The Boss of BOSS: An Interview with Yoshi Ikegami
Boss headquarters is located on the northern edge of Hamamatsu, a city in Japan’s western Shizuoka Prefecture that’s home to about 800,000. The complex isn’t nearly as big as you’d expect for a multinational corporation, but there, with Lake Hamana a few miles to the west and the Akaishi Mountains serving as a majestic backdrop, the Roland and Boss logos jut from a sign in orange and blue, giving way to a white, two-story building behind it with about 50 engineers inside.
Their goal: Tone first. Always.
- - - - -
Japanese custom dictates that a man of his repute should be referred to as Mr. Ikegami, but the man behind the world’s most recognized line of guitar pedals is less traditional when it comes to things like greetings and titles.
In fact, if you know him for any length of time, referring to him formally may yield a quizzical glance and a polite, if not completely understated correction.
“Please, call me Yoshi.”
Stateside colleagues consider him one of the most un-Japanese Japanese men they've ever met. One that encourages openness and wastes no time in making you feel comfortable, as though you’ve been known each other for a long time.
He’s approaching 60 — but you’d never guess. Tall and thin with a runner’s frame, he refers to himself as vintage. He’s funny. Sneaking little one-liners into causal conversation is common; brief interludes from the exacting nature in which he speaks. His English is good — but his pacing is slow and carefully measured, ensuring that each word helps to make his point unmistakably clear.
As a boy, he worked with his father — a mechanic who ran a small auto repair shop in Kyoto. As young as 10, Yoshi would skip out on homework to help fix flat tires. “Those were the good old days. It might be a lawsuit today,” he jokes, “but the customers didn’t complain and would even bring me ice cream.”
It was this time in the shop where he learned the fundamentals of business — something he still loves to talk about today — but also lessons on money and relationships.
“One day, we had no money at the end of the month because [my father] had paid the bills, but someone else hadn’t paid him. That night, we had no food.”
Yoshi says that his parents never encouraged formal education, but it isn’t difficult to see the connection between those formative years and the heights of his current success.
During high school, his friends were into folk music, he recalls, so he learned how to play on a guitar that belonged to his older brother. He loved listening to Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, George Benson and Pat Metheny. Around the same time, he developed a profound fascination with electronics, sparked by a shared interest with his peers in amateur radio and HiFi audio.
Immediately upon graduating from high school, he landed a job in electronics—assembling synthesizers. For Roland.
It was 1978.
“My first job was assembling the GR-500, so I bought one — and a JC-120. I assembled GR-500, GR-300, Jupiter-4, RE-201, CR-78 and so on for more than five years.”
During this time, Yoshi made a decision: he wanted to become an engineer. So, during the day, he worked his assembly job and at night, helped out on the research and development team. Eventually — luckily, he says — Yoshi found himself with a full-time desk in the R&D department.
His first project was the SDE-3000, a rackmount unit that the venerable Steve Vai once called one of “the finest digital delays I believe have ever been made.”
Vai purchased a pair of SDE-3000s in 1985 and details their illustrious journey — as well as a couple of memorable encounters with Yoshi — on his blog. The post is a year old at this point, but is still well worth the read. Spoiler alert: three decades later, Vai gave the delays back to Yoshi as a thank you for making them in the first place.
“I used them ALL THE TIME,” says Vai. “No other delays seemed to be made with the care and attention to quality as these units."
That level of meticulousness — one that relied on the profoundly simple exercise of just listening to the sound of all the parts, Yoshi says — was shared across the much of the Roland line as he moved on from the success of the SDE-3000 to create the architecture for most of Roland’s library of digital delays.
He designed the company’s first fully custom Digital Signal Processor (DSP), which was used in early effects units and synthesizers. He also created the reverb algorithms that are still used in pedals like 2015’s RV-6 Reverb.
As a result of his many triumphs, Yoshi was appointed to a management position in 1999 — director of research and development. In 2007, Roland made him director of manufacturing and in mid-2013 he became the president of Boss. Since then, he has ushered in a new era of success for a company long since known for its commitment to innovation. And while some may consider these remarkable feats for a man who started on the assembly line, fresh out of high school and without any formal training — such thinking fails to recognize the passion Yoshi has for the business, the intelligence he brings to the role and the drive that pushes him to think bigger.
He’s always looking to the future.
“At Boss, we innovate,” he says. “That’s what we do.”
- - - - -
In a world filled with more stompbox brands than ever before — Boss stands alone at the top of the mountain. Ask any guitar player, pro or amateur, to describe what a guitar pedal looks like and you’re likely to get a description matching that of the now-iconic Boss footprint.
And it’s no wonder why. To date, more than 15 million compact pedals bearing the Boss name have been sold worldwide. The original trio — the OD-1 overdrive, PH-1 Phaser and SP-1 Spectrum — debuted back in 1977. Three and a half decades later, Boss broke into triple digits with the introduction of the TE-2 Terra Echo, its 100th compact pedal.
But the man responsible for some of the company’s most significant successes isn’t as concerned with numbers.
“The music business is mature market, so it’s difficult to chase a quantity,” Yoshi says. “We have to think about the quality of business. Boss quality is built on innovation and value. We’re not always cheapest, but always the best value.”
And the process of creating Boss value is always a team effort.
The American way, says Yoshi, is that a single genius is individually responsible for the creation. In Japan, it’s all about the team — everyone working together to create something bigger than the sum of the parts. Almost all the Boss engineers are guitar players or other kind of musicians, too, and each one is deeply passionate about the pursuit of tone.
“Great players can make anything sound good,” Yoshi says. “We understand the need to create sounds that work for everyone.”
New compact designs require six to eight months of development — or a year at most — from the time the initial idea is conceived until the product is finalized. And, as true tone hunters are prone to do, Boss technicians are constantly on the hunt for new ideas.
One such idea is the revolutionary new Multi-Dimensional Processing technology (MDP) used in the TE-2 Terra Echo, MO-2 Multi Overtone and BC-1X Bass Driver.
Unlike the longtime-standard COSM approach — which models the electronic, mechanical and magnetic characteristics of instrument, amplifier or speaker in real time with digital signal processing — MDP goes deeper, comprehensively analyzing the dynamics and frequencies of an incoming signal, then separating it into different dimensions and applying the optimal effect to each dimension independently.
The current pedals built with MDP technology all use it differently to create a unique sonic footprint, each one a testament to the versatility of the platform.
And while MDP may well be the future of the brand, the introduction of Waza Craft has unequivocally created more buzz.
Carefully selected and developed by a hybrid team of veteran and young engineers — so as to build an important succession of knowledge and technique — the Waza Craft line debuted at Summer NAMM 2014 and takes the next step toward exceptional tone and responsiveness via a refining process that focuses on the artistic nature of sound design.
The Waza Craft label now includes six pedals and a versatile amplifier platform that Yoshi calls “the supreme assimilation of digital and analog technology.” But don’t be misled — the concept is complete breakthrough, without limitation.
“People assume that WAZA is just a modification, but for us, it’s a challenge of tone and technique. Mods are just changing parts — we can change everything, even the basic circuit design. We will make any change if there is a reason we should.”
This line of thinking — the intermingling of decades of experience and maniacal attention to detail — is evident throughout the Waza Craft process. From the near obsessive selection of individual components to the comprehensive overhaul of circuits, Boss has gone far beyond mere modification, to the level of complete customization.
Which is exactly the point. Waza Craft is the intentional collision of superior design and craftsmanship. And digital or analog, Yoshi doesn’t care — just so long as it sounds good.
“We want to expand the meaning of WAZA. We don’t care how, we just want to create good tone.”
And though Waza Craft has brought such favorites as the DM-2 Delay, VB-2 Vibrato and the just-announced CE-2 Chorus back out of retirement, tempering expectations for similar resurrections is advised.
“For some pedals, we can’t get the original device so we don’t [have a plan to bring back all the cult favorites],” says Yoshi. “I don’t have any interest in primitive revival.”
What he is interested in is big new ideas. During the first three years of his tenure as president of Boss, Yoshi has lead the charge of invention, doing so with an unswerving commitment to quality and a player-first approach. In his words — and true to the team nature of his culture and industry — he has only “triggered the story and concept,” while the Boss team has expanded the idea for new products.
Such expansions have produced the ES-8, a groundbreaking approach to programmable effects switching.
“Over the last 30 years, we’ve frequently discussed a switching system like Bradshaw,” Yoshi says. “Boss pedals visibility was decreasing, so we discussed how to get a place on the pedal board again.”
The ES-8 has done exactly that. A dream come true for users the world over, the ES-8 — and its little brother, the ES-5 — offers unparalleled routing flexibility and customization, and does so with consummate attention to quality. Tonal purity — keeping the sound as unadulterated and free of noise as possible — was at the forefront of the project and is achieved with carefully designed analog circuitry.
Interestingly, the DD-500 — an updated take on the modern megadelay featuring a dozen modes, deep editing options and assignable real-time control functions that make it a dream on stage, in the studio and at home — was born out of the development process for the ES-8. In the nascent stages of the ES-8 project, it became increasingly clear that a new digital delay — specifically, one with MIDI capability — had to be added.
“The DD-20 Giga Delay is great pedal, but has no MIDI capability,” says Yoshi. “Modern digital delays have a lot of functionality and flexibility, and a Twin Pedal is not enough for this. And, for pedalboards, space was another important factor.”
So the smaller, sleeker, more customizable and eminently flexible DD-500 is just another step toward the future. Proof of a company — and a leader — obsessed with what’s next. What’s better. And what sounds good.
Yoshi says that the pursuit of originality as a sound innovator has been at the core of the Boss brand since 1976.
Today, four decades later, nothing about that has changed.
The Boss is still looking forward.
Note: This interview was originally featured in Tone Report Weekly