Where the Light Is: An Interview with Pedaltrain's Jim Colella & Friends
Jim Colella finds himself seeking refuge among the towering and densely-packed oak, maple, ash and walnut trees that jut from the earth below his property — a small, sloping plot nestled into some 800 acres of wide open air outside of Nashville.
He’s on edge. And has been — for a while now.
In the ever-creeping wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the chaos and noise in the world, he’s tired. Words like tension and pressure litter his conversation. But the rolling Tennessee hills provide some solace as he wanders the deer trails behind his home accompanied by his German shepherds, Jet and Rocket.
“The pandemic, man — it was really depressing,” the Pedaltrain CEO says. “Everyone has a similar story, but I was hospitalized with COVID for a bit, business was grinding to halt, my son was essentially evicted from his university, friends and family were sort of retreating and disappearing from my life — I was in a super dark place.”
Things are a little better now — Pedaltrain, founded in 1999, saw its biggest year ever in 2021 — but as global instability lurched to and fro in the preceding months, he made an intentional choice to find ways to try and push back against the darkness, division and uncertainty, almost as a means of survival.
First, he looked outward and started giving away his pedal collection via the Superfun! Global Pedal Giveaway on Instagram.
“The simple truth is that I love pedals. From the day I bought my first pedal — a purple ROSS Phaser Distortion — I was hooked. My collection had really grown over the years, so I decided to give away a pedal a week from my own stash and wound up sending all kinds of cool stuff all around the world.”
So what may have come off as a social media marketing ploy was, in fact, an act of catharsis.
“I just thought that a bit of optimism and a sense of community during the worst, most isolating times of the pandemic could spark some light. It was heart-warming and fun for everyone involved, especially me.”
Second, he looked inward and started playing a lot of guitar.
“Isolation really reinvigorated my playing and musicianship. Practicing and creating music became a much-needed pressure relief valve — a simultaneous source of peace and joy when the shit was hitting the fan. And through that, I rediscovered my love of playing guitar and experimenting with effects.”
It’s a humorous thought — the head of the biggest pedalboard company in the world, hunched over his own products, swapping different effects in and out day after day, searching for new sounds and then completely losing himself in a riff-based trance as a result — but it led him to a new place.
“I just found my overdrive pedals were feeling flat — and in steps Aaron.”
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There’s a saying — it’s all about who you know. And when you’re the guy behind the market leader in the pedalboard space, you get to know a lot of people.
Aaron Wahl is the mind behind AWOL Pedals — a small shop, also based in Nashville, that specializes in micro-sized stompboxes.
“I was doing this thing where I’d refinish pedalboards for people — powder coat them in a different color at the request of each customer,” says Wahl. “I decided to do this giveaway and reached out to Jim to get a Pedaltrain to make it happen. Coincidentally, Jim had just released new hook & loop fasteners in a variety of colors known as Hook Loop Love — so it was a great opportunity to work together and help him launch that. From there we started meeting up on a regular basis.”
Starting in mid-2020, Wahl would drive out to the country every Friday at 2PM — like clockwork — to hang out with Colella. They’d talk about life, gear and business, and supported each other as best they could through the depths of the pandemic.
“He’d drive out from a space he shares with friends in the city — a single room where he lives and builds pedals — and the dogs would greet him, barking in the driveway,” Colella explains. “Then we’d brew coffee, talk and over time, we became really close friends.”
Colella is hesitant to use the word mentor in describing his relationship to Wahl, who is nearly half his age. Instead, he says the friendship was organic and that he and Wahl met in a unique way during a unique time, but he’s clearly proud of Aaron’s skill — and wants to celebrate it.
During one of their therapy sessions, Jim expressed his growing sense of frustration with the drive pedals he had on hand and a desire to make something that was more suited to his ear.
“Aaron came back the next Friday with some ideas based on my non-technical descriptions,” he says. “I think he came up with five or six circuits; two that really spoke to me and complemented each other nicely. So we would take turns playing them with different guitars, different amps, and then Aaron would take his notes, go home, tweak, come back the next Friday and we’d do it all over again.”
After several rounds of hands-on revisions, the two settled on a variation of each that they liked and Jim wanted to move the project forward under the Pedaltrain brand — but Pedaltrain isn’t a pedal company. And notwithstanding the brand equity or name recognition Pedaltrain has in the effects arena, he’s quick to admit that there were challenges aplenty.
“Of course, just as we have these designs, there’s a huge collapse in the supply chain — particularly around chips and parts,” Colella says. “We found what we needed, but getting the pedals made at scale was going to be difficult. That's when Aaron stepped up and decided to do them all himself, by hand. It was a huge task.”
The resulting effort is a pair of handmade, first-edition overdrive pedals called the Daylight and Nightlight limited to 100 units each.
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“The trees don’t care about the virus,” Colella says. “So as I was recovering from lingering COVID symptoms, being outside in the light aided my recovery. As such, the idea of the sun and moon became important symbolism for me. In my mind, the sun and moon never changed; nature never changed; society was changing rapidly — for the worse — but the natural world was persisting.”
This concept translated to the naming convention of the pedals in a unique way. Colella placed heavy importance on the idea that the pedals should sound good out of the box with each knob at 12:00 — noon and midnight. And the rest fell into place.
Enter Karen Schierhorn of BIG EAR Pedals, another Nashville connection.
“I met Jim through a mutual friend — Matt Hoopes from Relient K / 1981 Inventions,” Schierhorn says. “My partner, Grant Wilson and I are also close friends with Aaron Wahl of AWOL Pedals, so he recommended me for the design. Jim reached out and we began from there.”
Schierhorn, who has a history of working with pedal brands to develop their branding and designs says that the project was a privilege, because the pedal community is so supportive.
“Jim and I immediately started shooting design ideas back and forth,” she says. “It was an easy and natural exchange inspired completely by Jim’s desire to design a set of pedals that would give the pedal industry something positive and provide hope and optimism through the pandemic — that’s how he came up with the name Daylight and Nightlight. Something along the lines of ‘there’s always a light in the dark’ and ‘there’s always another day coming.’ The graphics were really just meant to honor that sentiment. I wanted them to have a similar look, while being opposite of each other to reflect the two opposite times of day — day and night — but with light in both. I came up with a bunch of ideas — something like 30-40 different designs — and Jim picked his favorites. I expanded on those ideas and here we are.”
For his part, Wahl — whose name appears on the PCBs he agonized over and who still visits Colella every week — found the collaboration freeing.
“I typically make one knob guitar pedals in a specific form factor, so as a developer, it was fun to build something that looked a bit more familiar to people,” he says. “As cheesy as it sounds, I’m always trying to build the best pedals that I can, but being in a situation where they didn’t have to fit within the box of my specific brand, getting to start from a different place than I usually do was great.”
Further, he believes that the qualities that make Pedaltrain pedalboards great can absolutely be applied to guitar pedals.
“We saw an opportunity to make robust, simple, inspiring pedals. We wanted to make pedals that people feel the exact same way about as they do Pedaltrain pedalboards.”
Colella is unsure of how long Pedaltrain will remain in the pedal game, but confident in his friendship with Wahl and the curative nature of the process they embarked on together.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” he laughs. “This project was a labor of love between friends. We hope they are well received, but if not — that’s okay, too.”
For Colella, the process of creating these two pedal designs was more about friendship and marking the end of a difficult season in world history with something creative and positive. In fact, he doesn’t even see it as a collaboration, but more about trusted friends adding their unique skills to turn a fun idea into reality.
“This is a risk,” Colella says. “But on a personal level, it is very satisfying. I am proud of these sounds. I am proud of our work. I am proud of Aaron’s skill. And to do it during such a weird and difficult time makes it more special. If the pedals are adopted, then we can discuss what is next, but all I can control at this point is to make something good and then let the chips fall as they may.”
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At this time, Colella is still finalizing a go-to-market strategy for the Daylight and Nightlight. At some point, the limited supply of First Edition pedals will be exhausted and as a follow up, there is a plan in place for a limited production run of 100% made-in-the-USA SMT versions that will be assembled in North Carolina by Matthew Farrow of Disaster Area Designs and Alexander Pedals.
To date though, contributing parties not included, only two other people have played the Daylight and Nightlight — Nashville veterans Gordon Kennedy and Kenny Greenberg.
“Funny story,” Colella recalls. “I was at Kenny's house — he is such a tremendous gentleman and very discerning as far as tone goes; he just knows — so he sits down at his rig in his studio just like he would do for a session and dials in a clean tone. I am sitting on the sofa listening to him playing — and the sound was so good. He was ripping, not saying a word. I was very nervous because I was thinking ‘Oh shit, when he turns that pedal on there is no way it could get better, only worse.’ So I sheepishly ask, "What does it sound like with the pedal on?" He looks at me, cocked his head a little and says "That is the pedal. It is exceptional." And I almost fell over.”
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