What can you tell us about your impending return to DigiTech/DOD?
So DigiTech/DOD got bought by Cor-Tek, the parent company of Cort Guitars, and they contacted me about six months ago about coming back and working for DigiTech/DOD. My first response was “No, I’m busy with Spiral,” but they kept coming back and talking about what they wanted to do. I finally got a chance to meet them, and they’re totally cool. One of the first things they said to me was that they want me to keep doing Spiral as well, so I get the best of both worlds. My hope is that I can continue making new stuff, but still bring back and update some of the older stuff like I was doing before. It seems to me from everything I’ve talked with the Cor-Tek guys about that they just want me to continue as I was doing before, so that’s the best possible scenario.