Less than a month ago, Portlander Chris Benson won the guitar gear equivalent of the Super Bowl.

Preamp MKII, a handmade effects pedal Benson made in collaboration with Minnesota company Chase Bliss Audio, took home Best in Show at the National Association of Music Merchants' annual trade show, the largest audio gear convention in the world.

But Benson is hardly the only small stomp-box manufacturer in Portland who's earned acclaim—this city is packed with small, independent guitar pedal makers.

"There's a fair amount out here for sure," says Kelly Manahan, co-owner of Centaur Guitars, which sells several locally made pedals. "Early on, I believe, it was very much a hub of what was going on, and I think it probably has still got a lot of that reputation."

According to Manahan, Portland saw a boom of DIY gear makers around the mid-aughts, which he refers to as "the Wild West days" of boutique pedal making.

(Martin Gore of Depeche Mode with an Electron Fuzz Custom CV Pedal from Portland’s Retro Mechanical Labs, courtesy of Retro Mechanical Labs)
(Martin Gore of Depeche Mode with an Electron Fuzz Custom CV Pedal from Portland’s Retro Mechanical Labs, courtesy of Retro Mechanical Labs)

"It was just tons of people where it was just a dude in a garage making stuff and putting weird stuff on it," he says. "All you had to do was make some kind of crazy fuzz with a good paint job on it, and people would come."

There may not be as many people making pedals in their basements, but the ones who are left really know what they're doing. "People would start expecting more out of them, like, 'Oh, can it work all the time?'" says Manahan. "It started honing things down to the people who were really designing things well."

But even though the local scene has slimmed down, the Portland pedal boom isn't entirely over. Along with Benson, there are boutique manufacturers like Wright Sounds, Catalinbread, Mr. Black, and Spaceman, whose handmade, top-shelf effects units have garnered national attention. There's also Malekko Heavy Industry, founded by Paul Barker, former bassist for industrial-rock pioneers Ministry.

"There are still a fair amount of pedal builders," says Manahan. "There's probably tons I've never even heard of that are just in their garage that have a following."