Exclusive First Ever Interview with Tom Hughes!!
Renowned vintage effects expert and gear enthusiast Tom Hughes is the owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only
, home of the FMO Gear Shop; author of Analog Man's Guide To Vintage Effects
, and columnist for Premier Guitar
magazine. He recently added to his list of achievements the revival of Black Cat Pedals.
I started my career in the pedal business working for Analog Man, after an 8-year stint as a fairly unsuccessful professional musician. Eventually, around the turn of the millennium, I decided it was time to start looking for the proverbial day job. It was around the same time that Analog Mike opened his workshop in Bethel, CT, which happened to be one town over from where I was then living. I had first heard about Analog Man around 1996. He had a website in the early days of the World Wide Web and was offering TS9 modifications.
Once I realized that his shop was about 10 minutes from where I was living, I started checking out the Analog Man website until I practically had the whole thing memorized. He had a ton of great info about effects pedals on his site, and no one was really doing anything quite like what he was at that time. Though he wasn't actually looking for any help, I decided I was going to talk my way into a job. I thought the best approach would be to make an appointment to visit the shop as a potential customer. It took a few weeks to actually get the appointment. I thought it would be a good idea to buy something while I was there, so I wouldn't just be wasting his time.
I was very interested in a Colorsound Supa Tone Bender that he had for sale, since I knew that was one of the main pedals Steve Hackett used when he played with Genesis. It turned out that both Mike and I were big fans of early Genesis, so we hit it off right away. We actually spent half the day talking gear and checking out various pedals that Mike had. I later discovered this was a very unusual thing for him to do, since he's always pretty busy. He even busted out his '59 Les Paul Junior for me to check out, which I haven't seen him do with anyone else since. By the end of my visit, I was the proud owner of a brand new FoxRox Captain Coconut 2, which had just come out. So I left with no job, and $400 poorer, but at least I had my foot in the door...
After that first visit, it took about another month to convince Mike to actually hire me. He admitted he could use the help, but was too busy to figure out what to do with me. I finally suggested that I just come down and start making myself useful, and he said okay. When I arrived he had only one tech, this guy named Wade. So it was Analog Mike, myself, and Wade (who mostly did TS9 modifications). Around the same time, Mike's wife began working at Analog Man. She still works there and is one of the best pedal builders I have ever met. But when she first started, she didn't even know how to solder.
At that time, going to work at Analog Man was like being in gear heaven. The first task I was assigned was to test a big pile of pedals that Mike had just taken in on trade. That was like something I would do in my free time, but now it was part of my job. I felt like a 7-year old who just became a helper in Santa's workshop. The place was just filled with all kinds of cool gear, and for the first couple of months I told Mike to just pay me in pedals.
The business was still fairly small at the time, so a lot had to happen to take it to the next level. For example, Mike was doing all the packing and shipping himself, so one of the first things I did was take that over and help set up a proper shipping and receiving department. I handled a lot of different jobs at Analog Man, including customer relations, advertising and marketing, dealing with certain vendors and contractors; pretty much anything I found that wasn't getting done. I figured it was part of my job to "solve problems" (kinda like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction).
A big part of the business was modifying Ibanez TS9s for customers, so I lined up a source to get large supplies of brand new Tube Screamers so we could sell brand new modified pedals. I also set up a dealership with Roland/Boss when Mike began modifying Boss pedals. When we started making the Analog Man Sun Face, I was able to track down and procure large quantities of the NKT275 transistors that Mike wanted to use in the Sun Face. I got some tips for sourcing obsolete components from Mike, and also from Jeorge Tripps, so I just ran with it from there.
I've always been a gear fiend, so I was already pretty knowledgeable about all different types of equipment from a player's perspective, but I didn't have much knowledge or experience with electronics back then. So I wasn't doing any mods or building pedals right away. But being immersed in that environment every day, I would soak up as much knowledge and information as I possibly could. Then I'd go home every night after work and spend hours and hours studying the info on the various DIY websites. Mike also had tons of effects literature - old articles, manuals, schematics, etc. - that I helped myself to quite a bit.
I got a soldering iron and some basic tools and started doing some tech work on my own. I had already been buying, selling, and trading gear for many years - possibly as long as Mike - but now I wanted to start buying broken pedals so I could fix them. I remember several occasions when I'd be knocking myself out for an hour or more trying to fix an old pedal. I'd finally bring it in to Mike; he'd look at it for maybe 5 seconds and tell me exactly what was wrong.
I bought Ibanez and Boss pedals so I could attempt doing the mods on my own stuff. When the Sun Face came along, I told Mike I wanted to try building one for myself. I ended up buying the parts and building a few of them. Eventually, I built at least one of every single Analog Man pedal for myself. I made a deal with Mike, which is still more or less in effect, that I could make myself any Analog Man pedal I like as long as I paid for the parts and never put any of the pedals up for sale. I guess that's one of the perks of my VIP status. I don't think he would offer that to anyone else (unless they were going to write the next Analog Man book or something).
Anyway, I finally convinced Mike I was good enough to do mods and maybe some actual pedals. Of course, one of the first things I did was burn a solder pad while trying to mod an SD-1... oops! Rightfully, Mike was pretty dubious as to my future prospects as a tech. But I kept practicing on my own, and eventually I got to do a lot of TS9 mods and even some building.
At some point, Mike started referring to me as "Analog Tom." I kind of got a kick out of that. It was like an official title that only Analog Man could bestow. I didn't realize the significance of it until this one conversation with Mike where I wasn't aware of some bit of effects trivia that he considered fairly basic. I distinctly remember him saying, "You're supposed to know this stuff,
you're Analog Tom!"