What are your unpopular opinions about guitar pedals

For over 40 years: the iconic Boss pedals

by Sven Harnisch aka Dr. Boss,

Who doesn't know the famous colorful Boss pedals? After the brand was launched in 1973, the legendary CE-1 Chorus Ensemble was introduced in 1976, and the first three “compact pedals” came on the market the following year. In the 80s a full range of different effects was available. Boss pedals have become the absolute standard because of their indestructible construction and innovative sounds. Many a young guitarist in a student band felt a bit like a professional after buying their first Boss pedal! It was like the Fender Stratocaster, the Gibson Les Paul or the Marshall Stack - only accessible more quickly with pocket money that is always tight. And then this wonderful, colorful, large selection - you always wanted just one more ...

From 1977 until today there were and are a total of 113 different models of the Boss single kicks, all in the same, so familiar case. In addition, an unbelievable 15 million copies of the Boss Compact Effects have been sold from 1977 until today! So probably every electric guitarist in the world has stepped on a Boss pedal at some point. 15,000,000 pedals reach 1800 km from Hamburg across Europe e.g. to Madrid !!

My name is Sven Harnisch - probably more people and musicians know me than Dr. Boss. In the 40-year history of these effects pedals, which began in 1976 with the CE-1 Chorus Ensemble, I was right in the middle of it for 13 years - as the official supervisor of the colorful floor pedals for Germany and Austria.

Dream job

From 1998 to 2011 it was my job to bring new Boss pedals onto the market, to come up with advertising campaigns and shop displays as well as to organize workshop tours and trade fairs ... always in close contact with the developers at the Japanese headquarters, our sales team in the German branch, many large and small dealers and of course the many guitarists and boss fans. Definitely a dream job! How do you get such a coveted job in the guitar industry? For me it was completely without vitamin B: With a year at the Munich guitar institute MGI, an apprenticeship as a radio and television technician and half a business degree, my friends made fun of me because of this apprenticeship mess, but for the advertised position as "Product Manager Boss & Roland Guitar Products" fit everything together perfectly. Despite many applications from all over Germany, I got the job!

Boss, better, worst

Why were the Boss pedals so successful right from the start? Let's look back to 1977: ABBA, Stevie Wonder and the Eagles top the singles charts, Pink Floyd the album charts, and the first choice of professional guitarists are MXR effects pedals. The developers at the Japanese company Boss have now taken a closer look and come up with many improvements:

  • There is now a click-free on / off switch - this works electronically and lasts forever, while the silver-colored click switches reach the end of their life after about 100,000 switching cycles (which many collectors of 1970s pedals had to realize with annoyance).
  • The button was very big and also hit it well with huge glam rock boots. In addition, this button was raised so that the lower controls could not be twisted, trodden or beheaded by said boot.
  • The battery could be reached without a screwdriver and without having to remove the case back of the pedal - an extremely practical innovation, especially in the middle of a gig! Loosen a single screw with your thumb and the battery was accessible from above.
  • The Boss engineers also came up with a power supply connection, which MXR did not have at the time. So that poor quality power supplies did not fit and in order to sell as many Boss power supplies as possible, the polarity on the plug was reversed (plus outside, minus inside) ... but almost all other manufacturers have imitated this in the course of the Boss success and this assignment is today the standard for floor kicks!
  • The small red LED that lights up when the effect is activated was also a Boss idea at the time. If the battery gets weaker, the LED also gets darker, also a practical novelty to indicate the service intervention that will soon be required.
  • The underside of the Boss pedal was given a complete, glued rubber pad so that it does not slip on the stage when you step on it. If you have to play uphill: Up to a gradient of 60 °, the Boss pedal does not slide down on a smooth surface!

So many clever innovations! Together with the very stable construction and the professional sounds, the Boss pedals were a great success right from the start! Every year new effects were added, with fixed color tones for the individual effect groups, and in the 80s there was a complete range in all the colors of the rainbow: from various overdrives (yellow), distortions (orange) and metal distortions (black ) to chorus (blue), tremolo and phaser (green) and flanger (purple) to various analog echoes (red) and digital delays (white) everything was there ... and Boss was the market leader.

Boss goes digital

When I was in the Boss boat in 1998, I found the following situation: The parent company Roland had been a synthesizer brand since the 80s, but Roland had just introduced the very first digital 8-track recording device in 1996 with the VS-880 ! The electronic Roland V-Drums were also on the rise and brought a fresh image. The Roland company founder cleverly gave guitar devices their own brand name as early as 1975: Boss. Even then, guitarists ticked very differently from keyboard people. At the end of the 1990s there were no fewer than 32 different Boss compact effects pedals, and many older ones were given a successor with a digital interior during this time. That was the trend of that time: The old production of analog circuit boards with many transistors, resistors and other small components was complex.

A thick chip was cheaper, programmable and therefore offered more options. For example, the analog flanger BF-2 with three buttons got the digital successor BF-3 with four controls, three sound modes, stereo output, bass input, momentary mode and tap tempo function. As a result, some of the charm and cult was often lost ... which meant that digital pedals such as Flanger, Phaser, Touch-Wah did not always sell as well as their analogue predecessors. But there are exceptions: The very popular Boss digital delays DD-5, DD-6 and later DD-7 did these new possibilities very well! The two chorus pedals CE-5 and CH-1 remained analog to this day - since Roland invented the chorus effect in 1975, they probably didn't want to do without the analog warmth here.

The 13 distortions initially remained analog, the most popular were and are the DS-1 Distortion, the SD-1 Overdrive, the BD-2 Blues Driver and the MT-2 Metal Zone. It wasn't until 2007 that the ML-2 Metal Core was the first Zerrer with a digital heart - this brutal Death Metal sound simply couldn't be produced in analogue. The scene of effects device manufacturers was still fairly manageable in the mid-1990s and consisted mainly of the classic brands: Boss, MXR, Electro Harmonix, Ibanez, as well as Marshall and TC. Thanks to the large range, Boss was still the clear market leader.

The journey to the emperor

Now the time had come: After some exciting years in the German guitar landscape, my first trip to Japan to the company headquarters was due in 2004! Once a year there was a big meeting where the latest instruments were presented to the sales managers and product managers from all Roland branches around the world. How exciting! The trip led via Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto to the 800,000-strong coastal city of Hamamatsu - the two big competitors Yamaha and Roland each have their headquarters there. I found many things in Japan very strange, for example the submissive politeness, the unbelievable hectic pace and overstimulation, loud slurping while eating and electronic toilets. I later read the paperback “That's why the Japanese are nervous”, where the absurdities of everyday life are aptly described and confirmed by the Japanese themselves.

We visited various Roland factories in Hamamatsu. Everything was large and modern, with lots of robots, e.g. for the automated painting of the electric piano cases. But there were also many assembly stations with individual workers who, according to specifications on the computer screen, assembled entire devices in optimized work steps. We were told that this would be more effective than assembly line work. Before the big meeting, I as a newcomer and my German colleagues had an audience with the Kaiser of the Roland Empire: The then 74-year-old founder of Roland and Boss, Ikotaro Kakehashi, ruler of countless factories and sales offices. He was admired worldwide for his many groundbreaking musical instruments, which have often influenced the development of pop music. The conversation was formal, but he showed great interest in our actions in Germany and said that he got his life energy from young people like us - we were between our mid-30s and 50s!

For the annual meeting, Mr. Kakehashi had a building complex built on a beautiful lake, with a recording studio, a comprehensive Roland Museum and a modern auditorium, where the chief developers and top international musicians demonstrated the latest instruments on the big stage. Two days of demonstrations, facts and business talk - this was where the leaders of this global company fueled a full load of motivation for the following year.

After that, I finally went to the Boss headquarters, where luckily it was less formal - although everyone there was wearing uniform and doing gymnastics exercises in the morning to the loudspeaker announcement! That's Japan! This place impressed me extremely: Around 40 developers plus assistants worked there in laboratories, measuring rooms and offices on the future of guitar sound! Divided into the five areas of effects pedals, multi-effects, digital recorders as well as Roland amps and guitar synths, there was also a lot of “basic research” in terms of modeling, software development and effect algorithms. It felt like the headquarters in a classic James Bond movie!


Who does not know that? The chorus comes and I have to switch four floor kicks at the same time! When the stress boards were getting full in the 1980s, Boss tackled this problem and in 1988 presented the world's first floor multi-effects unit, the ME-5. With a single kick, five effect blocks and many previously selected settings can be switched over at the same time - great! The distortion sounds were analog, modulation effects as well as reverb and echo were already digital, speaker simulation did not exist yet - but it was a huge success! Soon there were large and small multis like ME-10 and ME-6 and also some for bass. In the 1990s, the Boss multi-effects also got amp modeling, a built-in wah pedal and many programming options:

The Boss GT-5 was a milestone (with built-in power supply, gladly again, please please ...). The successors GT-6, GT-3 and GT-10 dominated the market! However, the possibilities and thus also the operation became more and more complex. Even a large display didn't help, you just needed basic knowledge about the many different effects. We received a lot of e-mails from overwhelmed users and in Germany we created a little remedy with the "Sounds of Heroes": With this, guitarists could simply load the sounds of their guitar heroes into the device and jam - programmed by my demo guitarist Thomas Dill in endless fiddling. He then also wrote a basic book about effects, which is still available at AMA-Verlag to this day. Even today, Thomas in Guitar & Bass delivers the right boss hero sound for every jam playalong song.

Modeling: Boss versus Line6

In 1995 Roland invented modeling, the extremely complex transfer of real musical instruments into the digital world. I myself saw the laboratory where huge amounts of data were milked from tube amps with dozens of sensors. The actual algorithm that turns the analyzed object into a digital twin in the computer is extremely complex and of course secret. In 1995 Roland brought out the first device with this future-oriented technology, the "Virtual Guitar System" VG-8: This device looked very futuristic, cost an incredible 4,000 D-Marks and was able to digitally reproduce all famous guitars and tube amplifiers! Great astonishment in the professional world, but for the hobby blues guitarist a far distant future.

After all, the modeling of famous tube amps appeared shortly afterwards in the already mentioned Boss Multi-Effect GT-5: Recording without an amp ... and directly into the P.A. play without having to carry amplifiers ... that was new and extremely practical! At this point, however, the American company Line 6 was already at the start and packed its amp modeling into a tabletop device with the unusual shape of a red plastic bean.

Significantly cheaper than a Boss GT-5, the Line 6 POD won a lot more and became a global mega-seller. That's why Line 6 is considered the inventor of modeling by almost all guitarists ... even if that's not true. But it showed once more: Funky design and cheeky advertising weren't exactly the strengths of our hardworking Japanese.

The looper avalanche

In 2000 I met the chief developer of the Boss pedals at the Frankfurt Musikmesse. I told Yasuki “Jimmy” Yamada about my greatest wish: there were looper in the 1990s, but they were expensive rack devices that could only repeat for four or eight seconds. A Boss pedal as a floor looper, that would be a blast! Half a year later I got a video message from my new friend that he was tinkering with "our baby", and the time had finally come at the 2001 trade fair: Boss presented the twin pedals, effect pedals with two foot switches, each only one Contains an effect, but with a particularly wide range of options. One of these double pedals was the Boss RC-20, the world's first floor looper, with an incredible 16 minutes loop time and even eleven memory locations! It hit like a bomb, because finally there was a handy, affordable device with which solo artists could record loop on loop and thus create entire songs and worlds of sound! One of the first and best loop artists was Rico Loop from Berlin, whom we hired as a demo player.

In the next few years a huge looping scene emerged, while the other manufacturers of floor pedals slept through this topic. The success was so huge that we held a boss looper contest in Hamburg. I expected mainly participating guitarists and bassists, but far from it: there were application songs from singers, beatboxers, rappers, pianists, cellists, trumpeters, violinists, keyboardists, tuba, saxophone and percussion, there was pop, rock, jazz, classical music , Metal, everyone wanted to loop! This music was fresh and new. Many of these participants had seen Rico Loop on YouTube or our booth and were very excited because their idol was also on the jury!

The second generation was looping for the first here, even though the boom was still so young. The following year, the looper contest was held worldwide and the national winners flown to L.A.: There was an unbelievable looping final at the House Of Blues in Disneyland, with guitar god Steve Stevens on the jury, among others, it was an absolutely unforgettable evening! Today many other companies also have loop pedals, and looping has become a standard for many solo artists. Jimmy Yamada and I still like to write to each other on Facebook today, which stone we set in motion back then!

Ideas, ideas, ideas

The Japanese developers were always desperately looking for ideas for new effects pedals or new functions that could flow into the next generation of multis and amps. So it was part of my job to collect ideas and pass them on. For this purpose, as befits a Japanese company, there was an official reporting system or direct e-mail contact with the chief developers. If you sent ideas from customers, dealers or yourself, there was basically no feedback from Japan. So everyone was looking forward to the next trade fair and looked curiously to see whether the submitted suggestions would turn up as a new product or a new function! However, you never knew whether the idea might not come from another country at the same time or whether the developer himself already had it.

The clever Boss President Yoshi Ikegami, master of the many Boss developers, took the system of searching for ideas to the next level: He linked all Boss representatives from the worldwide Roland branches to a network, the Boss Guys. We met once or twice a year in Japan or Los Angeles, exchanged information, discussed our ideas and brainstormed.This exclusive club consisted only of guitarists, and so the parties and karaoke nights became legendary ... especially thanks to our British colleagues: When a toilet paper mummy walks through the restaurant in a fine Japanese hotel and wants to perform the "tablecloth trick", the helplessness of the polite waiters is unfortunately extremely funny! It was great to be part of this crew: The Boss Guys made deep friendships across continents!

Beginning and end of Dr. boss

The search for new marketing ideas became so important that I turned myself into an advertising figure: During Dr. Boss, the “specialist in guitarist”, should get guitarists in Germany their questions about the pedals answered and get rid of suggestions, suggestions for improvement and ideas. So I wandered around in a doctor's costume at the summer festivals of large music dealers and regional music fairs, answered technical questions, discussed with the guitar ros and collected ideas. That was quite successful, and so we continued the “consultation hour” on our website on the Internet. Dr. Boss was then also used as a moderator at various Roland dealer meetings and at Boss workshops in the shops. This was very well received, because I packed the information with plenty of humor ... for many guests it was a change from the certain coolness with which one usually had to present new instruments for rock guitarists.

Then we started making videos too, in which Dr. Boss in a silly way explained the many possibilities of our multi-effects, where I also slipped into the roles of Angus Young, Harry Potter and a drunken farmer. Many amateur guitarists liked this kind of “infotainment”, but for our Japanese it was all very close to the limit of what was allowed. When Dr. Boss then appeared in advertisements and experienced exciting adventures around the Boss pedals in photo-picture stories, with cows, pitchfork guitars, Arab sheikhs, explosions and sexy nurses, the headquarters in Japan ordered the end for the doctor very quickly! Pity! After all, Dr. Boss around a bit on YouTube today ...

Flops from the boss

The Boss headquarters has developed many successful and often innovative devices. Failures were rare, probably because the developers themselves all enthusiastically played the guitar. But there were, the boss flops: The biggest I have experienced during my tenure were the GK pedals: To make it easier for me to enter the world of Roland guitar synthesizers, two twin pedals were released. A guitar synth WP-20 with six sounds and a polyphonic octaver OC-20. In order to be able to play these pedals sensibly, however, you needed the special GK pickup, which picks up each string individually. Guitarists have always been reluctant to stick this pickup on their beloved guitars, and it wasn't exactly cheap - and whoever decided on it bought a real Roland guitar synth right away. The two GK pedals lay like lead on the shelves, even with special prices there was nothing to be done here. They are seldom to be found today and actually only in great demand among collectors.

The rarest Boss pedals

Boss offered an incredibly wide range of single kicks, over 30 different models. Nevertheless, we Boss-Guys would have liked to add limited editions and signature models to this range, after all, many famous guitar heroes were loyal Boss users. So Steve Vai always had his Boss DS-1 distortion at the start. The DS-1 as a Steve Vai model in bright colors, that would be something! Or the legendary, yellow OD-1 Overdrive from 1977 with the then still chrome-plated battery compartment screw in a new, limited special edition with certificate! But there was a clear ban on such plans from the top boss, Mr. Kakehashi: The concept of the company founder was that every guitarist in the world could buy every Boss pedal, anywhere.

Guitarists around the world did that in abundance, and so it happened in 1998: The unbelievable mark of six million pedals produced was reached! The Boss effects have been made in a factory in Taiwan since the early 1980s, under the direction of Mister Shaw. For the 6 million anniversary he produced a gold-plated DS-1 in a small edition of only about 50 pieces and without the knowledge (!) Of the company founder. These golden pedals were distributed to sales offices around the world as a thank you so that there is only one of these pedals in each country ... the rarest Boss pedal of all time! The resentment of the company founder about this exclusive special model cannot have been too great, because in 2001, for the 8 million anniversary, a similarly small number of chrome-plated MT-2 Metal Zone was produced, of which the Boss President handed me a copy personally - Man, I could have burst with pride! In 2006, when the unbelievable number of 10 million Boss single kicks was reached, there was still a platinum blue BD-2 Blues Driver, like its predecessors, of course, fully functional. These three pedals are by far the rarest Boss pedals ever!

The colorful Boss range has of course fueled the collecting instinct of many guitarists! It becomes rare and therefore expensive when a boss kick offered a great sound, but was replaced by a successor after only a few years. The best examples are the OD-1 Overdrive (1977 to 1985), the analog echoes DM-2 (1981 to 1984) and DM-3 (1984 to 1988), the incredible chorus DC-2 with its four buttons (1985 to 1989) ) and the vibrato VB-2 (1982 to 1986). Most of the Boss pedals with legendary sounds were fortunately in production for many years, so there are plenty of copies - the best example is the DS-1 Distortion, which has been built virtually unchanged for 38 years and is still available in almost every music store worldwide have is. Exotic and extremely expensive are two pedals from the 70s, their sound quite unpopular and therefore only produced for a few years: the red SP-1 Spectrum from the year the Compacts were born in 1977 (built until 1981) and the black SG-1 Slow Gear (1979 until 1982), a fade-in effect - for my mint condition copy in the original box I had to pay 450 dollars!

year for year

The typical annual schedule of a Boss product manager looked like this: In the cold January, take off for the NAMM show in L.A., in sunny California, and fondle all the innovations from all manufacturers in the exhibition halls. In February and March there was total stress when preparing the huge Frankfurt Music Fair: help plan the exhibition stand, book and train the crew, pack goods, organize everything, set up the stand on site and get through four days of meetings with press people and dealers. And then party in the evening too!

The market launch of the new products was taken care of until the summer holiday season: designing advertisements, sending test copies to the trade press, demonstrating the new devices to the sales team and dealers. Extensive workshop tours with our demo guitarists took place in autumn. At the end of the year in the direction of Christmas business there were again many marketing campaigns such as prize competitions or music competitions, plus many regional trade fairs. But the best moments of the year were when a new prototype arrived from Japan: tearing open the cardboard box, drooling, testing, testing, testing, and getting a salary for it, just great ...!

Boss and the stars

The company's founder, Mr. Kakehashi, always focused on the instrument with its advantages and sounds - certainly a good concept! Often enough, the devices actually had such innovative features that the guitarists' curiosity and anticipation were huge. So it didn't happen very often that a famous guitar hero was harnessed as a draft horse for Boss and Roland guitar devices.

The Boss colleagues in the USA naturally had very good contacts with the great guitar heroes and stars, everyone in Los Angeles knows each other! My US colleague was Paul Youngblood, an old hand in the industry who had seen many wonderful stories. He met Jimmy Page in 1995, for example, and worked with him to find the right tube amp for the upcoming Led Zeppelin world tour with 115 concerts ... on this occasion he also inspired the legendary guitar hero so much for the virtual guitars in the Roland VG-8 that Jimmy Page agreed to a worldwide advertising campaign. With the successor VG-88 our US colleagues put the world star Sting into euphoria in 1999: With the VG and a Fender “Roland Ready” Stratocaster, Sting played the concise synth melody in the first song “A Thousand Years” on his album “Brand New” Day 'and also used the setup live on the following tour.

In Germany there are unfortunately only a few guitarists with big names around the world. When the Scorpions recorded their unplugged album and presented it live, Scorpions guitarist Matthias Jabs used the VG-88 for virtual acoustic sounds, open moods at the push of a button and synth sounds. In 2001 we agreed on an advertisement for which I personally smashed 15 real acoustic guitars with a sledgehammer - it was great fun! The ad made waves and polarized the guitar scene. We received quite a bit of criticism: How can you smash guitars, you could have donated them to children in Africa! That's true, of course, but provocation is part of rock ’n’ roll - and advertising is only really successful if a lot of people talk about it.

Original or Modeling?

By the early 2000s, modeling, the digital replication of tube amps, analog effects and even guitars, was halfway through with most guitarists. Many use amp modeling in their home studios and for practice, but the tube amp was not left out on stage. Companies like Boss and Line6 praised the live suitability of modeling, the broad mass of guitarists remained skeptical. So I had the idea of ​​a workshop tour in which the analogue originals should compete against the digital copies, played live over a good PA and behind a screen, so that the audience had to guess. It should be an absolutely fair comparison, of course without any tricks or manipulations, and I didn't know how well the modeling would do myself. At first it was not so easy to borrow the old effects pedals, vintage guitars and rare amps, but some collectors then helped: the star of the tour was a Marshall Plexi head from 1963 (the second year of production) in its original condition! Rehearsals only began when all the collectibles were collected. When Dr. Boss in a doctor's coat started my journey, together with the exceptional guitarist Gundy Keller. The interest was huge, sometimes over 100 guests came, which was quite sensational for a workshop without famous guitar heroes.

There were 14 comparisons every evening. With the modeled effects (wah, tape echo, spring reverb, compressor, etc.) there were practically no differences between the original and the modeling to be heard, you could really only guess. Great astonishment and disappointment among collectors of vintage kicks. There were differences in distortion pedals and amps (Marshall, Fender, Vox), but both sounded good, and again many guitarists had to guess. It got really exciting when the vast majority of the audience at every workshop actually thought the digital Les Paul (played with a Strat!) Was the real thing - astonishment, horror, disillusionment! Apparently the modeling hit a kind of "ideal average sound", in any case the discussions were mostly still going on when we had long since loaded the equipment onto the bus ...

Attack by the competition

The market for floor kicks has exploded since around 2005: On the one hand, boutique pedals became extremely popular - they were expensive, but had very good sounds and were usually very funny or elegant in design, not mass-produced goods. This new competition in the upper price range certainly had an impact on Boss. On the other hand, there was the trend (started by Behringer) towards extremely cheap plastic pedals or other cheap kicks from China: some beginners preferred to buy three cheap pedals instead of one from Boss. The huge range of inexpensive multi-effects hit the same line: 30 different effects in a plastic dress were available for the same price as a boss effect in an indestructible metal case.

In the course of the boutique boom, the topic of true bypass also became a big topic: the mechanical “click switches” or relays have a limited life, but the guitar signal is passed through without being influenced when the effect is switched off. With the Boss concept with the click-free switch, the signal always goes through a few components - this also has advantages (keyword impedance conversion), but true bypass was suddenly extremely important to many guitarists.

As the electronic components got smaller and smaller, there was also the trend of micro pedals: Only half the size of a conventional pedal, some more fit on the stress board. Established manufacturers such as TC and Ibanez are also participating, and the Mooer brand now offers a more colorful range than Boss with over 50 different micro pedals. In addition: companies like Keeley from the USA modified Boss pedals - with z. B. additional switches, controls and sounds. This is very popular in the USA! This is where Boss started and released great Boss classics as well as extended versions: "WAZA" is the magic word, famous pedals such as the SD-1 Overdrive or CE-2 Chorus have both the SD-1W and CE-2W version original as well as modified sounds on board - and all completely analogue without digital components. Seven legendary pedals have resurrected thanks to WAZA, including the rare classics VB-2 Vibrato and DM-2 Analog Delay!

The outlook into the future? The market for effects pedals has become huge and confusing, and with that the piece of cake for Boss has inevitably shrunk a little. Nevertheless, Boss is the dominant power in the midfield - and which manufacturer can look back on 40 years of pedal history? To the next 40 years, beloved, colorful boss kicks !!!

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