The Hills are Alive... with the Sound of Bookworm Effects' Pedals
Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from False Pterodactyl to Rozwell Kid, Goodwolf and Teammate's Scott Simons and beyond.
But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is coming up (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.
And today, we are chatting with Morgantown musician Brian Spragg, but he’s more than just a musician. Rather than focusing on his own accomplishments, Brian has given back to the West Virginia music scene by producing and selling guitar pedals and effects through his company Bookworm Effects. In addition to that, he teaches kids how to use those pedals and the basics of music through a Morgantown-based non-profit called PopShop. Without a doubt, Brian is a nontraditional, but very important part, of our growing music scene. And that’s why we’re talking to him today.
Brian Spragg is the founder of Bookworm Effects, a West Virginia-based company that produces guitar pedals and effects for musicians. You can check out the gear he makes on Facebook. And while you’re at it, go ahead and give A Change of Tune a rating and review on our Facebook so others can discover this chat. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.
On growing up on the border of Ohio and West Virginia:
I’m originally from Martins Ferry, Ohio, which is right next to Wheeling, West Virginia. If you wanted to do anything in my hometown, you had to go to Wheeling because there was absolutely nothing going on in Martins Ferry, especially no music venues. Every once in a while, they would try to get something together, but it wouldn’t really go well. I remember when we had a Park Legion uptown, where people would go bowling. It had a big space, and [my band at the time] talked about possibly doing a show there, but the owner was against it. He said, “Kids will bring drugs.” [And we’re thinking,] “Well, the idea is, if we had a music place, they would come to this instead of turning to drugs. You’re actually ruining it for everyone else.” So yeah, stuff like that is just super dumb. Just people stuck in their ways.
On getting involved with music in Ohio:
It was around 1997 when I started noticing more about music, so I bought more CDs. I had random CD’s or cassettes before that, but I never really cared about music. I started getting into music more, and that Christmas I got a guitar.
When I was 17 or 18, I was in a band that was really bad. It was kind of a hardcore-ish band. It was dumb. It was a bad band. But it helped me.
After that, I graduated high school and went for a semester to Ohio University Eastern. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with anything. Right after that, I went to five- or six-week recording workshop program in Chillicothe, Ohio, with my brother. As soon as I got out of that, I got a job in my hometown and started buying recording gear and learning about recording as I was doing it, recording friends’ bands. From there, I met a lot of the people I would be around more in Morgantown. I met more people in Morgantown who were into music, so it was easier for me to come here, play music, and record. So I moved to Morgantown about nine years ago.
I’ve been playing for nineteen years, which sounds so long. I’m old, and I should be a better guitar player, but I’m not.
On being in a "really, really bad" band in his teens:
It was called 77 and October. I don’t know if there’s anything online about us, but you can probably find it. There was this guy, I don’t know where he’s from, but he had a blog called Soft Rock Renegade, and it has a bunch of bands from around the time we were together. So if you’re listening to this interview… don’t listen to that band [laughing]. Please. I mean, I don’t hate it, but it was definitely my first band. I’m friends with all those guys [in the band] still, and they all say the same thing.
On getting into guitar pedals and effects:
I’ve really always been interested in pedals. My bad band had a ton of pedals whenever we played. But I didn’t have experience in producing them until two-and-a-half years ago, when I was finally sick of most of the overdrives and distortions I would buy. I would become disappointed and say, “Oh, I guess I’m stuck with this pedal now because I spent $100-$200 on it.” So I decided to look into it and first see how they worked. But as you’re learning more about what’s inside them, you think, “Well, it’s not that complicated (depending on the features).” So it started with that and snowballed. And now I’m obsessed with it, and I look at schematics all day.
On naming his company Bookworm Effects:
It was one of the first names that actually stuck. I remember thinking that I was going to put pedals into candy tins. But then I was like, “You know what, those are super flimsy and I really don’t want to do that.” I probably thought about that for, I don’t know, ten minutes.
But I was thinking of bookworm or bookmark, but bookworm just stuck. It’s kind of catchy, even though it’s kind of corny.
On guitar effects and the reason for using them:
You could play music all your life and never use a single pedal, but pedals (or any effects at all) are like different colors to paint with. So you can change something. It doesn’t have to be a drastic change; it can be something really subtle. But it can give a song or some piece of music a different feeling. It’s good to have different options for sound.
On which #WVmusic bands use Bookworm Effects products:
Bishops' Tucker Riggleman uses a couple different pedals of mine.
I don’t think they were really a band when I sold a pedal to Sara Rudy of Hello June. I don’t know if she uses it live now, but I sold it to here right at the beginning of the company.
Just recently, I sold one to Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak of The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die. That just happened. I just ironed that one out.
On collaborating with West Virginia artists on pedals:
I sent messages pretty far in advance saying, “Hey, I want to do this pedal, and I would like you to do the artwork for it.” This was probably eight months before I even launched the Kickstarter, so I didn’t want to rush anyone with the designs. I said, “Here’s the name of the pedal, and you can do whatever you want.”
I met Haypeep (or Sage Perrott) before that. We had a mutual friend before I moved to Morgantown, so we knew each other through them. But pretty much everyone else I met coming into Morgantown.
On building his first pedal:
The first one was real basic. I kept it really simple with just one knob of volume control. It was the very first Billy Pilgrim Overdrive. It didn’t take too long to do. It’s based off of an old design for a guitar effect called the electra distortion. There were these guitars in the ‘60s called electra guitars, and they had a bunch of effects built into them, and the electra distortion was built into a switch on the guitar itself. It’s based off of that, it’s not exactly that, but it was a good stepping stone learning about that because it’s a pretty basic overdrive circuit that responds to playing. There’s a ton of boutique pedal companies with effects based off of that.
On his favorite pedal:
I think my favorite is the Atticus Finch. I always wanted to build a pedal that was an overdrive that colored my sound in a good way and not a bad way. The term is overused in the pedal industry, but transparent overdrive means your guitar should sound the same going through the pedal and hits the amp. That’s why I like the pedal so much: it doesn’t change your sound too much; it changes just enough for a difference.
On future pedal designs:
I pretty much have a tremolo ready to be made, but I’m terrible at figuring out a name for it. I was thinking about something that would go along with tremolo, and there’s a J.D. Salinger story called “The Laughing Man.” [There could be an audio connection between] laughing and tremolo, which is when the sound cuts out, so that might be cool. But the thing about The Laughing Man is that it’s based on a short story, and I love the story, but it’s a hard to get an idea of what the pedal would look like. There’s not much of a description of the character of The Laughing Man, and if I base it off of what’s in there, it’s not a very good-looking image in my head.
On working with other West Virginia artists:
I have maybe five to ten West Virginia artists who want to design a pedal, and that’s great! [Laughing] I just have to design more pedals first.
Dylan Balliet, who also plays in The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die and does a solo thing called Spirit Night, expressed interest, and I want him to design a pedal. I’m just not sure which pedal yet.
And in Charleston, Dan Davis from Kin Ship Goods. I need to talk to him again, because I think we were talking about doing a limited run. So I have to get a hold of them soon. When I started the Kickstarter, he printed the first run of shirts for me. Kin Ship Goods doesn’t print other people’s shirts, so that was really sweet of them.
On the #WVmusic scene:
There are a ton of awesome bands and performers from West Virginia, and I’m happy to share the city and state with them. It’s great. It’s such a huge, weird music culture that no one really knows about. I really like how vast it is, with tons of different genres and things. It’s not like West Virginia only does one thing well; everything has something really good.
On teaching music classes at the Morgantown non-profit PopShop:
I teach a music program in Morgantown at a place called PopShop. Starting last summer, we had classes where you could learn what goes into a guitar pedal and then make-and-take your own pedal home. It’s a four-week class, and we have that every session every four months. I actually wouldn’t have gotten into learning about and making pedals were it not for PopShop and Chris Russell (who started PopShop).
Sometimes when we’re teaching kids and playing music, they won’t notice the difference if there’s distortion or no distortion. So I wanted to teach a pedals class to show what effects are and how they work and how to use them in a certain manner.
PopShop is so much fun. Kids, even adults, are getting together and learning to play as a band and learning how to work as a team. It sounds cheesy, but it’s super important as a band because you can’t have four people doing their own thing. That’s super rewarding, and knowing what these bands are capable of is super awesome.
Music featured in this #WVmusic chat: