Unit 5, Silveroaks Farm, Hawkhurst Lane, Waldron, Heathfield, E.Sussex, UK, TN21 0RS
Tel (0)1435- 813393, International +44 1435 813393
VAT Reg. No. GB 241 7291 72
The Craftsmen—Pete Cornish
Originally published in Music UK Issue #6 1982 by Tony Bacon
Marquee Studio, Sandwiched between Dean Street and Wardour Street in a mews that
doesn’t even exist according to the London A—Z map, is the workshop of Pete
Cornish, electrical handyman to the big names of rock. On the day I visited, a
beaming Pete, buttoned-up white coat and round specs gleaming, was suffering
from a heavy cold and an influx of diverse Queen equipment which itself was
suffering as Pete described it, from “jungle fever” gained on a trip to South
America and back with Freddie and Co. Pete’s own cold he puts down to the
‘absolute panic’ involved in finishing a pedalboard for Iron Maiden’s Dave
Murray in time for a tour—Pete’s wife reckons he gets a cold per pedalboard!
Pedalboards are not the only Cornish output, however; he aims to make any gadgets that musicians can’t buy elsewhere, from power supplies to fully-rigged systems, although the pedalboards are perhaps his best known handiwork. It all started in the very early 1970’s when Pete became increasingly frustrated with working in a factory for a living. A workmate at the factory had, it turned out, done a few jobs for Sound City (a music shop in London’s musical centre, Shaftesbury Avenue) and told Cornish of a vacancy there. Pete got the job at Sound City, in the service department.
“Initially it was repairs and servicing,” he remembers of the job, “and then it became apparent that there was a need for other things—and number one was good guitar leads. I spent a long time investigating that, looking for noiseless cables.” This particular problem was manifested when Caravan roadie Maurice Haylett came in the shop and threw some of Pete’s guitar leads at him. “I realized then that something was wrong.” He laughs, “so the hunt was on for crackle free cable.”
Every piece of cable that Cornish saw over a period of nearly a year had a little bit snipped off and tested, and eventually Pete came across the now-definitive cable—even then, the process was far from straightforward. “I discovered a piece in an old American guitar case that somebody had left in Sound City; luckily it was the bit with the number embossed in it. Trouble was it only had the number, so I then had to hunt round for the maker!”
Cornish still churns out leads—he points to a box of them, ready for the Scorpions to pick up on their London stop-off—and even in Sound City days was getting through some 8000 feet of the stuff every month. News of ‘The Man Who Made Silent Leads’ spread fast, and it became obvious that there were other things Pete could make to satisfy his widening clientele: lead testers, matching transformers, power supplies—an endless stream of little and not-so-little boxes would leave the Shaftesbury Avenue premises tucked under the arms of contented Caravaners and other lucky road-persons.
The first pedalboard was made for Robert Fripp in September 1973, although Pete mentions a ‘practice run’ for Pete Banks, then with Flash. Fripp’s board was part of a set for King Crimson (fellow Cornished Crimsoners being John Wetton and David Cross) and comprised of a Guild Foxy Lady, Guilds version of the Big Muff Fuzz, a Cry Baby wah-wah, a Farfisa wooden-bodied volume pedal (‘The best volume pedal I’ve ever come across.” Says Pete, “very expressive”), plus an echo send and return, and a bypass switch for the echo and effects (but not the volume). It was all powered by one big battery in a compartment underneath. Later on, in February 1974, Cornish made Fripp a spare board, with a De Armond volume replacing the Farfisa, but the Farfisa-equipped board was the start of a line of Pete Cornish pedalboards that he’s still making today.
Naturally enough, many changes of approach and construction have occurred along the way, nit the basic premise remains. Pete puts together a fully operational system based on the musician’s individual effects combination and desired switchings, and comes up with a finished drawing showing exactly what goes where and how it’s all going to work. Once the go-ahead’s given, Pete will turn it round ready for whatever deadline is necessary, and the musician ends up with an instrumental control centre with the unique Cornish touch.
Probably the best-known of these boards is the one Pete built for David Gilmour, which Andy Summers (another Cornish customer) generously described as “about 50 yards long” in Music UK #1. Pete fills in more accurate detail at my request, and describes how the original 1976 Gilmour board gradually grew to nine Pink Floyd pedalboards on-stage for ‘The Wall’ (along with two spares).
“When Sound City closed,” says Pete, “I moved to Maurice Placquet’s for a while, but it was too far away for me, so I went to Long Acre and made this David Gilmour board—certainly the most effects on a board I’d done so far. On the original there was a Fuzz Face, my own fuzz, an MXR 100 Phaser, a Univibe, a Cry Baby wah, an MXR Dyna Comp, a spare send and return for something, a volume pedal that I made, another send and return, an MXR Noise Gate, send and returns for echoes, and a very complicated system of tone pedals.”
For example, there was a Telecaster tone circuit built into a Cry Baby wah-wah body, adapted by Pete so that a specially-made reverse pot suited the gear of the pedal. In fact the finished board had three Cry Baby wah bodies sitting on top of it: one for the tone circuit, one for Pete’s volume pedal, and one as a regular wah-wah. Also on the Gilmour pedalboard was a two-position master bypass switch, feeding the guitar direct to the amp(s), or bypassing everything bit the echoes.
“From that came all the other Floyd boards,” says Pete, “with loads of modifications along the way. Like in October 1977 I put in a small relay to select either an MXR or a Small Stone phaser. A footswitch selects a phaser, then a toggle switch selects which phaser. Also there’s three echoes.”
You may be wondering by now how Cornish manages to remember all the intricate details and permutations involved in all the work he’s done for countless musicians over the years. Quite simply, Pete is a totally methodical recorder of everything he does, and there’s a whole rack of folders in his workshop with labels like ‘Roxy Music’, ‘King Crimson’, ‘Pink Floyd’, and so on. In these are circuit drawings, plans, dates, and endless scribble detailing everything he’s made, including all the modifications and updates carried out. Pete also makes sure he photographs all his work, and so has a complete visual record of everything that he has ever sat between work bench and soldering iron. This is handy not only from an archivist’s point of view, but is naturally of great practical use when a musician comes back for a compressor transplant. So if Andy Mackay strolls in, one can imagine the cry, “Fetch me the Roxy Music file!” echoing around Richmond Mews.
Cornish continues to concoct gadgetry employing the most suitable materials for the job, as in the initial search for cable. Similarly, when it came to finding a strong sleeve for wrapping groups of leads together that would be resilient to the perils of touring, Pete instigated another search which required full testing of each potential sleeve. “It’s never been possible to buy exactly the right combinations of multicore cable,” he says, “because you need mains and low impedance balanced or unbalanced signal—I’ve never found a cable that will do the whole lot. So I take the right wires—they might even include speaker leads if there’s a speaker box nearby—and I run it through this French military piping. It’s exceptionally strong.”
“I tested it when I first got a sample, I threw it on the floor and left it, humped cabinets and amps over it for a couple of months. Not a single strand broke.” Pete shows me an example of sleeving in action for Queen’s redesigned stage set-up, this particular batch being five bass guitar leads sleeved up to wind around the drum riser to a rack which Pete made for John deacon—yet another facet of his work.
“I put the rack together and made the top three units in it,” he says, referring to the inevitable photograph of the Deacon rack. “There’s a selector unit and two modified Strobotuners, then there’s two valve preamps, two compressors, and two graphics, all in 19 inch rack units. That’s another type of work that I do, which is really modifications of existing stuff, making it all work together. Before this, John Deacon had the same sort of things, but spread out all over the stage, bits here and there. It was nice to put that all in one unit, much easier to carry around and it’s wired up ready to go—one lead for the mains. In fact, the first version that I did for John was when he was using five Acoustic 370 stacks. I gave him a box with four bass inputs with lights and switches, a master volume, and a master on/off switch—he could then control the whole lot with one volume control, which seemed like a good idea,” he smiles.
“Again, you can’t go anywhere and buy that, can you? You see, it was something that was needed that you can’t just buy…the people who I know, who are really the road managers, know that I can make things like good leads. And power distribution boards, you can’t really buy them in that form: replaceable sockets and funny lights to tell you when you are going to die.” He finds that often a big rush of equipments will come from a newly formed band as they set up their stage rig—then he’ll modify and adapt that equipment as and when the individual players need it. “The offshoot of that is that I then look after the other equipment of that band.”
He turned to mains supply for his pedalboards very early on—the second batch of boards, after the initial Crimson trio, was for Genesis, and he cites Steve Hackett’s 1974 board as his first mains-powered one. Occasionally, Pete still gets a request for a battery-powered board—Bernie Torme when with Gillan was the most recent example that leapt to Pete’s mind—but by and large mains supply is the standard. And for Phil Manzanera, Pete concocted a design that would enable automatic selection of the correct mains voltage wherever in the world the band happened to be playing, with a range of anything between 70 and 270 volts!
From Big Jim Sullivan to Labo Siffre, from Bill Nelson to Marco of Adam and the Ants, Pete Cornish’s clients continue to demand the oddest and the best. And Pete continues to deliver the goods. Serious enquirers can contact Pete at his workshop, though he stresses that he’s not really interested in fixing TVs or converting your old fuzz box to mains power. If you read Japanese, however, he’d be very interested to have a translation of the article that ‘Player’ magazine did on him, which is stuck up on the wall among all the other pictures and cuttings. “I wonder what they said about me?” he asks. I think it’s safe to say that it’s complimentary.