Maestro Returns: The revival of the iconic brand that kickstarted the pedal revolution
60 years on from the lauch of the FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, Senior Director of Product Development Mat Koehler and Director of Engineering Craig Hockenberry discuss returning the company to its former glory.
All images: Gibson
Which is the oldest pedal maker of them all? You might not realise this unless you’re a keen student of stompbox history, but it’s Gibson. The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, introduced in 1962, was the first commercially successful compact effect unit – and Gibson manufactured it.
So, if you’re thinking this year’s revival of the Maestro brand is some sort of bandwagon-jumping exercise, just remember that Gibson built the bandwagon in the first place. The only mystery is why it took them so long to get back on board.
Out of the pedal game since 1979, the Maestro name returned with a bang in January in the shape of five ultra-stylish and ultra-distinctive stompers. These pedals – the Fuzz-Tone FZ-M, Ranger Overdrive, Invader Distortion, Comet Chorus and Discoverer Delay – take direct inspiration from the brand’s heritage but update those vintage vibes with modern functionality and tones.
We’ve given all five pedals a thorough test-drive and – review spoiler alert – they’re great. So now seems like a good time to get the full background story from a couple of the people who made all of this happen. We start by asking Mat Koehler, Senior Director of Product Development at Gibson Brands, where the idea for reviving the Maestro name came from.
“It came through evaluating the entirety of what makes up Gibson,” says Mat. “Maestro was a hugely important part of the Gibson story in addition to the effects pedal story itself. We always wanted to revive Maestro to its former glory, but the opportunities didn’t present themselves until recently.”
A lot of people seem to be leaping into the pedal market these days – what new perspective does he think Maestro can bring?
“Well, first I would say Maestro needs to be there. It’s like a Ford or a Nike – it set the stage for the current market to exist; now it feels like it’s whole again. The opportunity brought forth a wealth of ideas and creativity that went far beyond the original Maestro offerings, but the perspective is still very much about pushing the limits of tone: shaping your sound in both classic, familiar ways and new, unique ways.”
We love the look of these pedals, but naturally Mat is keen to emphasise that it was the sounds that came first.
“Mission #1 was dialling in the tones; mission #2 was dialling in the iconic Space Age vibe of the originals,” he says. “We also wanted to use unique names that tie back to products in Gibson and Maestro history, many of which were themed around space exploration. This first batch of offerings has unique patterns of shapes with corresponding colours on the brushed metal face-plates – designs that evoke the waveforms and graphs of sonic analysis and experimentation.”
And now here’s Craig Hockenberry, Director of Engineering, with the geeky details. How did Gibson approach the design challenge of balancing the brand’s heritage with the need to give players new sounds? Did they spend a lot of time analysing old pedals?
“We wanted to re-launch Maestro into the market with a line-up of pedals that would work nicely on anybody’s pedalboard,” explains Craig, “so we started out with these five fundamental pedals that look and sound very retro and true to the Maestro brand. The engineering team did a lot of research and analysis of vintage Maestro circuits to ensure we captured that tone and vibe.
“Each of the five pedals features a single toggle switch and three very responsive control knobs that really give the players a lot of flexibility to dial in their tone. We blended vintage and modern circuitry to achieve everything from classic tape-like delays to hard-hitting distortions.”
Three of the pedals have internal trimpots. Why was this chosen over extra controls on the outside?
“We used internally accessible trimmers for the controls that wouldn’t normally be adjusted very often,” says Craig. “This keeps a clean control surface and a familiar aesthetic.”
And Craig’s favourite of the new pedals?
“Honestly, I don’t really have a favourite as they are all amazing and serve different purposes… but if I were forced to choose, I would have to go with the FZ-M. When it’s dialled in it captures that iconic tone of the FZ-1 and you just can’t deny the significance that pedal has had on music throughout the years.”
Anyone who’s ever heard Keith Richards’ legendary Satisfaction riff – not to mention the countless other gnarly fuzz moments it’s influenced over the past half-century or so – will know exactly what Craig’s talking about here.
Back now let’s turn back to Mat Koehler for some insights into what else might be in the pipeline from this reborn brand. Aside from anything else, there seems to be a lot of love for the old Maestro PS-1 phaser – so why was that not included in the launch range?
“It’s coming!” says Mat. “But we wanted to start with the five most popular effect styles to give us a solid foundation to work from. We had a fuzz as the hero of this batch… we’ll let a phaser be the hero next time.”
And could we eventually see Maestro moving beyond the compact format?
“Some of the original Maestro pedals were gigantic – like comically large!” laughs Mat. “So I don’t think you’ll see anything like that, but we do have ideas to make larger-sized 2-in-1 units as well as some mini units. We have lots of classic form factors to riff on, one way or another.”
Don’t call it a comeback, then – this is simply the beginning of the latest chapter in a long and distinguished history that just happens to have rather a long gap in the middle. And you can be pretty sure we won’t have to wait 40-odd years for the next part.
Visit maestroelectronics.com for more.