It has become pretty easy to tell who the top dawgs are in the boutique guitar pedal game. Set your minimum price point to like, $175, and you’ll find the most sought after brands. Strymon, Chase Bliss, Walrus Audio, EarthQuaker Devices, Catalainbread etc.
But that’s why us pedal nerds like boutique, right? We spend an insane amount of money on a single effect, because of the love and care that went into the custom PCB’s, hard-to-source analog components, and graphic designs that are begging to be screen printed and framed on the wall (or just turned into your desktop wallpaper). So what have we seen boutique guitar pedals in 2018, and what can we expect now that it’s 2019?
2018 Boutique Guitar Pedals- A Year In Review
Preface: this is coming from the perspective of what I would call “the middle”. I am a guitarist of 18 years, and I would consider ten of those years as a professional. I’ve toured playing for rock bands and singer songwriters, playing on TV shows and hole in the wall venues in strip malls. Nowadays I play in wedding bands and jazz combos. I regularly record in my home studio but from time to time get to do bigger sessions. My need for a healthy pedal rig exists, but it is rooted in tone, functionality, and price (in that order).
“Digital Brain, Analog Heart”
2018 saw the continuing prolific rise of Keeley, Chase Bliss releasing their first reverb pedal (a collab with Robert Keeley), the “tamest” release from EarthQuaker Devices yet in the Westwood overdrive, and many MANY more. But the overarching theme I have noticed is that digital is finding its way back into the hearts of many players. Joel Korte has hit the current state of guitar pedals on the head with the mantra, “digital brain, analog heart”.
A quick browse of #pedalboardoftheday on Instagram will show the expected results. Lots and lots and LOTS of Strymon Big Sky’s, Timelines, Chase Bliss Dark World’s, the occasional Line 6 M5, and Eventide H9. The anatomy of the 2018 pedalboard is as follows:
- Volume pedal (VP jr for most, a Lehle if you just have TOO MUCH MONEY rn)
- An expensive compressor that’s “always on”
- “Overdrive of the month” (transparent overdrives became the IPA or the cabernet savignon of the boutique pedal industry — just go to the local shop and pick the one with the coolest label, because it’s all the same damn thing)
- Boutique fuzz (only slightly more nuanced than the overdrive situation)
- A Chase Bliss modulation – OR – a Mobius
- Strymon Timeline
- Strymon Big Sky – OR – Chase Bliss Dark World (if you were on the waiting list)
- Perhaps a supplemental Line 6 M5 or Eventide H9
A few observations here. Number one- overdrives are over. Sure, there will still be Klones, and EarthQuaker came to the party, but the buzz is done. Number two- guitar players are learning to trust in digital technology again. From experience, I am seeing more and more hired gun/Nashville guitarists with multi-effects units on their pedalboards. They’ve gotten smaller, and more powerful, and can save you in a pinch.
And third- pedalboards are getting smaller. We saw a huge surge in micro pedals over the last few years, and that seems to be here to stay. Players are learning they don’t need three overdrives, a distortion, and two fuzz pedals to get by. And the expression pedal seems to be wavering in popularity. For most players, paying the extra dough and using the pedalboard real estate, assigning a parameter, setting the maximum and minimum on a limited analog interface blah blah blah… is a lot of work for not much payoff. The MASH technology of TC Electronic was innovative, but it hasn’t created any kind of Shoegaze Revolution, yet.
Where Boutique Guitar Pedals Are Headed in 2019
More of the same, less of the lame. In short: more affordable, and more digital.
–Keely has announced the “X series”, designed to be bare bones, affordable boxes that can cover all the basics for those looking to go boutique without waiting on a list or selling their dog’s kidneys.
-JHS released DIY kits on Amazon back in 2016, which I suspect will see a surge.
-*We haven’t hear from Strymon in a while, I fear they will come out with something that will impact your credit score.
–Deadbeat Sound seems to have taken all the money they would have put into more expensive pedals, and spent it on their Instagram ad spend. I have been blown up with Deadbeat’s throwback video ads for their dirt cheap boxes with a Moog-derivative look.
-Boss will always be the Boss, like it or not.
What Have I Missed?
I know I didn’t get it all. I try and avoid the negative cesspool of the Reddit guitar community these days. My social media and related ads are likely showing me the same things over and over. So I will leave you with the notion that I am not claiming to know anything more than anyone else.
But what are you seeing? Where are pedals going? Where is there room for innovation, and what are the pitfalls that boutique pedal makers all seem to fall victim to?
About the author:
Jake Van Paepeghem is a touring guitarist and music producer/composer based out of Portland, Maine. Student of jazz, Jake has shared the stage with American Idol Kris Allen, Seattle rock group This Providence, NYC based vocalists Emily Braden, and many more. His latest original release is the 5 song EP “Until I Fall Back Down” from the Boise Idaho based band, Interstate. Jake also works as a content writer and video editor for the marketing firm Energy Circle, and lives in Portland with his wife and collie-lab mix Sara.