[Author’s note: When I wrote this article, I was unaware of the specific practices and misdeeds of certain companies. It should be noted that I am, at most, ambivalent towards any builder or company that I mention in this article (with the exception of my own company, obviously). After all, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.]
Guitar pedal clones are often derided as lazy, especially if the builder of said clone is looking to make a profit off of it. There are cases in which cloning and selling a circuit can be unethical, but the vast majority of boutique clones do not number among these. They might modify the existing circuit to make it better, or at least different, like Earthquaker Devices did to tube screamers with the Plumes. They might be producing an out-of-production circuit that fetches completely unreasonable price tags on the used market, such as the Klon Centaur.
The thing I often hear about Josh Scott of JHS Pedals is that he’s “unoriginal.” While it’s true that many JHS Pedals are openly clones, JHS clones circuits based on real vintage units rather than a schematic from the internet.
Many of his critics don’t recognize that Josh is an historian, and that his pedals are often meant to put classic vintage circuits into guitar players’ hands for around $200 a pop. Ignoring the fact that he pioneered the switching technology necessary to cram five pedals into a 125B enclosure, the Muffuletta gave players access to five vintage Big Muffs for this price. Then he did the same thing with the Bonsai (9 tube screamers), and again with the PackRat. This alone is a HUGE service to players out there who want to try multiple styles of a pedal. JHS has also offered classic circuits in their Legends of Fuzz and 1966 series.
This type of cloning, which we’ll call “historical recreation,” has become more popular in recent years, with companies such as the British Pedal Company issuing exact reproductions of classic effects like the Dallas Rangemaster.
Bill Finnegan famously “gooped” the insides of the Klon Centaur in an attempt to prevent people from cloning it. Today you can google “klon centaur schematic” and find several detailed schematics and analyses of the Klon Centaur circuit. Builders may resist being cloned, but it’s ultimately inevitable.
There are enough clones of the Ibanez Tube Screamer out there that I use “tube screamer” as a circuit classification, rather than as a reference to the specific green pedal we all know and have an opinion on. And yes, some of these clones are completely uninspired. $30 mini pedals with circuits identical to their inspirations, “boutique” clones that are just PedalPCB boards, all that jazz. But not all “clones” stop at reproducing the circuit. EQD’s Plumes takes the basic topology of a tube screamer (buffer>gain stage with soft clipping>active tone stack>buffer) and completely reworks it, raising the operating voltage to eighteen volts, adding a switch for variations in clipping, and plenty else to make it more-or-less an entirely different pedal. Even here at Demonic Machines, the Alleborith is a modified RAT clone.
The Nature of Technology
What the latter examples have in common is that they’re designed to be improvements on the existing circuits, rather than simple cash grabs. Jamie Stillman of EQD says he created the Plumes because he didn’t like tube screamers and wanted to make one that he liked. I don’t like RATs, but the Alleborith, though it has a RAT-style topology, is a pedal I love (and am particularly proud of).
Technology is inherently open-source, despite attempts to keep it secret. It builds on already existent technology and seeks to improve it. The hand axe was improved upon to give us all manner of cutting instruments. The modern electric guitar is a far cry from its earliest incarnations, and even further from an acoustic guitar. Fuzz effects evolved from the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which itself was a recreation of a broken mixer channel, to the Fuzz Face, the Tone Bender, and the Big Muff π. We can safely assume that if these designs had been as carefully-guarded as the Klon’s circuit, we might not have seen these classic fuzzes for years after the Fuzz-Tone (an arguably bad fuzz). Imagine Jimi Hendrix without fuzz, univibe, and wah.
Plenty of wonderful effects are out-of-production, not just “vintage” circuits. The Klon Centaur/KTR come to mind. Bill Finnegan, who hates that people clone the Klon, doesn’t make them anymore, so you can’t get one new, and prices on the used market are just shy of a grand at their cheapest.1
But you know what you can buy? A Wampler Tumnus, an Electro-Harmonix Soul Food, or a Demonic Machines Homunculus. All of the aforementioned circuits are modified from the Klon, but each has their own unique characteristics and modifications. However, even a 1:1 Klone is also ethical, as there is no way to get an authentic Klon for a price that your average musician can afford.
Exceptions would be made for guitar pedal clones meant to mislead customers into thinking they’re getting the authentic pedal, such as the infamous Wish Klon. The creativity in making such a pedal is minimal and on par with the creativity involved in other forgery.
Effects should be put out into the world to inspire creativity in musicians, and withholding them under capitalist notions such as copyright does a disservice to music.
“Alright but when is it not okay?”
As I mentioned before, intentionally misleading people with forgeries of pedals is wrong in the same way that selling a copy of a Picasso as the real deal is wrong. Sure, it may be beautiful in its own right, but its origins, and therefore context, are misrepresented.
Stealing ideas from other small builders should also be considered unethical. Boss is big enough that we can put out a reproduction of a CE-2 without making any sort of noticeable change in Boss’ revenue. However, stealing an idea from a struggling builder who sells maybe two dozen units in a month has an impact on their sales. I occasionally share schematics back-and-forth with my friend and fellow pedal builder, Nick Rogers of Dirty Haggard Audio, but I wouldn’t dream of building one of his circuits, especially for profit. We share schematics to exchange techniques and help one another become better builders.
The New Generation
I can’t speak for other generations of pedal builders, but the current generation of pedal builders are a community of enthusiasts who love to share their knowledge with other builders. From what I understand, this tradition goes back to some of the earliest internet forums. However, these days we communicate in Facebook groups. The next generation will show you how to build through well-lit TikToks, I’m sure.
But the days of gooping are gone (if they were ever really here). The pedal building community is hardly shrouded in mystery and has been largely accepting of me and others who want to sculpt their signals using tools of their own invention.
Clones will always exist, just as knockoffs exist for every other product. However, you can buy clones from creative minds that are trying to take you through history or show you a different take on a classic circuit and support them. Or you can buy uninspired OEM knockoffs. Do what you want, I guess.
- I have been told since publishing this article that KTRs are in production as of last year, but it is allegedly a complicated process in which you have to go through a dealer to get on a year(s)-long waiting list. This creates unnecessary demand when the product could be built at a much larger scale.