By Way of Nashville: The Pedaltrain Story
While some may romanticize what it would be like to be a professional guitar tech — or even play guitar professionally — the truth, according to Jim Colella, is that it's just a lot of work.
“I mean, there are worse ways to make a living — but there's not a lot of glory in it. There's not a lot of money in it either,” he says. “And when you're off the road, you’ve got to do something else. So it's not uncommon to see very talented techs and musicians working other jobs.”
This was true for Jim’s now-longtime friend John Chandler, who went from being a guitar tech for RIAA Platinum artists that were selling out arenas to working in a commercial awning shop that sold exterior overhangs to malls and restaurants.
But that’s where the story gets interesting.
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Jim Colella was born in New Jersey, but came of age in Northern Colorado during the 1970s.
“It was clean air and blue skies and mountains — a great place to grow up.”
He learned to play guitar on a Fender Bronco — which he still has, along with the matching amp — and lived the quintessential small town life. He went to college, fell in love, got married and then started a job selling long distance plans. But he’d always imagined himself chasing the dream of playing under the bright lights, so when he finally got a call to audition, he didn’t hesitate.
“The audition is on Saturday in Nashville and it’s Tuesday and I'm in Colorado,” he reminisces. “And I don't have any money for a plane ticket. And I don't have a reliable car either — so my folks let me use theirs.”
And so, over the course of three solid days, he sat in the backseat charting songs and learning guitar parts while his wife drove and rewound the cassette deck over and over again.
“We're in the car the whole time, pull up for my audition — didn't even get a shower — and I go in and play. And I didn’t get the gig. But they were very encouraging to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re a pretty good guitar player, you should really consider Nashville.’ So we thought about it and decided to give it a shot.”
To his credit, Colella did end up on a few touring gigs after that, which he says were fun — for about a month.
“But then you’re on the bus every night and the roads are rough and you can’t sleep. And you’re sharing a hotel room and there’s no privacy. It’s a grind; it’s hard.”
After a while, the road took its toll.
“We had a very poorly routed West Coast tour. It was eight weeks away from home, but most of it was downtime and travel. During that, I missed my son’s first birthday and felt so badly about that — but the worst part was when I came off of that run. We finished the last show, made the loadout drive through the night and landed back in Nashville late — three or four in the morning. So my wife came with my son to pick me up in an empty grocery store parking lot and my son didn’t recognize me. He’s a little baby and he kind of recoils from me. I remember that vividly. And after that, I told my wife — ‘Okay, thanks for letting me chase this dream, but after this, I’m done.’”
So, fully entrenched in the greater Nashville community, he moved on to the next chapter of his life and eventually landed at the Gibson Guitar Company. He bounced around a bit with Gibson, but eventually established himself as a product manager in the strings and accessories division.
As such, he routinely found himself in midtown Nashville at a now-defunct local guitar shop called Broadway Music.
“One day this fellow comes in — I didn’t know him — with something in a case, showing off how it worked and talking about how he had invented it. This was early 2000 and people were kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s clever.’ But I really understood it from the beginning.”
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The story goes that John Chandler sat back for a moment — on break during his off-season job at the awning shop — and found himself staring up at the extruded aluminum framework that held the structure above his head together.
He recalled how, on his last tour, the plywood pedalboard he’d assembled had frequently come apart and thought that, perhaps, he could fashion something better.
So he took some scrap aluminum, borrowed a specialized welder, tinkered in his garage and ultimately invented what would become the Pedaltrain.
The idea seemed simple — a sturdy, lightweight, reliable design that allowed users to DIY their own pedalboards and cabling — but there was actually a fair amount of experimentation and thought behind the Pedaltrain’s patented rail system.
“It's one thing to have Velcro connecting on a surface,” Jim says. “But there's a force multiplier that occurs when the pedal is mounted on two different planes with two different connection points.”
Which is what John was explaining that day at Broadway Music.
“I had just gotten off the road where I had been using plywood and Dual Lock in sort of an odd shaped case that I had found — and it just wasn't working,” Jim recalls. “And when I saw what John had invented, I said to him ‘I think this would be great at Gibson and I bet we could acquire the idea from you and take it to the next level.’”
John declined, wanting to build his own business, but over time he and Colella became close friends as both the Pedaltrain company and their young families grew.
By 2012, Jim had moved on to an executive position at Sony Music, but he and John stayed in regular contact.
“We had this relationship for many, many years and one day he called and said — ‘My wife is sick. It’s serious and I need to be her primary caregiver. So, we’ve been thinking about it, praying about it, and we would like you to come and run the company for us.’”
Jim agreed, left his position and Sony and began to run Pedaltrain as if it were his own.
“I brought in 10-15 years of progressive corporate experience and started to operate the way I knew how,” Jim says. “But it was like they were just trusting me with everything.”
Two years later, John’s wife passed and he was understandably exhausted — out of energy and out of ideas.
“John was an inventor, but not an operator. So it was an interesting thing coming in with my guitar playing and business school background and all that stuff,” Jim says. “After some time processing his grief, he came back and said ‘I’m really done — I want to sell you the business.’ And so my wife and I went all in and bought Pedaltrain in 2016.”
Four years later, the Pedaltrain vision has never been more clear: always pushing forward, always making things better.
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"I want to make the best pedalboards at the best price. The one that five, ten, fifteen years from now people still say — 'That was the best hundred bucks I ever spent.'"
According to Colella, the core structure and construction of a Peadaltrain isn’t likely to ever change — hand-extruded aluminum that’s hand-welded and hand-painted every time without compromise — but the double-edged sword is that trends do change, so complacency is out of the question.
“We have a very popular brand, but we're always listening to customers,” he says. “We’re always trying new shapes, new sizes — all kinds of new things.”
As testament to this, Colella points to the advent of the Metro series in 2014 — a line of three-rail pedalboards that fused elements of the angled, four-rail classic series with the flat, two-rail Nano line.
He also highlights Pedaltrain’s foray into the power supply space with the Volto and an upcoming lineup of powerful, flat, low-profile units to be called the Super Fun series.
“On the product side, we always want to grow and expand our offerings. In fact, we’re working with a couple of companies right now to develop new lines of accessories and panels with switching devices to accessorize your Pedaltrain — so that we’ll be an important part of success in the future.”
Of course, the challenge that comes with innovation is deciding what to do and what not to do.
“I have more ideas, more prototypes and more opportunities than I can handle. So I have to be selective because our product range is pretty robust for one category. So even if all these ideas are winners, I can’t take them to market because dealers can’t carry them all and distributors can’t stock everything. So the next challenge is — what do I cut? Because at some point, you become saturated.”
Talking with Colella about pedalboards quickly reveals his obsession with the craft.
“I’m so in the weeds with this stuff that I can look at a case and tell you what year it was from by looking at the zipper tabs. And believe me — there’s a whole industry around swivel clasp straps.”
And while Pedaltrain has continually made quiet improvements to various elements of their designs — also taking steps to make sure that their products and processes are more environmentally friendly — the company has purposefully kept prices low.
“We haven’t raised prices since 2014,” Colella says. “Because we’re in it to create value. If we do our best, if we’re honorable and honest and fair, I think the market will reward that. We just try to make the best product we can, the best way that we can and at the best price that we can.”
And while there’s more competition in the pedalboard space than ever before, Colella is optimistic about Pedaltrain’s outlook.
“We’ve been in business 20 years and there's no benchmark for us against how many units we are selling this year, versus the next year or the year before — we just keep trying to do our best every year. And John still says, ‘We might not be your first pedalboard, but we’ll be your last.’ And that’s the ultimate mark of success for us.”
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Over the two decades that Pedaltrain has been in business, the company has made an effort to continually use more and more US-based components in its product line. As such, one of Colella’s primary initiatives over the past several years has been to open a USA Custom Shop where customers would be able to order an American Pedaltrain — any model, any color, handmade in the USA. So be on the lookout for that project to officially launch in early 2021.
For more info on Pedaltrain, visit pedaltrain.com.