Boutique Guitar Effects: The Quest for a New Sound

By Richard Giraldi
May 12, 2011

Every guitarist loves a great guitar pedal. From distortion to delay to the infamous wah-wah, there’s not much that a great pedal can’t do. But go to your nearest Guitar Center or Sam Ash Music, and you’ll realize that they’ve had the same selection of mass-marketed products for years, leaving much to be desired by many musicians seeking to perfect their own distinctive sound.

So where would an innovative musician such as Daughters guitarist Nicholas Andrew Sadler go to find a noise generator, and where would TV On The Radio guitarist David Andrew Sitek turn when he needs an overdrive pedal?
 
FX Doctor's 8-Bit Fuzz

FX Doctor and Death By Audio are two of hundreds of boutique guitar-pedal companies that do custom modifications on existing pedals as well as build their own unique pedals for customers searching for their trademark tone. With no paid advertising, musicians hear about these companies solely by word of mouth. Besides a small amount of distribution done in a few independent music stores around the country, it’s primarily a website-based business.

“I wanted to see what other tones are available and what options are out there that people don’t offer,” says Massachusetts-based FX Doctor founder Joshua Zalegowski. “A lot of the mainstream companies just make what they want to, and you’re kind of stuck buying what they offer.”
 

“A lot of the mainstream companies just make what they want to, and you’re kind of stuck buying what they offer.”

One of FX Doctor’s most popular devices isn’t even a guitar pedal. Zalegowski had always been interested in units that can create noise and be mixed in with guitar rather than only affecting guitar tone, and he came across what is now known as the Cease.Transmission while playing around with some designs. The Cease.Transmission is a noise-generating device with a touch pad that generates a higher-pitched noise as more pressure is applied. “It kind of sounds like the cliché war-time radio tuning into a frequency,” Zalegowski says.

If you’re not quite into noise-core territory yet, then maybe New York-based Death By Audio’s Fuzz War, with its balls-to-the-wall distortion, is more your style. It features only two knobs, one for level and one for shape, and an internal drive control. But don’t be fooled by its simplicity; the Fuzz War can carve out a wide variety of tones from thick to devastating.

“We liked the [Electro-Harmonix] Big Muff and the Colorsound Tone Bender, which have this really awesome distortion sound,” says Death By Audio vice president Matt Conboy. “I don’t think that our pedal sounds like theirs specifically, but [it’s] maybe just inspired by those.”

As for pedal ideas, the sky is the limit for these small boutique companies. FX Doctor is currently designing a pedal that will make a guitar sound like a vintage organ, and Death By Audio is developing a new delay pedal with a working title of The Echo System that should see the light of day within the next six months.

FX Doctor's Cease.Transmission

The market for boutique guitar pedals and companies like FX Doctor and Death By Audio (founded by A Place to Bury Strangers guitarist Oliver Ackermann) only gained momentum about three or four years ago. Analogman Guitar Effects and Fulltone Musical Products used to be some of the only companies that offered customizations and new products, but with the rise of Internet-based musician forums such as www.Harmony-Central.com, smaller companies received substantial exposure.

“If you can make a website and pedals that look good, people are willing to check it out and see if it works for them,” Zalegowski says. “The market is definitely getting saturated, but it’s not always a bad thing. There are so many people out there with so many options now. It’s starting to work out.”

By Richard Giraldi May 12, 2011
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