The Guitar Pedal Boom – Too much of a good thing?

As anyone who is even a casual player has noticed, the last few years have been truly explosive for the guitar effects market. The rise of stomp box mania has defied current economics trends — sales even grew during the recession —  and is now over a $60 million segment of the MI industry. The number of brands and selection is dizzying, and just browsing one particular online guitar website revealed that they carried over 120 brands!

Why are pedals so popular?

Well for starters, as far as guitar gear goes, pedals are cheap thrills. With the vast majority of pedals being priced under $150, it’s not a big investment to try out a pedal, and if it’s not the cat’s pajamas you can sell it to a friend, put it on the shelf, or stick it on eBay. To some degree it’s pretty hard to wear out a pedal, so a used one on eBay is typically a smart choice. I have a theory that pedals are like the proverbial Christmas Fruitcake; there is actually only one, and everybody just keeps passing the same one around.

For a budding manufacturing or mad scientist, going into the pedal business has a fairly low barrier to entry. Practically everyone uses the same die cast box — now that guy is making a killing — silk screening and painting is pretty low tech (some people even skip the paint) and the actual cost of the components are pretty low too. If you don’t mind hand soldering, there is no need for fancy assembly or wave soldering equipment. It’s also pretty easy to find schematics online, or just back engineer your favorite stomp box. Now there are obviously many serious companies out there doing lot’s of research and making significant investments in R&D and manufacturing. But for somebody who just wants to get into the business, it’s a lot easier than making guitars, amps, or speakers.

One other factor — at least to me anyway — is that if you are looking for great sounding distortion or gain, which is by far the most popular effect type, a pedal is quite often better sounding than most “gain” channels on two or three channel amps. There are many players out there with multichannel amplifiers that tend to play only the clean channel, and rely on pedals for distortion and modulation effects. Why is this so?

Well if you look back to the early amplifiers and the onset of distortion, the distortion was caused by the power tubes clipping, which turned out to sound really good; warm, sweet and very musical. A low powered amplifier with limited headroom such as a Fender Tweed would distort at a reasonable volume level. It sounded great, and everyone saved their hearing. But bands were playing ever larger venues and needed larger amplifiers, with more wattage, and more headroom. Now the amps were louder, which was good, but that warm power tube clipping was gone. Try and get a Fender Twin to distort, I dare you. Players needed volume and distortion that they could control.

But some clever engineers came of with the master volume control. This allowed the player to essentially overdrive a section of the amplifier, but control the overall volume level with the master volume. Presto! distortion at listenable levels. But the characteristic of the distortion was different. It was not warm and creamy but more harsh and fizzy. This is the because the distortion is produced by clipping the preamp tubes, and this distorted sound is then fed into the power tube section for amplification. It’s a sound, but not the sound of an amp being played at the limits of its clean headroom.

Early master volume amplifiers were often harsh and raspy, with an edgy tone that was anything but musical. Fender’s foray with master volume controls in their 70’s Silverface amps were vile, sounding somewhat like a Kazoo Orchestra playing Smoke On The Water. Obviously amplifier designers have gotten much better in producing musical overdriven sounds, typically still by using preamp distortion. The famous Mesa high gain sound is essentially multiple preamp tubes each over-driving the other to produce a thick chunky distortion tone. This is sometimes called cascading gain, and it can sound really good. If you’re a fan of metal, it’s where it’s at.

But this type of distortion is actually fairly easy to emulate using solid state components. It’s not so easy to make a pedal that really sounds like a small amp working hard on a Saturday night, but fuzz and higher gain distortion sounds can be quite convincingly created in a small metal box. It looks a hell of a lot more impressive to have a half stack, but a 1×12 or 2×12 combo with good headroom and a couple pedals can sound pretty mean.

My apologies for a highly compressed and somewhat biased view of amplifier history, but many players have found that an amplifier with a good sounding clean channel is the perfect “canvas” to paint on with the pedal of your choice. Often a well-crafted little box will sound better than an amplifier using preamp distortion to achieve high gain sounds. That’s my experience anyway, and my choice in selecting an amplifier is totally focused on finding the best natural tone possible, and using pedals to color the sound in a way that suits my musical leanings. I also happen to like a little “natural” tube grit to my tone, so I tend to play fairly low powered amplifiers, but even so I’m never going to turn my amp up to “10” for a solo. I’ll use a pedal. As far as I can tell, the only people who turn their amps up to “10” are on YouTube, and live in very small bedrooms.

So pedals are inexpensive, they are plentiful both new and used, and the low investment required to get in pedal business means that lots of people are making them. So it’s all good, right? Sure, there is nothing essentially wrong with having too much of a good thing, and over time the number of pedal makers will reach some sort of natural Darwinian limit: The really good builders with grow and thrive, and the hacks and pure copycats will fade away. I’m of the opinion that pedals are somewhat like pizza: None of it is truly bad, and everyone finds their favorite. There are however many bad amplifiers, and spending $300 on some boutique distortion pedal with rare germanium diodes will not hide the fact that your amp sounds like crap. Start with the amplifier and speakers first. Get your core sound down to where you really love what you hear with nothing more than a guitar, a good cable, and your amp. Then go forth and experiment with the little die cast boxes of your choice.