In this edition of The Journey, We catch up with Philippe from Caroline Guitar Company


What is the story behind the company name?
I had a provisional patent idea for an actual guitar – but I just couldn’t get it made. I’d done some research and realized how most guitar companies had old, very male sounding names, and Caroline sounded right to me. It kind of fit with being in South Carolina, but if we were CAROLINA guitar company, I don’t think I could ever move!
When did you first start building or messing with pedals?
I’d say around 1998. I’d gotten fed up with the rack setup I was using – an ADA MP-1 and Carvin tube power amp – so I went to Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center and traded it all for an Ampeg reissue tube amp and a Tech 21 drive pedal. I got a TS-9 – Analog Man modded it. I had one of the first Keeley Blues Driver mods. I was on a quest. Eventually I would rewire guitars and just start figuring out how some things worked.  I had to repair things and soon I was chasing schems on the web. I graduated with a MBA in 2009 during the financial collapse, so I took a couple electrician classes just to establish the basics. From then, we meessed with DIY stuff, some mods – there are like a dozen or so Tube Screamers we modded – and then made about 40 Wave Cannons in 2010. I figured we’d sell them, I’d use it as proof of concept for getting a real job, and that would be that – but here we are. 

Your approach seems to be more unique and creative than many in the industry, why is that?
Well, I appreciate the compliment. Thank you! I actually consider what we do to be pretty conservative – especially when I look at what brands like Chase Bliss, ZVex, Spaceman or Dr Scientist do, among others. We’ve come to see our product identity as “industrial strength fun appliance” – our work tends to get noticed for the out-there stuff it can do, while it can still be dialed in to behave.  I’m really not that motivated to complete a portfolio or product line. I’m incredibly slow. It looks like I’m lazy. But I’m listening, searching, experimenting, and designing to try to achieve an outcome, and that outcome has more to do with feel and experience than product features or how it might fit into a catalog. It’s important for me to make stuff that I think people could use for a lifetime of playing, that will challenge them to find new things, and makes them feel inspired – while also not so intimidating that they can’t just plug in, play, and get a feel for where they want to go.

When you set out to design a new pedal, how do you approach it? Is it a crazy idea in your head, an inspiration from some need or something else?
I think a lot of it takes time. My dad was a writer and newspaper managing editor, and I think a lot of the magic in creative endeavors, whether in design or music or art, is in the editing and revising. So I’ll get moving in a direction, but then I’m willing to totally trash, deviate, or revisit the idea. I’ve driven my guys and a collaborator crazy on a project this year. I’ve basically reinvented the wheel, revised multiple things, total do-overs…it’s gotten pretty stupid. But for the pedal to work, it needs to inspire, it needs to feel and sound and work and look different than what’s already out there. 

For those who don’t know about Premier Guitar Article on pedalboard layouts, tell us about that diagram you made?
Ha! I got some grief about that. It was before I contributed to PG, but I’m proud to have done it. I made a little drawing poking fun at a common pedalboard setup that I saw too often on the web. People went nuclear. I got so many nasty messages. Some insisted I was insulting their religious faith – their religious faith! – by making fun of their pedalboard setup. At least a dozen insisted that such a setup was all they would ever need to play or make music. I made note of some of them and revisited their social media accounts a year later. Most  had changed their setups like I said they probably would, while the others had seemingly just quit playing music. They’d grown bored with their pricey toy and moved onto another. It reminded me of every fad with conspicuous consumption growing up – the race to have the nicest remote control car, the fanciest  basketball shoes, and so on – all within a tightly imitative frame.
What are your thoughts on the state of the gear industry right now?
We need more musicians, less snake oil, we need to get younger, and we need more diversity. More women, more people from different backgrounds. We’re in a remarkable industry niche, one of the rare industries where consumers will pay a premium for American manufacturing and quality. We can’t risk screwing this up with frauds who get caught and give the impression that everyone cheats like them. There are honest builders earning that equity with each and every sale. The state of rock and roll and many guitar driven genres is in some trouble. Listen to a pop or hip-hop radio station. They almost never play a song older than a year. Now listen to a rock, or alternative station. They have to reach back through decades to maintain a playlist. They aren’t filling the airwaves with artists who are relevant right now. Look at the Billboard Top 100. Unless we want guitar to go the way of saxophone or accordion, we need young people making music with guitar related gear. 

Young people buy music and go see shows made by other young people. That means we need young people playing music. We need to be cool with kids making an awful loud noise in the garage when they practice drums or guitar and so on.

You have a pretty strong take on artist endorsements, specifically people asking for “free stuff” from companies. Why is that, and how do you handle those seeking price breaks or free gear?
I just think it’s a very slippery slope. I don’t hassle bands for free tickets under the premise of “exposure” to our tens of thousands of social media followers. I pay for tickets. Their work as artists is worth paying for. Our work is too.
Tell us about your gear you have and love. What about that “Go to” strat we keep seeing?
Ha! That’s my white partscaster with the ’83 neck. We couldn’t afford a “real” Strat growing up, but one day at the shop I went to for lessons, the repair guy told my dad he had a Fender neck and a Japanese body he’d sell us for $100 that we could put together. It grew from there. I’ve always been unafraid to experiment on that thing because it’s not “valuable” – but the truth is after 25 years of being played, it has cooked together really nicely. We weren’t afraid to swap pickups , tuners, or bridge for whatever. It has a particularly fiesty personality. It’s heavy for a strat – close to 9 pounds. Lindy Fralin said it was a “Les Paul Junior in a strat’s clothing” even before he recommended pickups. Every real player I know loves that thing. They’ll say things like “you just can’t find a raw player ones like this anymore” but the trick is to look for the ones that you can tell somebody played and loved and was unafraid to make work for them.
I just picked up an old Sovtek Tube Midget – which to my ears, sounds like a JCM800 but even better. It’s like the nasty wiring and components have taken the things I loved about an 800 and made it even more. And there are countless pedals, to this day, that still inspire me. 
If you could go back in time and offer advice to yourself based on what you’d learned from being in the industry for a while, what would you say?
Adapt. Improve. Don’t get stuck on something out of habit. If it’s not working for you, change it. Over the years I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, Brian, about the work you’ve done and steps you’ve taken at Porter Pickups to manage and improve your craft and production. Your audience and your customers will tell you what they love about your work and what they wish you might do differently. Believe them, but believe in yourself as well. 
Brian’s Note: Thanks! Appreciate that!