Wednesday 6 April 2016

"Parting the fuzz seas with the Pharaoh of Black Arts": An Interview with Mark Wentz (Black Arts Toneworks)

By: Marc Gaffney & Mark Wentz

The essence of tone is truly what one hears in their mind and thus when they plug in and turn on, it is a point of reaching Valhalla for a guitarist or bass player. Tone is essentially what makes a lot of us tick. To say that some search for the eternal tone, much like a silver and turquoise emerald locket or a sunken treasure from the days of Edward Teach. It is simply the sound that makes us do what we do, play music.

When you have found that elusive tone, the grin on your face is like you won the lottery of sound, music and rock and fucking roll. Think of putting on an album as a kid, hearing the sound of Duane Allman, Stephen Stills, Hendrix, Terry Kath, Eddie Hazel, the greats of the greats. They all had amazing and sought after tone. Be it their hands, amps, guitars, or the square box that came out and electrified the world, the Fuzz pedal.
Fuzz has been a part of every style of music, every player uses the pedals differently, but in the end, be it country, rock, funk, or the next genre to come down the pipe, organic stealth healing doom alt country liquid earth rock. I read about it in Forbes.

The reason we are conversing about tone is because I had the chance to speak with Mark Wentz from Black Arts Toneworks, a sought after pedal made for the genuine artist that has that sound in his/her head and knew whom to chat with to get it.

So sit back in your favorite chair, grab a nice lemonade, some chips or what have you and enjoy my discussion with the master of the Pharaoh while we part the seas of fuzz.

Gaff- How did you get into making pedals? Was it something you did as a kid, were you into electronics? What was the genesis of it?

Mark- I was always a tinkerer and would always try to fix anything that was broken and take things apart and put them together again. In terms of pedals, it sort of came out of necessity. Officially, I had built an amp for a band I was playing in, it was a clone of the Marshall Super Bass, which is super loud and is really clean. In order to play it at the volume we needed to play at, I couldn’t get any distortion on the amp because simply it was too clean. So, I had a few pedals hanging around, I think a Rat pedal, nothing that I really liked.  I had some broken pedals lying around because friends knew that if they broke something, I would try and fix it or at least take a stab at fixing it. So I had a few in the closet in a box and basically I took the parts of all of them and made one that worked and it just happened to be a Big Muff, it was the black Big Muff, the Russian one and they were notoriously junky in terms of the wiring always breaking and it not working right. Anyway I had 3 of those and used whatever parts and got one working but hated the way it sounded. So I started tweaking on it and changing stuff until finally I got it the way I liked it. I think I put a couple of recordings up of the pedal  in chat rooms back then and a couple of guys really liked it, asked what it was from and loved the sound and wanted me to make the pedal for them. That is basically how it started. It was really something that small and that was it. It just grew from there and honestly I have never caught up. Since the first day I said I would build one of these, I have never had a day that I have not had something to build.

Gaff- When was this?

Mark- That was 2010. Going on 6 years of doing this. I think within the first year I was able to quit my job. I could stay home, build these and make more than what I was making going to work. So, it became a no brainer and my wife agreed, really it just made sense. Stay home and do it. My thing was as long as it allows me to quit my job, even if it doesn’t last. I think when I quit I could see that I had about 6 months of work to do. I thought to myself at the end of the 6 months I will just get another job. The one I had was not great, you know, I could have possibly if I had to, gone back and got the same job or did something different and make the same amount of money. Honestly, it wasn’t a huge risk. I mean I don’t have an education, the only thing I had was a will to work, my labor.

Gaff- So it has been 6 years now, any idea of how many pedals you have constructed in that time?

Mark- I am going to give you a rough estimation, I am not sure exactly how many models I have built. I think I 
have about 8 or 10 models I have built, and I am going to guess around 8 thousand and half of those are Pharaohs. If you take everything else I build, that would constitute the other half. That is how popular the Pharaoh is. That is what started the whole thing for me.

Gaff- That is what I was going to ask, was the Pharaoh the thing that catapulted everything?

Mark- Absolutely, the Pharaoh is the life giver, the bread and butter.  The one that makes the way for everything else. Everything else just fills in and is a slave to the Pharaoh. It is the king around here.

Gaff- That thing is parting seas and shit

Mark- Oh yeah.

Gaff- So is it you making all the pedals or because you have grown, do you have people helping out?

Mark- I have a few guys and I have had people over time. All part timers but really it is people that really just wanted to be involved. I did try I think one time to have someone help out who had no idea but just wanted a job and that did not work. Even now the guys I have around are here because they love being involved. They all have other jobs or businesses of their own. They will just come in for a few hours a week or whenever they can make it in. You know, it is an open door policy. They are my friends and I trust their skill level and their aptitude and their attention to the details that they have to be attentive to. So basically it is really that when they can come in, they know what needs to be done, understand the process by now and come in and hangout. However, mostly it is just me. My wife does all the computer type stuff, the shipping and the monetary things. She is great with that and I am pretty much staying at the work bench

Gaff- Do you do the artwork also, or do you have someone that takes care of that for you?

Mark- I actually have a few guys that do the art work. You know it is weird, as far as the art goes, most of my friends are actually artists. I have very few friends that are musicians. I mean they might be artists whom dabble with music but they are art guys. For whatever reason and I am not sure why as I am not an artist but I seem to gravitate towards to people that are great artists. So I have friends that are really good at this shit. Whenever I have an idea for something, I will always approach who I think is the right person for that idea or whatever the project may be. Sometimes I will have an idea and sometimes it will be carte blanche and do whatever the fuck you want. You are the artist and I am a firm believer that if you hire someone to do something for you, you are doing that because you trust them and if you trust them you will let them do their thing. That is how you get the most out of people by allowing them to use their creativity and their skills to do something cool.  That idea has never failed.

Gaff- Totally, if guys are doing something they love then it really isn’t like work as they enjoy it. Also, it is great that there is such a trust between you and the artist that the work and the beautiful quality surely shines through. The pedal is such a complete package.

Mark- Thank you.

Gaff- With your pedals they almost have their own personality. Which is one thing that truly makes them stand out. You can honestly tell that someone took the time and came up with some absolutely beautiful designs.
Mark- Oh thank you so much

Gaff- A killer package; killer pedal that looks and sounds great, you nailed it.

Mark- Thanks man.

Gaff- So the Pharaoh, was that something that artistically went through many changes and technically went through changes or was it just hit out of the park, straight off the bat?

Mark- It was really the only thing I was doing. I mean I made it  for myself, the one I recorded with, was a big muff that was modified to my taste. There was never any intention at that point that I was going to ever make one of these for anybody or that I was ever going to be a pedal builder. It never even entered my mind. It was made because people wanted it. I wasn’t coming up with a product that I was trying to shill on people. It was people wanting it and I remember the first time, I think it was 3 guys that wanted it and they were like, hey, I want one of those if you would build me one. I texted my buddy who was a graphics guy and he was working at a printing shop at that time and I was like, “Hey listen to this, it is crazy but, could you print on a guitar pedal?”
He was like, “I don’t even know what the fuck a guitar pedal is but probably.”

So, I came up with the name and I was like, if I am going to sell these things wouldn’t it be cool if I had some artwork on it and I guess you need a name. So by the end of the day we had roughed out the idea through texting.  He said you are gonna call it the Pharaoh but by who? So I came up with the name Black Arts Toneworks. I honestly never thought I would do more than those 3. I remember I ordered enough parts for 6 pedals and I thought, that was fucking awesome and no shit, before I even got in the parts in for those pedals I now had been up to 18, then 20, then 24 pedals. I have no idea of how or why it really even happened other than the fucking thing sounds good.

 Really from my point of view, of being the consummate fucking underdog kind of guy, I never had any good breaks or anything handed to me, and when I saw that, I was like, “this is what catching lightning in a bottle means.”  It wasn’t quite the Honeymooners get rich quick scheme, but I couldn’t believe people actually wanted to pay me for these things, so I took it seriously you know. To me it was a little piece of sonic art. It is amazing to me that I have built 4000 Pharaohs. I have had 4000 people hand me money, plus the other pedals. It’s an amazing thing when people will give you their hard earned money. Like I said, I was a poor guy too, working my ass off, trying make ends meet, so I totally understood what it would have been like for me to spend 100 dollars on my guitar rig. So you know, taking that all into consideration I never took it lightly that people wanted to pay me for these things. Again, that is why there should be cool artwork on it. I know what it takes to make a pedal and when someone is charging 3-400 dollars it is like you know what, they are selling something that is kind of an intrinsic thing. There is nothing in that pedal that makes it 3-400 dollars’ worth; so when people wanna hand me money for my product, it is the hugest compliment I could ever get and really I can’t say Thank you enough to the people that have done it and continue to. It is crazy. 

Gaff- If anything, it seems to be on the rise which is a testament to what you are doing and building. There are certain pedals that seem to take on a life of their own and for myself, having done so many shows and seeing the amount of players using your pedals and the guys that rave about them, it is such a testament to your work. You see your pedal and they are not surrounded by 4 other fuzz pedals so thanks for making a killer fucking pedal for the guitarist out there that need and feel their tone in their plums. Having said that, how did you come up with the Black Forest, which is what I use?

Mark- The Black Forest, the story behind that one is that I spoke to Wino about it and I guess he was playing a Pharaoh and he said he was going to be doing a new project and he kind of described to me the sound and the feel and just the overall vibe he was going for. As we were having the conversation I was formulating in my head what would I do and just by our conversation.  I was like I think this circuit, this overdrive circuit is going to be the perfect thing to use as a springboard for that. He wanted something that was gritty and would clean up a little bit but can also be a burly fuzz with an organic sound, not too compressed, kind of a gnarly sounding fuzz. So just going through that and he was also telling me the different guitars he was using at that point, so that is where I said I am just going to add the 6 way switch to the front so you can take your single coil p 90 guitar and turn the knob to the right and it will be just as fat as if you took a humbucker guitar and turned the knob a bit to the left and you can keep them sounding sort of very similar as far as their fatness and girth and where they are filling up the mix.

You know, you can kind of tailor that. So that was the reason for that. It was really talking to him and finding out what he wanted and it was really just going to be a one off thing for Wino but after I built it, I was like fuck, this thing is too cool. I was still working my job, and Black Arts wasn’t a full time thing at that point, so I was like this might be the final piece of the puzzle that would give me enough full time work to do actually do this for a living. That was the third part of the puzzle as that point I had 3, The Pharaoh, then the LSTR and then the Black Forest. It came out of necessity, and my interpretation of the conversation we had about sound and he fucking loved it.

Gaff- Obviously there are different guys that play your pedals, Mike Scheidt plays your pedal, was that something that happened in line with what transpired with Wino?

Mark- Well with Mike he had emailed me and said that he had been looking at the pedals for quite some time and I am thinking about buying one and which one would you suggest I buy? First of all, all of these amazing songs he had written were godly to me and he was on a pedestal to me, so when he emailed me I let him know I will send you a few to try out but what I think we should do is build you one to your specs. Let’s do something that has your fingerprints on it that gets you the sound that you want. Let’s not try to make something fit you but rather make something for you. He loved the idea and my idea was, I’m not sure how much you know of his early records, but used this old grey Ross fuzz pedal, that was his main sound, but he quit using it. So what I was thinking, why don’t we take your old sound and fix it and make it work for you again. So basically, that Ross distortion pedal is virtually the same pedal as a DOD 250 or an MXR distortion pedal. They are all really a similar pedal, very similar circuit. So, he loved that idea and couldn’t believe I would do that. I wouldn’t do it for just anybody, but for me, if I can give back to him or to Wino, Pike or to any of these other guitar players, I mean we all rip their riffs off, so it is the least I can do.

So over the course of about 6 months we sent pedals back and forth to each other and I think I built like 3 prototypes. He always had one and I had one. Then I had a control pedal which was the stock pedal, actually we each had a stock pedal, each had a prototype and we would send the prototypes back and forth. He would play it for a couple of weeks and he would say, “You know I kind of like this or what if we did this.” So I would make a tweak and send it to him. He would send me his back and I would do the tweak to it and in about 6 months we had worked through all of these different variations. The main thing I did to it was I added another gain stage at the end, so it was loud. That was Mike’s biggest complaint, I love the sound but if you dime it, it reaches unity and you really can’t push it harder than your guitar signal, it doesn’t really do that. So first thing was to fix that, it’s as loud as fuck now. I also added an active EQ to it.

So now, it is an active 3 band EQ after the distortion, now you have 3 bands of active EQ to push whatever frequency into the final gain stage which will distort that frequency specifically. It is a really neat way to handle it. He loved it so his biggest thing was well if I wanna use it for a really thin cutting sound or if I just wanted to be a bright boost or if I wanna play clean through it, he really wanted it to do all these things, so we worked through it and really the volume was there, it was just getting the EQ right. Really getting it voiced the exact way Mike wanted it. It was about the fourth or fifth variation and he was like, “Dude, you nailed it, this thing is fucking perfect.”

Gaff- When I interviewed Mike he was raving about the pedal and had nothing but such wonderful praise, and hence coming from him, that is such an amazing praise. It is pretty flattering for you and your pedals that some of the most innovative and revered guitarists  are proudly going to BAT and letting the world know about these beloved pedals.

Mark- I would only be able to ethically build something that I would play. I am not putting a circuit into something and throwing it against the wall hoping someone will like it. I already know that I like it and if you like it then that is fucking awesome. I have been really lucky to have people like my creations. I never set out to make a pedal for one certain thing or style, because to me, and you know this, guitar tone is either good or not. You know what is crazy is that you have kids that think you need a certain brand of gear to play a certain style of music. Really nothing could be farther than the truth. I am almost 50 and the thing was when I was growing up tone was in your fingers, in your hands, that is where it came from .To me, yeah the tone comes from your hands, the ideas come from your head.  If you think that there is one type of gear and guitar to play in a doom band, fuck, Miles Davis at times did not even have a guitar player in his band and he was a Doom mother fucker. That mother fucker could doom with the best of them.  So to me, the whole doom thing is mental, really it is a place where your head is at and tone is where your hands are at. People don’t understand, they will see Pike playing a certain amp. But when he records he will play through different types of amps, you do not know that or would not know that because he can make anything sound like him. So considering that, I would not make a pedal for a certain style as the pedals are really just for guitar players, bass players. I make pedals for people that can actually play, not mimic a trend.

Gaff- So true, there are guys that could hop on an acoustic or a uke and the sentiment of it or the vibe that is let off could be the heaviest thing in the world. There is a misconception at times that truthfully you would be better off at times tossing some people down an elevator shaft. Look at Danny Gatton, a tele through a fender and Christ the tone, his hands were chalk full of tone. As we get older we get it.

Mark- Yea, when we grew up and played, most of the time it was through garbage. Fuck I didn’t even own an Epiphone

Gaff- Either did I

Mark- The first day I got a Peavey amp I was on top of the world

Gaff- I had a fucking Peavey Bandit and I was in my 20’s.

Mark- Now you couldn’t convince some people that you can play different styles of music without having certain gear. It has become that weird and it drives me fucking crazy (laughing, both of us).  I am on the front line man. I will get an email and it will say, “I wanna Doom.” So I will tell them to live a little bit, have some hardships, see the world for what it is and then we don’t have to talk. You do not get Doom by buying a Matamp.

Gaff- I remember buying my first Gibson LES PAUL and I was in my 40’s from Mr. Music, was wonderful, at a young age I couldn’t afford things and I knew nothing about gear, I would plug in and really just see what sounded good and would ask guys that knew things about what to look for in terms of gear that I could afford. Not spending cash because I did not have one. When you finally saved up and got a pedal that blew you away it was amazing.

Mark- That is the way I always looked at everything, I am making gear which is a tool. Whether a guy digs a hole with a gold plated shovel or a Walmart shovel, it is still a tool. The end result is, he digs a hole with it. Everything else is just window dressing. Honestly, I really look at these pedals as just a tool. It is a tool for you to get from point A to point B; hopefully it works for the application you are using it for. You wouldn’t try to dig a grave with a pick, you would buy a shovel. So if you want heavy distortion you get this, if you want overdrive, you get that. It doesn’t make your style of music. Also, what are the settings?  You need to use your ears. It works best when you turn it on and play it. So basically if gear is good tonally it will work for whatever you want it to in any genre you are playing. 

Gaff- A nice thing about the pedals you have made is that they transcend so many boundaries, can be played on a soul album if the player chooses such,  think about Eddie Hazel, so funky but fierce tone, just so nasty, so huge props on making a tool that transcends over so many genres and lets the player really pour out there heart and soul in their music and use the Pharaoh or Black Forest to hear that undeniable tone that once it hits you, it’s like finding that certain Chanteuse or Siren that makes you sail through fucking waters that engulf ships, but once the Grail has been obtained, it is a chalice you will never give up. Your pedals are played by guys that are so revered and have gone through hardships and so many shows that it is wonderful to be able to speak to you and know that you are into it for all the right reasons. The fact that these players talk so highly of you and loved the process speaks such volumes so congratulations. Have you ever thought of trying to make delays or phasers?

Mark- If I ever had the time? To be honest I would only make a pedal that would be played on my own pedal board. I love a les Paul, a fuzz, maybe a wah and maybe a delay but for not a lot of usage.  A 100 watt Marshall through 8 12 inch speakers. That is my sound. So when it gets beyond that, it is kind of out of my realm. A guy asked me to make a few reverb pedals; he said they were the next thing. So I built a few reverb pedals and you know what, they sounded like reverb. To be honest I do not know the difference between good and bad reverb. I don’t have an ear for that because the 25 years I had been playing before I even built a pedal, I never used reverb. If there was reverb on an amp, it was always turned off. I didn’t have much aptitude for what made a great reverb pedal. So I shit canned it.

When it comes to delays, there are so many people that make amazing delay pedals. I think:  “What am I going to do any different than window dressing?”  It is not going to be any different. To me there are 3 delay pedals that would last forever, an old DOD analog pedal, that little dirty fucker that sounded amazing. A Boss dd6 or dd7, what am I going to do that is not already on there. If I am to jump into it, I am going into something I do not have the knowledge for why would I even need it to do more than it already does.  It has settings but I only use one.  So I would not be someone to make a delay, but in terms of flavors of distortion, I hear a thousand flavors, it is like I am walking into an ice cream shop for that. Now I can hear the difference, I can know the difference and I can understand the difference in gain structures and how they work with pickups and an amp, and how you can layer the gain. That to me is my language. I get it. So it is not that I couldn’t venture out but I am having too much fun experimenting and making distortion, I like it loud and unfortunately delays don’t make my guitar louder, so fuck um (both are laughing)

Gaff- That is name of the article right there, “Delay, Fuck You.” I use a Mooer delay, Korg tuner and the Black Forest.

Mark- You are a man of my cloth so you get what I am saying. There are way too many flavors of distortion that are out there that I am interested in.

Gaff- so many different tones and moods, when you find the one that fits and you play your first riff, we go mother fuckers
Mark- when you are buying a pedal, are you into the way it feels?  I mean a Big Muff will feel differently than a tube screamer to your fingers, it comes through in a different way. There is a certain feel; you can feel the speakers moving in a certain way. For me that is important, that as it feels right with my guitar. It doesn’t feel foreign to the set up I am using. It feels as if it is organic to everything I am using. I definitely strive for that.

Gaff- I think for me when it comes through the strings and it puts a smile on my face, you know you did it right. That is the easiest way for me to describe it.

Mark- Exactly, it becomes a part of the rig.

Gaff- So now, I couldn’t imagine not having it. You hear a pedal and you try it and bring it home and your wife is like, you bought another pedal?

Mark- well, that is when you tell her you are now saving money because you finally found the one. This pedal saves money.

Gaff- So do you see yourself doing this for as long as you can?

Mark- Absolutely and even if I didn’t do it for a living I would still build them. If I found something else that paid for my life, I would still tinker, I was into it before I ever got paid for one so it is something that I will always be doing. I know I am pretty lucky able to do this for a living and the return really outweighs the pain. I have been able to work with people that I revere, and that is such a huge payback for me. I started off making a pedal, and it caught on. So the fact that I love what I do and can help bring certain sounds to life is amazing.

Gaff- Mark thank you so much for taking the time and also for making such a bad mother fucking line of pedals.

Mark- Thank you and it was my pleasure.

The End

Folks, this is the meaning of cheating the system, when you truly love what you do and can get paid for it and can smile and hear your hard work and collaboration cranking across the speakers from your car, work bench or simply while grabbing a brew in the backyard, you have won and won the lotto of happiness.

A smile that can transcend so many moods is one that Mark Wentz has achieved and is revered by some of my favorite players in the world. We could have talked about guys he has made pedals for but instead he let the sound and tonality do the talking for him. He exudes class and truly has grown into an expert of his craft yet still yearns to fulfill his palette of flavorful distortion. There is no relying on old prototypes and blue prints, he is eagerly listening and vibing off the sounds that make him dig the sounds in the Baskin Robbins in his membrane. The sounds are one of 51 flavors, with caps and titanium transistors as flavors, tone and gain pots with pictures of Talisman readying to go into war and that war is the battle of Rock n Roll and his job is filling the cannon with the fuzz and distortion of the Rock world. He is a General in the ranks of tone and is teaching the rest of his company what makes the audible system tick and brings a smile to the cadets of fuzz.

So, players of the 6 or 4 string, get yourself some Black Arts Toneworks pedals and get them while the getting is 
good. A scoop of the Black forest, a sundae of the Quantum Mystic, make it a 5 scoop and wash it down with a milk shake of LSTR.

Your auditory system will be full but in the morning, surely wanting more.

Thanks again Mark for the time, the tone and the telltale truth.

Eat a peach,


More info: official