How Do You Choose? Making the Boutique Guitar Pedal Market a Moral Dilemma

By Tyler Osborne

    Boutique pedals…Where does one begin on such a topic these days? It seems like everyone is starting a line of new fuzz pedals or designing the next big delay craze. It seems like you could stack their self-oscillating fuzz boxes end-to-end and exceed the limits of our stratosphere. With that in mind, where does a musician begin to sort through the plethora of options to make some sort of comprehensible setup, and can we make a moral case out of buying boutique pedals over mass-produced ones? You bet we can!

     I can be as big a pedal snob as anyone, and tend to lean purchase hand built pedals from guys and gals I know work hard to create a product that might spearhead the next big thing in effects. The boutique market is divided between the more unique builders and those selling slightly modified versions of a design that has already been on the market.  There has been a lot of speculation over the last few years concerning makers who do this sort of work. Are they building something that has a true improvement of another circuit, or are they pulling the wool over the consumers’ eyes by advertising their wonderful new overdrive, which is really just a Tube Screamer clone without a buffer.

     Whether a unique circuit or a slightly modified clone, one great attribute of the boutique market is that you can almost guarantee you are buying a pedal built by a musician who designed it to cater to the needs of other musicians.   No matter what nature of guitar effects they are making, these people are working out of their basements or tiny shops with none of the R & D money that the staple “big guys” of the pedal world have. Their designs come from trial and error, determination to make a new sound in a tangible means, and devoting hours of time to making a sound happen.

     I recently had a transaction with a company called Shoe Pedals, based out of Meridan, Connecticut. I expressed interest in his Pixel Fuzz, a synth-y, bit crushed dirt pedal that sounded amazing in his demos… but I wasn’t sold yet. After a bit of correspondence, I sent Shoe a list of what I wanted my dream fuzz to do, and after a few weeks he created a fuzz box that produced a truly unique sound that was exactly how I imagined it. Through our correspondence, a new version of the Pixel was made that we both fell in love with and is now in steady production. Are you going to contact Roland and ask if they could tweak the Boss DS-1 so it could give a bit more bite to suit your playing style? I doubt it.

     Another reason I have such a love affair with the boutique market is that the manufacturers care about the reputation and reliability of their products. I emailed Canadian-built Dr. Scientist one night on a tour while frantically trying to fix my Mini Reverberator. The pedal had died and my troubleshooting ideas weren’t reviving it. The builder immediately got on the phone with me, internationally, at around midnight and talked me through what could be causing the problems, and we had the pedal back in working order in time for the show. Now, if your pedal from MXR breaks after 6PM on a business day, or heaven forbid, on the weekend, you may be up the creek if you try to call them to troubleshoot. The only advantage here is that pedals by the large companies are widely available in most any guitar store, so replacements are easy to come by.

     Now, let’s talk price. There is no disputing that the boutique market is more expensive than the mass-produced manufacturers, but remember that buying from the smaller companies is just like supporting a local business or local music. This is a means of living for many of the builders, so I would much rather spend an extra fifty dollars on a pedal whose designer I have had a personal interaction with than on a pedal a robot built. Now does this make a Blackout Effectors Musket fuzz a better choice than a new Big Muff? (editors note: it is)  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but would I rather spend more money on an effect whose creator is a passionate musician and electronics nerd like myself.

     So, will you ultimately choose a Boss pedal over a boutique guitar pedal? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’ve got some Boss pedals that haven’t left my board since the day I got them; however, I tend to appreciate the effort and overall product created by independent makers. It is impossible to elevate one choice above the other as they both have unique benefits, but in the end, I would prefer to put my money where my mouth is and support individual builders with a vision.

Tyler Osborne is a guitarist, noise maker, pedal builder, tinkerer and mensch.  You can contact him at:

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