Q&A: Jon Cusack from Cusack Music and Mojo Hand FX

Holland, Michigan: A town located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan on Lake Macatawa and with a population of around 33,000 it’s a town I know next to nothing about. Some quick google searches reveal it to be incredible picturesque; rich in Dutch heritage, filled with tulips, beautiful farmland and cottages. A town that in 2010 was ranked the second healthiest/happiest town in the United States by the Well-being Index, but also a town not overly synonymous with music. In said town lives a man by the name of Jon Cusack. For the past 15 years Jon has built a reputation for being one of the most respected and innovative figures in the pedal world. His company Cusack Music has given him a platform to offer forward thinking effects that opened the possibilities of other companies around him. We recently had a chat to Jon about how it all started for him, his recent acquisition of Mojo Hand FX and what he thinks the future holds.

Hi Jon, thanks for taking the time
to have a chat. So you call Holland, Michigan home, which is a place I know very
little about. Can you tell us a little bit about your home town?

You’re welcome!  Holland is a small town originally settled by
the Dutch, located in Western Michigan. It is  just a few miles away from one of
the Great Lakes – Lake Michigan. It’s a great place to live and our biggest event
is the annual tulip festival in May, which draws people from all over the
country and the world.

Holland, Michigan
I guess through Detroit, Michigan
has quite a rich musical history, do you find that translates across to other
cities in the state like Holland? What’s the music culture like there?

Well, there are no where near the numbers of places
to play where we are! And that’s why we try to support the local music scene.
We have a revamped movie theatre in Holland called the Park Theatre where we
have provided a PA system, while also supporting local shows and an open mic
night every Tuesday.

So we should probably get a bit of
background on your personal musical history. Where did the whole thing start for
you and how did that evolve to you designing and building things of your own?

Well, I first got started in electronics when I was
twelve. I used to tear things apart to see how they worked using multimeters,
and somehow I figured out a formula, which I derived on a desk and scratched it
on the desktop with my meter lead. I later discovered what I had found was Ohms
law, the basic formula in understanding electronics. After that I got into
playing guitar, and was in a band in high school. When I went to college, I
worked in the repair department of a local music store. This was around the
time (amp guru) Bruce Egnator got his start creating different models with
reconstructed Sovtek amps and I thought that would be a neat thing to try with
guitar pedals. Eventually, years later after working for a corporation designing
a lot of appliance controls I decided I would rather break off on my own and
design pedals. I was pretty highly ranked at the time as a senior design
engineer but I just didn’t want to work in the corporate world anymore. So I quit
and started two companies; Cusack Music and Westshore Design (which was my
consulting company that would design or fix designs for other companies). This
was a way to pay the bills while designing guitar pedals. It grew to 30
employees, and I sold it in September of 2015 to focus on the music
industry.

There’s quite a number of game
changing things in the pedal world that actually started with you. As far as I understand you were the
first to introduce tap tempo and the first to implement true bypass. Can you
tell us a bit about where these ideas stemmed from and what were the first
things you put them into practice with?

Well, I
wasn’t actually the very first to do tap tempo but I was one of the very first
in the boutique market and I was actually the first to do it on a tremolo,
phasor and overdrive. As for true bypass, I didn’t invent true bypass itself but I’m the first that I am aware of that did it with a relay and a soft touch
switch. I was also the first I know of to put a microcontroller in an overdrive
pedal to control the bypass. The initial thing was I was asked by a great local
player Danny Reyes to add tap tempo to his Zvex Ooh Wah. Since at the time I
didn’t believe in modding other peoples pedals because I felt it was
disrespectful to the designer, I called Zachery Vech and asked him if it would
be ok if I added tap tempo to his pedal. He told me that it couldn’t be done, he
had a few engineers already try and it couldn’t be put in the box. After I built
the circuit and proved it could work, I fit it on a board that was an inch and a
half by a half inch. As a result of this Zvex asked me if I could help him out
with some designs and circuit board layouts. The Tap-a-Whirl was my first Cusack
tap tempo design and it was the world’s first analog tap tempo
tremolo.

Z-Vex Ooh Wah
Your Cusack Tap-A-Series pedals are
something you’ve become quite synonymous with and they are the pedals that first
bought you to my attention. With this range you’ve implemented tap control into
generally non tap oriented pedals such as fuzz and overdrive. What was the
mindset behind this range?

The mindset behind those
last two was an April Fools joke. A dealer ordered ten of them, and after
several people ordered them the feedback was that it was a unique pedal that
gave them some creative ideas. I think there are still plenty of people out
there that would love those pedals if they ever found them and spent some time
experimenting with them. One of the features of our pedals is that they are more
than what meets the eye, there are things they do not everyone knows
about.

Cusack Tap-A-Series
You were also the first to use the
silent momentary switch. Was this something that had origins in customer
feedback you had or something you thought would be interesting to push the
industry forward?

It stemmed from my time as a
repair tech fixing musical instruments in college. One of the number one
failures in pedals was the mechanical bypass switch. They were difficult to
replace because they had between six and eight solder joints. I wanted to design
my pedals so that they would rarely if ever need repair. In my previous career
we had to design relays that would survive over a million cycles. So a relay
seemed like a logical choice for a switching mechanism. Momentary switches will
eventually go bad, but when they go bad because it’s going to a micro-controller
and there’s no audio going through it , so you can usually hit it harder and it
will switch, therefore you can still use it until you get a chance to replace
it. Mechanical switches that go bad cause your audio to fail or be
intermittent.

The community among the boutique
companies in the pedal world seems to be quite close-knit. I know you’ve also
collaborated with some other builders on their designs; Phillipe at Caroline
Guitar Company being the main one that comes to mind. How do you think this kind
of mentality influences the industry as opposed to it being a more cut-throat
competitive mindset among builders?

Having other
friends in the industry makes it so that you can have others to bounce ideas and
questions off from. If you have a specific problem you can usually find
someone else in the industry that has dealt with that problem before. Plus it
gives you people you look forward to seeing at trade shows!

It’s also an industry that allows
someone to be able to start up their own business as a very small operation and
with very little initial buy in. Do you think the pedal world has reached
saturation yet? And where do you see it heading in the next few
years?

Yeah, I think  it may finally have reached
saturation. You see new guys appearing every day, and other guys disappearing
everyday. I kind of feel like there’s going to be a exodus soon by some. A lot
of the new companies today don’t even design anything or build their pedals, it
seems there is less innovation than there was, that it has become more about
marketing than innovation to some. What I hope to see is more of the innovators
coming up with unique designs and getting noticed in the future. We hope to be a
part of that story.

Cusack HQ

What kind of advantages and
disadvantages do you think someone like yourselves or other boutique companies
have over the bigger names like Boss, Electro Harmonix and MXR?

We have a personality, we are a small company with faces to the
brand. Some of the companies you mentioned have  a majority of their
manufacturing done overseas, and you don’t feel like you have a relationship
with the company. With a small pedal company, you can build a relationship with
the actual people that make your pedal. In our market, you are buying a product
that we built, and with the large companies, you are buying something they may
have had a part in designing, but they have someone else build it . On the other
hand , they have large engineering departments and economies of scale. But we
think there will always be people who like to know where both their food and
their pedals come from.

The Pedal Cracker is of the most
recent additions to the Cusack lineup. Can you explain a little bit about what
this pedal does and what the inspiration was behind it?

We had a friend who had a vision for guitar effects for vocalists
but wasn’t really sure what he wanted . While working on this application, we
came up with the Pedal Cracker. It is a microphone preamp with an effects loop
tailored to using guitar pedals, with a balanced XLR line output. It has a
momentary switch on the effects return which does the opposite of what the
bypass switch is doing, so the user can be very creative with it and the
trails/presend switch. It also has phantom power and a ground lift. You can use
it with vocals or miking instruments, and we’ve heard it also makes a great low
noise and cost mic pre for recording with ribbon mics.

Cusack Music Pedal Cracker
Since starting with pedals as your
main endeavor you’ve now expanded to other products such as guitar amps and
even guitar strings. Why the venture into these two worlds and what do you think
the Cusack range offers that’s different from what’s already out
there?

The amps happened because I had always wanted
to build an amp and I found out Reverend amps were for sale. They were
basically what I was thinking of anyway in terms of size and sound. We
redesigned them with as many USA made components as possible, to be as durable
as we could make them. We don’t stock them, they are built to order. Our
strings are made locally in West Michigan by a small shop with decades of
experience making machines for some of the big string makers. They make them
for us as a sideline and we package them. In both cases we just like having
the ability to offer someone who likes our products and what we do an option of
our own.

Another recent venture is the
acquisition of Mojo Hand FX. How did this come about and what was it about Mojo
Hand that excited you enough to take on another brand?

We spent a lot of time designing and building pedals for other
manufacturers, and we thought, why not have another line of our own. I had known
Brad Fee for many years and it was a combination of it being a great brand and
it being the right time for both Brad and I. I had talked to many others but
there was never really as good a fit as we had with Brad.

Mojo Hand FX
What’s the general philosophy behind
Mojo Hand and how do you differentiate between what will be a Cusack design and
what will be a Mojo Hand design as you move forward with both
companies?

Mojo Hand has a basic vibe of it being
vintage inspired, meaning the pedals are based on vintage pedal designs with
improvements. The Cusack line is more of a ground up approach to design. We
determine what we are going to make and then design it. We plan on keeping this
format for the foreseeable future and they will remain their own unique
brands.

Is there anything you can divulge as
to what the plans are with either Cusack Music or Mojo Hand as we move towards
and into 2017?

We plan to keep building brand
recognition with what we have but are also taking a look at new current
technologies for our designs that we are now working today.

Thanks so much for taking the time
to have a chat Jon! I’ve been fighting the urge with every question not be a
jerk and ask you questions about John Cusack movies. But maybe for one last
question, what’s your top 5 side 1 track 1’s?

You’re welcome Dan !  Let’s see.., Better off Dead, Say Anything,
The Sure Thing, Gross Pointe Blank, and One Crazy Summer,
hahaha!

Jon Cusack
Browse the range from Cusack Music here
Browse the range from Mojo Hand FX here

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