Fauxtique Pedals

Several years ago one of the regulars at one of my online forums decided to try his hand at assembling an effects pedal kit. His prior experience in electronics amounted to, as best I can tell, replacing 9-volt batteries and maybe setting up a home stereo system. He admitted he had never so much as soldered anything in his life and had not the faintest idea what he was doing; he just thought it would be fun and maybe a way to save some money. He bought a clone kit from an online dealer (www.buildyourownclone.com) and about a month later he had not only assembled the pedal but had decided to go into business as a ‘boutique’ effects builder.  He basically bought the kits, assembled and painted them, put a cool logo on them and he was off to the races. Months after he got going I noticed him participating on a circuit-tracing forum where he proclaimed that he would never condone one of ‘his’ circuits (super secret original designs don’t you know?) to be published…Later, of course, he was exposed as a fraud and a hack. There’s no need to drag this guy’s name or company through the mud because (a) I don’t think he’s going to be retiring anytime soon based on the proceeds from his pedal 'business' and there's already a good deal of criticism aimed at 'his' pedals by the DIY crowd; (b) what he is doing is not illegal; and (c) his case is far from the exception. 

Indeed, many “boutique” pedals on the market today have similar origins: guys with little to no experience in electronics of any sort, building kits and clones, and passing them off (implicitly or explicitly) as something new and of higher quality than the mass-manufactured stuff.

I have a few cloner pedals – they were priced right and I do like the way they sound but I knew when I bought them that they were basically clones with a few minor twists and the builder expressly acknowledged that ‘his’ designs were really nothing new, just minor variations on classic designs. Fair enough. But I’m pretty sure that most people buying ‘boutique’ pedals these days are more or less clueless about what they are buying.

A lot of buyers have an image in their minds of an electronics genius or eccentric guru laboring away in a lab performing research and experiments, concocting amazing new designs, etc., that will take your sound in entirely new directions. Of course, all this is a pure fantasy. Most of the ‘boutique’ pedals being sold today amount to nothing more than $10 to $20 in generic parts (sometimes they are simply kits) that every other assembler is using.  Few of these ‘designers’ have a background in electronics beyond what Average Joe has and they are certainly not electrical engineers. 

This was exactly the case with the Vertex wah pedal fiasco from 2014 -- a guy with no background in electronics selling bullshit.

I think this is when the indignation and rage hits: the moment when the person who spends a lot of money on a "boutique" pedal discovers that "boutique" is just a euphemism for  a repackaged BBE pedal or a "clone." Why did I pay $200 on a $50 pedal? Kaboom!

There are so many of these bogus pedals out there, the revelations have become a monthly drama. Landgraff, Clay Jones, and they go on and on.

If you find one you like and the price is right, by all means pick one up but don’t imagine for a moment that you’re buying anything that you couldn’t make for yourself. If your time is worth more than the fauxtiquer’s and you’re not handy with a soldering iron then it makes sense to just let them assemble your kit for you because that’s what’s going on in many cases: when you buy a ‘boutique’ pedal you’re often having some Average Joe either assemble a kit for you or, at best, assembling a well-known and publically available circuit that they downloaded from www.FreeStompBoxes.org.

Success in the world of fauxtique pedals is awarded not to the guy with the best technical ideas but those who are best at generating hype and who suffer no guilt in ripping off the work of others and shamelessly passing it off as their own. Of course, there are exceptions but they seem to be few and far between. The best-case scenario seems to be (a) the cloner who actually goes to the trouble to take an existing design and build it to a higher physical standard without passing their work off as an example of divine inspiration, or, (b) the cloner who offers a better warranty than Corporate Conglomerate. So, who in the world of ‘boutique’ pedals is the real deal? I wouldn’t even know where to begin (actually, I do, but I do not want to get into sorting out the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' here). So, the best policy is to pay no more for a ‘boutique’ distortion device than you would pay for a mass-manufactured stomp box from, say, Boss, EH, etc.

How far can fauxtiqing go? Apparently, it can get pretty bad. Take the example of the now-infamous 'Alpha Drive' by Freekish Blues. The company claimed to design, engineer, and handcraft boutique pedals. Here is their copy:

One of their pedals was (still is) the 'Alpha Drive' -- the "signature pedal" for a Berklee guitar teacher. Problems arose when the Alpha Drive was exposed to be something other than it claimed to be.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Ah, but it wasn't external similarities that sank Freekish Blues. What's the truth? You can examine the evidence yourself by following the link below. The summary: a Chinese company named Joyo cloned the Fulltone OCD and sold their version as the OCD Ultimate Drive for $35 (interestingly, the OCD is supposedly some kind of quasi clone of a Voodoo Labs overdrive).  Freeksih Blues then reportedly bought the Joyo pedals, replaced a couple of components, re-painted the box, put different knobs and labels on them, and and sold them off at $170 a piece all while claiming to design, engineer, and handcraft boutique pedals -- and reviewed as such at Premiere Guitar:

Most of FB's time and effort apparently went into 'modifications' designed simply to hide the pedals origins: paint, goop, etc., all over the PCB: the guts of the Alpha Drive next to a Joyo OCDUD.

Dive into the whole nasty mess (warning, it's pretty gruesome) and the whole thread is worth wading through (log in to view).

And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Every pedal in the Freekish Blues line was either a dolled up Joyo unit or one from BBE.

If this isn't mind-boggling enough, it appears that another "company" (Toxic Pedals; hey, you have to applaud their truth in advertising) was inspired to follow FB's "business model" and has been outed:

FreeStompBoxes.org has been a tremendous force in exposing frauds and demystifying the world of fauxtique/boutique pedals. Not surprisingly, the fauxtiquers are fighting back....let's call it "boutique backlash."

For a while freestompboxes.org was out of commission. All you got was this message when you went to their homepage:

August 18th, 2011 - 18.00 CETFreestompboxes.org has been going through changes, some of which didn't go quite as expected. This resulted in the somber fact that the forum has not been accessible for more than a day. This is due to the sheer incompetence and lies of the previous host who, after a third server and fourth ip changes, to lose the entire contents of the newly uploaded website. At this point, we had no choice but to go and look elsewhere. As far as Europe is concerned, Sweden seems to be a haven where the law is most rigorously respected as far as false copyright infringements are concerned. The problem has always been that we are in the strictest sense in compliance with even US copyright laws, when one takes into account the principes of 'fair use'. Despite being a non-profit, user-based community project, the site has come under attack of people who seek to safeguard the knowledge they build home businesses on from becoming public. Such attempts will always be doomed to fail, not because of websites like freestompboxes.org, but due to the very forces that are the internets. We are currently working hard to get the website up again, hopefully this page can stand as proof of the fact that we are not dead. Thanks so much for your patience and support. 

So, who was it that struck this blow to freestompboxes.org you ask?

Now you're wondering who this Lance Keltner is. Lance Keltner is the guy behind "Retro Channel" amps and effects. One of their products is "The Fuzz." I'm sure the fuzzmeister did not appreciate the guys at freestompboxes claiming his fuzz was not quite as fresh and unique as he would like his customers to imagine. So he fired back. Were the guys at freestompboxes right? I don't know. Could "The Fuzz" be just another kit that you could build yourself for about $100 less? I don't have the slightest idea and would not want to speculate. I checked the web page for The Fuzz but it is now devoid of any ad copy. Curious. Seems like I recall something, somewhere, about "our proprietary technology"  and some ad copy that claimed a "proprietary chipset" -- I guess the guys at freestompbox.org were not convinced when they cracked it open, traced the circuits, and posted photos of it online. And it really makes a guy wonder what the "potted module" in their Retro Wreck amp is all about. Don't open it, or else!

Anyhoo, if you'd like to know what "The Fuzz" sounds like you can see it in action, just killing this obviously inferior clone kit. Night and day, folks. Proprietary. Gotta get me one! Only $179!

Oh, now this video is "private." LOL. They got to him. Oh well, if it were my money I'd go for the clone....I mean the unbranded one.

Oh, now this video "has been removed." It just keeps getting better. As an historical aside, this is the screenshot of the video that has been removed -- at least you can see that it was a head-to-head comparison of The Fuzz and a two-knob BYOC kit:

Just remember, not many pedal gurus out there are the real deal. But some are. Do your research: if you’re looking at a pedal (especially a generic effect like an overdrive, fuzz, or distortion) that seems like another variation on a theme then there's a good chance that it's just another generic circuit, kit clone, or worse, a preexisting Chinese pedal with a makeover. This does not mean, however, that you should not consider a fauxtique pedal a good purchase so long as you know what you're getting. Don't spend more because you think you're getting something new or original. The person who bought the Joyo pedal for $35 would have gotten what they paid for: a mediocre slapdash pedal at a price that was closer to its value. The person who fell for the hype and mass hysteria generated at The Gear Page (aka, The Ship of Fools) paid an additional $140 in Hype Tax.

Every few weeks an emotional plague descends upon the TGP pedal forum (and places just like it) and 'everybody' goes nuts buying the latest fuzz flavor of the month only to dump it a short while later to make room for the next "boutique" fuzz flavor. Recently, it was the Black Arts Pharaoh Fuzz that, as it turns out, was built around a General Guitar Gadgets circuit board. At least they didn't try to hide this fact (log in) with goop, chip defacement, and paint. Next month the herd will be whipped up to a fever pitch by PGS Andy and driven over the edge when the One Overdrive To Rule Them All is finally unveiled.

Lastly, this is not a phenomenon that is isolated to the world of guitar effects pedals. Similar trends can be spotted in pickups, amps, microphones, mic pres, etc. If it involves an electronic circuit, especially of the "vintage" variety, then it can be traced and even kitted. Want to start a quick business for your basement Saturdays? Just buy pickup winding supplies and tools online, wind them up, and off you go: congrats, buddy, you're an instant "pickup guru"-- a real mojo magician. The toughest part of your venture will be coming up with groovy names for these generics, managing multiple online forum personalities, whipping up mass hysteria (make sure to use phrases like "vintage correct" a lot and throw in herbs and spices like "mojo" and "vibe" and whatnot).

Recently, I saw someone at The Gear Page claim that we now live in the "golden age" of effects pedals. The "golden age" is largely an illusion. It is true, in an absolute sense that there are, today, more good effects on the market than ever before, however, a larger proportion than ever are simply not what they appear to be. We're now drowning in a sea of "boutique" gear that, when you get beneath the surface, is often just dolled up generics, kits, and, at worst, literally rebranded stuff manufactured overseas for pennies on your dollar and foisted off on the unsuspecting public as some kind of artisan or craft product. Far from the "golden era" I think it's more like we're living in the "Pyrite Era" of hype and chicanery.