Not quite a year back, the RFT profiled Brad and Auset Sarno, a Webster Groves couple with a variety of musical businesses growing inside of their tidy, two-story home. Down in the basement is where a lot of the magic happens, as Brad Sarno tackles recording projects while wearing the hat of his Blue Jade Audio Mastering endeavor. One room over, in his workshop, he creates guitar pedals under the moniker of Sarno Music Solutions.
With his wife Auset handling everything else (branding, design, promotions and sales), Sarno is left to the crafting of the pedals themselves. After months of modifications, trial runs and an eleventh-hour wait for the distinctive front stickers, the pair's latest pedal, the Solar Flare, is being slowly introduced to the market.
Whereas their top seller, the Earth Drive, is an overdrive pedal, Brad says the Solar Flare "is the natural companion to the Earth Drive. It's a very straight-ahead distortion pedal in the vein of a classic, '70s-era pedal. Auset comes up with the names and designs. And there's a kind of theme here. The Earth Drive is earthy, organic, warm, natural. Your guitar still sounds like it sounds, with a friendly, non-invasive alteration of your sound. The Solar Flare again speaks to the idea of elements. Fire is fitting for this type of a distortion pedal. It's got a fiery, searing-hot type of sound."
The process of producing a new pedal starts with a prototype, which Brad builds from scratch. Then there's a test phase, for which local musicians lend their talents and ears.
"There's wires and a box. I have a goal in mind. And I think I know what I want it to sound like," he says. "Then you let people play it and I get feedback, fine-tune it, make adjustments. The early version of the Solar Flare was a little light in the bass. I noticed that, and others did, too. So we made it more fat, bigger-sounding."
Using a core of top area guitarists as advisers, the first crop of twenty or so pedals are now on the boards of folks around town — early adopters include CaveofswordS' Kevin McDermott, the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman, Tritone Guitars' Dave Anderson, TK's Gabe Doiron, TK's Tracy Lowe, the Funky Butt Brass Band's Tim Halpin, and Vandeventer's Mikey Wehling.
Out of town, the pedal's gone to Nels Cline, probably best known for his work in Wilco, and a huge fan of the Earth Drive — he bought some fifteen or twenty of those, Brad says, giving them out as gifts and getting them (directly or indirectly) into the hands of Sean Lennon (John and Yoko's kid), Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth fame) and Andy Summers (of the Police).
"Very early on, when I'd heard he knew about our gear, I made connections to him through Wilco," Brad says of Cline. "He got his hands on the Earth Drive, really liked it, got a second one and then started buying them as gifts. He's also one of the nicest, coolest humans on earth. When the band comes through town, we'll get dinner and sometimes talk gear, sometimes not. The last time through, he wanted to hear the new pedal and we brought the prototype down."
Getting a few prominent players to rock your gear is the quickest way to boost sales, Brad notes. His Black Box for pedal steel guitars is well-represented by top players, both in Nashville and on the road. And his Earth Drives got a boost when they wound up on the pedal boards of Bob Weir and Oteil Burbridge of Dead & Company.
"In the boutique pedal business, it really, really helps to have someone prominent clearly say that they own it, or it's seen on the pedal board in a photo, or it's mentioned in a magazine," Sarno says. "That's huge. That's the way you're going to survive."
The Solar Flare's $195 price tag is a little bit lower than other boutique pedals and a little bit higher than a mass-made pedal. And there's always a market, Brad says. Asked to explain this to a non-guitarist, he sketches out the notion that are a few players who have "made up their minds" about their accessories, never wanting to change them out. But that's a small group.
The rest, he jokes, suffer from GAS, or "gear acquisition syndrome." This larger group, he says, "is always hungry for a new things, a new toy. They get a little bored and need something new. I would say a small percentage have totally settled in, are happy and aren't looking for anything. Most guitarists get excited about something new and think it's the solution."
And, sometimes, that happens to be a Sarno Music Solution.