Heavy Metal Pedals
If you like rock or country music, “American Idol” or Jay Leno, there’s a good chance you’ve heard guitar effects generated by Robert Keeley’s unique line of pedals, and you probably never guessed they were designed and built just a few miles north of Edmond.
Often, six or seven of the top ten songs on the country charts were produced, using gear from Keeley Electronics, and their presence is just as strong in the rock world.
Keeley’s extensive list of celebrity clientele includes John Mayer, Steve Vai, Peter Frampton and Kevin Eubanks from the “Tonight Show,” as well as guitarists for Bob Dylan, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, Avril Lavigne, Eric Clapton, Keith Urban, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Rod Stewart, The Beach Boys and many others. Not to mention guitarists Dan Huff, Brent Mason and Brent Rowan, who work with pretty much every singer who records in Nashville.
Keeley and his crew of twenty-five take three mandatory hackey sack breaks daily and sometimes he rallies the troops for a quick game before the workday begins. That’s because they spend the rest of the day hunched over circuit boards with a soldering iron or a pair of pliers, meticulously assembling and twice-checking each of the more than 1,000 units that move out of their shop each month.
The Keeley Compressor is by far their most popular pedal, which is a device used to regulate the volume of the sound coming out of the guitar by compressing the signal. If the musician plays too quietly, the compressor will make it louder; if the instrument is played too loudly, it will quiet it down. The result is a nice, smooth and polished sound.
Keeley modifies and manufactures many other products, including the revolutionary Nova Wah, which is the first duel fixed filter wah pedal. Normally, wahs have a pedal you rock back and forth with your foot, which makes it hard for musicians to recreate the exact same sound night after night. The Nova Wah replaced the pedal with knobs, which could be set for more precise sounds.
“I don’t think anyone’s done it since,” Keeley said.
So, how did an OU graduate with nearly twenty years of electronic repair experience practically take over the industry in just a few years? In 2001, his wife Tiffany suggested it would be better for him to build his own guitar effects pedals rather than buy them, and the unique blue LED indicator light he included on his first design became a trademark when he decided to start selling his creations on eBay.
“I think what put us on the map in the first place was the blue LEDs on an effects pedal,” Keeley said. “It sure caught a lot of attention.”
The little blue lights were simply an aesthetic element, but at the time they were unheard of and in a world of red indicator lights, blue ones quickly got them noticed.
Demand grew, and before long, Keeley was spending long hours hunched over his dining room table, piecing together electrical components with help from his students at a private college where he used to teach. Orders were coming in from all over the world, and soon they were wading through ten weeks of backorders.
He said sometimes it’s hard for people to believe good electronics come out of Oklahoma, but their growth speaks for itself. Their website has 3,000,000 hits per month, and they hold five percent market share of the entire guitar effects pedal industry.
“It’s grown that fast,” Keeley said. “Thank goodness for the Internet. If it weren’t for the Internet, I would not have been able to do what I’ve done.”
Now, nearly every big name in music has a Keeley product in their sonic arsenal, from classic rock guitar heroes to more contemporary acts sweeping the Top 40 charts.
Though the magic happens in a large red building just a short drive from downtown Edmond, Keeley rarely gets orders from within the state. Instead, Keeley’s outgoing storeroom is packed with boxes destined for places like New York, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom.
In 2003, Keeley took over production of Frampton’s products. He’s now the sole distributor of Framptone gear. This year, Keeley bought Trivitt, the only road case manufacturer in Oklahoma.
In the next few months, expect the debut of a Keeley distortion pedal, a new wah pedal touted as the smallest in existence and new guitar pickups for Stratocasters and Telecasters.
“My idea is to just make sure we have fun and stay afloat and give the employees benefits,” Keeley said.
“It’s been a really fun ride to be sure, and I don’t think it’s going to stop any time soon,” said Dusty Nelson, artist relations, while holding a Keeley Compressor custom-built for Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan.
“It’s great,” said Than Medlam, assistant shop manager and modded pedals supervisor. “He came in at the right time, when the boutique market was on the rise. We managed to break out of a niche to become a major force in the industry. That’s a great thing for a guy who was building pedals on his kitchen table.”
For more information, check out www.robertkeeley.com.