Back in the Heyday of... Boss Pedals

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 26 December 2011 |

I steadily started to discover Boss guitar pedals in 1985, having previously ruled them out of my price range and focused my attention on products from the likes of Ibanez, Tokai and Frontline. I’d started the year in possession of a Frontline Distortion, a Tokai Phaser and a Melos Tape Echo, and in my ignorance had been happy enough with those. But shortly after recording a demo with the Frontline Distortion in mid May, I’d gone into the guitar shop and heard one of the staff members playing heavy rock on a Kramer Baretta. I thought it sounded amazing. When I played overdriven or distorted lines they were always trash-can-rough, but this bloke’s sound was like something off an expensively-produced record. Well, that’s how it came across to me at the time, anyway. And where was this phenomenally impressive rock overdrive being manufactured?… Inside the sturdy metal walls of a Boss DS-1 – Tone backed well off, Dist up high.

This guy was a much better guitarist than I was, but I’ve never forgotten hearing that sound, seeing the DS-1, and concluding that a Boss Distortion was the device which would turn my ropey, shoddily-intoned racket into the next phase in worldwide guitar heroism. Did it? Well, I didn’t buy a DS-1 for a start. I ended up with an HM-2 Heavy Metal. I thought because it was a few quid more expensive, it would be better. That’s the way I thought in my teens. But the HM-2 was quite different, and whilst it was more versatile, it didn’t have the slightly contrived singing quality of the DS-1. Besides which, I wasn’t very good – which is always a disadvantage when you’re aiming to become a guitar god. So no, a Boss distortion pedal didn’t make me famous, but it did open my eyes to the quality and remarkable desirability factor of the Boss range.

The Boss Pocket Dictionary slotted neatly into the box
with each mid 1980s pedal. This first edition of the
catalogue came with my 1985 HM-2 Heavy Metal.
By the autumn of ’85, I was using the HM-2 on stage and pretty much thinking I’d heard it all… until a guitarist in a support band plugged into a DD-2 Digital Delay. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I stood at the back of the venue expecting this unassuming guitar/bass/drums lineup to have the same pub-rock sound that everyone else had, but was instead hit with this incredible barrage of sparkling, impossibly complex guitar lines. The guitarist’s fingers were barely moving, and yet the guitar parts sounded so intricate – like three people were playing at once.

Of course, I’d started to hear professional guitarists using digital delay, but it just wasn’t something you expected in a small pub at that time, and the impact was immense. What set digital delay apart from analogue delay or tape echo were the enormously long repeat times (comparatively speaking) and the crystal-clarity of the sound. Lo-fi wow and flutter and degradation of repeats had no value in 1985. Everyone wanted pristine and clinical definition, and the digital delay effect was mind-blowing when first introduced. Boss’s DD-2 was the first guitar pedal to feature it. I desperately wanted one, but the price was out of my league…

One of the things younger people may not realise today, is how expensive Boss pedals were in the mid 1980s. Even something as simple as the VB-2 Vibrato cost £87, and that was a lot of cash to find a quarter of a century ago. But the DD-2 Digital Delay sat at the top end of the range, with a breathtaking price-ticket of £185. That’s well over £400 today, with adjustment for inflation. In fact, you could buy a Tokai Strat for £185 at the time, so spending that kind of money on an FX pedal was very hard to justify. I did get a Boss delay towards the end of ’85, but with the DD-2 beyond realistic reach, I went for the much cheaper analogue version - the DM-3. How strange it seems today that an analogue delay should be vastly cheaper than the digital. The DM-3 Delay became part of my sound for 1986. Listening back to the recordings I made, it was a pretty cool pedal, but I’d have swapped it for a DD-2 in a split second given the chance. 

The Boss DD-2 Digital Delay was a marvel in its day, topping the UK
sales chart for all effects during 1986.
Whilst I’m on the subject of value, here’s a list of popular Boss pedals from early 1988 showing actual selling prices. These are as listed by a London retailer in a competitive magazine ad, and not merely as suggested by Boss. In brackets I’ve added a rough translation of these prices, approximately as they’d appear in 2011 after inflation. You can click on any pedals which appear as a link for a full article...

CE-2 Chorus (mono output only): £83 (£180)
CE-3 Stereo Chorus: £95 (£205)
CS-3 Compression Sustainer: £72 (£155)
DC-2 Dimension C: £119 (£255)
DD-3 Digital Delay: £155 (£330)
DM-3 Delay (analogue): £135 (£290)
DS-1 Distortion: £55 (£118)
DS-2 Turbo Distortion: £60 (£127)
HM-2 Heavy Metal: £55 (£118)
SD-1 Super Overdrive: £55 (£118)
MZ-2 Digital Metalizer: £82 (£178)
PH-2 Super Phaser: £105 (£225)
HF-2 Hi-band Flanger: £86 (£185)
DSD-3 Digital Sampler/Delay: £150 (£320)
PS-2 Digital Pitch Shifter/Delay: £148 (£315)
RV-2 Digital Reverb: £149 (£318)

Interestingly, prices didn’t change in uniform fashion across the range between ’85 and ’88. The cost of the Digital Delay dropped quite sharply, and the Digital Reverb was noticeably cheaper than it had been upon introduction. For some reason, the prices of the DS-1 Distortion and HM-2 Heavy Metal had evened out. In ’85 they were £45 and £52 respectively, whilst in ’88 they were both selling at £55. The DM-3 Delay (analogue) had risen sharply from well under £100 when I bought mine in late ’85, up to £135. Drops in price on the digital effects were easily explained by progress in the digital component market, but the analogue units seemed to vary in a much more arbitrary fashion.

1986 brought more Boss pedal ‘wow!’ moments. Although it had been around for years, the CS-2 Compression Sustainer really grabbed my attention in ’86, with its lively sound-squeezing personality. Afterwhich the new DC-2 Dimension C became another of the pedals that knocked me sideways – albeit another I couldn’t afford. The Dimension C was really just a very sweet, rich and beautiful analogue stereo chorus, but it sounded so futuristic in its day that you immediately started considering what you could sell in order to get hold of one. It’s hard to explain now how attractive a proposition these stomp boxes were before the arrival of Multi-FX units. To an extent, you had to be there, because both music and technology have changed so much in the interim that it's virtually impossible to appreciate the gobsmacking novelty of those sounds from the standpoint of 2011. But the units do still sound great today, and I believe that the Boss stomp box range of the mid 1980s remains one of the most musically-sympathetic, reliable and consistently desirable selections of accessories the world of guitars has seen.

Until the introduction of the ME-5 Guitar Multi-effects processor in 1988, Boss pedals remained an essential part of my setup. Post ME-5, however, most of them became redundant, and I think I only held onto the PH1r Phaser for any length of time after the onset of the multi-FX era. But the thought of looking down at the floor and seeing that line of rectangular blocks in pretty colours is a highly nostalgic one. Boss pedals may not evoke the obsessive fascination today that they did a quarter of a century back, but to many young guitarists in 1986, some of them, in all seriousness, had a status on a par with the iPad.

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