The Maker’s Dozen – Brian Staebell of Howling Monkey

John Tron Davidson
March 17, 2019
February 10, 2021

Currently sitting at the top of the Heavy Repping! review ratings with the ancient key that is the Antonios, Howling Monkey stand alone in the pick field with their devotion to Tagua. With everything they make in the Heavy Repping collection, it would have been a crime not to take the opportunity to talk to Mr. Monkey, Brian Staebell about all things vegetable ivory related. What follows is our chat about nuts, production techniques, and what’s next for the plectrum. Read!

HR Thanks for talking to Heavy Repping! For the uninitiated, how would you describe Howling Monkey?

BS – We’re make guitar picks exclusively from a nut that grows on a tree called Tagua. We use the meat of the nut (not the shell) which has similar properties to animal ivory. Very hard, yet, smooth and produces amazing tone. We import all of our tagua direct from Ecuador (through certified fair trade initiatives) and make them in small batches in our shop located in Rochester, New York.

HRThe company’s been going since 2013 – what was your background before you started making picks?

BS – Everything except for making picks. Mostly I’ve been in graphic design and marketing for 15 years, working in industries from tourism/hospitality to golf equipment to mortgages. But HM was founded when I was working for a locally owned guitar shop in my hometown. Since founding HM, I’ve gone from not making anything by hand ever, to making picks, to launching a full service laser engraving business which incorporates custom woodworking and sign making. Guitar picks have quite literally changed my life.

HRWhat was it that conventional picks were lacking for you?

BS – Quite frankly, it was tone on an acoustic, and feel and control with the rest of my playing. I had been playing the legendary Dunlop Yellow Tortex .73mm for more than a decade without thinking about it. Then someone put a Pickboy Carbon Nylon 1.14mm in my hand and my playing changed immediately, and I never went back to the tortex. Then someone put a Wegen, and then a V-Pick, and then a glass pick…and then something different, etc. etc….it was really just one of those things where I had never thought of the pick in my hand and then in one brief encounter, a new world was opened up that I never considered before.

HR To the casual observer, the choice of Tagua is a bit of an unusual one – what drew you to that material in the first place? Was the concern environmental?

BS – Honestly, it fell in my lap. I had never heard of it, nor was I seeking a new pick material. While working at the aforementioned music store, a neighboring business who sells tagua carvings, beads and slices, introduced it to me saying that the material had been used a guitar picks in the past, and its ivory like nature might produce a nice tone. That’s where my interest was piqued and I started on the pick making journey. After making a few (poorly made) picks from tagua, it was immediately clear that the tone and feel were something our store didn’t offer. However, I never consciously said “I want to start a guitar picks business, how do I do that?”, it was “these picks are really cool and different, how do I get these into more hands?”.

As far as environmental, it’s great that tagua is a comparable ivory alternative – it’s also biodegradable, and we’re happy we’re not adding to the plastics in the world. However, it wasn’t the primary purpose. I feel that environmentally friendly should be a consideration when producing anything in this world, but, the end product needs to awesome first. It needs to be comparable or better than any of its counterparts or the environmental side means nothing. So, we’re happy that people are really digging our picks and can feel good about their carbon footprint on the world at the same time.

HRWhat are the difficulties in working with such a material?

BS – Tagua is pretty difficult, in my opinion. EVERY tagua nut is a different size. Think about it as the difference in size of small salt potatoes all the way up to medium potatoes. Then think about those different sized potatoes getting sliced up like chips (not UK chips, US chips). They’re all different sizes, so getting various picks out of the the slices have to be sorted for efficiency – some slices are only big enough for the Jazz III size – others are really big and are used only for the Triforce. Then, because you can’t slice them like a potato – as they’re too hard – they’re sliced on a band saw/chop saw in Ecuador. This results in various thicknesses of the slices – which is why our picks have a range of 2.2mm-2.7mm thickness. It’s not impossible, but it is very time consuming and inefficient to run them through a thicknessing machine.

Tagua nuts, before they’re dried, have a consistency of Jell-O when sliced – they can be scooped with a spoon. But after they’re dried, they’re very hard, like ivory – but in that drying process, air bubbles form, which results in structural cracks which have to be sorted out – some are caught in Ecuador, many we have to further detect here during our production process. So, the production process is totally different than other picks which are cut from sheet stock or molds.

HRCan you give our readers some idea of the production process involved in such a hands-on pick?

BS – Our production process at the beginning (2012-13) was very primitive. We used to cut each shape by hand on a band saw, and then sand to its final shape, then bevel and finish with other sanding equipment. Our original grips were just two parallel lines which we cut by hand as well. It was extremely time consuming and inconsistent. We did this for maybe the first year of production. We smartened up and bought a small CNC machine to do the majority of steps with bevelling and finishing by hand. This is when we introduced our pistol grips – but it was still difficult to get pistol grips on both sides, so we had just our logo engraved on the opposite side. So, fast forward to 2018 when we decided to move to our laser engraver/cutter.

We really struggled with our thought process on this, as we prided ourselves on our handmade process and didn’t know how we would be seen by using lasers in our production – however, the results were just too good and we still bevel and finish by hand. Utilizing the laser to cut the picks to shape and add the pistol grips to both sides cut our production time nearly in half.

This was a massive shift for us. Our pistol grip picks were priced at $12 before this move, and with the increase in production, we were able to cut pricing down to $7. It’s still very time consuming and labor intensive, but we’ve been able to reach a wider audience by being more competitive with our pricing with other handmade/boutique pick brands.

You can read more about these changes here:

HRHow did the barmy Antonios come about?

BS- Before 2018, we allowed folks to submit custom orders of any shape, size, design they could dream up. Most of the time, people wanted their favorite shape of a different company made from tagua – just emulating an existing design. However, our customer from the country Greece, Antonios Kalogaris, wanted this design to be made. I made a couple prototypes and played them, totally intrigued by the multiple tips and how they could manipulate your playing style in interesting and different ways. It was so cool and different, I asked Antonios if I could bring these to a larger audience, and he agreed. It’s funny, I was so excited about how cool the pick was, I asked him what his inspiration was for the design – and it happens to be an abstract design of the initials of his nickname – TOF (which doesn’t really translate to the English language). So look at that pick a bit more and you’ll see the TOF pop out at you. So, while it was never intended to be a crazy useful pick, it became that way out of sheer curiosity and intrigue.

The Antonios

HR Why do you think that players are going to smaller makers for their equipment when it comes to pedals/guitars etc?

BS – I think it’s the end of what I consider the Wal-Mart consumer mindset. We’ve had decades of large companies filling their rafters with crappy goods at attractive pricing with quality and customer service going as an afterthought. It’s just been a churn and burn economy where the more you buy the more you’re happy – but the shit breaks by design and you have to go out and buy more of the same crap.

I think that a couple things happened simultaneously – one is the younger generation saw through this (for the most part), and the internet paved the way for an outlet of people like me to reach an audience that was impossible to reach before.

It’s now no longer necessary to have a large manufacturing operation and be forced to sell a ton of product to make a profit. You can be small, and be focused on being really good at the one thing you’re good at. But, at the same time that it allows a business to be small, it allows these small manufacturers to get a really good market and customer base before investing more and scaling up to become more competitive with the big guys.

So, what all these moving parts create, is more creative and talented folks jumping into the game without fear of losing their ass. It’s become cheaper to become a business and even cheaper to advertise to a specific audience. I think it’s awesome. More people are creating their own path in their careers, more people are able to bring their creative products and ideas to the world than ever before, and it benefits everyone.

HRWhat’s it like being a plectrier in 2019? Is there a community for pick makers like there is for pedal builders?

BS – Plectrier – that’s a word I’ve never heard before. Ha! I’m well aware of the pedal building community. But, here, I’m just in my own little bubble. I follow some other pick makers on social media, and I feel a kinship of sorts to most of them – I feel we’re all in the same boat trying to rid the world of the cheap plastic picks in the 25 cent bin. And while we’re all competing against each other, I also think that the more of us there are, the more we’re converting more musicians to consider more handmade/boutique products.

HRWhat’s been the most rewarding moment in Howling Monkey’s history so far?

BS – It was really early on actually. I was just plugging away selling locally and a bit on Etsy – but had bigger visions, so by happenstance, I was scrolling through Twitter one day and stumbled on an editor for Guitar World Magazine. Wrote to him, asked if I could send him some picks to check out. I sent some samples (again, very inconsistent and an early design), he was gracious enough to write an entire article about HM and post it to their website. His review was amazing and that’s when I realized this thing could be bigger than I had ever expected. Even 6 years later that article is helping – it added a ton of legitimacy to HM and launched us from a tiny hobby to a business. That editor, is now the Editor-in-chief of Guitar World, Damien Fanelli. I can’t thank him enough for his help early on.

The down side though, is at that time, I was having some really big issues getting tagua from my distributors and I was nearly out of stock of tagua when the article hit, so I had to scramble to buy material in the US and had some real issues keeping up with the orders. It ended up working out, but it was quite stressful for a while.

HR On a personal level, which players currently doing the rounds excite you the most?

BS – Anyone who’s out there playing live music, doesn’t matter if you’re playing a local dive bar or a stadium. Most people take for granted the time and effort and balls it takes to get up in front of a crowd and play an instrument. Not knocking sports at all, but near anyone can pick up a ball and throw it around with friends, but an instrument? Man, sitting in a room toiling away hours upon hours just to learn 2 bars of a lick – not to mention a whole song – hours practicing with your band-mates just perfecting songs for months before even thinking about bringing it out to the public. It take so much. I’m excited for anyone who puts the effort in to get better and play. 

HRWhat’s new for Howling Monkey this year?

BS – As we always do, we re-evaluate our progress from year to year, and this year has been a tremendous growth period for us. We’re now going into our 6th year and closing in on 14,000 picks made over this time period – which is just crazy to me. We’ve had employees in the past, mostly to help through some busy periods, but I’ve been doing all production myself for nearly 2 full years. And 90% of production over the 6 years has been by me too. So, we’re currently training a new employee to reduce this burden on me (I’m getting old and sore), with this addition, we’re hoping to get more picks out there. I’m hoping to redesign some of our accessories (wood boxes and such) and will probably introduce a couple new pick shapes this year.

HRMany thanks for the interview – I truly appreciate it. Keep making the good stuff!

BS – I seriously love everything you’re doing. Picks are things that many players just think of as a throwaway item and it’s great that you’re shining a light on the industry to help educate and change minds.

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