• Budget VS Boutique – why the fuzz?

    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.

    No.

    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?

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19 Responsesso far.

  1. piazzi says:

    I commented saying how happy I was with bug muff Russian re-issue paired with Tumnus Deluxe (which some say is a clone of Klon)

    a friend of mine pointed me to this

    https://www.electrosmash.com/klon-centaur-analysis

    most of it above my head, but the freq response graph shows how KLON humps the mids around 1 kHz

    compare that to freq response of big muff here

    https://www.electrosmash.com/big-muff-pi-analysis

    big muff mids scooped around 1 kHz

    no wonder I am so happy with the two pedals :-)

    I bet I could get good results with an EQ unit bumping the 1 kHz (and adjacent) area

    the site has a couple of other cool ones

    fuzz face

    https://www.electrosmash.com/fuzz-face

    and RAT

    https://www.electrosmash.com/proco-rat

  2. Brad Roller says:

    Brilliant article Bjorn! I must admit that I too used to be the guy who would buy only expensive boutique pedals just because I thought that automatically would give me better tone. At the time I would use up to 8-10 pedals because I thought that was what I needed all because David used them. But I wasn’t getting the tone I heard in my head. I finally did when I decided (out of curiosity) to limit myself to 4 pedals like the old guys. I was determined to get versatile sounds with limited pedals like the greats. A distortion, volume, modulation, and delay. For a long time I swapped different kinds of distortions and other pedals until I found what I wanted. I tried all kinds of muffs, modern distortions , overdrives etc. what made me realize brand or price didn’t matter, was when I broke down and bought an actual cornish G-2 and my first reaction was…”eh”… it sounded great but my top tone dg-2 , that was 300 bucks cheaper, sounded the EXACT same. After that I genuinely started trying pedals with no judgement to their prices/name and asked myself if I really liked them or not. What I ended up finding, to get the sounds in MY head as far as lead distortions, was silicon fuzz…I wanted a glassy, SCREAMING, face ripping, cutting tone and it turned out the oldest pedal design out there, gave me what I wanted all along. Not to mention the ability to turn the volume knob up or down and I can get overdrive, clean boost or screaming distortion. The jh-f1 turned out to be MY favorite fuzz out of all the many fuzzes I own. A simple, no frills, affordable fuzz. Who woulda thunk it?? ;) mind you, I had it modified with different transistors I wanted but it’s still an old silicon fuzz. Sure its straight up a David Gilmour style setup, theres no denying it, but its genuinely what my ears love. And it fits my music well. Limiting myself, taught me more about tone in maybe less than a year than I had learned in 10 years before. Letting the power of your amp and pickups be the basis of the tone you want, is the biggest part. Too many pedals can dull that down. Anyways, again, great article! I love discussing our differences in preferences. Take it easy man!

  3. piazzi says:

    Thank you for this — so so so true

    and thank you for all the info all over your site — it just gives the knowledge one needs to start looking and understanding how things work and why

    I have been down the rabbit hole of chasing the tone — have been having lots of fun and have managed to not be out of pocket much by busing used and selling used — trading in and out

    I have reached set ups that at the moment I love. My sound gets wows fro people whom hear.

    I have a Bugera V22 — not an expensive amp. I have two sets of gain pedals

    for strat I go a to EHX Russina muff re-issue and Wampler Tumus Deluxe

    For Humbucker I go to DOD Carcosa and Wampler Tumnus Deluxe

    I also have a peavey classic 20 MH — not an expensive amp

    I only have an EHX OD Glove in front of it

    only the Wampler Tumnus is on the pricy side (240 canadian new + tax). |Its a very vesatile pedal and worth the money for me. It transforms Muff into a beast on my Bugera

    the rest of my pedal were bought used less that 100 canadian each

    I am in a happy place for both amps and accompanying pedal sets

    I would probably get there on my own, but your site took me there a lot faster

  4. Walter H. says:

    Bjorn Addendum:
    I forgot an additional on or off pedal.
    Modulation-Elady
    This one I owe to You. It’s the best budget Flanger pedal at ($50.00). The build and sound quality are far above the low price tag. I just added the Ripple
    2-stage phaser so it’s resting for now.
    Walter H.

  5. Walter H. says:

    Bjorn. First “Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year.”

    This was another Great and informative post. The comments to follow are spot on too. I started in March to build my first board to see if I’d even like it. Well,I loved it and I’ve been asking questions, adding gear and moving things ever since. I started with very inexpensive mfgs and slowly started moving up in price and name brand stature. I Found some amazing Boutique and also major brands that work for me and my set up. You have been very helpful and influential in my selections and finding the tones I like. What amazed me is how easy it is to communicate and ask questions to you and even the owners of these smaller pedal companies. They have all been so helpful. One of the biggest points was “Matching my Pedals to my Amp.” I never knew any of these things till now. Through constant experimentation and playing time I can say I’m Happy and enjoying my time spent playing more then ever! You asked What does your pedalboard look like. I couldn’t figure out how to attach a photo so here’s the latest board set up. Any suggestions?

    Compressor-Pigtronix Micro
    Vibe-Dawner Prince Viberator
    Overdrive-VFE Dragon & Vick Audio Tree of Life
    Modulation-Wampler Ethereal & MXR Analog Chorus & Jam Pedals Ripple.
    Delay-MXR Carbon Copy & Catlinbread, Echorec
    Reverb- MXR M300.
    (I also have a Digitech Jam Man XT stereo looper I stick on after the reverb when I want)
    That is version 11/30/18 in order of signal chain. I would love to hear what you could do with it!
    Walter H…

  6. Kelly Bruce says:

    There is a great rig breakdown video with Trey Anastasio from Phish, who states “being familiar with your gear is more important than having really good gear.” I don’t think it could be said any better, and that came from a guy who used the same setup for decades. I also heard some of the best live guitar tones from Tad Kubler of the Hold Steady, and found he was using an all Boss pedal board. You never can judge a book by it’s cover.

  7. Jamie Wood says:

    Bjorn, whilst I agree with your sentiment that expensive gear is not a must and you can achieve good tone at a lower price point, after buying my first Pete Cornish pedals ( a TES and a P-2 ) back in 2006, subsequently getting to know Pete and Lynda Cornish, buying more of their pedals so now my board is 90% Cornish, I no longer search for new pedals. I spent so much money searching for “my sound” but in hindsight, if I had met Pete and Lynda earlier I would have save a lot of time and money. I now plug in and create music without worrying about my gear because i know my sound is there…..

    • Bjorn says:

      Well that’s my point exactly. I’m not saying that one is better than the other and I’m certainly not trying to talk down Cornish or anyone else. Whatever you decide to use and spend your money on what’s important is that you know your gear and search for your own tone and “voice”.

  8. Great post.

    I recently joined a sort of Built to Spill type band and put together a new small pedalboard in which I plucked off my Tree of Life since I need to compete with the other guitarists insane Southland overdrive (by the way, have you heard that thing? It’s massive, you should check it out). Anyway I put the SD-1 back on my “Gilmour” board and I have fallen in love all over again. I’m hearing that classic mid rangey thing it does and when it’s soaring over compression, especially that SP Compressor with the blend about half, it’s just what I’ve been missing for years. That’s the second pedal I ever bought and it was 59 dollars.

    Tone is where you can find it guys.

  9. Mark Lugg says:

    I totally agree that the boutique/non-boutique thing is stupid. I started off playing with Boss and Danelectro pedals. I thought they were great. Then I got into boutique stuff like Fulltone, Catalinbread, etc., and totally turned my nose up against the non-boutique stuff.

    After years of playing both, I’ve truthfully gone back to mostly off-the-shelf stuff like Boss, MXR, and even Mooer. I’ve got a couple boutique pedals, but I wouldn’t say there’s anything about them that’s significantly better than my other stuff. I just bought pedals that weren’t available as mass produced stuff (like my Retro-Sonic Chorus. Couldn’t find a cheaper CE-1 clone, so that’s what I bought).

    At the end of the day, if it sounds good, use it. If it doesn’t don’t.

  10. Arya Boustani says:

    Thanks Bjorn. This is the subject that is missed perhaps for many guitarists especially ones who switch gears and add more to their variables vs. sticking to a simple gear setup and keep working on it to find its place. I think if we try to get a good character out of our setup and even if not sounding quite like our heroes we are in a better place than trying to morph our gears to a certain tone, and then think “… no it’s not quite there, let’s go buy such and such gear to see if we can get closer to THAT tone because Mr./Ms. X has THAT tone with it”. From the time I stopped buying more pedals and work with a few I have, I have been able to feel getting more what sounds good, responsive, works well with all my pickups, etc. etc. and overall things moving in the right direction. Many times a tone is created by the interaction between two or three pedals and the amp so there is no way someone could formulate that for us. As you mentioned earlier in one of your replies, having two or three flexible overdrive pedals you can get all your tones from mild overdrive to fuzz. There is something to learn for each amp to get the tone you want and only you can find out. I’m using a mid-heavy amp so I feed one pedal to the next to allow highs and lows to come out to balance out, but if someone is using an open sounding amp like Fender, something that could make my tone too mid-rangy and not very interesting, they can actually take advantage of that and get a nice tone. Something that sounds choked in one amp, could sound controlled just enough to get a good tone. Many of the compression behaviours of a signal feeding one pedal to the next and last pedal to the amp if used right (which means just spending time and using our analogy to find the relationships) can be used to tame certain spectrum of the tone that otherwise would be harsh and highlight certain other frequencies that if it was not highlighted would sound less glorious and not having enough expression. And then we turn the knob of the amp from 30 percent to 50 percent, and suddenly we start to see new possibilities. Then we start discovering things further. If you are a driver of a standard car, no one should change the gear for you. You follow your thoughts and ears and look to what is in front of you and do that yourself. I found that sometimes suggestions that lead us to adding new gears distracts that flow of working out what we already have so prematurely we change the direction before we allow it to become fruitful. What about we find the suitable voice and expression with one setup and you create a composition that suites that voice quite well and allow it to be your signature expression. Then you may find you are gonna just do that for a while, and you may find others try to practice getting your voicing rather than you become the follower of someone else’s voicing!
    Just something to think about.

  11. Les Helgeson says:

    Addendum: my pedalboard is minimal consisting of a Buffalo Carrera, Ironfist compressor/noise-gate, an MXR delay and a Ditto looper. I’ve tried other pedals from Fulltone and Boss but they didn’t give me the sound I was after. I took a chance and bought the Carrera on sale off the Internet even though I was hoping to try the TDX with my Laney L5. To be honest I was quite disappointed at first until I tried the Carrera with my Deluxe Reverb. While it sounded way too dark and mushy on the Laney, it was just what I was looking for with the Fender! And of course the reverb in the Fender is THE standard as such. So, the Laney is for sale and I am happy with the minimalist pedalboard setup and the Fender. No shortage of sweet and balanced midtones when needed!

  12. Les Helgeson says:

    Bjorn, first of all thank you for the wealth of information on your site. The many reviews have been most helpful! This post echoes what David himself said during an interview I heard several years ago. He described how he started out in a garage band trying to sound like other guitarists. His role in Pink Floyd began soon after he decided to do his own thing – enough said! In the end we are all individuals so we might ask ourselves if we want to be an army of guitar robots or express ourselves individually. Obviously, David chose the latter path and the world is a better place for it!

  13. Nick Love says:

    Maybe it’s all in my head, but while Suhr, Anderson, Nash etc make expertly crafted lovely instruments with premium components, they don’t capture the Fender “sound” as completely as an off the shelf American standard does, which is often half the price or less. Not saying one is better than the other, but often in making refinements and inprovements builders forget that same of the original imperfections and quirks are what gave them their signature sound.

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