What is “Boutique”?
You’re not the only one confused with the often thrown around term in the guitar community. Ask ten different guitarists and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Some people think it’s all a marketing term, others think it connotates only high-priced gear. I’d like to set the record straight with this blog post with how the term “boutique” came into first use with music gear, what types of gear are typically thought of as boutique, and what the term means today!
I recently found myself trying to explain what boutique guitar effects were to a non-musician friend and found myself at a loss of words. I started thinking about the importance that the word “boutique” has on marketing music gear to new players, and how players make choices about their tone based on certain terms in our collective guitar playing lexicon. I’ve spent the last few weeks asking several of my gearhead musician friends and have gotten some insightful answers that led me to different ideas. Was the term coined to describe something that already existed? Or was it something created to help small businesses or amplifier/effects designers have their designs hyped to reach new audiences? Needless to say, this conversation was long enough to last over several coffee fueled discussions. The topic of “Boutique” certainly seemed to strike enough a nerve amongst anyone who prides themselves on being on the quest for great guitar tone. We all seemed to agree that at some point the term entered the collective guitar playing verbal lexicon, and over time has been used increasingly liberally to describe anything worth having, or hype worthy. So, for the love of tone, I’d like to help set some of the record straight to help young budding guitarists get comfortable with the term.
It seemed that we all agreed that the term “boutique” was first used in the seventies to describe custom built amplifiers built by small batch makers like Mesa Boogie (then a small batch custom-built company) and Dumble amplifiers. While the term itself was never used by either builder, the term came to describe the high-quality, handmade, analog pieces they put out. They were meticulously built in small production runs without the use of mas production techniques like Fender, Marshall, Vox and other companies used at the time. This gave greater attention to detail to each working component in the design, and also allowed each piece to be custom tuned for the player. As such, these creations were typically more costly than other mass-produced amplifiers of the day, but these amps tended to be much more flexible tonally (i.e. they could do both great clean and dirty tones in a single amplifier as opposed to having Fender for cleans and Marshalls for dirty tones). Many players at the time questioned the worth of boutique pieces, noting they could get other amplifiers for considerably less money. But as we flash forward to the nineties, other amplifier makers like Diaz, Matchless, Kendrick, and others came forward with fantastic amplifiers partly in due to desirable vintage pieces being difficult and expensive to get, and let’s face it vintage amps don’t always work properly in live scenarios. This seemed to prove there were plenty of players willing to pay for the highest quality, and soon the idea was applied to the rest of the player’s signal chain. This came to include everything from small batch handmade guitars, instrument cables, and of course effects pedals. The reasons were the same: amazing sounding vintage guitars are incredibly expensive and highly sought after so it was difficult for players to get their hands on them in working condition, and vintage effects units, while having tons of mojo because they were used by many of our heroes, they don’t often sound very good with age.
I like to think that part of the mystique of boutique amplifiers and effects units is the fact that they are made by someone we can put a face to. They are made by people who work in a back to our instrument’s origins way. They are made by someone who really loves what they are doing. They aren’t being churned out by a faceless mega corporation who’s only interest is making a buck. These people care about tone, and want us to sound good right??
In short, the “Boutique” term has expanded in the last decade and not all boutique builders necessarily care about your tone. In the nineties when the label began to really take off as a true selling point there were only a handful of small companies making pieces. For true boutique small batch amplifiers, you had Dumble, Matchless, Kendrick, and Diaz. For effects units you really only had Prescription Electronics, Fulltone, Way Huge, Black Cat, Analogman, Teese Wahs, FoxRox and Zvex. By the nineties Mesa Boogie had grown to a mass-produced company making lots of great sounding amplifiers, but they certainly were not the garage-based operation they started out as. Because the original companies that made boutique products were so clearly known, it didn’t seem necessary to have a set of standards for the boutique label. Now there are hundreds of companies making what they call boutique products, and seemingly hyped product after hyped product are thrust onto players just looking to sound good. Strangely enough, many of these new hyped releases are just copies of previous boutique designs in smaller boxes, or with cheaper components.
It seems from the original concept of boutique that analog was paramount, but there are plenty of programmed digital units with the boutique label. In my opinion most of the stuff that comes out now is digital and isn’t made to analog standards, and doesn’t sound as good. Some of the original boutique builders like Fulltone and Zvex have been made in such large quantities and become so widely distributed they can be found at mega marts like Guitar Center. Not exactly the same definition from the boutique early days. The lines of boutique have certainly blurred and it seems the word has gone from meaning high-quality, handmade, small batch products instead to mean out of the mainstream or norm. I challenge for you to look still through the hundreds of hyped pedals because there are good people out there doing it right, and making great tools to make great music with. I just recommend you follow a few rules.
When hunting for what one would consider truly “boutique” gear consider the source. Is it really a small batch high-quality product, or is it made by the thousands at a time? Is the circuit analog or digital in nature? Does the owner/manufacturer really have an original idea that fills a real need for players, or are they simply tweaking something that’s already out there trying to make a quick buck? Do you actually sound better when playing through the piece? Do they inspire you to pick up your instrument and play? Another funny but important question is: can you find a demo of what you’re looking for on Youtube? Due to the increase in price it can be helpful to get a rough idea if they hype is justified before you break out the credit card. Do I have any favorites? Sure. I’m a major fan of the recently defunct company Prescription Electronics that was run by Jack Brossart in Portland, Oregon. I always felt that Jack was making pedals that were just more aggressive than anything out there at the time. Also, he took great care into hand painting units and making them fun with hilarious names like Germ, Throb, or the Experience! Once I tried one of Jack’s units I was hooked for life. Now I’m continually searching to round out my collection of Prescription Electronics with the couple of pedals I never bought when he was still in business. I’m also a big fan of Bill Finnegan’s Klon overdrives, Alan Durham’s pedal line from Durham Electronics including his infamous SexDrive, and Teese Wahs. I find that all of these builders make fantastic analog designs and they stand behind their product with what I find to be wonderful customer service. Like anything else, I recommend trying things for yourself and find a select few things you love instead of focusing on the continual hype from every new design.
As always KEEP ON PLAYING! -AM