Arts & Entertainment and Manufacturing

Circus Freak Music introduces guitar pedals to West Michigan

July 12, 2013
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Circus Freak Music introduces guitar pedals to West Michigan
The Circus Freak team discovered germanium transistors, which haven’t been in mass production for decades, when they discovered a picker in the Ukraine who had access to Soviet-era military depot stock. Courtesy Circus Freak

The Bearded Lady, The Lion Tamer, The Tattooed Lady and The Pickled Punk are no longer just sideshow acts. They’re rising brands for a Grand Rapids-based guitar and keyboard effects pedal manufacturer.

Circus Freak Music, 4633 Patterson Ave. SE, has been on a roll since it opened for business in 2012, launching its first series of processing pedals just in time for Christmas. The company, which has already won a gold national Addy Award for packaging and design, has now sold hundreds of its vintage pedals through 25 dealers located across the U.S.

“Our pedals are completely designed from scratch. With Hammond boxes, the reason most people buy them is because they can buy them composed,” said Morgan Moallemian, Circus Freak creative director.

“We came up with all our cases, the side caps and the knobs. Our knobs are designed out of the same stuff Legos are made out of.”

“We drove a truck over the boxes and they withstood it,” added CEO Shannon Near. “All of these pedals are made with vintage componentry. We want to build that trust factor with our customers so they can lean on our products.”

Circus Freak currently makes four pedals, which retail for $150-$180. Each is themed, featuring a sideshow or circus-related act connected to the sound of the pedal: The Bearded Lady is a fuzztone pedal; The Lion Tamer is a compression pedal, which “tames” the sound; The Pickled Punk is a distortion pedal; and The Tattooed Lady is an overdrive pedal, which can hit the amplifier hard or “tattoo” it.

This year, Circus Freak will introduce four more pedals: a Figi Mermaid chorus pedal, a Juggler delay pedal, a Strong Man clean boost pedal and a Human Cannon Ball pedal, which is a boost/delay combo pedal.

The grand finale of the intended nine pedal series will be a tremolo pedal named after the sideshow of all sideshows: the Three-Legged Man, a.k.a. Frank Lentini.

The sideshow theme is one the team feels a sense of responsibility toward, said Near, who revealed that one of the team’s creative web staff is a human blockhead and fire-eater. Circus Freak plans to host an event in October where local sideshows and musicians can perform together and try out the company’s merchandise.

“We actually reach out to the sideshow-performer community,” he said. “If you use a brand like ‘Circus Freak,’ you want to use it affectionately and sensitively, and you can gleam so much history and lore from these people.”

The idea for the product came through Near and Moallemian’s mutual love of music. They both play guitar in an informal band called British Racing Green, and realized the musical tools they wanted weren’t available.

“It was through that process that we said, ‘I wish I had this type of pedal on my board; I wish my guitar sounded like this,’” Near said.

“We started developing a guitar amplifier, which will be coming out (soon), and along the way of designing base amplifiers, we decided to introduce a line of effects pedals to go with it under the Circus Freak brand.”

The goal for the business, Near said, is to make hand-built, locally designed and produced pedals that are cost-available for all kinds of artists in any genre of music. To do this, Near and Moallemian sought advice from A.J. Dunning, a Lansing-born guitarist with The Cones who spent about 10 years playing with popular East Lansing band The Verve Pipe.

Dunning, now president of Circus Freak, liked the surface-mount construction of Near and Moallemian’s design and now uses his own product during shows.

Dunning especially liked the fact that Circus Freak uses germanium transistors in its pedals as opposed to silicon, which is more common. The Circus Freak team got its hands on germanium transistors, which haven’t been in mass production for decades, because they found a picker in the Ukraine who had access to Soviet-era military depot stock. They purchase them from his available cache.

“A lot of guitar players like germanium as opposed to silicon, which they eventually went to,” Dunning said. “Germanium has a little bit of sag to it. … It’s got a little more sponginess to the sound, where silicon has the tendency to be a little more harsh. It’s just a different sound.”

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