BJF Pedals are known for the “amp-like” performance and toneful surprise in pedal stacking. Bjorn’s customers have become a sort of cult among the boutique gear industry, if that were even possible! In this interview, Bjorn (The Mad Professor behind BJF Electronics) graciously extends his wealth of knowledge about his pedal line. So, hat’s off to our Swedish pedal guru!
SSS: We’re always interested in how you engineers got started. Being a Swedish engineer, do you have a different story?
Bjorn: Well, when I bought my first electric guitar the guy who sold it also had a small Arbiter amp for sale. I only had money for the guitar so there was little option but to look at home for something that could be used for an amplifier My mother’s radio fit the bill with some work to get an input….. My father used to say that what you need you can make yourself so…. There were few options available that would give the sound I wanted and so I hung around music stores and guitar builders, and listened, and learned, and tried all new things that came. I got my first job as a guitar technician at a store and mostly did fretwork and setting up. I bought a guitar that had a built in fuzz and booster and a EH Screaming Bird. Those electronics kept breaking down from not being that good of quality to begin with, so I fixed them and eventually I learned more and more and started getting electronic work fixing all kinds of electronics. That meant I had to go to the library and find textbooks, so I read all I could find that remotely could have anything to do with guitar electronics, amplifiers, etc. I got to know a lot of fine people that had stories to tell through my job. Internet was only for the military in those days. I begun building my own pedals in 1981.
SSS: All of your pedals are named after colors with an adjective preceding them. The formula seems to be: adjective + color + device function. What inspired this?
Bjorn: There was an argument about how to name a product and under what brand name internationally. I once had a dream about a baby blue pedal and it felt natural to use this color. However naming the pedal as a product proved much harder. My wife proposed I describe what the pedal was and when I told her she said, “Well then it’s a Baby Blue Overdrive.” This name had the advantage that no one could argue that this was not a Baby Blue Overdrive, which could not have been the case if it had been named Humoungous Terrifier….because this was definitely baby blue to the color, and while not your typical overdrive, still an overdrive. I could only verify the name from what a search at libraries would turn up. Next model Dyna Red Distortion came about in the same manner. I told my wife that this is a distortion pedal that is dynamic in response and it has to be red because all good distortions are red, to which she said, “Well then it’s a Dyna Red Distortion…”
This theme more or less became a system and I wrote down possible models I could make and the relevance the sound would have to color and my wife helped me find nice rhythmic names that would make distinctive acronyms to avoid confusion and make long names more easily handled.
SSS: You offer a wide variety of overdrive pedals. For the hungry tone seeker, can you give us a brief breakdown of your overdrive pedals and possibly give us a little insight as to what characteristics each possess that may match particular styles of playing?
Bjorn: Well there’s:
Baby Blue Overdrive, that is a pedal that would rather give overdriven sounds to a clean amplifier than further push an amp. Many blues, fusion, and country players like this one and it gives the necessary complexity of distortion at control of the fingertips to a clean amp. Its range of distortion also allows heavy sounds.
Little Green Wonder, that came about from Don Rusk of www.tonesafari.com asking what a BJF Tube Screamer would sound like. The result is LGW the name alludes to the green color of the TS-X and the Japanese wonder. I guess you could say though that LGW is more for those that don’t like TS type pedals. LGW is a high headroom overdrive and a stackable TS of sorts. It is very much up to overdriving distorting amplifiers, but can also be used on it’s own or as a smoothing pedal for fuzzes on bright amplifiers. LGW is enjoyed by about the same type of musicians as is the BBOD, LGW and BBOD which also combine well for a smooth sound.
Honey Bee OD, is a result of a pedal hater helping out in designing an anniversary pedal for a show. It is my most dynamic overdrive and it is made in remembrance of the two small amplifiers that I and my pedal hating friend had as an only choice when we were young and eager. The lesson we learned was to strike down hard and jump for sustain. HB is enjoyed by jazz musicians and old style rock musicians as well as alternative musicians and bar musicians that need a pedal that makes it possible to dig in during the first set when people talk softly…actually HB fits most styles and stacks well with most other pedals. I can tell you that these days I am happy to have this sound on foot switch.
Blue Berry Bass Overdrive, that was designed with the aid of a couple of bassists that came with their guitarists and they asked if I might not make this particular overdrive for bass that would give them the lo fi old style bass sound with quite a bit of distortion but not fuzz. This pedal is somewhat specifically tuned to the modern high wattage bass amps.
SSS: You also offer a wide variety of distortion pedals, could you break these down for us as well?
Bjorn: Dyna Red Distortion is the kind of distortion pedal I always wanted myself. Distortion range allows very light to heavy, and those that like this one use it mostly for high gain sounds but it also matches particularly well for light break up dynamic rhythms with some amps.
Emerald Green Distortion Machine was made more or less through correspondence with the String King Dean Farley who wanted a particular sound derived from stacking some other BJF models into a Komet 60. I had no Komet 60 to test with but a VOX AC-15 Twin 10. Final result proved to work on both amplifiers and many other brands. EGDM gives a range of distorted sounds that are a bit less aggressive than DRD and also more compressed almost like it had a compressor built in while the distortion depth is a bit less than DRD.
I also make a few custom distortion models that are available through custom order such as LOW/COW which was proposed by a customer that wanted a particular stacked sound of two BJF models and then some.
SSS: On to Fuzz. Can you break down your fuzz pedals in a similar fashion?
Bjorn: Candy Apple Fuzz was the result of a talk with the King of Cheese, collector of cheesy fuzz pedals…some of which I had for repair. There were qualities in fuzz that only old fuzzes could make and the old units often broke down in mechanics, etc. and most of these sonic qualities I tried to put into CAF. The result is a very crude fuzz, with octave function if needed and dying moans of gated fuzz.
Pink Purple Fuzz, after the introduction of CAF Harri, my distributor asked if there could not also be a more behaved fuzz. PPF was devised to meet this but do the fuzz sounds in the grey zone of fuzz/overdrive/distortion.
It has lately been proposed another shade of fuzz and that is in the workings for 2005.
SSS: The Pale Green Compressor is not a pedal that a lot of guitarists have experience with, yet it seems as if it may fit the bill for guitarists who are not satisfied with the popular Ross/Dynacomp type compressors. How is the Pale Green Compressor different than these? Would you say it works better or equally well with the various pickup types available?
Bjorn: Hmm, the PGC was originally designed for a set of Beatles songs that the band I was playing with were doing and I needed something that worked with the baby blue Strat I was using at the time, to give the kind of clean sound needed from the amp I was using. I also had a P-90 and humbucker guitars for other projects and the compressor worked equally well with all guitars. It was introduced as a model since Andreas of Custom Sounds Stockholm found my old unit on one of the shelves at my store and asked to borrow it and ….well so a color was designated for the model and later this model was updated with a third knob, from the original two from information gathered from a tour box in USA. For 2005 the PGC has received a see-through green paint.
SSS: The Sea Green EQ is a new pedal. Does this pedal use sliders like the Boss and MXR? Or, is it more of a parametric EQ? What was your goal in creating this pedal, and what are some useful applications?
Bjorn: Haha, well maybe a custom version would be sea-green, he he. This model has the same layout as all my other three-knob pedals and it’s color is see-through blue. It came about as result of feedback from customers and would it not be nice to have an EQ-pedal that could match the piezo acoustic guitars and work as a booster addressing frequency bands with treble and bass controls, that you don’t find on your amp and thus not fight your amp but fine tune your sound.
SSS: You make a couple Booster Pedals: Red Rooster Booster and Baby Pink Booster. How do these boosters differ from other boosters on the market, and how do they differ from each other?
Red Rooster Booster is a rock ‘n roll booster that came about as a request for a hotter version of BPB and true bypass. It has proven to fit ever so nicely with certain brands of boutique amps and one such amp was even custom made to fit the RRB!!
Baby Pink Booster, this model was initially designed to be a companion to BBOD and as a gift to the owner of BBOD#100 and not intended to be a commercial model. It is buffered as the BBOD would benefit from that. At the time of its release there were no dedicated clean boosters, in production and the term rather implies that a dirt box of some kind (booster, fuzz, distortion, overdrive, compressor) would be used in its cleanest mode to produce level shifts. The BPB was the only pedal that strictly made level shifts. It was a criteria that the BPB would take overload with progressive distortion to prevent sharp overload. This gives the BPB (while almost transparent) a slight thickening effect, but then I do not deal in transparency but the colors of tone.
SSS: Your pedals seem to be inspired by amplifier designs & characteristics. There is on exception: The Mint Green Mini Vibe. You say this pedal was inspired by the “vibrato” section of a half transisterized organ you bought in 1982. So, it’s not really like a uni-vibe or phaser type pedal at all, but more of a vibrato pedal. Can you give us a brief rundown on this unique pedal and also describe some of the tonal possibilities with it?
Bjorn: Hmm, the MGMV was designed to primarily work before distortion, and act more as a sound thickener than what you’d describe as vibe (as in Uni-Vibe etc.) Those that use this often run it as before distortion to give a sense of move to the sound and a hard driven rotating speaker sound or a motion that vibrates at the end of notes. Combinations with certain chorus pedals after distortion can give the impression of two rotating speakers, high band and low band. MGMV is alone in doing the sound it does. I’d say it is for those that want modulation that is more than tremolo but not as much as a phaser, uni-vibe, chorus.
SSS: Simulating amp characteristics and “stacking” seems to be a craze to some gear heads. Can you give us a little insight on this? Maybe some of your favorite applications & combinations?
Bjorn: Well, here are some examples:
The Green Sound: PGC>MGMV>EGDM>LGW PGC is used to give a hint of sustain and keep control of peaks so exact distortion level can be set accurately. MGMV is used here to give just a flickering vibrato at the tail of phrases. LGW is used to set just a tad of break up as controlled by PGC. EGDM finally is set to give moderate distortion of its own but in conjunction with the other pedals it puts just a protruding upper mid range into the LGW sound, just enough to make it standout. Now the green sound allows several levels of distortion with or without compression as well as a straight sound.
One of my personal favourites is PGC>LGW>DRD. PGC is used mostly for clean sounds and DRD provides moderate distortion that can be worked from the volume control or mere touch while engaging LGW into the DRD gives this very easily played “hero” sound that is most spoiling but great fun as it is very high gain but well defined through any chord and sustains for the longest time. This sound combination is quite different from turning up the distortion of DRD. Depending on amp used I would add Sea Blue EQ and HB.
PGC>BBOD or DRD>HB is another usable stack. In this, PGC is used to keep approximate level and mainly restrict the peaks lightly and thus add more gas to the engine, while HB is used to put a limit so that the harder the system is hit, the more it distorts but can clean up by mere touch or striking force. HB is also used as an inverse boost, setting a limit to the protrusion of the main overdrive distortion, and can set the sound from soft to protruding leads and thus place guitar back and forth in the sound landscape. HB is also used by itself to give distortion at will but softer than the clean sound used.
DRD>SBEQ gives a range of sound adaptable to most amplifiers that run fairly clean.
PPF>DRD or DRD>PPF both set for light to medium distortion/fuzz gives a lead sound with an attitude.
Your choice of fuzz pedal>HB>SBEQ and a range of sounds from sparkling clean to moderate distortion to full out fuzz attack. The HB and SBEQ, in a way, adapt the fuzz to whatever amp and the order of HB and SBEQ can be reversed for a different amp response. One of my customers said that it felt silly to have a pedal that is almost always on (as he’d use the SBEQ), but the combination of those two made it possible to get his sound on any amp the stage would have.
PGC>BBOD>LGW allows for sparkling cleans, compressed or not, as well as fluid, complex if desired, smooth distortion. The key to this sound is to set the level of PGC just above unity and medium compression and adjust LGW so that there is barley a distorted edge while BBOD can trip the system to easily played, smooth distortion.
BBOD>BPB is a pair designed to work together, and while BBOD provides the distortion overdrive, BPB allows setting lead versus rhythm level.
SSS: What would be the reasons a guitarist would want to simulate amplifier stages & characteristics with various pedals, rather than just use the amplifier whose tone they are trying to achieve?
Bjorn: It’s a lot lighter to carry around a bunch of pedals than an array of amplifiers, and it’s a lot easier to change sound. I think I always had a sound in my head that was not really tied to any particular amplifier, but rather combinations of things. I think sound is much more than an expected signature tone from an amplifier. Many times it is also so that the amp you’d like to use can’t be run at the settings you’d want or the base sound you have does not cover all the ground you like. I think pedals address in many ways a better solution than multichannel amps. There are situations where it is sufficient to set the amp to a sound and work the guitar and volume control at most, but if you need to do several sounds and styles on one night you may not always have the luxury of an array of amps. One guy told me he’d play at clubs and the guitarists would see a guy with a fiesta red Strat and a Super Reverb, and they’d know how that would sound. They’d be hearing the rest of the evening (only from stacking a few pedals like this BBOD>DRD>HB e.g)that he could get very heavy sounds when needed and lots of other shades. The guitarists in the audience would wonder how he pulled it off. Having all types of sound on tap like this makes for freedom from limitations in sound, and releases the creativity of music. It also means that if much of your sound is in your pedal board, you can take an amp of suitable size to the gig and still have all sounds on tap…and also with an array of pedals to choose from. Specific setups can be made as you, for instance, play country one night and rock the next. You might choose different pedals. Changing sound a bit also keeps the musician alert and you can change response of playing technique. Even the guys with hired techs to operate their pedal boards by turning a knob here and there in a song, and that arguably could choose to run a stage full of amps, still choose to go with pedals to change their sound beyond that of what the amp of choice can give. Analog technique like this is always much faster than digital and speed of response really is very important. While there are digital modelers, they still lack in the elusive ‘feel’ of an amp.
SSS: What are some of your personal musical influences? How have they influenced the designs of your pedals?
Bjorn: I grew up first with the Beatles, Bach and then Sex Pistols and Ramones, and later BB King and Jimi Hendrix. When I listen to music I hear sounds and get ideas of sound I’d like to make. I’d say what we hear comes out as a vision of what we want to do and filtered by our own views to something different.
SSS: If you could, Describe the BJFE laboratory.
Bjorn: The BJFE laboratory is a room of bookshelves containing schematics component catalogues gathered since 1979, there’s an oscilloscope, a tone generator and various voltmeters that are mostly from the early 70’s and a couple of amplifiers, guitars and a couple of shelves an cupboards for component storage. My workstation is an old wooden table with drawers for tools and peculiar things, and a stack of drawers with the most used components, and soldering stations etc. I have placed most of my equipment so that I can sit in the same position and view all instruments and adjust if needed, solder or drill or play or whatever while testing things or building. One of the lessons I learned early is that a service technician spends more time crawling about the floor looking for a screw lost than soldering, so sitting comfortably while you can is gratifying. The laboratory allows all stages of building a pedal, from drilling the holes in the boxes, to painting and etching PCB’s and assembling, to final testing both with ear and through various measuring devices. Most of the designing is however made elsewhere, while I’m waiting for a bus or answering customers questions on the phone or via mail, tying my shoes, it’s a sickness you know – a constant flow of ideas and solutions.
SSS: What is your guitar of choice?
Bjorn: These days I use a Les Paul with a medium hum in bridge and a 50’s P-90in neck on any public appearance, but around the shop or laboratory I keep a mint green V of uncertain make, The pick ups are medium hums I put together from an idea of a sound that would be stronger than single coils but lighter than hums or P-90’s. They’re made of spare parts of a bunch of broken pick ups. I used to have a baby blue Strat as a main guitar, and still have it around, as it’s indestructible, But I got tired of the hum.
SSS: When did you get into this industry? How has it changed over the years? Do you have many relationships with other builders?
Bjorn: Hmm, well I had different jobs as an air-tool mechanic, school janitor, postal worker – jobs that went well with playing music late nights and an occasional tour in the summer. When I wasn’t playing or working, I had an emergency bag and fixed non working amplifiers and pedals, guitars. Getting married with children changed a lot of things and my wife proposed I’d open an amp service shop as main work, since I wasn’t feeling to well from the cleaning materials I used as an air-tool tech, and besides I’d be home at night instead of fixing an amp somewhere below a bar, or restringing and tuning guitars at backrooms except when gigging myself. The amp shop meant I had an income of how many amps I managed to repair/day. I’d fix anything, and often got amps that no one else wanted to repair, or that others had tried but given up as in monster amps with 16 MOS FET power transistors or Hagstrom ‘Backing Elvis Model’ 4×12 combo with 140W germanium power transistors and power supply regulator to go with that, and searching for parts to the latter made me meet my very good friend and mentor Submarine engineer Sören, who’s made fine studies on parts I wanted to use. I needed to do a commercial for my amp shop, and there was this upcoming guitar show. I realized I had nothing to show but was offered a table for free if I could come up with something. Now, I had been making custom pedals since 1981 and I thought a good way to make people stop and tell what troubles they had with their amplifiers, etc., would be to have a ball of candy and maybe some pedals. So I made three models and took what I had and a company sign in the shop window, which was a carton amplifier and a tremolo pedal with the company name on it. The three models were a crude fuzz and a heavy distortion and an unusual overdrive to represent the evolution of distorted sounds over a couple of decades. Many people stopped and tried the pedals as I had them hooked up with one Fender Deluxe and a Marshall Bluesbreaker. I got one amp service job from that show but a distributor interested in selling at least one of the models worldwide. About 1 1/2 year later I had to close repair shop more or less and make pedals full-time.
How it has changed? Well, for one thing I think both builders and users have become much more aware of what works and the close relation builders visa vi customers have forced better products. I have seen builders come and go and the best ones make new models. I think for the most part, those that are in the business are driven by a vision of sound rather than fast money – there are exceptions of course. I have also seen price and feature wars, and tried to stay out of that and follow my vision of making things that are not meant for mass production, and would never be considered for mass production, and as far as possible from known designs. I have had to join the internet society as I learned from a friend that they were discussing the contents of my pedals and I thought it best to give my own view. That has led to my meeting many fine people and making good friends and also quite a few new models from BJF. It has also meant that I have been able to try lots of different brands of pedals and that’s always good when people tell they have the X-brand pedal and wonder how it would work with one of my pedals.
I have good contacts with some builders and service technicians both of amplifiers and of pedals and thus can exchange tips or schematics or just talk shop and passion for electronics, and certain components. I used to take pedals and amps apart when I was younger to see what made them tick, but haven’t done that for so many years. After repairing so and so many Fuzz Faces or Super Reverbs it’s just not interesting anymore. If it’s broken then one can fix it, but there’s no point in bothering with anything else. Besides, I’d like to keep my focus. I do try to help other builders, e.g. – when stuck in a circuit I might know or with anything I don’t have use for myself as I have received help from others in much the same way. I think it can be a good give and take situation were people with merits can help each other without conflicts. E.g., as such as sources of parts ports to new dealers, who’s a good endorser. This also helps me keep track of what I do so I don’t make something already made and that no one copies what I do. I think it is important to remember that customers ultimately need the best tool for their needs and that they can afford and if I think builder B makes it rather than I, I would not hesitate saying so and I am doing my best to keep track with what is available for any type of sound. I keep pedals from other builders, that I think are good in my collection and those pedals are like old friends.
SSS: What’s your relationship like with your customers?
Bjorn: I’d say I learn a lot from my customers. Some have inspired new models after presenting ideas of what they needed.
SSS: Is there a BJFE website coming anytime in the future?
Bjorn: The closest there is to that is my main distributor’s site at www.custom-sounds.com. Meanwhile I check some of the forums, some independent like SSS and those tied to my US distributors to be able to answer questions live. I’d say you never know, I might get a site yet. 2011 Update: Visit the BJFE Community web site.
SSS: Thank you for your time Bjorn, just one more question. Readers normally see an erroneous question at the end of these interviews, but this will change it up a bit. What is the general opinion of the USA in Sweden ever since 9/11? This interview will be posted after our presidential election in the USA, so this answer will not have had any effect on potential voters. It’s good to know an outside opinion on tough situations like this.
Bjorn: I’d say the general opinion is a mixed fascination, as always, with USA. I don’t think you can find anyone in Sweden that was not shaken by the events of 9/11, and did not have empathy with the many victims. There is also an understanding that USA is a nation of many people with individual views. Perhaps it is so that one would fear the effects of terrorism in that societies would be more isolated and that this may force a stronger EC visa vi USA and a weakening of the value of USD, which of course those in the import business find good, as well as those that want to see a weaker USA. It would be important that the democratic world work for the value of democracy and individual freedom and the open society to make it much harder for terrorism to exist, as healthy societies are less of a breading ground for terrorism. Few in Sweden believe that guns will aid this. There are many ways the democracies of the world can work together as in most recently the aid of the victims of the Tsunami.
SSS: Thank you again Bjorn for your time and amazing work!
Bjorn: Thank you. It’s been great fun talking to you, but now Robin the cat bites my toes and I had better give him something to eat.
For more information on BJFE Effects, please visit www.bjfelectronics.com.