Orange is the New Rock: MXR Startup and the Phase 90

MXR pedals stand out for their simple interface, stellar design, and signature sounds. Sure that recipe sounds easy, but it takes decades to perfect.  This week, we’re going back in time to study the MXR story by looking at the company’s flagship, orange stompbox: the Phase 90.

Before MXR became a pedal biz, it started off with Keith Barr and Terry Sherwood tweaking, retooling, and repairing guitars and gear in Rochester, New York. The year was 1971. Among the items their customers brought in for a tune up, were guitar effect pedals. Oddly enough, like many more recent pedal companies—such as Keeley, JHS, and EarthQuaker Devices—the MXR effect empire began with mod jobs and fixing dilapidated stompboxes. After seeing the problems with existing pedals, Barr and Sherwood identified the opportunity. Build a brand that’s committed to building something better and focuses on the needs of musicians. The rest will follow.

The first item the two took to market, however, was a mixer. While the startup quickly moved on from this style of product, the experiment did give them one thing: a name. From here on, the company was known as MXR, and the goal became building rock solid stompboxes.

You can’t tell the next part of the MXR story without the color orange. In 1972, Barr built the circuit for a four stage phase shifter, which offered ninety degrees of shifting. By 1973, the orange clad and aptly named Phase 90 went into production. The initial wave were built in a basement. The bold color choice was inspired by a bright orange Ford Econoline van that blew by Barr one day. The classic MXR script was silkscreened on each pedal. Old school. The Phase 90 was sold on site at gigs and stock never lasted long.

By 1974, MXR incorporated. This meant the opportunity to grow and expand the lineup. Production moved to a new factory-type facility that employed mostly teenagers to build the bright orange boxes. This allowed for both an increase of supply for the sought after Phase 90 as well as the opportunity to add to the family. The Distortion+, Dyna Comp Compressor, and Blue Box Octave Fuzz came next. Building on the success of the flagship pedal, the two-stage phaser, the Phase 45, also emerged in this era. These pedals all came in their own bold colors and, like the Phase 90 that started it all, were bullet-proof.

After a decade of design successes and increased visibility well beyond the local scene, Barr and Sherwood’s company fell on some tough times. By 1984, MXR ceased to exist. Or, at least, that chapter of the story was closed. In 1987, Dunlop acquired the rights to the name of the brand and reissued remakes of the original four pedals. There were, however, some modern appointments, like the addition of an LED indicator and jack for a 9-volt adaptor. While these are givens today, it only goes to show how the innovation around Dunlop and MXR from the early days helped shape and direct the course of guitar gear history.

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