About a year ago, I wrote about boutique synthesizers -- fantastically obscure boxes hand-made by freaks (normally Scandinavian). Compared with synths, effects pedals are relatively simple -- sometimes just a handful of components, a switch and a couple of knobs in a steel box -- so there are loads of people experimenting and making great-looking but expensive pedals for guitarists. Most of the pedals mentioned here are in the $350-$500 range. Sure, that would buy you a dozen Chinese-made Behringer pedals, but would that make you happy?
Disappointingly, Zachary Vex's new Ringtone pedal won't make your vintage strat sound like the Crazy Frog. Instead, it's a 8-step sequencer driving a ring modulator -- the early sound effect used to make the voice of the Daleks, and built into the Commodore 64's SID sound effects chip. It's pretty hard to understand what the Ringtone does, or why it's cool, without watching Zachary's wonderful demo video. Like all boutique pedals, the Ringtone is crazy expensive at $349, but that gets you a hand-made, hand-painted pedal.
After the break: Kitsch Brazilian pedals, butch American pedals, clever English pedals, and a fuzzbox with a joystick...
Marcelo Giangrande makes MG pedals (and a cool little range of amps) in Sao Paolo, Brazil. His bright pink "That's Echo Folks" pedal is an analog delay controlled by a light-sensitive sensor on a tail.
In Bristol, England, Tom Bugs makes a big range of lo-fi sound mangling devices. His Mini-Modular is a little slope-fronted box full of circuits to modify other sounds, or create them from scratch. It's also a synth, but don't expect it to play in tune. His Bug Crusher is a stompbox which uses an analog process to roughly reproduce the bit-reduced sound of old samplers and circuit-bent toys.
While MG gear is kitsch and colourful, Trogotronic's stuff is butch: Huge, custom-modified all-tube signal generators and effects, and the Iron Cross, a bombproof arcade joystick turned into a four-way signal router.
Guyatone pedals are a little less underground than the others featured here - they're made in Japan in a factory, rather than someone's garage - but they make up for it through over-engineered complexity and an exuberant number of lights, switches and controls. Their Ultron filter pedal even has old-school DIP switches inside for further tweaking.
In the back room of a music store in Brooklyn, John Schumann builds pedals for bands like Portishead and Radiohead. His pedals are fantastically esoteric, like the PLL: an "analog harmonizer" which plays along with the notes you're playing.
While most pedals are aimed a guitarists, the Effector 13 Synth Mangler is designed for keyboard players. It's two channels of ultra-fuzz, controlled by a joystick and a "magic eye" light sensor.