Oklahoma

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Effected, But Still Manufacturing and Making Music in Oklahoma

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Robert Keeley and the first-ever Keeley Compressor, the first and best-selling effect his company manufactures.

Jeans and rock band t-shirts are the uniform at Keeley Electronics, and almost every one of the 18 or so employees works with earbuds in — and an iPod nearby.

This doesn’t seem like a factory, but it is. And it’s growing and expanding in a state that’s been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Technician Shaun Brown assembling the components of an effects pedal, which are all hand-wired.

Robert Keeley’s office is a waist-high sea of guitar amps.

Downstairs is flooded, too. He opens the door to one office space with caution. It’s wall-to-wall guitars, which are filed neatly in their cases.

“Everyone is surprised when I say I’m a manufacturer. ‘Really? In Edmond, Oklahoma?’,” Keeley says, recounting a puzzled tone he regularly hears.

The business began with a bad omen.

Keeley shipped out his first guitar effects pedal on Sept. 11, 2001.

The electrical engineer and guitarist got to the post office early, “before everything came apart,” and mailed a Keeley Compressor to his first customer. The eBay sales picked up, and a year later he decided not to return to his job at Vatterott College, where he taught tech students basic electronics.

“From there it was pure magic,” he says. “Every year the sales doubled.”

In 2004-2005, Keeley’s effects pedals were added to a catalog assembled by venerable guitar maker Fender, which distributes the publication of musical instruments to brick-and-mortar dealers throughout the country.

“Every mom-and-pop shop in America had a catalog with a Keeley Compressor in it,” Keeley says.

It didn’t stop with catalogs and local dealers. Musician’s Friend added his pedals to their roster of products, and Guitar Center started carrying Keeley’s pedals in some of its stores. Instrument dealers now comprise about 75 percent of his sales, Keeley says.

Show Me the Way

But Keeley Electronics really came alive in 2005.

Legendary English musician Peter Frampton has a signature sound defined, in part, by the “talk box,” an unmistakable effect he helped popularize in the mid-1970s.

The effect employs a tube, which allows a musician to use their mouth to change the frequency of a guitar or other instrument — to “talk” or sing through the instrument, in effect.

(Fast-forward to about :15 in the video to the right to hear it yourself.)

In 2000, Peter Frampton started selling his own version of the talk box. When Frampton started looking for a new company to take over manufacturing, he turned to Keeley, who he’d been trusting to repair his vintage effects.

After a show in Nashville, Frampton invited him up to his hotel room, Keeley says.

“The deal was kind of done on a handshake,” he says, and Keeley Electronics has been making Frampton’s signature “Framptone” talk box effect since 2005.

Business Ablaze

By 2008, Keeley Electronics reached $2.5 million in sales, growth led by their first and best-selling product — the Keeley Compressor — a guitar effect beloved by both amateur pickers and celebrity strummers like John Mayer, Pearl Jam and Dweezil Zappa.

Keeley’s company had caught fire. In January 2009, it caught fire — literally — and the full force of the recession nearly smoldered his business.

The layoffs started that year, Keeley said. More than a dozen employees were let go, cutting his full-time staff by more than half.

“The economy was really tanking then,” he says. “It was really sad. It wasn’t anything they were doing wrong, I just couldn’t afford them.”

Keeley wasn’t alone.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Crystal Gilles attaches switches and input jacks to a case that will house an effects pedal.

Oklahoma lost more than 15,000 non-farm jobs from 2009-2010, data from the state Department of Commerce show. Manufacturing bore the brunt of those losses here as it did throughout the country. About 6,200 — or 40 percent — of those losses were manufacturing jobs, the data show.

Recently, the news is better. The number of manufacturing jobs increased 5.9 percent from January 2011 to January 2012, which Commerce officials say added about 7,400 people to the Oklahoma workforce.

Business has picked up at Keeley.

Keeley Electronics is growing and hiring — and Kelley has re-hired many of the same workers he was forced to layoff during the worst of the recession.

Keeley effects are wired and assembled by hand in a small, two-story unit next to a college dorm in an Edmond office park. Men — and a surprising amount of women — solder each and every resistor and component to bright green circuit boards.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Matthew Adams uses a drill to tightly wind wire that will be used to connect electronic components.

Every screw, bezel and washer is hand-tightened. Effects pedals — often called stompboxes — are foot-operated, and the result of the hand-assembly process is a sturdy metal brick that protects delicate electronic audio components.

Hand-building the effects pedals also gives the technicians a keen understanding of how to repair a customer’s unit. Keeley also does brisk business repairing vintage effects and modifying other manufacturer’s pedals, which customers send in for customization.

The current bottom line for Keeley Electronics: roughly 1,000 units a month.

And Keeley’s pedals aren’t cheap.

“They are expensive,” he admits. “The components and craftsmanship are just part of it,” he says. Doing repairs is costly and time-consuming, too, he says. And then there are your workers.

“It takes a lot of money to pay people right,” Keeley says. “It takes a lot to be in business in America.”


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Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/keeleyelectronics Robert Keeley

    Thanks for coming by and spending time with us Joe. Fantastic meeting you and talking with you.
    Robert Keeley

    • http://twitter.com/matreames Mathew Reames

      great Article… Loved hearing about your business and process beyond just the gear itself. One of these days when I am not quite so poor (I HOPE) I want to get some Keeley gear in my rig.

  • http://twitter.com/mindflayer mindflayer

    Awesome to see a fellow Ktown 88 graduate doing well!

    • Yada

      Keeley Electronics is a complete joke. 18 employees? They are getting laid off left and right and Robert Keeley is in so many legal entanglements it makes Law & Order look like a kids show. Why don’t you interview the best and brightest that worked hard to build that business and got ushered out one by one as a thank you from a sociopathic junkie that ripped off every single one of his designs? Or better yet, interview his mistress that used to be his sister-in-law and all of her kids that work up there for Uncle/Daddy? Then, maybe, your article wouldn’t smack of ignorant bias. If you actually knew Robert, you’d know he isn’t worth writing about.

  • Davidlee

    Robert Keeley & the Crew at the House of Blue Lights are the very best of the best. I own one of every product they make, I tour with my Keeley board and record with them too and I have never had one single problem with anything they’ve made. That’s
    “Made in America” at it’s very best and I and the crew in the River City Rockets love Keeley Electronics! Rock on Robert – love you man!

  • Wan Nasir

    Hello Mr. Keeley.I’m from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia.I came to know your great compressor last week and it is not available in my country Malaysia.By reading a lot of comments on you I can sense that you might be from Oklahoma,then I got the confirmation from wikipedia.I left Oklahoma City for good in the summer of 2002 after spending 8 years there.I went to Oklahoma City University to study guitar with Mark Cruz and also taking electric guitar lesson from Shane Conoway.Shane sold me his upgraded TS9 and last week I found out that Keeley Compressor is kind of sound that I’m looking for to pair with my Tube Screamer.Non of the guitar guys at the music shop I stop by in KL ever heard this brand.The closest place to try out this great compressor is in Singapore.I’m so proud that this great compressor is Made in Oklahoma.By……okie dokie.

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