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The Rise of the Boutique Pedal

Article Submitted courtesy of Mason Hoberg.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated by different pieces of gear. Whether it’s a shiny new distortion pedal, or the Loar archtop I’ve been drooling over for several months now, I just never get bored of instruments or instrument accessories.

However, until recently there was a term that had always confused me. I had never been all that sure what someone meant when they referred to a pedal as being “boutique.” If that’s something you’ve ever wondered about, you’ve come to the right place! This article will clear up any misconceptions you have about the term “boutique” as well as giving you a quick summary of how the modern effect pedal came to be.

The Origin of the Guitar Pedal

The invention of the guitar pedal is arguably one of the most important events in music history, second only to the invention of the modern guitar pickup. While producers and musicians had been able to experiment with delay and echo as early as the 1940s, gigging musicians were limited to either vibrato or organic distortion from overdriven tube amplifiers until the 1950s where effects such as reverb and delay became commonplace features of higher-end amplifiers.

But just like any other era in music history, sonic pioneers were constantly pushing to create new and exciting sounds. Whether it was the controlled chaos of Link Wray’s 1958 “Rumble”, or the now famous speaker mutilation Dave Davies of the Kinks used to create the trademark raucous tone of “You Really Got Me”, guitarists had shown that there was an untapped market for ever greater levels of youthful rebellion in the form of musical creativity.

However, there was a small problem. The technology just wasn’t quite where it needed to be in order to fully capture the variety of sounds that were available in the studio. That is, until the newly invented electronic transistor became widely available for commercial use. This compact electrical component was cheap to manufacture, and had a staggeringly large amount of applications in almost every area of electronics.

Thanks to the transistor, guitar pedals as we know them today finally became a reality. The early 60s to mid-70s saw dozens of effects released, pushing the boundaries of what the electric guitar could accomplish higher and higher. Some of the standout effects from this era were the “Wah-Wah” pedal, Electro-Harmonix’s Big Muff, and the Octavio produced by Kelsey-Morris Sound.

When Did People Start Making Boutique Pedals?

As far as pedals go, you can’t really say where the boutique movement originated. While the mid-90s to early 2000s saw the establishment of boutique mainstays like Keeley Electronics or Z. Vex effects, innovators like Emlyn Crowther have been making their own high quality pedals since the mid 70s. And you can’t really even point to the 70s as the origin of boutique pedals, because it could be argued that any company that got its start after the initial pedal boom was a boutique builder for a period of time. I don’t think you’d be all that wrong to compare the struggles faced by Electro-Harmonix in establishing the Big Muff Pi to the struggles faced by a boutique pedal manufacturer in establishing their product today.

Boutique Pedals In The Modern Age

When someone refers to a pedal manufacturer as being “boutique” now they’re generally talking about companies that started in the mid-to-late 90s, hand make their pedals in either Europe or America in limited quantities, and gained their reputation by recreating or modifying vintage effects with high quality parts and unique designs.

Some of the most well known boutique pedal manufacturers around today include:

The Effect of Boutique Pedals

The crowning achievement of companies like Death By Audio and T-Rex Engineering is that they’ve democratized the advancement of music. From the seasoned gigging professional to the dedicated weekend warrior, anyone can make use of the extra options that having boutique pedals on the market can provide. If you want a Ibanez Tube Screamer clone that accurately recreates the flavor of vintage models, you can have it. And if you want a fuzz pedal paired with a ring modulator you can have that too.

Do you have any experience with boutique pedals? If so, tell us all about it in the comment section below!

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Guest Contributor