The Case For & Against Boutique Pedals April 04 2014

img credit flickr user TheCronan (/photos/cronyn/)

There are some very strong opinions about boutique guitar pedals. At one end you've got gear snobs who look down on people who've paid less than £150 for a fuzz pedal. At the other end there are those who can't believe people are essentially paying hundreds of pounds more for a basic pedal with a fancy new paint job.

This article will give you a little guidance if you're wondering whether to buy a boutique pedal.

Hopefully it will provide a nice and balanced account and give some reasons both for, and against buying boutique.

For the Newbies

We know that a few of our customers haven't been playing guitar for that long, and are still learning. So you may not actually know what boutique pedals are - this bit's for you!

Boutique pedals can be quite hard to define. You could get a pedal described as “boutique” which doesn't actually fit the following definition. However a genuine (you'll see why I used this word in the second half of the article) boutique pedal maker would like to think it has the following definition:

Hand made pedals produced in much smaller quantities than mainstream pedals which use the highest quality components. They often have a unique look and sound. Usually they are more expensive because of the smaller quantities they are produced in and the higher quality components used. Sometimes the pedals have extra knobs, settings or are designed to sound a certain unique way.

The Advantages

So why would you want one of these boutique pedals? Let's take a look at why you may be tempted to make at least one or two of your pedals, boutique.

Cool Design

Let's start with aesthetics – some boutique pedals can have awesome designs. Some really are more like works of art. If you're anything like me, you can find some of the mainstream brands a little bland looking. There's a reason for this – mainstream pedals don't want to take any risks and give you a reason not to buy the pedal. So they're less inclined to do something creative. They want to appeal to the most amount of people possible, and while there's not much to like about a plain orange pedal, there's not much to dislike either. Many boutique designers are free to let their imaginations run wild. And that “imagination run wild” theme is continued throughout all aspects of their construction.

The Care & Attention

A lot of care and attention goes into boutique pedals. The maker is usually just one person who has a vision. They'll have spent hours planning, experimenting and testing the original design. Then when it comes to the actual pedals which will be sold, they'll have needed to source the raw materials, construct and test the finished product. They'll want everything to be perfect, because it's their business and word of mouth can make or break them.

With mass produced pedals can you imagine every stage of the process having the same amount care? No, probably not. They care about maximising profit.

It's also great to support a great local builder who is following their passion as opposed to buying from a big company (perhaps who are located at the other end of the world). In the same way you may buy from a local family run butches instead of Morrisons or Tesco, buying from a local pedal builder may give you that warm fuzzy feeling inside.

The Sound

boutique pedalboardThis is perhaps the best reason to buy a boutique pedal; if you want a unique & innovative sound. Because of a builders willingness to experiment and use a wide range of parts (even if they're more expensive) they're likely to sound very different.

Remember that mass produced brands are always looking for something which will appeal to the most people. This is so they can sell more units. But sometimes that isn't what you're after. You want something specific, and there's a chance boutique pedal can fulfil your specific need.

Mainstream & popular bands aren't liked by everyone, and the same goes for pedals.

The Disadvantages

But it's not all good. Here are a few valid criticisms of boutique pedals.

Do You Know What You're Buying?

There are a few different cases of companies finding a decent low cost pedal manufacturer (such as Biyang or Joyo) and then asking these companies if they can provide custom paintwork and logos. They'll then sell these £30-40 pedals for over £100 and imply that they're boutique / hand made (although technically they are hand made, just not with their hands!) . There's nothing wrong with re-branding (it happens all the time), but when you're essentially charging £70+ more for a paint job and misleading customers, it's a little insulting. You can read a little bit more about this scandal here.

The problem is that for most of us, there's no way to know if a pedal is actually boutique. Even if we look inside, it still can be hard to tell. Sometimes a fancy new paint job, or a good marketing campaign can play tricks on our ears. We start to actually think that the pedal actually does sound better. So if you are buying boutique, make sure you trust the designer! Unfortunately many people have already been scammed.

Do they Actually Sound Better?

If you look at the professional musicians you'd think they'd all be using boutique pedals if they were so much better. Although some pros do use boutique pedals, they're in the minority. Most professional boards consist of familiar brand names.

Of course sound is subjective. But that's the point really. If you're looking for a specific sound that you want then fair enough. But don't fool yourself into thinking that everyone will love your specific boutique sound over a mass produced pedal. In fact I think in a blind sound test between one of our under £40 Biyang fuzz pedals, and a £200 boutique fuzz, at least some would prefer our the Biyang.

Think about all the R&D money which goes into the big brand pedals. As well as all that testing, and all that experience. They've made pedal building into an art form. They've perfected the whole process and made it as efficient as possible. Yes they may not have the character or warmth of boutique pedals but they know what they're doing, and they do it very well. That's why mass produced pedals sound so good, even though we know lots of love and (as much) care hasn't gone into them. But that doesn't matter does it? It's about how they sound.

The big pedal brands are big precisely because they're good at what they do.

Value For Money

I'm really a sucker for a great deal, which is why you see such inexpensive gear on this site. Maybe some boutique pedals are “better” than mass produced pedals. But are they good enough to warrant a price tag two or three times bigger? For that to make sense they should be at least twice as good, which they're not.

Think about what's actually in a boutique pedal too. At the end of the day it's a metal box full of various electronic components. These components, even the highest quality ones, can't cost more than £20. If bought in wholesale this number could be much lower. Yes; there's the labour time and the initial development too. But if the pedal builder has a good system in place building certainly shouldn't take more than an hour or so.

The fact is that building pedals is often the only source of income that many pedal builders have. So they NEED to be that price in order for them to make a decent living. They're not priced that way because of the massively extra quality.

Also, not all boutique pedals are any good, or even acceptable. You only need a basic knowledge of electronics to build one yourself. Anyone can build one and start selling online. These people sometimes have the cheek to think they too can overcharge. That's like me walking into Harrods and trying to sell a dirty t-shirt I've drawn a few stars on for £99.

It's Natural to Want More

We've got to remember that many boutique builders are running their own business. And the fact is they're only human, so they're not going to leave money on the table when they could be making more. That's just stupid.

Many of the big pedal brands today probably started as a small boutique company. They then found ways to become more efficient, automate processes and save costs. For example they could find another electrical component which is half the price of the one currently being used. Yet there is no performance difference. So they use it and knock their prices down to encourage more buyers and spread the word about their brand.

So this is where the definition of “boutique” can get a bit blurred, and what you think of as a perfect boutique pedal, isn't boutique at all. Does being successful automatically make you non boutique?

Conclusion

It seems that much of the time there are two different groups of “boutique”. Firstly there are those pedals which are pretending to be boutique and are in fact dressed up or re-branded mainstream brands. These builders / companies are very bad and any anyone who tries to pull the wool over your eyes like this shouldn't be trusted. In a similar group are pedals which actually are built from scratch, but aren't actually any good. It's technically a boutique pedal, it's just not been planned very well. These people have the arrogance to think their terrible pedals should be priced as highly as the good boutique brands. Just because they're both broadly classified as “boutique”.

However there are some excellent independent boutique pedal makers out there who will make an excellent pedal which is something a little bit different to boot. It may be exactly what you're looking for, and superior to the mass produced pedals (for you).

The challenge is actually finding a great boutique brand since most boutique pedal builders market themselves simply by word of mouth. Probably one of the most popular and reputable boutique builders is Analogman. Other names worth looking into are MojoHand, Wampler and Strymon.