Boutique pedals – is it a case of the emperor's new clothes?
Compared to their fellow musicians, guitar players are often notoriously parsimonious when it comes to making important buying decisions. Whereas keyboard players and drummers will routinely shell out fairly hefty wads of cash on a new piece of trick hardware or a groundbreaking new synthesizer, guitarists can spend ages fretting over purchasing a new set of guitar strings costing a fiver!
However, one area where our six-string slinging pals are eagerly queuing up to part with their cash is the recent phenomena of so-called ‘boutique’ or hand-made stomp boxes. The success of bespoke effects pedals hinges on the singular notion, but a vital one no less, that a gadget assembled in a garage in Milwaukee by someone with dubious personal hygiene and probably very few friends will definitely make you sound better than the next bloke.
Guitarists spend their lives – and plenty of money – in pursuit of an elusive tonal nirvana that always seems to be tantalizingly just beyond their reach and the boutique pedal brands are only too happy to indulge this endless pursuit of perfection.
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Established big hitters like Digitech and MXR haven’t been slow on jumping on the bandwagon, even developing their own ‘boutique’ lines alongside their off-the-shelf devices. To be honest, we are starting to get a bit weary of the hype. ‘True Bypass’ should definitely be included among those phrases recently deemed culturally redundant. In my book the only True Bypass worth a light is the one that John Prescott promised to build to relieve traffic build up on the A142 Ely trunk road.
For a seemingly niche market there are now more bespoke brands than one can shake a whammy bar at and whilst some bespoke pedals are undoubtedly very cool indeed, the flip side is that the exotic hand made effects pedals that light up the Internet forums can be a very hard sell for retailers.
According to our confidential sources, demand for bespoke effects pedals tends to be fairly polarised. Lack of demand means that some major chains can’t shift them, especially when ready cash can be made from brands like Boss and Ibanez that continue to whistle out the door at a fairly steady rate of knots. However, the network of smaller independent retailers who specialise in that type of exotic gear are always more than happy to cater to the well-heeled connoisseur.
So are guitarists gullible? Generally speaking, no, but these bespoke pedal companies have managed to pull off a fantastic PR job. Consider for a moment how conservative guitarists can be when it comes to buying new gear. The fact that they can be tempted buy something based on pure hearsay demonstrates how deeply these manufacturers have managed to tap into guitarist’s insecurities.
Another factor is something that we are all occasionally guilty of - vanity. Whether it be the allure of driving a flash new car, sliding one’s feet into the latest Nike shoes or being seen at a gig with a shiny new guitar, the very notion that your peers might be incredibly impressed by your latest purchase is sometimes enough to convince us to flex the old plastic. There is nothing wrong with that, of course but does a handmade grunge-o-matic that will set you back £250 really sound all that better than a mass-produced Boss DS-1 that costs less than a decent pair of trainers? If you think it does, and more importantly if you can convince your customers that it will, then long may this craze run and run.