Shop Talk: Boutique or not boutique?
by PGS Fitz
In the proverbial beginning, there was Fulltone, Analog Man, Keeley. These guys were the builders of the ‘boutique’ – providing handbuilt or hand-modded effects pedals one at a time using the highest quality components for the highest quality tone. Only true aficionados even knew to look for their pedals—and if you had one (or more), you were obviously someone.
Fast forward through the 90s & 00s – now everyone and their mother builds pedals. Fulltone & Keeley pedals are sold in big-box music retail stores alongside the major mass-produced manufacturers like Boss and Digitech. So with the market so full of makers of all varieties and the small, iconic makers of yesterday now among the large makers (Wampler and Z.Vex, I’m looking at you!) – where does that leave the ‘boutique’ market these days? Does it even still exist?!
While waiting to open up the floor to comments from everyone (we know you have opinions and can’t wait to hear them!)—I’ll say that I always think of ‘boutique’ pedals as being hand-made, one-at-a-time, with high quality components and a ton of personal mojo (that last one certainly isn’t on the product BOM, but it goes in there just the same). This hand-made attention to detail usually commands a high price, since you usually can’t keep labor costs down when there’s one or two people making each pedal one-by-one, but then—you’re getting an artisan’s hand-wired pedal.
With the market flooded full of small pedal-makers who, thanks to the internet, are now distributed around the world—are handbuilt effects still ‘boutique’ (for a specialized clientele) or are they for everyone? Gone are the days of the all-Boss or all-Ibanez pedalboards. A quick, completely non-scientific search of pedalboards on Tumblr reveals that almost everyone has a mix of mass-produced and hand-built effects on their board these days.
Some smaller-but-growing manufacturers like Mad Professor offer both hand-wired and PCB (printed circuit board) versions of some of their pedals (with a radical price difference). Some giant manufacturers are now hand-wiring pedals in their custom shops (MXR) but managing to keep prices down in the process. Some mass-produced digital effects (Eventide?) seem to fall under the heading of ‘boutique’ due to their sheer sophistication (and sometimes pricetag).
Is it time to redefine ‘boutique’ or is it time to retire it? The same way that retailing music will never be the same in the digital age, have we moved into a more democratic era of manufacturing, where the big boys and the underdogs are on, essentially, level playing field?! Is searching for boutique equipment even relevant now that it’s so readily available globally? Is a hand-wired pedal necessarily better quality than a mass-produced pedal made by machine/bots?!
Let’s all kick it around the water cooler and talk shop – sound off in the comments and let us know what you think. As always, thanks for stopping by Andy’s Corner – see you soon.