Boss Today: Keeping the World's Most Iconic Pedals Fresh

We were recently invited to the Boss factory in Hamamatsu, Japan to see the production floor and meet with the team. What we expected to find was a buttoned-up mega-corporation with product run by automated assembly line of robots. What we found instead was a hand-wiring operation manned by a small team of engineers passionate about their craft and hungry to continue the legacy of products that all but invented the pedal market.

The story of Boss is intertwined with the unrelenting pursuit of innovation. Over four decades, this Japanese behemoth’s pedal design has become the standard bearer for what a stompbox looks like to pros and beginners alike. With over 15 million units sold, Boss has earned its name as the monarch of the pedalboard. So, what do you do when you’re on top? Bring it back home.

And there’s no better man to bring a company back to its roots and move forward at the same time than one who’s been there the whole time. Yoshi Ikegami, President of Boss, has been around since the company was still just an idea.

Yoshi Becomes the Boss

Starting out on the synth assembly line when Roland was putting up $18 million in sales a year, Yoshi got plenty of questions from his parents about why he joined a small company. His response? “It's for the same reason we all got into it: because they were all guitar players and they wanted to try it. Why not, right?”

Jumping head first into the effects business turned out to be a solid option for this band of dedicated tone junkies. After training in his downtime to become an engineer while still on the assembly line, Yoshi landed a spot in R&D and continued to climb the ranks until 2013 when he was tapped as President of Boss.

The man’s work speaks for itself. Yoshi had a hand in some of the most iconic Boss pedals ever produced, and in turn, some of the most iconic pedals produced period.

Whether you’re looking at the OD-1 (one of the world’s first overdrive pedals), the DM-2 (one of the most coveted analog delays of all time), or the TU-2 (“no one had thought of making a tuner into a pedal”), Yoshi’s trademark of solid, reliable effects is all over the company’s history.

Boss has always been ahead of everyone in my opinion, and I am consistently like a kid in a candy store when they release something new – I can’t wait to see what it’s like."

Many younger builders, like Josh Scott from JHS Pedals, were specifically inspired by what Boss was doing before anyone else. "I got my start in small signal design and guitar effects from hacking into Boss pedals,” Scott told us. “They perfected the small format stompbox before 90% of all of us new guys were even born.

“As more than ten years have come and gone for me, I can honestly say that the Boss designs are untouchable in many ways. The more educated in design I get, the more I realize that circuits like the VB-2, CE-1, BD-2, OD-1, DD-5, DD-20 and many others stand up against or surpass anything out there today after decades on the market. Boss has always been ahead of everyone in my opinion, and I am consistently like a kid in a candy store when they release something new – I can’t wait to see what it’s like.”

But in today’s boutique marketplace, a sexy presentation with bells and whistles can do more to catch the eye than a workhorse effect. As more and more mod services were taking Boss pedals and adding a tweak or two, Yoshi thought, “That's great because [the modders] know Boss quality, so they decided to use Boss pedals as a base. But then [customers] said, ‘That is cool, but Boss originally is not cool. Oh, Boss quality is good and they're stable, but not fun,’ or something like that.”

The wheels were set in motion and the challenge was made: make a custom shop pedal infused with Boss craftsmanship.

The Rise of Waza

Yoshi was hot on the case. “We started to think about rebranding, and I visited Europe, the United States, and Japan. I met a whole lot of dealers – a lot of guitarists – and talked about what Boss is. And at that time, somebody told us that Japanese culture is very cool – you know, anime and animation.”

Yoshi realized creating Japanese products was inherently cool, and from there, Waza Craft was born. Far from the sprawling factories most players have in mind, Boss has always been a small but immensely efficient operation. Stationed near Hamamatsu and framed in an idyllic setting of mountains and a lake, the Boss headquarters plays home to a group of about 50 engineers simultaneously preserving historic tone and pressing into uncharted sonic territory.

We have to keep such a quality in sound, and we have to make a breakthrough on the sound at the same time. We need to change or we need to propose something different – new tone."

An intimate but industrious operation, the Waza Craft shop took in veteran engineers and new blood alike to produce custom shop models that retained the Boss identity. “You know, people expect very original sound. So we have a long history. At the same time, we have to keep such a quality in sound, and we have to make a breakthrough on the sound at the same time. We need to change or we need to propose something different – new tone.”

After three years of intensive development, Yoshi and company debuted their first three Waza pedals at NAMM 2014 with an additional three models following the next year. Far from reissues, these stompboxes combined the original tone that made the effects famous in the first place with custom modes tailor-made for today’s playing.

For instance, in an interview with the Waza Craft technical team, Product Designer Shuichi Kai discussed the DM-2W Delay and how they catered to modern delay fans by packing in plenty of long delay and eliminating the pesky “clock noise” which accompanies BBD.

When these pedals hit the market, they weren’t without their detractors. While legions of enthusiasts leapt at the opportunity to scoop up Boss custom shop models, the more persnickety members of the pedal world kept their distance. Regardless, Yoshi was undeterred, and Waza sales backed his confidence.

With the success of the new line, Yoshi looked to one of Boss’s most ambitious products yet: an amp. Debuting at last year’s NAMM, the Waza Amp Head takes the same approach as the pedals: capture classic tone and add additional functionality with unmistakable Boss feel.

Kosuke Takada , a team leader on the Waza Amp project, spent years perfecting the alchemy of transforming vintage tube tone into a digital format. Studying every relation between the transformer, the power tubes, the phase inverter, and the speakers in classic amps, the Waza team distilled a tube logic process designed to capture the essence of what players love in a half-stack.

There was no shortage of input from heavy hitters during R&D, either. The likes of Eric Johnson, Robin Ford, and Steve Vai lent their expertise and hours of playing in the pursuit of perfect tone. And in that pursuit, Kosuke started thinking about the very idea of “perfect tone.”

“...we had a lot of conversation with top guitarists. Kind of like we're talking about tone, they have total different language. Everybody said color or, you know, a smell or something. But what is key? Everybody has total same key sound, right. It's kind of like a bite or compression, some kind of feel.”

With that in mind, the team decided on two voices for the Waza Amp: a searing brown sound and a classic Bassman-esque channel – each, of course, with some signature Boss finesse.

Keeping the Past, Moving Forward

Even with a formidable custom shop now in operation and a firm seat on the effects vanguard, Yoshi still isn’t satisfied. When asked what his favorite pedal is, he replies, “I always answer ‘the latest one is my favorite,’ because always we can improve this point or this point. So newest one is always close to perfect.”

I always answer ‘the latest one is my favorite,’ because always we can improve this point or this point. So newest one is always close to perfect."

This quote may encapsulate the biggest challenge Boss faces: forging ahead while celebrating their rich history. It was probably difficult to look back onto the coveted DM-2 for the Waza Craft reissue while the DD-500 is still ripe on the market.

After raising the bar with the Waza series, Boss may be at a shifting point where they can simultaneously foster new products for new markets while digging through the archives to reissue the rarities we see sell for big bucks here on Reverb — like a Slow Gear or a big-box Phase Five.

With that in mind, there are probably more than a few pedal junkies eager to see what Yoshi’s new favorite will be in 2017.

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