Black Arts Toneworks : People Behind The Pedals

People Behind The Pedals

Interview with Mark Wentz

Black Arts Toneworks logo

In the latest instalment our ‘People Behind The Pedals’ blog series, we chat to Mark Wentz of Black Arts Toneworks about the inception of the company, the passions behind what drives product development and what is next in store!

What was the first pedal you ever built? Tell us about the experience

It was a little dual transistor booster sort of thing. 

I think I asked the internet what was the easiest “pedal” to build and tried it. 

Maybe the interesting part of that is that although I had ham-fistedly repaired some non-functioning pedals for friends in the past and modified a few of my own, I decided I wanted to build an amplifier. It was a 100w SuperBass copy from Metropolous.

I built it over a few weeks in the basement and my son, who was three at the time, liked to watch over my shoulder at whatever was on the workbench.  He also wanted to build something so I chose the circuit and bought some parts.

We had a blast, the pedal worked and that spawned the idea that I should muck around with a pedal to push my newly-built, super loud and super clean amp. 

 

When it comes to developing new pedals, where do you draw inspiration from – both in terms of sound and visual appearance? 

Old records. Take classic sounds and turn them up to 11. One louder. 

As for appearances, I generally have a concept and let the artist do their thing without overly burdening them with requests or opinions.

I think as a rule, singular visions are essential for graphic art. If I trust an artist enough to ask for work from them, I think I should let them do what their vision is.

Hopefully that fits my vision for the pedal. If not, I keep moving forward. I have quite a bit of art that didn’t make it to the actual production pedal stage. I’ve always seen the graphic on a pedal the way I looked at LP records when I was a kid. Listen with headphones to every nuance, whilst immersing myself in the record cover art.  

How did you come up with the name Black Arts Toneworks?

It was a pretty spur of the moment thing.

I think I had built a handful of Pharaohs for people when someone online asked me what the name of the company was.

I didn’t expect or intend to sell pedals. It was just a little side project in my free time.

For me, the concept was “celebrating Sabbath” – following the footsteps of Iommi.  The name stuck and sounded cool. So I went with it!

Were the pedals designed specifically for the heavy / metal end of the market or did it just evolve?

Anything I do is because that’s the sound I’m chasing in my head at that time.

Although I like many styles of music from all over the world, whenever I pick up a guitar it’s pretty much full-on full-time. 

I can’t play delicately and all of my amps are loud and sound better when played louder. I make pedals to further the quest into the abrasive realms of volume.

If I build a reverb pedal or the whateverfantasticdevice, I wouldn’t know if it sounds good or not. I have no personal experience with them.

I stick with what I understand because it’s what I like. I think it’s natural that whatever serves my tonal intentions generally has been well received by others who have the same sonic intentions.

Louder, more vibey without sounding like garbage.

What makes your pedals different from other brands / similar models?

I’m not current on the world of pedals or fashions of players so I can’t speak of how others do it.

My recipe is great sounding guitar > great sounding pedal ((s) but not too many) > great sounding amp.  That’s the classic recipe. 

I build to that end. 

What have been your biggest learnings in pedal production, and business in general, to date?

Don’t bite off more than you want to chew through.

Could I build more different pedals? Yes. Do I want to? No.

Could I sell more if I sped up or expanded production? Probably so. Do I want to? No.

At one time I had some employees/ helpers so I could better fill demand.

After a few years of that I realised that I’d rather cut overheads, cut production down and drop half of our dealers.

I don’t like trade shows, conventions or anything of that sort. I’m not a business person trying to shill a product to generate cash flow to keep my business afloat on loans.

It made sense for me to do what I do best, have a more-or-less autonomous vision and do this on my own terms.

I had to decide what was more important: business or art. I didn’t start building for business.

It started as art. Money won’t change that for me. I’ll go back to digging ditches for a living instead of becoming a suit.  

What’s in the pipeline for Black Arts Toneworks? What are your business goals/ hopes for the future?

Keeping up with demand is really my only goal.

I always have something in the oven, but taking an idea and making it publicly available takes a lot of consideration on my part.

At this point, I think something needs to be special enough to warrant making my dealers waiting list longer. At this time, I’m about three months out on dealer orders.

I have a very well-cultivated, small circle of retailers whom I trust and have realised good working relationships with.

This is largely due to my wife Tessa who handles the vast majority of day to day dealings – shipping, invoicing, keeping records and so on.

I think our dealers understand that a bit of scarcity helps them sell stock when it arrives. That seems the natural order to me.

Some of the best advice I ever got about the music industry was given to me by Dean Zelinsky who said “It’s better to be undersold than oversold”.

Your products are quite focused on overdrive, distortion and fuzz. Do you ever see yourself expanding into other areas – may be some lo-fi products, which seem to be very popular at the moment?

No. I don’t pay attention to the market or what may be the next big thing. I do what I like to hear. Just make it dirtier or louder in some way. 

Where do you see pedal production moving in the future, for the industry as a whole? Upcoming trends / industry predictions? Will you have to make any changes based on the growing business scrutiny of green / eco / sustainability practices?

No idea.

As the industry moves forward, I’d be more apt to buy a cottage on a lake somewhere and go the other direction.

I hope that all of my friends and acquaintances building pedals right now in their garages, basements, whatever can find a way to keep on keeping on supporting themselves and their families by building on a small scale.

There is a huge musical pie out there, it takes little to survive off of that pie if you don’t overeat. 

As far as the corporate musical industry? I don’t give a fuck all about that, we live in different worlds. 

What is your Black Arts Toneworks career highlight to date? Have you had a ‘pinch me’ moment?

MANY.

Meeting people whom I am influenced by as a musician is amazing. Being involved in a conversation with someone whose picture was on that vinyl LP that I endlessly stared at as a kid usually produces a pinch me sensation. 

Getting an email from a producer or musician telling me that they used a “so and so” on the whole album, or “that thing is all over the new album” produces that same sensation.

 Finding that musicians at the peak of creativity, knowing the painstaking process of finding tones for the new record, are choosing to purchase something that I built to help them find the sounds in their heads….Pinch me alright?

Of course, I have some less than stellar days, but nearly every day I have to pinch myself and ask, “Wow. How fortunate am I?

I work from home, work with my wife, have children at home being home-schooled.

I have met many amazing people because of pedal building, had so many doors opened because of my art

…And I don’t have a ladder climbing middle manager telling me what to do

…..Yeah, Pinch me.

Personal favourite of all your pedals?

Pharaoh. It’s the reason for all of this.

I never get tired of building them, playing and testing them, seeing them out in the world.

Woo Buddy!

Excluding your own brand, what’s the one pedal you wish you had created yourself, any why?

I don’t go there. I’m happy being focused on my path. I’m happy to bastardise anyone’s creations. And besides that, I have the Pharaoh in my stable. I’m content. 

What’s the guitar riff/song you immediately play when picking up a guitar?

 “Time to Escape” by Government Issue, “Walk all Over You” by ACDC.

I don’t know, I generally just riff.

Play clams, make feedback. I’m sure Tessa could tell you what she hears over and over again.

I follow whatever melody is in my head at that moment. I play pretty much only when I’m testing pedals, so the pedal I’m testing at that moment will have some influence on what or how I’m playing.

I spend so much of my time in a day dedicated to guitars that I don’t grab a guitar for relaxation or creativity any longer.

Tone Tasting every day. 

Many Thanks Mark! – it’s been a really interesting talk 

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