Not long ago, guitar pedals were made by larger companies with the machinery, infrastructure, distribution networks, and resources to bring them to market. The big players were names you know—like Boss, MXR, Ibanez, Electro-Harmonix, and others—plus a handful of outlier operations, and that was about it.
But guitarists like to tinker, and a lot of players took their devices apart, modified the circuits, improved designs, and conjured up innovative ways to craft tones. But tweaking pedals, or even developing new ones, is a far cry from launching a pedal company, and most aspiring builders did not have the wherewithal, or desire, to do that. Even for hobbyists, information was hard to come by. Schematics were difficult to find, and mentors—or even just brains to pick—were few and far between. Taking those factors into account, the idea of a boutique pedal scene was beyond most people’s imagination.
Then something wonderful happened. Although books and articles about simple electronics projects for musicians had been circulating since the early 1970s, putting that information online helped spawn a pedal-making revolution. Schematics, definitions of terms, innovative insights and tweaks, and easy access to experts to consult when you got stuck became commonplace.
And as the internet developed, that only got better. Rare, impossible-to-find components were unearthed or reissued, and the ability to find buyers, seemingly everywhere, made it possible for anyone with a workbench and a dream to get in on the act. The prospective builder could build pedals at home, produce them one at a time, and find a market no matter how niche. And with that, the boutique pedal community was born.
Today, thousands of pedal companies compete and thrive in a space once dominated by a few, and their offerings—from thousands and thousands of variant fuzz circuits to oddball mutant glitchy delays—exist in excess. Even crazier, they all seem to make money.
To tell the story about how this scene developed, we spoke to the people at the heart of the movement. That includes Craig Anderton, the godfather of the scene; R.G. Keen, an innovative engineer, forum regular, and founder of the GEO website (Guitar Effects Only, geofex.com); early boutique pioneer and pedal information guru Analog Mike Piera; Aron Nelson, the founder of DIY Stompboxes, which is one of the oldest and most influential online forums; musician, audio developer, and guitar gadget expert and builder Joe Gore (also a contributing editor at Premier Guitar); and boutique legend and builder Robert Keeley.
On the surface, the birth of the boutique pedal scene is a story of changing technology, but, really, it’s a story about community. It’s about people working together, sharing, volunteering, and offering support, which, in these hyper-politicized, polarized, strange times, is a wonderful thing.
How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
Craig Anderton gets the credit as the person who brought pedal building to the masses. “Reverb did an interview with me at NAMM,” he says. “They were doing something about the history of pedals, and they said that half the companies they spoke to got started with my book [laughs], so they figured they better talk to me.”
Craig Anderton used a car manual, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (left), as a template for writing his guitar-tech opus, Electronic Projects for Musicians (right). The book by Craig Anderton came out in 1975 and was like a guitarist’s bible for understanding tech aspects of gear. Anderton is currently working on his 45th book.
Anderton’s book Electronic Projects for Musicians was first published in 1975, and that, as well as his monthly column in Guitar Player magazine, demystified the insides of music technology and inspired people to look under the hood. It gave hobbyists a green light to tinker, and even inspired budding engineers.
“I was heavily into Craig Anderton’s series in Guitar Player,” says R.G. Keen, whose GEO site also had a major impact on the early boutique scene. “He was a major influence. I learned and tinkered with his very early stuff. I was already headed for an engineering education, and it got me started on the road of electrical engineering.”
Anderton is a guitarist and received some notoriety with his late-’60s band, Mandrake Memorial, touring parts of the U.S. and England and opening for acts like the Doors and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He started writing about DIY projects for musicians in Popular Electronics magazine in 1968. By the mid 1970s, Popular Electronics switched its focus to computers and stopped publishing music-related projects. Anderton, looking for work as a writer, reached out to Guitar Player.
Craig Anderton, a godfather of pedal building, began writing for Popular Mechanics in 1968, and then started a monthly DIY column in Guitar Player in the 1970s.
“I pitched them on doing an article about a headphone amp, but they had a couple reservations,” he says. “One was, they didn’t think anybody cared, and two, they were afraid that someone would electrocute himself. Apparently, they had done an article on an amp modification, and someone almost electrocuted himself. Eventually, they asked someone at Alembic about my circuit. Alembic said it was safe, and I sent Guitar Player the article, but they wouldn’t let me do the schematic. They said, ‘No, we have our own art department and our own look. We’ll do the schematic.’ I said, ‘But if you make a mistake, the thing won’t work.’ They said, ‘We’ll get it right. It will be perfect.’ Well, they made a mistake on the schematic, and the thing couldn’t work. You would think it would be a disaster, but I owe my current level of success to that art department making a mistake. They got over 300 letters from people that varied from, ‘Gee, I never built anything before, so I must have done something wrong,’ to “Hi, I’m an audio engineer at National Semiconductor and you know there is a mistake in the schematic.’ They decided there must be interest in this stuff. They asked me to write another article, which was the treble booster, and that evolved into the column, which evolved into Electronic Projects for Musicians.”
Anderton is currently working on his 45th book, but in 1975 he was a beginner and unsure what to do. Inspired by the handbook, How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, by John Muir and Tosh Gregg, which he used to keep his 1966 Volkswagen running, he borrowed the book’s format as the template for his fledgling release.
“How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive assumed you knew nothing—and I mean nothing—and I was able to do all kinds of things to my car thanks to that book,” he says. “I realized that book was the outline I needed to follow for Electronic Projects. The first thing it did was discuss the terms you needed to use, and then the tools, and then the techniques involving those tools, and then the actual projects themselves, and then what to do if something went wrong. I followed that outline and did the book, and it did really well.”