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Hi everyone,

Here's an aritcle I wrote for this month's Eastwood Guitars newsletter. Thought you might be interested.

Budget Boutique Amps – What Are They and Why Should You Buy One?

Here’s a common scenario:

You’ve finally made your decision to slap down some of your scarce cash on a reissue or new model tube amp built in the Far East for a BIG name manufacturer. It seems like a great deal: the vintage amps of this model sell for thousands of dollars more, it looks like the real thing and the specs appear to be the same (same tubes, same power, same controls, etc.). And, it sounded pretty darn good in the store too.

So, why should you NOT buy it and instead consider a hand made, budget boutique amp?

An excellent question and one that I’m sure will generate many opinions. Following is my take on this scenario. It may change how you pursue your quest for spine tingling tone … without having to re-mortgage your house to get it!

Why shouldn’t you buy the reasonably priced BIG name amp? That question can be answered in two words:

VALUE and QUALITY

BORING you may be thinking: these are goals that any business tries to achieve. However, in this case they really mean something and by paying attention to them you can have a significantly better amp ownership experience.

Bottom line: you CAN get an amp that sounds better and is more reliable than the BIG name, mass produced amp made in the Far East … for not a lot more money.

That’s right, in exchange for a reasonable price premium (I know … yeah right, you’re thinking) you really can get kick-ass tone that puts a mile-wide grin on your face and a piece of gear that is versatile and won’t break (and if it does it’s fixed pronto by someone who cares!). That’s the definition of a budget boutique amp. Sounds like good value? It is.

Here’s the alternate scenario to the one above. Magically, you’re now presented with a second amp featuring:

• All tube circuitry;
• Warm, rich, succulent, sensuous, euphoria-inducing (OK, I’ll stop now) tube tone;
• Telepathic sensitivity to the player’s touch;
• The ability to morph from chime to crunch to face-ripping distortion with the twist of your guitar’s volume knob;
• Hand made, hand wired construction that is robust and reliable; and,
• Customer service provided by a company that cares about creating a great ownership experience.

All for only $300 – $400 more than the BIG name amp.

How do you decide whether to spring for the budget boutique amp? Let’s play out the scenario.

Is the tone difference that big a deal? You bet it is – that’s owners speaking, not me. The difference between playing through an amp that sounds pretty darn good vs. playing through a budget boutique amp that blows you away is huge – you deserve the experience! Budget boutique amps can do that.

Touch sensitivity isn’t even on my radar screen, what’s up with that? An amp that is sensitive to your playing dynamics and instantly responds to your picking hand is a revelation. Warm, vibrant notes pop out of the amp almost before you play them. It adds a new dimension to your sound and a whole new layer of pleasure to your playing.

In my experience I set my amp up for a good tone and go for it. If I want to change tones I twiddle with the amp or throw pedals in front of it. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. But, a really good budget boutique amp will give you a range of awesome tones controllable from your guitar. Set the maximum volume and level of distortion you desire and then roll off your guitar’s volume to morph into beautiful clean tones and everything in between.

Won’t a mass produced amp with machine-stuffed, printed circuit boards be more reliable than a hand made amp? Talk to owners of these amps and read on-line reviews to discover the answer.

My local music store gives me good service. They’ll look after my amp if it breaks won’t they? Sure they will or at least they’ll try. Unfortunately, the good people at your local music store are often stuck with a BIG name amp manufacturer’s less than satisfactory repair policy and response time. Dealing with a small amp builder can be a vastly different experience. Most recognize that satisfying EVERY customer is absolutely critical because they don’t have as many as the big guys and they know that bad customer service can sink their business. That means you get responsive service designed to get you back up and playing as quickly as possible.

Hand made, boutique amps have an image of being extremely expensive. However, budget boutique builders really do provide terrific amp value. It just takes a little effort to find them. Believe me, they’re out there all right … making great amps.

So, for a few hundred dollars more you can get strikingly better tone, much better reliability and personalized product support if anything goes wrong. Which amp would you choose?

BUY TONE NOT GLITZ!
 

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I could not agree more with what you are saying. I have been in the market for a great amp over the past few weeks and have done loads of research. Originally, I was thinking one of the big names for sure, either new or a vintage.

Then after reading a lot and hearing clips and playing different amps, I realized that there are so many great amp makers out there...here in Canada too that make fantastic sounding amps at reasonable prices. I mean a new Marshall can cost you upwards of $2k, but the boutique amps cost the same or a bit more or even a bit less and I believe the quality is second to none. These are people making one amp at a time by hand. It seems obvious to me that that type of amp will be far superior to something mass produced on a production line.

The other point I think is important is that these amp makers are staking their reputation on ever single unit they make....hell most of their amps have their names on them! I would guarantee that the utmpst care goes into making each amp as good as can possibly be or who would every buy from them again?

Anyhoo, that's my 2 cents. I can tell you that my next purchase will definitely be a budget boutique amp...and one from Canada no less.
 

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...this is a very interesting, thought-provoking and timely thread.

like pickslide, i have been thinking that my next amp should be a canadian-made boutique amp.

before i go there, however, i think i need to fully understand what i'm looking for. this really, really appeals:

"...a really good budget boutique amp will give you a range of awesome tones controllable from your guitar. Set the maximum volume and level of distortion you desire and then roll off your guitar’s volume to morph into beautiful clean tones and everything in between." - amphead
 

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Great article, absolutely bang on the way I see it too. I can't imagine ever buying another mass-produced amp when there's so many great hand-builders out there doing such great work, right here in Canada too.

Unfortunately, the small builders can't get their stuff into the dealers so there's a lot of buyers who will never know they exist. Also, having worked retail sales in a music store back in the 90's, I've seen how many guys simply can't afford to buy ANYTHING without credit. I used to sell a lot of expensive gear to guys that had jobs / gigs, could afford a few hundred bucks a month but NEVER had more than a grand to their name at any one time. Are there any boutique builders that offer financing? :confused-smiley-010
 

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Robboman said:
Great article, absolutely bang on the way I see it too. I can't imagine ever buying another mass-produced amp when there's so many great hand-builders out there doing such great work, right here in Canada too.
:confused-smiley-010
True......but if some of you are like me you'll cave to marketing aimed at baby boomers' sense of nostalgia. The Marshall 1974x reissue got to me. It's not a bad sounding amp either. The Hiwatt Custom 20 handwired sounds good too though I don't own one. The next one coming on the market in this vein will be the Vox AC15 handwired. Looking forward to trying that one.

But I know what you're trying to say. I have a couple of boutique amps myself from Canadian builders ( a Clara Tweed Princeton clone, and a Kingsley Deluxe 1) and these amps amaze and continue to surprise me in the pure tone and touch sensitivity department.

Bottom line is, I think there's room for both kinds and different reasons for owning both.
 

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I've always felt that the term "Budget Boutique" is a bit of an oxymoron. I'd like to see this dispelled. Really.
 

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if you are able to solder and can read schematics and build sheets then there are some really good amp kits on the market. Weber being one of my favorite.
 
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