In my recent videos covering classic Boss pedals and new Big Muff releases from Electro Harmonix, I’ve tried to demonstrate that it’s possible to get close to David Gilmour’s tones, without busting the bank. Still, so-called budget pedals are often dismissed by many. Why’s that?
Never before has there been so much gear for us guitarists to choose from. Regardless of what your preferences are, there’s really no limits as to how you can sculpt and tailor your tone.
A few years back I wrote about how to track down reliable information. Perhaps you’re adventurous and spontaneously buy new gear to see where that takes you. Others like to spend a bit of time doing research. As the whole industry has grown into almost ridiculous proportions, so has the many YouTube channels, blogs and forums. You can find good and bad information everywhere. And there are trolls and experts lurking behind every corner.
Budget VS boutique seems to be the never ending topic. What is “budget”? Budget refer to a certain price point that should be affordable for most people. However, the term budget has in many ways become synonymous with less quality and value, implying that there’s always a better alternative.
On the other side there’s “boutique”. What is boutique? Well, boutique describes a small production, high quality parts or material and, in some cases, the brand alone justifies a higher price tag.
Does this mean that “boutique” always is better? Does it mean that the more expensive it is and the harder it is to track one item down, the better it sound?
No. It doesn’t.
Obviously there’s more to a good tone than parts and scarce availability. Tone always starts with your mind. You need to have an idea of what sort of tone you want and need. Doesn’t matter if you plug straight into an amp or use lots of pedals.
Good tone is subjective. If I’m in the studio and record something you think sound horrible then maybe that’s what I needed for that particular track. Likewise, if I’m on stage and play something that grind your gears, then maybe that’s what I wanted to do. Does that mean that all tone is good tone.
I think any tone is good if I can hear that there some though and experience behind it. I might not agree and I might even turn off the music or leave the concert but I can hear when a guitarist has put some effort into a tone or simply just don’t give a damn.
This has little to do with the gear.
“Know you gear” should be the mantra for all guitarists. David Gilmour has always used a wide range of different gear in all price ranges. He’s experimenting and is always looking for new technology to help him achieve the tones he hear in his mind. That’s been his and Pink Floyd’s philosophy since day one.
One of my all time favourite guitarists, Steve Rothery, has been using his (modified) Squier Stratocaster, Roland JC-120 and Boss DS-1 since the early incarnations of Marillion. I don’t think anyone has ever said that Steve’s tone is shit but he’s certainly knot known for using boutique gear.
Eddie Van Halen started out with an off the shelf Fender Stratocaster, a couple of Marshall amps and a few MXR pedals that were available in most guitar stores. Listen to that first Van Halen album or even live recordings that pre-dates the album. I can’t think of any guitarist that has put so much though and effort into creating unique tones and techniques.
Bryan May designed and built his own guitar, the Red Special, together with his father back in the mid 60s. His main recording amp, the Deacy Amp, was designed together with fellow band member John Deacon who put together a transistor board and a book shelf sized speaker that he found in a dumpster. This is still May’s favoured recording gear.
Tone comes in many forms but I think that if you look at all the greats like Gilmour, Johnson, Hendrix, May, Bonamassa, Rothery, Eddie, Clapton, Gibbons… the list goes on… what they all have in common is that they’ve relentlessly designed their own tone.
Would you have given a thumbs up to Eric Johnson’s pedal board or Rothery’s Squier if you didn’t know who owned them? Probably not.
The Boss DS-1, MXR Distortion +, EHX Small Stone, Boss CE-2, Ibanez TS9, Boss SD-1, Dunlop Cry Baby… again, the list goes on… are featured on more iconic recordings that most of us can imagine. Yet, today these “standards” are often forgotten by many.
I know, you can argue that the original silver screw DS-1 sounds better than the current model and the script 1974 Phase 90 is better than the block. But still, that’s discussing taste. Not necessarily quality.
So does this mean that you should stop buying so-called boutique pedals? Of course not! It just means that there’s more to choose from. Not that one is better than the other.
Most of these so-called boutique companies are people sitting in their garage or have a small shop with a handful of employees and make high quality stuff with their heart and love for guitar and tone.
A claim many people do is that “boutique is over priced junk and I can go right into radio shak, buy the parts and make a better pedal for a few cents”.
Well, why haven’t you started a pedal company? Probably because you don’t know what it takes to start a business. Setting up a shop takes a lot of sacrifice and hard work. If you’re lucky and start to grow, you also have to rent space, employ workers who wants to get paid and distribution and marketing also cost money. It’s just facts.
Obviously, price also reflects demand. Pete Cornish only makes a handful of pedals each year and they’re expensive. Yet, people buy them because they want them.
I also see people say “I don’t need that pricy crap. My Boss DS-1 gets me all the tones I need.” Well, that’s good for you and I would be the first to say that I have a SD-1 go-to pedal too but, and there’s a lot of psychology in this, don’t tell me what to buy simply because you need to justify things for yourself. It’s OK that you can’t afford, don’t want to spend the money or don’t see the need.
So why are EXH, Boss and others cheaper? Well, because some of them, not all, produce their stuff in other low cost cheap labour countries. They also sell huge amounts of pedals each year and higher quantities means lower prices. They’ve been around for decades, have all the contracts for distribution going and a much higher marketing budget.
Ok, this got rather long but I guess my point is focus on what’s important. Tone is subjective and don’t let fancy reviews or Instagram pictures tell you what to buy. Whether you swear by Boss, use boutique exclusively or a bit of both – be sure to experiment and know your gear!
Please use the comments field below! I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you agree? Disagree? What does your pedalboard look like?