What's the Big Deal About Vintage Effects Pedals?

WE GUITARISTS ARE A VINTAGE-MINDED bunch, and if a guitar, amp, or pedal was used back in the days of Jimi, Eric, and Jeff , it must still be the best option for us to plug into today, right?
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We guitarists are avintage-minded bunch, and if a guitar, amp, or pedal was used back in the days of Jimi, Eric, and Jeff , it must still be the best option for us to plug into today, right? Vintage effects pedals have long basked in the glow of this mystique, earning prized reputations and escalating prices in the process. But can a box full of old solid-state components possess enough magic to warrant such a must-have status?

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Undoubtedly, many old effects pedals can sound sublime—and here we have to add the caveat “when played well.” There can be a richness, depth, and texture in many old stompboxes that is extremely inspiring. But any consideration of this issue raises two more important questions: (1) While some vintage effects sound truly stellar, is there any reason they can’t be accurately reproduced by contemporary makers for less money? (2) Regardless of the answer to the first question, can any of the more expensive vintage stompboxes really be worth the money?

Perhaps the second question prompts the more immediate answer. As with anything that is rare, prized, and therefore collectible, the “worth the price” question is often more suited to the collector than the player. Can a 1966 Arbiter Rangemaster Treble Booster or a 1968 Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face really be worth more than $2,000 and $1,000 respectively? The former carries nine internal components plus jack, switch, and pot—none of them costing more than a few schillings in their day—and the latter about the same. Looked at in this way, those prices seem utterly crazy, but real-world notions of value often go out the window where collecting is concerned. If a stamp collector will pay nearly $1 million for a small square of paper from 1918 with a biplane accidentally printed upside down, an electronic box that helps you make great music seems like a crazy bargain at a thousandth of the price.

Of course, much of this segues neatly toward the answer to my first question: Given the simplicity of many vintage effects pedals, comparable reproductions are well within the capabilities of many contemporary makers. And in many cases, a modern builder can even improve upon vintage pedals.

Zachary Vex of Z.Vex recalls his days as a player, searching for “the perfect Fuzz Face,” and the realization that there were plenty of duffers among the few magical boxes. “The holy grail at that time was that particular one that sounded really great. The Fuzz Faces in particular were put together very slipshod. They didn’t test the two transistors to see which one was high gain and which one was low gain; they just threw them in there.” Find a contemporary maker who uses quality components, tests them, and puts them together right, and it’s pretty easy to make a new pedal that’s on par sonically with an old classic.

Similarly, Josh Fiden of Voodoo Lab recalls the boom in vintage prices in the early ’90s that inspired him to build a better mousetrap. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s silly, there’s no reason why someone should be paying $800 for a Tycobrahe Octavia if what they want is the sound. Why would you take a pedal that’s a collector’s thing out on a gig and have somebody pour beer on it?’” The sensible alternative, says Fiden, is to off er “the same pedal that is better made, has better parts, and sounds virtually identical. Plus it has true bypass and good connectors and so forth, and I can sell it for $150.”

Ultimately, there’s no single answer to the question of whether or not a vintage pedal is worth the price. If you’re a collector, well, your interest is defined by the rarity and desirability of the unit, and the price will be justified by what the vintage market can bear. If you’re a player, chances are you’ll get more out of a less-expensive contemporary rendition.