Roger Gastrow is an enigma: working out of his solar-powered workshop outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Roger builds his own line of effects pedals and amplifiers.
For over 40 years, Roger has assembled every one of his creations by hand: component by component, piece by piece.
After testing one of Roger's pedals, I went in search of more info about Roger's brand - RPG Electronics: no website, no instragram, only an email address and a few reviews by very happy users. One forum user described him as a "rocket scientist when it comes to building pedals and amps".
With comments like that, you can see why Roger is happy to let his work do the talking!
Read on below to hear from Roger about his favourite creations, learn more about what the future holds for RPG Electronics, and take stock of Roger's advice for new players in the effects game.
“RPG Electronics” is a somewhat elusive name in the effects world – pedals appear on eBay every now and then, sell quickly, and then and disappear into the ether once more. Roger, as the man behind the brand, can you tell us what it’s all about?
My Pedals and amplifiers are handmade, limited run and will always stay that way. I have no website as of yet, and prefer to sell items as they are made. I always wanted to make equipment that players would love and continue to use. So many effects seem to hold interest for such a short time. My shop is powered by solar electricity, heated with wood, and is just a comfortable place to create in. When I first came out with the Turbodrive, a group consisting of a large music store owner, a marketing expert, and a lawyer met with me about producing my pedals in large quantity in China and then flooding the market with them. My response was …. What makes them different than anything else out there then? It’s just not where I wanted to be.
How long have you been building FX pedals and how did you get started?
I’ve been building pedals and repairing equipment since September 1975…..41 years. I started playing guitar on a Norma electric guitar played through my Dad’s Premier 71 amplifier. All the other kids had Fenders or Marshalls so I spent a lot of time trying to find out how to make the Premier sound better. I would visit the Waukesha public library and research anything I could on amplifiers, effects and synthesizers and then experiment. Years later, I would find out this was the same library Les Paul sat in when figuring out his projects. (My Grandma actually went to school with him!).
What do you think makes your designs stand out from the crowd?
Decades of experiments, mistakes, and experience. Using good components properly is essential. Cutting corners for production’s sake or for the profitability of a unit will let everyone down. I try to design circuits that are simple, robust and repairable, and I stand behind what I make. I think if someone spent their hard earned money on my pedal or amplifier, then they deserve my attention…..and I appreciate their confidence in my product.
"There’s still much more to be discovered…. old and new technology. Advice for anyone getting started in the field? Do it for the right reason."
- Roger Gastrow
I was one of the lucky few to grab a “Turbodrive Custom” on eBay. What exactly is this pedal and how many of them are out there?
There are about 200 Turbodrive Customs out there, and about 600 Turbodrives. The Turbodrive was my quest to make a better Tubescreamer. First, you have to define exactly what a Tubescreamer is though. With all the variations, chips used etc., everyone has their own definition of what it is. I started with the core circuit, lots of mods, and after 9 months of work, had exactly the sound I heard in my head. Two weeks later I coupled the Butt circuit with it and the Custom was born. The Blue Flame pedal and “Anthony Gomes Secret Weapon” are actually Turbodrives with custom paint finishes.
There are quite a lot of controls packed into this pedal: alongside the usual “Drive” control we have “Butt” and “Mojo” potentiometers, separate “Output” controls and “Turbo In/Out” and – best of all – a “Butt Out” switch. How does this all fit together?
The Custom is actually two pedals in one. First, the drive control is just that. There is actually twice the drive you would find in a typical Tubescreamer available. Mojo is the tone control. It took a while to find the right components to give just the right midrange chew that the Turbodrive is known for. The output controls the volume. If you have a Turbodrive Custom, the butt control is a resonant boost control that will make your open back speaker cab sound like a 4x12 closed back.
With it turned down however, and using the second volume control, it makes a great clean boost. The first Turbodrive Customs also had a Warp/ Turbo switch in the Turbodrive tone control section. This would allow you to select between standard Turbodrive tone or raise the frequency of the Mojo control. Not very many players used this feature… so it was removed after the first 20 or so units.
There seem to be quite a few other RPG Electronics pedals out there. Could you give us a run-down on some of them?
In the picture I’ll start at the top left with the Roctavia. It’s an octave pedal that uses germanium diodes in a ring modulator circuit to get octaves in the analog realm. It has a tone control that filters off the nasties, and a switch that shuts off the octave function, giving a great fuzz tone. I was amazed seeing a player getting space gong sounds from it!
Next is the Groove-o–tron which is an envelope filter. It has sensitivity and pump controls and allow you to adjust it to your playing style. There is also a Groovy/Funky switch that changes the octave of the filter.
Next is the Gas Pedal. What goes in…. more comes out, a clean boost. It’s great for lighting up the first stage of a tube amp or buffering a cranky effect pedal.
The Fuz Bomb is my tilt of the hat to the Fuzz Face. It has germanium transistors from the 60’s that are run through an analyser, matched, and checked for leakage. About 1 in 10 meets the criteria for use. There is also an internal bias control to keep the sound in the sweet spot.
The next pedals are the various versions of the Turbodrive. The Custom without the LEDs and with the extra switch is Turbodrive Custom #1.
The Blue pedal is the Evangelator compressor which uses photo-optics and can pass lows or highs around the compressor circuit. It’s very useful in getting a clean crystalline sound that rings like a bell and also works great with bass.
The round purple pedal is the Turbovalve. This is what you get when you mix a Turbodrive with tubes! The first 3 were made in the round cases and then were switched to the more common case like the Turbodrive Custom. This one has gain for days and is also immediately recognizable when used for solos.
Also pictured are a few of the amplifiers I make. The red one is the Flamethrower described later, and the purple one is the Heartbreaker. The Heartbreaker is based on years of mods to Super Reverbs and has a reverb with dwell and amount controls. Both are 60 watt amplifiers. In the picture is also one of my latest creations, the Futura. It is a 40 watt amp with reverb and post phase inverter master volume. I also like it’s portability and weight which is important as I get older.
Are there any other RPG Electronics pedals out there?
Raided from my personal collection right now is the Omicron delay. It is a simple delay pedal with about 400ms. of delay. The neat part is… is it digital… or analog? The inspiration came from an old Echolette I was servicing. I wanted the head saturation and delay breakup but not the nightmare of the mechanics. There are also a number of other pedals I have made out there, but I think that covers the ones you would find regularly.
Do you have a favourite RPG Electronics pedal (if so, which one and why?)
If I was going to be on a desert isle and could have only one or two, it would be the Turbodrive Custom followed by the Omicron delay. If I was playing bass, it would be the Evangelator compressor. That pedal is great for tightening up just about any bass rig, and it’s frequency variable photo-optic circuit can get nearly any sound you might want.
There aren’t a lot of reviews online but they are all positive, and users clearly like the “purity” of your sound. One user picked your Turbodrive ahead of pedals by Keeley, Wampler, and Fulltone. How do you achieve this signal clarity?
That’s a difficult question to answer…. But I would have to say the answer is time. After working with circuits for a while, you can hear a sound and immediately translate it into components that make that sound. I usually don’t start off making a fuzz or distortion or delay, I start by hearing a sound in my head, and then experimenting until I get it right. Again…. component selection is crucial to the sound.
[Image: Where the magic happens - Roger's solar-powered workshop]
Can you confirm that Joe Walsh uses a Turbodrive? Any other famous faces with an RPG Electronics pedal on their board?
Well…. I know he has one. Most likely it is the Blue Flame version. It was given to him by Dave and Glen from Blue Flame music in Milwaukee. I usually don’t like to call out players unless they post pictures or videos. To me it’s more interesting and fun to see who is using them and where they are. They are on every continent except Antarctica. You might be interested in this video on Youtube ( Link ) of Carl Verheyen demonstrating his live rig. At 3:50 or so you get a great demo of the Turbodrive compared to a Zen drive and several other cool pedals.
What does your own pedalboard look like? Do you have any non-RPG Electronics pedals that have a particular place in your heart?
My setup is a bit different depending on if I’m playing or recording. On the analog side, it’s usually a Turbodrive Custom, an Evangelator compressor, and a delay. I also have the digital side with my guitar wired into a modified Roland GR-50 system. That also allows me to communicate with the synthesizer and computer world. As for an amp, it depends which day of the week it is! Depending on the mood, it could be a RPG Flamethrower or my newest design, the Futura, a 66 Fender Super Reverb, the old Premier, or one of the Eros amplifiers in my collection. Other pedals I have a fondness for are my Maestro Stage Phaser; the wedge shaped one designed by Bob Moog, and an original ADA flanger. Both those pedals are classic old school and still stand the test of time for sound.
Of all of the things you’ve built over the years, do you have a “top 3” of the most interesting or memorable?
The Flamethrower amp would be number 1. I designed it when I was 15 and still have the original schematic in
pencil on vellum paper. It took over 25 years from then to construct the first one due to trying to find the right transformers. It was really worth the wait. I have worked on literally thousands of amps and owned at least 15 Marshalls over time, but the Flamethrower clearly wins hands down. No buzzing, wheezing or noise, but when the pick hits the strings… it’s there.
The second would be the Turbodrive (and custom). It’s the one that has gone the farthest in player’s hands and to me has an immediately recognizable sound signature.
Number 3 would have to be the Evangelator compressor. It is unique in that you can compress certain frequencies while bypassing the rest. Since it works in the photo-optic world, it is very quiet and doesn’t have the artefacts in the sound like many other compressors do.
What is the future for RPG Electronics?
I’m always coming up with ideas…. I have 2 notebooks full. In the near future though, I will be teaching some classes on amp and pedal design with the goal of building your own pedal or amp in the class. I am also working with a high-end speaker company to design a line of amplifiers to fit their cabinets.
Finally, what is that drives you to create your own musical equipment, and what advice would you give anyone looking to get started in this field?
Insanity! Seriously, it was the quest to understand and create my own sound. I enjoy electronics so I guess it was a natural fit. If others enjoy what I do too, that’s great. There’s still much more to be discovered…. old and new technology. Advice for anyone getting started in the field? Do it for the right reason. No one ever has or will make a killing in boutique amplifiers or pedals. Anyone seriously interested needs to get a copy of the book Stompbox by Art Thompson and read the stories of those that came before.
Also… anyone thinking that they will design the next pedal some famous player will use is getting into this for the wrong reason. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it when I see my equipment on stage, but the fact is guitar players change their effects and equipment more often than most people change socks. You will also need GOOD equipment and knowledge of how to use it to succeed. E-bay has been a great help in scoring some great test equipment for pennies on the dollar.
Treat everyone nicely, be cool, and… most importantly…. realize that tone comes from your hands, so work with your guitar first. Buying a pedal won’t make you sound like Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson or Hendrix, but you will sound like you, and that’s something cool and different. I seriously wish anyone getting into the field the best of success. You may be the next Roger Mayer, David Tarnowsky, or Craig Anderton.
Oh, and what’s the best way to get hold of RPG Electronics gear?
At present, there are these stores and they will post items as they are available:
Outpost Music - Call Craig and Donna at (262) 542-6788 to see what’s available
Blue Flame Music - Give Dave a call (414- 282-4800) or e-mail as he usually has a great stock of pedals
It was a privilege to chat with Roger; my thanks to him for his time in putting this interview together.