Why Are Guitar Pedals So Expensive?

a collection of expensive guitar pedals

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If you’ve ever lusted after a piece of gear that was out of your price range, you already know that guitars, amps, pedals, and other kinds of effect and accessories can cost quite a bit.

That might have made you wonder: Why are guitar pedals so expensive?

A lot of factors go into determining the price of guitar effects pedals, from marketing and brand concerns to the actual cost of materials and construction. One major contributor to the high price of guitar pedals is they’re often specialty items with low production numbers and can command a premium.

Let’s look into what price ranges are out there for guitar pedals, what goes into determining their price, and some ways you might be able to save a bit of cash when hunting for the perfect pedal.

Why Do People Use Guitar Pedals?

One thing to think about when considering the price of guitar pedals is what they’re used for. A rundown of all the kinds of effects pedals that are out there would take a very long time, but we can break them down into basic categories.

  • Distortion: From pedals designed to mimic the smooth overdrive of vintage vacuum tubes to fuzz pedals to massive crunch, there are a tremendous number of options out there.
  • Expression: This is a more limited area, but it has one iconic member: the Wah-Wah pedal. Another common expression pedal is a volume pedal, used to control how loud a signal gets.
  • EQ: These change the frequency responses from the guitar, and includes graphic equalizer pedals and compressors. More esoteric options like octave pedals are also in this basic family.
  • Modulation: This includes effects like flangers and phasers, as well as more common types like reverb, vibrato, tremolo, and echo
  • Multi-effects: Like the name implies, these combine multiple functions into one pedal. They can range from fairly basic combos of two analog pedals to digital pedals that can combine multiple layers of effects on top of each other.

If you want a sense of just how many guitar effects pedals there are to choose from, this video might help. It goes through the best selling pedals from music retailer Sweetwater and covers dozens over more than 90 minutes.

It’s hard to say how many players buy and use guitar pedals, and the number has likely changed a lot over the years. With today’s technology, guitar pedals can seem like something of a throwback.

After all, why would you lay out a pedalboard — not to mention lay out the money to fill one! — when a lot of those effects are available at little to no cost in a computer audio setup? And things like basic reverb and echo effects, as well as good EQ adjustability, are available on just about any phone or tablet.

So if you’re mostly playing for yourself or recording music, maybe pedals don’t make a lot of sense. But for musicians who play live, or who just appreciate the tactile feel of switches and dials, a pedal setup, even one with a single multi-effects pedal, is much more robust, reliable, and easier to set up and use than any kind of phone, tablet, or computer setup would be in the same situation.

And the numbers seem to bear out the idea that guitar pedals aren’t throwbacks. One analysis of the guitar effects pedal market said that 1.5 million pedals were sold in 2021, up almost 22 percent from the 1.23 million sold in 2020.

What Makes Guitar Pedals Cost So Much?

Like I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of things that determine how much a pedal costs, and not all of them are obvious.

For the most part, the components that go into a pedal aren’t what makes them expensive. Older designs of analog pedals, which use transistors and diodes, include parts that cost pennies when bought in bulk.

One thing that contributes to the cost of guitar pedals is the cost to start the manufacturing process. While some boutique pedals are handmade, most are assembled by machines in factories.

The reason the boutique pedals cost so much should be obvious: They’re assembled by skilled craftspeople, and highly skilled work will almost always cost more, especially when things are being done by hand.

The setup and tooling process to make a guitar pedal is less obvious, but it takes time and effort. Everything from the enclosure to the wiring harness has to be fabricated.

If a company decides to go a more automated route, then that might bring down cost in the long run, but it also means a major investment up front, which could mean higher costs for at least a while.

A final factor in the cost is what the pedal does and how complex it is. Simple pedals tend to be a lot cheaper than complex pedals, whether single or multiple effects are included.

That’s evident when you look at the list that music retailer Reverb.com published about the best selling effects pedals of 2021. One of the top sellers was the TC Electronic Ditto Looper, a pedal with an on-off foot switch and a single dial, which can be had for well under $100 new.

Likewise, two all-time classic distortion pedals like the Boss DS-1 Distortion and ProCo Rat 2 are available for between $75 and $80.

Another looper pedal, the Hologram Electronics Microcosm, which has far more in-depth controls than the TC Electronic pedal, costs nearly $500. That’s a bit less than best-selling multi-effects pedal the Line 6 HX Stomp, which costs between $500 and $600.

The Line 6 pedal offers a library of effects as well as amplifier and speaker cab models, making it versatile for both recording and live performance.

Are There Less Expensive Guitar Pedals?

As we saw above, not every pedal has to be a huge investment, with there being plenty of options available between about $50 and $100.

If that still seems like a lot of money for a few inexpensive electronics components in a small metal box, that makes some sense. There are a few reasons, from basic economics to branding and marketing.

The economic issue is straightforward: Guitar effects pedals are very much a luxury item — they aren’t even strictly necessary to play guitar in the first place, after all.

When an item is a luxury, even a small one, that will almost always raise the price.

The other issue is tied up in the idea of pedals as a luxury item. Take something like the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi fuzz pedal, which was used by icons of rock in the 1960s and 1970s.

It still retails for about $100, and part of that is simply its reputation as the same basic pedal used by guitar gods like Carlos Santana.

But there are options out there if the guitar pedal you’re dreaming of is out of reach, financially.

First, start to scour the used market. Online auction sites and music sites with sales boards are good places to check, as are local music stores and places like pawn shops.

There are a lot of great deals out there, but you need to be careful that you’re going to get what you expect. If you think you’re getting a deal on a vintage pedal and it ends up being an early 2000s re-issue, you won’t feel like you saved much money, after all.

Do your research on values before you do any bargain hunting. And if you can, do more research after you find the pedal but before you buy it, to make sure you know what you have.

A second option is to find a replica or clone — or knock-off, depending on who you ask — of the pedal you’re looking for. Especially for famous vintage designs, there has been plenty of time to reverse engineer the circuits.

That means there are sellers out there who can offer reasonably close facsimiles of classic pedals for a lot less than the original, or even the official re-issues.

This is another place where you need to be very careful, though. Just as with second-hand sellers, you can find out the hard way that some makers aren’t offering everything they claim to.

Do some research before making any purchases, and if you have the chance to try it out to make sure it sounds like you want, that’s even better insurance.

A third and final option is to make your own pedal. That isn’t necessarily as crazy an idea as it seems.

Like I mentioned above, in many cases, classic pedals designs have been broken down and you can find components lists in various places online. There are even retailers out there who offer pedal kits, including everything from the electronic components to the metal enclosure to the rubber feet and battery cover.

Most of these designs mimic classic pedals in one way or another.

While it might seem quite daunting, as long as you have a little bit of experience soldering, it’s a fairly straightforward process.

This video walks you through what it takes to make a fuzz pedal, for example.

Conclusion

Whether you think guitar pedals are expensive or affordable has a lot to do with your perspective. Some people don’t have a problem spending $100, $200, or more on a piece of gear, while that’s prohibitive for many others and some would consider building their own at those prices.

With that said, there are a whole range of price points for guitar pedals, from about $50 to nearly $1,000 or even more. Some of that has to do with branding and marketing, some with the material and manufacturing cost, and some with basic economics.

Just like with the kinds of effects pedals available, there are a number of price ranges out there, depending on what you’re willing and able to spend.