A Birmingham musician's custom guitar pedals and hand-made drums have become favored by indie-rock royalty.
October 15, 2009
Self-described on his web site as "a mad genius always exploring the sonic boundaries and ripping holes through time and space," local entrepreneur and guitarist Emanual Ellinas has found a niche selling a series of custom-built guitar effects pedals that he markets nationally under the name Sitori Sonics. (An effects pedal converts an electric guitar's basic sound into any one of dozens of sonic tones.) Guitar noise gods Sonic Youth currently own pedals made by Ellinas, as do The Flaming Lips, The White Stripes, Annie Clark (formerly of The Polyphonic Spree, now solo as St. Vincent), and Scottish band Mogwai.
"I don't know if it was out of curiosity or simply being cheap, but I've always tried to fix all my own guitar equipment when it was broken," explains the 37-year-old Ellinas, who was born in Atlanta. "I've been building guitar pedals [professionally] for about three years. I got started learning how to put a new battery connection on a pedal when it broke, and that gave me the confidence to change out the input jack when that broke."
His propensity for tinkering was evident at an early age. "When I was in third or fourth grade, I would do things like take a microwave apart when my parents would leave, and check the parts out. If I could put it all back together before they got home—so I wouldn't get in trouble—I knew I was getting better at it. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew enough to know how to unscrew things and screw 'em back in. And most of the time, my parents never knew that anything had happened. I soon learned how microwaves work. Then I ventured into more and more things."
|Emanual Ellinas has found a niche selling a series of custom-built guitar effects pedals. (Photographs by Brian Francis.) (click for larger version)|
Before delving into guitars and pedals, Ellinas developed a passion for making African-style drums. "I started making drums around '93 or '94. I had a small store in Little Five Points in Atlanta. Actually, I shared a shop with a couple who did [body] piercings. It was drums and piercings—all of your primitive needs. I'd literally be selling a drum and you'd hear somebody scream. It was pretty funny." He soon began selling his drums on the music festival circuit, manning a booth next to those offering T-shirts and the like. He opened a drum shop after moving to Humboldt County in northern California.
"This was pre-internet and it was a small town. Soon, I had pretty much sold drums to everybody that was gonna buy one. So it was time to move on," Ellinas recalls.
"I always tell people it takes three days and ten years to make a drum. It took a long time, like ten years, to be able to make them that quickly. And honestly, if you don't count the drying time—the glue, letting the skin dry—if you don't count any of the waiting around time, I've got it down to about three hours, start to finish," he explains. "But literally, it took a decade to hone the process. And it's always just been me. I've had a helper or two every now and then, but mostly because I'd gotten bored and just wanted somebody to talk to. I did it all from scratch; I would cut all the wood and hammer all the steel rods into rings and weld them, shape the goatskin. Even ate a couple of the goats [laughs]. That was kind of strange, but they were good!"
Ellinas obtained the goatskins from a neighbor. "He had goats for milk and to trim his backyard," Ellinas recalls. "Then he came over one day and said, 'Hey, I'm gonna slaughter these goats, do you want the skins?' And I said sure, so he showed up the next morning with the skins and some meat. I cooked it up the best I knew how. I don't know if there's a wrong way to cook goat, but it was tasty. Usually, I'd get skins from Africa or Pakistan because I was probably making 5 to 10 drums a week, at the least. In California, there were a lot of goat farms because it's kind of a different scene out there. But I would far outstrip the local supply."
Ellinas eventually tired of making percussion instruments and shifted his skills to building guitar amps and effects pedals, though his interest in drums has recently been rekindled after a long break. "I've just started back making drums. I was doing really well selling them on eBay years ago, and then guys in Africa kinda figured out eBay and started pawning off terrible tourists' drums that you could get for a third of the price of mine," he says, laughing. "All the [customers] were like, 'Oh, these are authentic African drums!' But they were just junk, quality-wise. I couldn't compete with that, though I tried to. I started making drums out of pine and stuff instead of mahogany, trying to cut corners. [Cheap wood such as pine doesn't resonate as well as more exotic ones.] But it was still just as much work. I quit doing that for a good while and started importing sitars and stuff from India. I just started doing the drums again. I put a couple out at Highland Music [where he's currently employed] just to see if anybody noticed them. Lots of people have shown interest."
| (click for larger version)|
"I'm a big pedal freak. At one point I was buying two or three a day on eBay," Ellinas says of his fascination with guitar gadgets. "And I'd play them and within two or three minutes I'd figure out what I hated about them. I'd re-list them on eBay and would usually make money because I'm good at selling stuff," he boasts without a pause. Indeed, his web site offers a bit of comical arrogance, especially when touting his Reel Repeat effects pedal: "Tired of the same old delay [pedal] you've heard on every U2 song since 1985? We are. . . . Use [Reel Repeat] once and you'll box up that old tape delay [pedal] and toss it in the attic. Better yet, sell it to some moron on eBay for way too much."
Regarding his motivation to build his own effects pedals, Ellinas explains: "There wasn't really anything out there that was doing what I wanted it to do that was under $300 or $400. I couldn't afford that much for a pedal. My car cost $500 [laughs]. So I made a delay pedal and an overdrive pedal, a fuzz pedal, and a phaser pedal. One day I stopped in Highland Music to see what they thought about them and they bought one on the spot, and two other guys in the store bought two more. The store said they would stock them, and that's how I ended up working at Highland Music."
| (click for larger version)|
"Emanual is making guitar pedals like they made them in the '60s, all hand-wired, high-quality," explains Highland Music owner Don Murdoch. "In a nutshell, the big corporations would have to charge $300 to $400 for pedals like these. Emanual's selling most of his pedals for $168." Ellinas' enthusiasm for his creations is one of his strengths, as well. "He's such a great salesman," says Murdoch. "He's got a knack for making people really like him. He could be selling whatever. . . . And he's a damn good guitar amp maker, too.
Ellinas says the pedal sales really took off when members of Sonic Youth mentioned on their web site that they were using his pedals. "After that, I started selling eight or nine a day—beginning, like, that night."
On a recent Saturday afternoon at Highland Music, Ellinas' wife Valerie, who plays with him in their band Nag Hammadi (described on the band's MySpace page as "Middle Eastern space rock"), holds their three-month-old daughter while good-naturedly scolding her husband for a recent email he sent to Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. "One of Sonic Youth's two bass players, Mark Ibold, also played in the band Pavement, which was a loud band, and Sonic Youth is a loud band. Ibold was worried that my bass fuzz pedal was too loud and was going to break his amp," Ellinas says, offering up another dose of his infectious laughter. "Ranaldo had emailed me about the pedal and I answered all the questions about the pedal and at the end, I literally told him to tell Mark to 'put his big-boy pants on and play the fuzz [pedal] as it was.' Sonic Youth and I were swapping emails every other day or so, and then I didn't hear from them for like two weeks. I kinda thought that I had messed up. But I always just assume everybody has the same sense of humor that I do. And then eventually I wondered, 'Well, maybe they don't. Maybe it turns out I am a jerk. But it turned out they had gone to Japan and they weren't mad at me at all." &
To see examples of Ellinas' guitar pedals, visit www.sitorisonics.com or drop by Highland Music (254-3288, hlandmusic.com) at 3000 Clairmont Avenue South on Southside.