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I recently found myself trying to explain the idea of boutique effects to someone outside the music industry, and I suddenly realized I was at a loss for what I felt was a truly accurate description. This got me wondering what the word (when used as an adjective) means to most guitarists in relation to music gear. I quizzed a few of my gearhead compadres, and even began a discussion on one of the internet forums that I frequent. The topic definitely seemed to strike a nerve, and I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to have difficulty arriving at a precise definition. What’s clear is that the word entered our gear lexicon at some point, and has been applied more loosely and liberally over time as the frequency of its use has increased.
Boutique, as a description and a concept, was originally used in reference to custom-built amplifiers dating back to the ’70s. Dumble and early Mesa/Boogie amps were considered boutique. The boutique amp movement gained momentum in the early ’90s, when such makers as D’az, Trainwreck, Matchless, and Kendrick demonstrated the demand among musicians for these products. Indeed, scores of players seemed to want the highest-quality gear—and were willing to pay for it. The boutique aesthetic soon made its way into the rest of the player’s signal chain, including, most notably, effects devices.
I first addressed this topic in Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Effects, in a chapter titled “State of the Stomp Today,” where I wrote, “The term boutique is commonly used to describe high-quality, handmade effects built in small-scale production runs without the use of automation or mass-production techniques, thus allowing for greater attention to detail and custom-tuning of individual units. Obviously, the price of these effects will be significantly greater than most of the mass-produced offerings of the larger manufacturers. Many players question whether the benefits of boutique really warrant the investment. It is decidedly a niche market, attracting only the most discerning ears and discriminating tastes (or biggest wallets).”
The paragraphs above say as much about customer expectations and perceptions as they do about what qualifies an item to be labeled boutique (which in itself is telling). Not only that, but today’s stompbox market is quite a bit different than it was when the book was first published six years ago. The delineation of what was and what wasn’t boutique seemed fairly clear at that time, precluding the need for any particular set of standards that would patently identify a product as boutique.
The stompbox market has indeed grown and changed substantially in just a few short years, and this in turn has impacted not only the process of boutique manufacturing, but also the products themselves. For example, a number of programmable digital effects now on the market are considered boutique. At the same time, a couple of pioneering boutique effects brands—namely Fulltone and Z. Vex—are now so widely distributed that they’re available at Guitar Center. These are just a couple of examples that blur the boundaries between boutique and mass-produced effects.
It’s not surprising, then, that the understanding and context of what’s boutique seems to have become hazy and less distinct to the average player. Some would even argue that, in relation to gear, the word is all but meaningless, having been reduced to a nebulous catchphrase that could be attached to anything that isn’t blatantly mainstream.
One example that comes to mind is a particular brand of pedals that uses a phrase in its ad copy touting boutique tone for the masses. Yet the pedals being advertised are rebadged versions of a pedal that’s mass-produced in China and marketed under several other brand names, as well. This would support the sentiment that the word “boutique” has now been rendered as nothing more than a marketing buzzword.
So, what exactly is boutique? Do we need a new definition, or do we need another word? Check with us next time as we get down and dirty with all the details. We’ll be discussing selection of components, country of origin, production techniques, and anything that will help bring us to a better understanding. Until then, keep on stompin’.
Tom Hughes (aka Analog Tom) is owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only (formusiciansonly.com) and author of Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Effects. If you have questions or comments for Tom, feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.