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In recent years, demand for compact FX stompboxes has skyrocketed and the number of players in that market, itself, has grown substantially.

While there was a moment in the ‘90s where it seemed as if the trend amongst guitarists and bassists was towards large, multi-effect floor or rackmount units, in 2018 boutique stompboxes reign supreme for more and more players.

These days, the term and description, “boutique,” is applied fairly loosely, but it does, in fact, have a fairly clear definition, origin, and evolution. Initially reserved for one-off, custom-built gear, “boutique” – particularly when applied to stompbox effect pedals – now implies handmade (or mostly handmade), high quality units, typically with smaller production runs.

Just because those qualities are implied, of course, doesn’t always make it so. When certain mass-produced stompboxes are re-packaged and re-branded as “boutique” it’s unquestionable that to some it’s just a marketing buzzword. But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on a few of the companies who take the assumed qualities of boutique pedals to heart…

EarthQuaker Devices

“I started building pedals around 2004 just for fun,” says EarthQuaker president Jamie Stillman on the company’s genesis. “I built some for myself and a few friends then decided to put some up on eBay in late 2005. Those early pedals didn’t really sell, but generated some interest. I sat on the idea for a year and came up with some simple branding and a more solidified line.”

That first line included the Hoof Fuzz, Tusk Fuzz, and “a short-lived overdrive called Spectre.” The Hoof was the pedal that really got the ball rolling. “[It] drew the most attention on some forums and I started getting some orders,” Stillman recalls. “I quickly followed that up with the Disaster transport delay and a few others and I’ve been at it ever since.”

EarthQuaker Devices (EQD) has become especially noted for their reverb and modulation pedals: “The Rainbow Machine is the pedal that solidified our ‘weirdo’ reputation, but the Dispatch Master, Avalanche Run and Afterneath are our best sellers.”

What does Stillman think that boutique effect pedals have been experience such a surge in interest? “Pedals are a quick way to change your sound and inspire creativity without spending tons of money,” he says. “A lot of the bigger, established brands tend to cater to the broader, more traditional audience. The smaller brands can take risks with their designs with little consequence and usually come up with more unique sounds. I do think that gap is getting smaller every year, I’m seeing a lot more experimental effects coming from the bigger companies.

“We like to keep quiet about what we are working on but I have plenty of new pedals in the pipeline. I can tell you that I’m really excited for the next two years worth of releases and you can expect a lot more oddballs from EQD.”

Pigtronix

Supro / Pigtronix’s David Koltai recalls his brand’s early days clearly. “When Pigtronix first debuted at Summer NAMM with the EP-1 Envelope Phaser in 2003, the two prevalent trends in guitar effects were digital modeling of vintage analog stompboxes as well as handmade, boutique replicas of these same classic units,” he says. “There were not many companies focused on advanced analog designs at that time, so we set out to fill this unoccupied niche making Futuristic Analog pedals. Since the late 1990s we’ve been living in a world that has become infused with digital devices, so to insist that the future could be analog seemed as absurd as the idea that pigs would fly… hence the Pig logo with space helmet and WWI era flight goggles.”

Pigtronix “went big” from the get-go, making large format pedals with a number of features, multiple footswitches – and a steep price-point. “While these units established our fanbase and attracted a wide array of top-tier touring musicians, it was the single-footswitch Philosopher’s Tone Sustainer that gained traction at the retail level,” says Koltai of the brand’s breakthrough. “This unit, now available in a micro format, continues to be one of our strongest sellers, with well over 20,000 units sold since its release.

“In the late 2000s, when it became clear that we needed to branch out into the realm of digital design in order to continue to evolve the brand, Pigtronix took a huge financial risk in committing to the development of the Infinity Looper pedal. Upon its release, this MIDI controlled stereo looper quickly become our number-one product in terms of gross revenue and remains a cornerstone of our sales to this day.

“Most recently we have put a focus on miniaturizing and updating several legacy pedals, engineering our award-winning circuit designs into a smaller footprint with new features and a lower price point while retaining the genuine Pigtronix sounds that made us famous in the first place.”

Like the others we spoke with for this feature, he has some strongly held theories as to way there’s been such an interest in smaller, unique pedals of late.

 “When larger companies lose their way, smaller ones come up to fill the gaps in the market,” says Koltai. “Many companies that position themselves as ‘boutique’ make variations on industry standard circuits, focusing largely on brand image and social media engagement, with the goal of getting musicians to relate to the company on a personal or artistic level. In contrast, the agenda at Pigtronix is driven by sound design. We are a technology company, creating entirely original products that can be manufactured on a massive scale to satisfy a worldwide audience.”

For the near future, the brand plans to continue to expand the line of Pigtronix Micro pedals, as well as introducing a number of other new products.

“Pigtronix will also release Bob Weir’s REAL DEAL, an acoustic guitar preamp designed in collaboration with the legendary guitarist from the Grateful Dead,” Koltai reveals. “2018 will also see the release of several guitar synthesizer products that utilize our proprietary analog pitch tracking technology in different ways. These new units will be able to combine with the Pigtronix Mothership 2 synthesizer to create an advanced modular guitar synth that is 100 percent analog. Play Pigtronix, Get FAT!”

J. Rockett Audio Designs

“We started in about 2004, but did not become official until 2008,” says Chris Van Tassel of the early days of J. Rockett Audio Designs (J.RAD). Both Van Tassel and partner Jay Rockett were experienced session players and live performers, but “were always obsessed with the gear,” he says. “I think the first products we made, such as the Rockett Boost and Afterburner, were attempts to make something we had always wanted. We never really thought about others wanting the products. After getting more and more requests to ‘build one for me!’ from friends et cetera, we started thinking about trying to make more and more products. I guess it took off from there with a whole lot of lumps along the way.”

The brand’s best-known and hottest sellers over the years have been the Blue Note, Archer(s), and Dude. “It depends on the year as to which one in particular was the hottest seller,” says Van Tassel, who also thinks the current interest boutique effect pedals comes down to three main factors: “One, pure aesthetic design; two, [the] sound; and three, price, to be honest. There are only so many degrees of separation in pedals, but each builder has a tone print, if you will, consistent throughout their respective line. I think certain artistic designs appeal to certain people. I know some love quirky/artsy looking pedals and tend to commit to a certain builder for that reason only, which is fine. When you have a combination of cool looking, great sounding, and affordable you probably have a winning combination.”

For 2018, Van Tassel says that J. RAD will be jumping into the DSP world. “A few designs are underway,” he shares. “But they will be done with the Rockett stank all over them which is usually steeped in old school at least internally.”

Cusack Music

“Cusack Music was started in 2002 by Jon Cusack, who was fixing gear and building pedals as a sideline to his work as an electrical engineer,” explains Mark Huizenga of sales and artist relations at Cusack Music.

Once Jon decided to go into pedal-building full-time, Cusack Music was officially established and would “later come to be known as a problem solver and innovator in the business,” Huizenga says. “His primary successes have been seeing many of the innovations he helped to introduce such as tap tempo, relay-based switching, and SMT production come to be industry standards,” Huizenga adds of Jon’s contributions to the pedal world. “He also counts as success the many pedals he designed or help design for others that went on to become very well known.”

Cusack Music’s best sellers thus far have been their original tap tempo tremolo the Tap-A-Whirl, the Cusack Screamer Overdrive, as well as the Tap-A-Delay Deluxe and the Pedalcracker microphone to pedal interface. New to the Cusack lineup this year is a programmable DSP Reverb that’s due out by Summer NAMM.

“I think there is such an interest in boutique pedals because they have become not just performing tools, but a hobby and pastime as well for musicians,” Huizenga adds. “There is nothing like the anticipation of getting a new pedal and finding out what it can do for your sound and setup!”

Osiamo

Osiamo, importer for Mooer, Nobels, Dr J, JOYO, Taurus, and Bigfoot effect pedals, was founded in 2007 when the hot accessory for the guitar and accessory markets was effects pedals. In ten years, clearly very little has changed with regards to their popularity.

“We started in 2007 with the goal of supplying unique, high quality guitar accessory items to music stores,” says founder Ed Matthiack. “We discovered Mooer in Hall E at the 2012 NAMM show and have been their main U.S. distributor since then. Mooer was the first company to produce a full line of mini effect pedals. The tone and build quality of the Mooer micro pedals is very good and the pedals are an excellent value for beginners through to pros.”

“As we’ve grown, we’ve added more pedal brands to our catalog,” he adds, citing Nobels, well-known for the ODR- 1 overdrive pedal, as the latest addition. “Dr J combines boutique quality tone in a small, affordable package. The best sellers in the line, Shadow Echo, Sparrow Driver, Lancelot, and Emerald, offer a nice balance of original tone and quality at a great price. Both Taurus and Bigfoot, are boutique pedal makers with loyal followers. Taurus offer a range of pedals designed for bass players and Bigfoot offer a range of analog pedals for players looking for true vintage tone. Mooer micro pedals have been one of the biggest successes.”

Mooer’s new pedals outside their Micro Series have also seen notable success, including the Radar IR (Impulse Response) Speaker Simulator, GE200 Multi-effects processor, Ocean Machine Dual Delay Reverb and Looper, and the Red Truck effects strip. Likewise, Matthiack says that Nobels was well-received at NAMM and has been growing the market with good retailers and YouTube stars.

However, Matthiack says that smaller pedals are bigger than ever due to touring artists needing a smaller and lighter pedal to take with them on tour.

“The small footprint allows artists to fit the same selection of pedals in a pedal board half the size of standard pedals,” he notes. “Many local guitarists have also been downsizing the gear they carry to gigs. The Mooer range of micro pedals give guitarists many options to go small and not sacrifice tone at their shows. It depends on the artist, but we have some that choose the Red Truck, some replicate their full-size pedal board with Mooer equivalents, and some are choosing to take a Mooer Micro Preamp and a Radar as their main ‘road rig.’ The technology and sound in the smaller size packages is amazing and is revolutionizing the way professional musicians can tour and still give their fans ‘their sound.’”

New and in-the-works from the Osiamo family include the Servo from Taurus, a pedal that enriches the sound of an electric guitar, and the Preamp Live from Mooer, which can store 12 Mooer micro preamps, has a built in IR speaker simulator, and four footswitches.

Still, with Osiamo’s ever-growing catalogue, the company remains on the lookout for new pedals to add to their roster. “It’s a big market and there are many creative people around the world inventing new pedals,” Matthiack concludes. “We saw a few young companies at NAMM with some really interesting ideas. We think the pedal market will continue to grow in 2018 and beyond, especially for unique pedals that allow guitarist to expand their sonic palette.”

ZVEX

Zachary Vex’s introduction to pedals came early in life; at age 15, the ZVEX founder built and sold his first pedal for $10. His story of how he became a pedal manufacturer is just an unlikely.

“It was pretty terrible, unstable if you shook it, and it was in a small plastic tackle box so it wasn’t properly shielded,” he recalls. “I got into high voltage for a while after that, and finally returned to audio electronics after college and modified tube guitar amp. After that I got into recording and did that for 10 years, and had to quit because I had tinnitus in my right ear that was triggered by loud sounds. I took a break for a year, built a pedal for myself on my kitchen table, and took it to a guitar store to show it off. I wasn’t intending to go into business, but the store owner looked at it and said ‘I’ll take three.’ Suddenly, I was a pedal manufacturer.”

Flash forward to 2018, and Vex says that two of his top-sellers are the Fuzz Factory and the Box of Rock pedals. Going forward, he notes that ZVEX hopes to introduce more vertical pedals from their previous line, and maybe introduce compressor and delay pedals to the family.

“People want to be individuals, to stand out with a signature sound,” Vex says of the current pedal craze. “This has helped sell the Fuzz Factory because it’s so adjustable that the user can find a sound that might be absolutely perfect for the song, or inspire writing a new song.”

Electro-Harmonix​

As one of the bigger players in stompbox effect pedals, it’d be a stretch to categorize Electro-Harmonix as a “small, boutique” brand, but when it comes to the larger concept, EHX is the company that sort of started at all. As Sam Adams’ Jim Koch is widely considered the father of the modern American micro-brew movement, Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews is the guy who really grew the whole concept of wacky, funky, high-quality, boutique effect pedals.

“When I started there were only about two or three companies making pedals and now there are literally thousands,” Matthews observes. “Our first product was the LPB-1 Linear Power Booster in late 1968. What happened was, I was working with a designer to do a distortion-free sustainer so people could play and sound like Hendrix, who I was really a close friend with, before he went off to England and even after that. But when I went out to try a prototype, plugged into the prototype was a small box. Bob Myer, the designer, said that he did that because he didn’t realize the output of the guitar was so low, and so he did that to boost the signal. And when I tried that box, it made the amps so loud. And in those days, you could turn an amplifier up to 10; they had a lot of headroom. With the LPB-1, not only would it be a lot louder, but also if you continued to increase the gain on the LBP-1, it finally put the amps into overdrive. And that was the, really, beginning of overdrive. And we still sell large quantities of LPB-1s even to this day, almost 50 years later.” A host of now-classic designs followed: The Screaming Bird Treble Booster, Ego Microphone Booster, Memory Man, the Muff Fuzz, Electric Mistress, and the legendary Big Muff.

“We were the first ones to come up with crazy names,” Matthews notes. “When we came out with the Big Muff, to take advantage of the name recognition of Muff Buzz, I called it Big Muff PI, which, of course, had double, triple meanings. But in those days – this is in the ‘60s – I approached the names very liberally. The Big Muffs, we still sell thousands of them every month.”

The company grew very fast, but hit a rough patch in the ‘80s, eventually going bankrupt in 1984. However, in the ‘90s, while Matthews was selling vacuum tubes, he noticed an interesting trend. “I noticed all the pedals that I had made in the ‘70s were selling for much higher than what they were selling for in the ‘70s, and this new vintage market had developed,” he says.

“I hooked up with a small military factory in St. Petersburg and I just gave them the circuit diagram of the Big Muff and they just designed it using that circuit, but with Russian parts, Russian transistors.

They redesigned the chassis. They even made a huge foot switch. And at first, that was the Red Army Overdrive, and then the Sovtek Big Muff. Eventually, we started making all those things in the U.S.A. again.

“What we do here at Electro-Harmonix is we have a balance, in my philosophy. We bring out some simple analogs, some more complex analogs over time, we bring out some simple digitals, and maybe working always on one exotic unit, but something that we can bring out, you know, in less than a year. And once we start a digital product, or any product for that matter, and decide on the features, we don’t, halfway through the project, change the features, or add features.

Because a lot of times the engineer will say, ‘Oh, geez, let’s add this because then we could do that.’ I’d say, ‘No, save that for a future product.’ Because, I mean, still, it’s a business, and you’ve got to get your product out.”



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