What Do You Know About Your 'Boutique' Pedals?

The term “boutique” gets thrown out a lot in the guitar world.  We wanted a term to help seperate the noise a little bit, and let us prove to our friends that we have better taste in gear.  It helped manufacturers show that they weren’t some giant assembly line using the cheapest possible labor and materials.

But that term is getting murkier by the day.  With another NAMM show upon us, we’re bound to have countless new companies throwing their name into the “boutique gear” hat.  It’s starting to remind me of when “micro-brewed” beer became a big thing, and even though it has an actual relationship with company size, it also was interpreted as a sign of quality.  With the US brewing explosion, we’ve found that small doesn’t mean good, and the term “craft beer” came about as a better indicator of goodness.  Maybe we need to start using the term “craft guitars” or “craft effects.”

I bring this up not as a knock on any particular company, but to just raise awareness and open up your eyes to what’s out there.  Personally, I get a lot of emails from companies that want me to sell their gear.  I don’t take too many of those offers because I’m small and hardly even qualify as a store, but the ones that grab my attention generally go through an interview process.  It’s evolved quite a bit over these past couple years, and I think the questions I ask might be good things for you to think about when you’re about to drop $200 on an overdrive pedal.

So here are things I’d ask of anyone building effects:

– Do you use PCB or hand wire?

– If PCB, do you etch them in house or outsource?

– Are your circuits original designs or clones?

– What is your quality control/testing process (bench, plug in guitar, both?)

– How are the graphics on your cases done? (stickers, screen print, hand paint, etc)

– What brand of switches and jacks do you use?

Some of these questions might sound invasive, but they don’t reveal any trade secrets and a manufacturer who believes in their work should have no problem giving honest answers.  And really – there are no wrong answers to any of these questions.  Plenty of companies do PCB and even outsource it (PCB often becomes a necessity for growth, you can’t build pedals fast enough hand wiring them all) and do great work.  There’s nice thick PCB that has really solid traces that you know will last for years – and then there’s bargain basement stuff from developing countries that you can scrape off with your fingernail.

And not all designs have to be original.  Robert Keeley built an empire (and was instrumental in launching the current effects pedal craze) by largely modifying pedals and making clones of things no longer in production.  On this very site, I sell a couple pedals that are clones, but usually offer something unique (Main.Ace.FX does their Fuckface, which is a Fuzz Face, but with a boost – pretty cool).

But still, you’re likely to form your own preferences.  I usually try to stick with original designs (unless, like I just mentioned, they have a unique twist) and hand wired pedals.  I’m not totally anti-PCB, but I do like knowing that for the price of most boutique pedals, I’m getting something that should be rugged.

The later questions are where some red flags might be raised.  I personally have big issues with the quality control aspects.  There are too many builders out there who will make a batch of pedals, and put one or two of them on some bench equipment, but never actually run them through a guitar/amp.  I want to know that a reasonable percentage of all pedals is tested both ways – because things can look great on a bench but sound horrible to your ears.

I’m not super picky about graphics personally, but for anything I’m selling to others I get a bit weary.  There are some really nice coated labels out there that are essentially waterproof and will stick for years; then there are labels that are printed on a home inject and peel off in a mater of weeks.  So I’m weary of stickers/decals/labels for graphics.  Can lead to disappointed customers.  Usually you want to see powder coating for the main colors and screen printing or hand painting for labels.  Or something real utilitarian like Recovery Effects, Fairfield Circuitry, etc.

And with jacks, I’m a Switchcraft fan, but they aren’t the only good option.  The big thing is, that they aren’t going with the cheapest junk out there.  Jacks and switches break all the time, and spending an extra $0.20/part can be the difference between a pedal breaking in a year or lasting a lifetime.

Seriously, it’s worth being picky about this stuff as this shit ain’t cheap.  A lot of these answers are out there on the internet, but don’t be afraid of asking the manufacturer.  It’s worth the time to check into things and make sure you’re getting your money worth.

Beyond that, I’d love to know what your quality standards are.  What things do you look for before dishing out big money on gear?