It’s really an awesome time to be a guitarist. Especially if you’re a stompbox addict like me. But, what’s the state of the stompbox and the industry today? Have we seen it all or are there still new and exciting things to be made?
When I started out playing guitar back in the early 90s, all we had was a few brands. Well, here in Norway anyway, but it was pretty much the same all over. You walked into a store and they usually carried only a handful of pedals, including Boss, Ibanez, Digitech and DOD and a few racks or digital multi effects, like Zoom or Korg.
This was pre the whole vintage and boutique thing but I soon learned that David Gilmour used a Big Muff so I tried to track one down. One day I walked into a store and they got these strange, big green boxes that looked like something left over from the cold war. That green bubble font Sovtek Big Muff Pi was my first true love.
The story is very different today. You can walk into any guitar store and they have racks upon racks with all kinds of pedals. Some familiar brands but most stores also carry a wide range of boutique brands from all corners of the world. Here in Oslo, we have a store selling only rare, vintage guitars and high end pedals and in Copenhagen, were I’m often visiting, there is a store only selling so-called boutique pedals. Not to mention, all the online retailers and direct shopping from the makers.
There was a time when guitarists only had their guitar and amp. Then, in the mid 60’s, the very first stompboxes started to appear, including the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, Vox Wah Wah and the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face.
Some might say that this was the age of the pure tone. You either plugged the guitar straight into the amp, or used effects to bring out the full potential of the amp, driving the tubes for more compression and distortion. Effects, or stompboxes, was not an obsession or something that got in the way of playing guitar. But, these guitarists also modified their pedals. The technology was crude and the pedals had all kinds of design flaws. They even got custom units made. You could walk into London’s Sound City or Sola Sound and either get your fuzz modded, or get them to make a new pedal, based on your specific requirements, which is how Roger Mayer and other pedal royalties got into the business.
The stores eventually started to produce their own brands. And by the mid 70s, there was a wide range of pedals to choose from. Like Hendrix before him, David Gilmour was always trying out new gear and the Pink Floyd albums of the 70s, was very much coloured by his ever evolving tone.
Some might say that pedal makers today are only copying the old circuits, like the Fuzz Face, TS808, Big Muff and Powerbooster. But the way I see it, is that they’re continuing the work of the pioneers, by improving the old circuits, offering a more reliable operation, less noise and more modern features, like leds, proper powering and buffered bypass.
The stompbox industry has exploded. The market seems exhausted with pedals and I sometimes wonder how they all survive. The competition is fierce. But, times has changed and much thanks to the internet. I’m old enough to remember a world without internet and that old green Sovtek that I bought, I discovered through word of mouth.
These days, you’re only a few clicks away from finding the information you need about any guitarist and his tone and tracking down the original pedal on EBay or a brand new clone. Before you buy, you can watch a number of high quality reviews on YouTube and read user comments on several forums. We live in a different world but also in a time, where gear, and stompboxes in particular, has perhaps stolen some of our focus in favour of practice and fine tuning our playing technique.
So, what’s the state of the stompbox today? There’s so much cool stuff that’s still coming out and I think the whole guitar community has grown to be a huge place for inspiration and sharing. I’m following YouTube channels, forums, blogs etc and it provides both valuable information and inspiration.
The trend today seems to be a return to the classic tones. Pedal makers has been cloning Big Muffs and fuzz pedals for a long time but we’re now seeing a huge resurrection for complex analog delays and tape machines, optical tremolos and compressors, sophisticated modulation inspired by the analog synthesizers, spring reverb and much more. The technology has come a long way but there’s also demand for the more vintage tones.
It’s also the case of pedal makers trying to find new market. You can’t go on cloning fuzz or designing digital delays forever. And as I said, the competition is fierce. Makers are getting more and more specialised, which makes them vulnerable but you can also strike gold within a certain group of players and communities.
An interesting aspect of the whole small business boutique segment, is that these makers often have a close relationship with their customers. Social media has become a valuable source of information and one can easily recognise a demand. Brands like Skreddy Pedals, Buffalo FX and Vick Audio (and many others) are constantly reinventing themselves and their pedals, both from a business philosophy but not least because they seem to have a close relationship with their customers. It gives you an obvious advantage.
The bigger brands, like Electro Harmonix and Boss are slowly realising that they’ve been “cheated” for a long time and that their customers now often prefer clones of their original designs.
So much in fact that they’re are now trying to reclaim the market by offering clones of their own, like EHX’s Soul Food (Klon) and East River Drive (TS808) and by reintroducing old classics, with popular boutique mods, like Boss’ Waza Craft versions of the BD-2, DM-2 and CE-2. Nothing wrong with that but it says something about the market and the competition.
This is also evident at the two annual NAMM shows, where it seems that the companies are constantly coming up with something new to get the much needed attention.
Talking about clones. Companies like Mooer surprised everyone a couple of years back by introducing an exhaustive range of mini-pedals. All clones of well known classics and popular models. This is nothing new but Mooer has proven that cheap doesn’t mean crap anymore. Cheap parts and labour, with the attention to detail, has proven to be a deadly combination. Lots of other companies has followed in their footsteps and we’re now even beginning to see clones of clones…
I would have no problem with stacking my pedal board with mainly cheap mini-pedals. If you know which to choose, it’s really hard to tell the difference between the real one and the cheap knockoff.
An exciting trend, and one I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of from other companies as well, is TC Electronic’s Tone Print pedals. The pedals are packed with really nice sounds, but once you dig into the Tone Print editor, they take on a whole new life. It makes you wonder if you really need anything else. The attention to detail and authenticity towards both the classic tones and tweak-ability for new sounds, is simply amazing.
One thing I’d like to see more of, is companies interacting even closer with their customers, offering custom designs based on demand. While digital multi processors has been around for a few decades, and some of them are really nice, I’d like to be able to design my own multi effect.
I want to look at a company’s catalog and go “OK, I want that fuzz, overdrive, phaser and delay put together in one single pedal”. Perhaps throw in one or two custom features, like enabling the effects to swap places in the chain and a send/return for additional pedals. Some companies already do that if you ask nicely but the designs are usually expensive. I’m sure we’ll see more of that in the future and maybe even companies being based on that business idea alone. It would certainly be something new but also something in tune with the ever growing consumer segment on social media, who more and more expect companies, and not just in pedals, to listen to what they want and demand.
As I said, we live in exciting times and pedal design and production, has come a long way. You can’t really claim that this or that pedal sounds like crap anymore. It all comes down to taste and preference and only you are to blame if you come home with something that doesn’t sound nice on your amp.
So, that’s the state of the stomp as I see it. What do you think? Can we still expect new and exciting things or has the business reached its peak? Please share your thoughts!