James "Rooster" Olson on turning pedal-board creations into art with Trailer Trash Pedalboards

After playing with Denver-based bands including G-Force and Autobahn in the '80s, James "Rooster" Olson made a name for himself with his company Trailer Trash Pedalboards. Olson essentially revolutionized the pedalboard industry with his award-winning designs, which have been used by top-notch musicians such as Aerosmith's Joe Perry, Steve Stevens, Slash and members of the Foo Fighters.

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Olson founded Trailer Trash after stints as a session player in Nashville and touring the world with country superstars like Chely Wright and Mark Chesnutt. While living in Nashville, Olson came home one day to find about $30,000 of his gear stolen. The thieves were eventually caught, but Olson wasn't awarded restitution for the gear. He ended up getting the last laugh, though, naming his company Trailer Trash after the ringleader, who lived in a nearby trailer park.

Olson moved back to Colorado in 2006 and has been collecting accolades ever since from guitar-gear aficionados and guitar magazines. We caught up with him recently to talk about how he's transformed the pedal board from simple necessity to an art form, the difference between wiring boards for country and rock players and what the initial inspiration was for his boards.

Westword: Congrats on winning the Guitar Player Editors' Pick for the second time.

James "Rooster" Olson: Yes, thanks a ton! Trailer Trash won in November 2011 and is now featured in the Guitar Player April 2013 edition for the same award. The cool part for Trailer Trash winning the award is that in both cases, Guitar Player asked us to send them product for review. We didn't hound them or send anything until they asked us for product, nor were we bound to an advertising contract. This shows honest results for our pedal boards and is not tainted. It's sure nice to see honest results in today's dollar-driven world.

What else has been happening over the last year or so?

Well, I was forced to stop wiring pedalboards in January 2012 due to health issues with my hands. This was a big business decision to make, as my pedal-board wiring with Trailer Trash was one of the main components that helped to make Trailer Trash as popular as it has become. I maintained a five-month waiting list for my custom wiring for eight years straight.

My doctor said stopping wiring was a must in order to preserve my hands for my guitar playing. Trailer Trash was blessed, as we had another record year in 2012, even after stopping wiring boards. We owe a big-time thanks to all of our customers out there in Denver and around the world for making all of this happen.

Away from Trailer Trash, over the past few years here in Denver, I have met a few of the local producers and played on a few records and also played out live around town. I played on Cassie Taylor's Blue CD -- she is Otis's daughter [and has] a super-cool voice. I played about 50 percent of the guitars on a record for Starship featuring Mickey Thomas. The bulk of my session work is done online and has been my main focus over the past two to three years.

It's another world with online bands. I have played on a few records that are for a band in Florida -- steel and fiddle in Nashville, bass player in France, me in Denver. I cut my parts in my studio and send the tracks to the engineer, and get paid. There's just not enough session/live work in non-corporate music towns like Denver, Atlanta and Minneapolis to stay busy, so the online stuff sure helps with more work.

Can you talk about some of the nationally known acts you've played guitar for on the road?

This topic could be very long-winded, as the experiences are very fun to talk about and listen to, and could include a ton of names and places. Instead, I'll make it short. During my thirteen-plus years spent in Nashville as a touring guitarist, nine years were spent playing for Chely Wright and Mark Chesnutt. Other known artists that I played guitar for are John Rich (from Big and Rich), Little Big Town, Ty Herndon and Jeff Bates. Due to my longtime affiliation with Chely Wright, I was hired to play guitar for Vince Gill for the Reading, Writing & Rhythm benefit at the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville in 2004. This was a true highlight of my playing career!

When you were in Nashville, you had $30,000 worth of gear stolen, and you started Trailer Trash fairly soon after that, right? And even named the company after the guy who ripped you off?

Ah, yes, this has been publicized a bit online through guitar mags, and also Tom Anderson Guitars did a feature article on me, and we talked about the theft that lead me to starting Trailer Trash Pedalboards. In short, in October 2003, five guys with three trucks backed up to my door in Nashville while I was gone and nearly gutted my home, [taking] everything from TVs to pillowcases to, eventually, my $30,000 of guitar gear. I had to leave for a tour in Asia three days after the theft and didn't even have a capo, a slide...nothing.

We got a fingerprint and were able to arrest the thieves and put the main guy in jail for years. The main guy was from a trailer park and was a real bad guy with a two-page rap sheet. He was your typical trailer trash as depicted in the movies -- you know the type. In the end, I was awarded no restitution on the case, so I said, "If I'm not going to get repaid for all my gear getting stolen from this guy, then I'm going to make money from him." So I named my pedal-board company after the guy who stole from me -- Trailer Trash Pedalboards Inc.

It's quite the story that turned out to be a positive for me. Chely Wright was my boss at the time of the theft and really helped me to get my feet on the ground in a short amount of time. She loaned me money and bought me gear to replace what had been stolen. It was a super-cool gesture, and kind of needed, as I was her guitar player and didn't have any guitars, amps or a pedal board.

Rascal Flatts were also close friends and ordered a bunch of pedal boards and racks, etc., soon after my theft, which really helped not only me, but also helped Trailer Trash get its feet on the ground in a short amount of time, as well. Once again, I owe a ton of people a ton of thanks.

You've said you lived in Colorado before, but what you brought you to Denver after being in Nashville?

Well, this takes a second to explain. One reason had to do with my age -- dang age. I was a touring guitar player in Nashville, not a full-time session player. The biggest difference between the two? As a full-time session player, you get to sleep in your own bed, at your own house every night, and that becomes important after spending years on the road. Also, when pro players get their first artist gig, they say, "Wow, I can't believe that I'm getting in that bus!" In three years, it's the same but with a different tone -- "Wow, I can't believe that I'm getting in that bus..."

Okay, getting closer to moving to Denver. I was playing on a recording project with Wolf Hoffmann of Accept when I got a call to fly to Fort Worth to audition for Dwight Yoakam. Quite the opening sentence of a reply, right? German metal to twang B-bender Tele... Well, neither one turned into much for my guitar-playing career, but within months of this happening in 2006, my Denver girlfriend from sixteen years prior called me. The rest is history: I stopped touring, moved to Denver, got married, and [my] Trailer Trash business blew up, and I haven't looked back! Age, bed, married, Denver.... Actually, I have spoken with a few people about touring again. I do miss it and will probably go out for a few more years.

Trailer Trash is pretty much the only company of its kind in Colorado, right?

I'm not sure about that, but Trailer Trash does use local Denver vendors for almost all of our parts/product supplies.

You've played with a few local acts as well, right?

Yes, back in the '80s I was in a few metal bands that were Denver-based, like G-Force and Autobahn, and for the past few years, I have played around town with the local blues/country band Reckless Red.

How did you first get into building pedalboards?

Well, when I was a kid, you couldn't go down to the local music store and buy a pedalboard, so I made my own. But some of us had OCD a bit worse than others and studied the possibilities.

What was the initial inspiration for essentially revolutionizing pedal boards?

I had been on the road for many years leading up to the prototype. There weren't any pedal boards being offered by any of the online companies that had power supplies under the board, patch bays for audio, top-quality wiring or making aesthetics important to the pedal board, or [they] weren't being consciously designed with overall weight being the focus. This became super-important for pro guitar players after 9/11 as the pounds for domestic flights went from 70 to 50 pounds. The stars who are paying for the upcharges don't like the $85 upcharge for an overweight pedal board, so we made it possible to have a "fly-able" pedal board that made the 50-pound weight limits set by the airlines.

I watched Orange County Choppers from the start. I used their idea of building concept bikes to emulate the look of, say, the New York Jets, for instance. I took the same idea and applied it to pedal boards, but the look that Trailer Trash emulated was all of the amplifiers on the market, from vintage to new.

No one had ever seen anything like this, and when we went to our first NAMM show in 2005, we were a huge hit and made the Barry Wood NAMM Oddities list as the first boutique pedal board. When you look online now, you see company after company copying my product. We have since changed the look of Trailer Trash Pedalboards, as we stopped hand-upholstering boards in 2008 due to our volume of business.

Trailer Trash was the first company to hand-wire boards, right?

No. There were always companies like TechStar and Tour Supply, but they were only in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, you know, just the corporate music towns. There were no online companies when I released my boards that offered the option of the customer sending us their pedals for us to design signal flow/spec power/custom wire just like the touring pros' boards. This made us a big hit, as there are so many novice players that have no idea how to put this stuff together. Since then, there are companies leapfrogging each other to wire your pedal board, but every pedal board featured throughout the Trailer Trash website has been designed and wired by me. No wonder my hands stopped working.

Do you wire boards differently for rock and country players?

Oh, yeah. Many differences between metal/hard rock and Los Angeles pop/Nashville Country. Signal flows can be different as the youth continues to experiment and come up with cool new reasons to feed one pedal to the next. Even after all the crazy boards that I have designed and built, I continue to learn signal flow thoughts from the youth. I think that's super-cool, but I also think that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Metallica are still "new" bands.

No, really, pop and country players play so many different styles that they need a ton of pedals to cover a country set. A sixty-minute Nashville country show from an artist can include rock, searing leads, timed delays [aka U2], clean funk, chickin' pickin', Cajun, swing and breathy ambiance. A hard rock/metal player typically uses way less, as they generally have a main go-to tone and just roll the volume back to clean up the sound, generally speaking, of course.

We have a board on tour with Slash -- he has maybe four to six pedals. I have built pedal boards for many of the top master session players in Nashville. They will always have a ton of pedals because you never know what tone you will need from session to session. So, yes, it varies greatly from genre to genre.

How did you come up with the GlowTop concept?

Ego, probably. I was really dead-set on releasing the most outrageous pedalboard ever built. I can't remember what sparked the idea, but after my theft, I spent six months designing my first prototype pedalboard. I built my first GlowTop for myself. Good thing for me, I had a major-artist gig at the time [Chely Wright], so I was able to take it out and play with it in arenas and theaters and see its potential vibe. Everyone who saw the original prototype all agreed that my design would be an instant hit.

I also remember saying, "Steve Stevens needs a GlowTop." If there is anyone that is cool enough to do a GlowTop justice, it would be Steve. He called within eighteen months and had me build him one. Same with Joe Perry. Joe is a real gadget nut, and I always thought he needed one, as well. He got one, too.

I do remember that the first GlowTop that I built was made so it would glow on battery power. This way I could take it downtown on Broadway in Nashville and light it up out on the sidewalk in front of the tourists and other guitar players. I was super proud of my new invention in 2004. Now in 2013, if you look online, you will see that there are a ton of pedal-board companies that love my "new invention" as well.

Can you talk about how you've transformed the pedal board from simple necessity to an art form?

Mike Fuller from Fulltone pedals is the one who coined my product as "art" -- a super-cool compliment from Mike. Others then took the phrase and ran with it; my website people wrote it. Here are a few factors that others weren't thinking about at the time of Trailer Trash release: the placement of the pedals, measuring to make sure they are aesthetically perfect; how/where the cables get dressed, custom cutting to length to keep a clean look, and custom drilling for all cables so they are not seen at all; the hiding of components, like wireless buffers and power supplies under the board to further clean up the overall look and get more pedals on the top for more tones.

Using a combination of colored cables for different functions not only color codes your boards signal flow, but complements the look. I also used my hands' heat to shape the wires before and after shrink-wrapping to give the cable its neatest appearance possible. Factor all this onto one of our original aged tweed boards or a chrome GlowTop, and there you have it -- pedal board art, as I am told.

Who are some of the bigger-name guitar players that you have built pedal boards for?

Well, as far as stars go, a few featured on our website are Joe Perry, Steve Stevens, Slash, Foo Fighters, etc. I am very fortunate to have this level of people using my product, but I never want to forget about the session players who use the Trailer Trash product. These are some of the guys that you listen to all day on the radio and never know what their names are. I have built for Pat Buchanan, JT Corenflos, Kent Wells and Guthrie Trapp. Guthrie actually owns Trailer Trash Pedalboard Serial #R-001 -- my first in-production pedalboard.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon