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Guitar Pedals – What’s with all the Stomp Boxes?

February 10th, 2013

On a recent business trip, I took along a recent edition of Guitar Player to read on the plane. In that issue they had a special section where they reviewed sixty guitar pedals. Sixty. Six Zero. Even at that, there were several well known brands that were not even represented! Every day it seems that there is a new boutique pedal maker out there with a new take on and old classic, and occasionally something really different. What is going on?

In the interest of full disclosure, UpFront Guitars does not sell many pedals. Honestly, I have found that it’s a bad fit for my business model, and I don’t do well with them. To be taken seriously, you need to carry lots of brands, and there is a lot of competition from the eBay used pedal market where players are frequently dumping their latest experiments in sonic bliss. Also, many of the boutique builders sell direct, so there you are carrying somebody’s pedal and they are selling against you. In that case why have dealers? But this is not about sour grapes, it’s about why there are so many darned pedals out there. I have a few theories:

Low barrier to entry – As I have said in previous writings, it’s not hard to get in the pedal business: Buy a die-cast box, a soldering iron, benchmark a few classic designs, and you’re in business. OK, not that easy, but a lot easier than making a guitar and much better certainty of sales. Pickups have become this way too. The raw materials are very easy to obtain, and boutique winders have sprung up all over the place. Most of these “noveau” builders are not breaking any new ground, so it’s hard to say what they are doing other than saturating the market. This is not to denigrate the folks that are really turning out new imaginative product, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a ton of me-too stuff out there.

The 2009 Recession – The recession in 2009 was bad for a lot of things, including musical instrument sales. The only category that grew during that time was effects. People still wanted to buy some type of new toy, but had to watch their wallet. Stomp boxes fit the bill even when guitar and amp sales were tanking.

Modeling Amps – Is it just me, or does it seem as though the craze over modeling amps has blown over? Aside from really sophisticated stuff like the Fractal, Eleven Rack, and Kemper, many amps have sort of gone “basic” again. Possbily buyers have decided it’s more flexible to have a couple pedals than it is to buy a box of so-so “amps” in the form of a sterile sounding combo amp. To me, the affordable modeling stuff has typically sounded blah to occasionally awful, and most players settle in on one or two sounds anyway.

Active secondary market – This is also known as “used pedals”. Don’t like what you just bought? You can probably get 60% of your money back in ten days on eBay. Most players don’t keep pedals long enough to wear them out, and the Next Greatest Thing is often for sale used a few weeks after they hit the streets. It’s not nearly so easy to sell your amp if you don’t like it, and shipping it can be daunting.

Cheaper than Amplifiers – The amp market is pretty terrible these days, especially at the upper end where even some of the well-known names are struggling to move product. There are also lots of “used” amplifiers for sale dirt cheap as dealers try to unload inventory while trying to respect MAP pricing (which further depresses new amp sales). Plus look at the well known amp builders that are now making pedals: Mesa, Bogner and Rivera to name a few. All three of these companies make expensive amplifiers, and the market for high end stuff is limited (and an imported “value” line can hurt your image). If you cannot sell someone an amplifier, sell them the essence of your amplifier in a box. While fundamentally I maintain that a great amp is worth your hard earned money, it’s tempting to do a pedal-makeover to breathe some new life into your old rig. I’m not sure that a pedal will make a bad amp good, but the economics are tempting. I have carried some of the Rivera pedals, and while they are good they violate an important rule: Price. Keep it under $179 and it’s almost an impulse buy. Price it at $250 or higher and buyers look elsewhere.

The theory of “What the heck” – What other product promises the ability to transform your sound at such a low price? Plus installation could not be easier: Just plug it in. It’s not like a pickup, which requires some dis-assembly, soldering, and the risk that it won’t sound good (some makers like Seymour Duncan now offer solder-less pickups to lower the skill barrier). Pedals are like a new diet shake or a magic wrinkle cream that promise so much for so little effort. It’s actually marketing genius; and has certainly been a boon for magazine advertising, stores and e-tailers.

But do stomp boxes really transform our playing enjoyment, or just give us a shiny new object to chase instead of playing our guitars? The music industry benefits from this constant “pedal churn” but does the player? To me, pedals are like pizza: Most of them are pretty good, and rarely are they awful. Yes, there are some “bad” pedals out there, but I don’t think it takes a lifetime to find a few pretty good ones to form your core sound. My board has been pretty solid the past three years, and is mostly gain pedals, one modulation pedal, and a reverb. Some were carefully chosen and some were just cheap, like a BBE Minder Bender because I needed chorus for a couple songs and did not want to spend a lot. So what’s on there now is:

  • Peterson Strobe Tuner
  • Lovepedal Kalamazoo
  • JHS Charlie Brown
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive (ten years and running)
  • BBE Mind Bender
  • Lee Jackson Mr. Springy Reverb

That’s it, and I used my own “brand” of Evidence Monorail patch cables. Plus I don’t have any more room on the PedalTrain. I have been messing around with a Voodoo Lab Giggity, which is not even an effect so much as it is a parametric EQ of sorts. But I like it, and if it stays, something may have to go.

I do like other pedals: A have a Fulldrive that I used to play a lot, and I like a lot of the Wampler stuff, but it’s not as if they get me to some new musical place. If I don’t like the way I sound, it’s probably me and not the pedal. If your new pedal makes you want to play more, that’s great. If it just makes you want to re-arrange your board instead of playing, that’s not great. For a person who sells gear, this is dangerous advice. But I guess there is no quick route to being a great musician, and pedals are not the musical equivalent of Rogain. Playing, playing with other people, and optionally playing live are what really makes us better. Everybody has heard a great guitar player in a guitar store making a $150 guitar sound good. There’s a reason for that: Practice, and the gift of talent. We can’t all be gifted, but we can all practice.

The Great American Guitar Show – Valley Forge PA, Day 2

November 15th, 2011

After a satisfying dinner at the Iron Hill Brewery in Phoenixville — which turned out to be a great non-mall dining hotspot — and some much needed rest, we were back at it on Sunday. The crowds on Sunday appeared to be just as good as the day before, with several repeat visitors. The Big Sale never materialized that day, but we were still turning people on to the ValveTrain amplifiers, JHS effects, and taking a couple G&L and Godin orders.

With it’s great tone and feel even at low volumes, the ValveTrain Trenton continued to be the most plugged into item in the booth. Many discovered that the amplifier was so perfectly voiced that flipping the “Raw” switch (which bypasses the tone stack) was the hot ticket. While the Blackface sound is the more often considered to be the Holy Grail of Fender sound, the warmer, bouncy, grainy sound of the Trenton made several Tweed converts.

However, for those looking for more punch and headroom, the Bennington Reverb had several fans in its corner. Louder and glassy with a faster attack, the Bennington was heralded by several experienced players as nailing the Best of Blackface. And will several Blackface amps on the floor that day, this was easy to verify.

The pedal that came between the guitar and amplifier most often was the JHS Charlie Brown. Honorable mention goes to the JHS Morning Glory but that sold so fast most people never heard it (note to self; bring more). With lower output pickups, the Charlie Brown elicited great on-the-edge breakup that just screamed Ronnie Earl or SRV. With a G&L ASAT or Godin Icon meatier distortions were available, but in either case they were articulate, natural and transparent. For this generally Blues/R&B oriented crowed, the combination of the Charlie Brown with the higher headroom Bennington was that “sound in your head” of grind, sweat and sparkle all at once.

The Great American Guitar show will visit the Philly area again next summer, and our plans are to stuff the Minivan to the gills again and make the trek down from Massachusetts. Where else can you get a ’55 Gold Top and a Felix the Cat Guitar all under one roof?

 

The Great American Guitar Show – Valley Forge PA, Day 1

November 13th, 2011

We’re down here on the outskirts of Philadelphia for our first Great American Guitar Show in Valley Forge, PA. We came down Friday during the day in order to unload and get set up for the show on Saturday and Sunday.

While we have no way of actually knowing, there have got to be at least a couple thousand guitars here if not more. It’s surprising how much vintage stuff is on hand: Dozens of 50’s Les Pauls, 50’s and 60’s Strats, 50’s Teles, and enough vintage Les Paul Jr’s to make any Keith Urban fan jump for joy. I’m kind of LP Jr. Double Cutaway freak, and for between $4K and $9K I can have my pick of at least a dozen. The topper is a maple top burst 1960 Les Paul for $175K. Hmmm, house or guitar, house or guitar.

Action at the UpFront Guitars booth was pretty good, with a lot of people drawn to the Godin Icons, No-Top ASAT Special, and the ASAT Honeyburst Classic S. The Emerson pre-wired control assemblies were a popular item too, and of the pedals JHS drew the most attention. Our Clear Blue ASAT HB left the building, and I’ll eat my hat if somebody does not walk out with an Icon tomorrow.

Being a guitar show, most of the attention was focused on guitars, but the updated ValveTrain Trenton and Bennington amplifiers received many complements. The new Trenton with its larger cabinet, improved front end and tube rectifier was just stunning. Warm, sweet, with a nice bounce to each note, it was a real honey. It effortlessly developed great tone at low volumes, while the higher headroom Deluxe-inspired Bennington wanted to be opened up a little more than show decorum would permit. We’ll be taking a video on Sunday with the Trenton and our Angry Angus Tele. Michael from Cliff’s Guitars (Wilmington DE) is going to help us with the demo, as frankly after hearing him play we realized we should stick to selling.

Speaking of players, Joe Bonnamassa was also seen walking around the show, possibly looking for something to add to his already extensive collection.

If you are serious about guitars, and especially if you dig the vintage stuff, the Great American Guitar Show is a must-do.