Monday, October 24, 2016

A Brief History of Fuzz

In July of 1947, a "weather ballon" crashed on farmland near Roswell, New Mexico. By the end of that year, the transistor was invented, a revolutionary device unlike anything before it, made of a strange crystal substance called "Germanium", sparking a period of exponential technological advancement and paving the way for the semiconductor and microprocessor industries we know today. Coincidence? Conspiracy theorists like myself think not. But I digress...

Fine, you tell me where Third Stone From The Sun came from...

No, aliens did not bring us the first fuzz tone pedal (although it would've made a great sequel to Crossroads if Jimi Hendrix sold his soul to E.T. for a Fuzz Face), but as the Germanium transistor began replacing vacuum tubes in gain stage circuits, the smaller size, lower voltage, and cheaper price opened up a whole new world to electronics enthusiasts, beginning with transistor radio kits in the mid '50s. Manufacturers such as GE, Mullard, and Phillips published "cookbooks" of basic circuits utilizing their products in an effort to sell more units (somewhere, I have one of these original books, given to me by my college audio engineering professor). The guitar world owes a great deal of gratitude to these simple hobbyist guides, and would hear the results a decade later.

Although there are prior instances of accidentally (or intentionally) overdriving guitars on recordings throughout the 1950s, there are two competitors for the first use of a fuzz (please bear with me on the timeline, as many of these events occurred near simultaneously); in 1960, producer Lee Hazelwood, known for his work with rockabilly guitarist Duane Eddy, had his own standalone fuzz box built by a radio engineer in Phoenix, and it was used on Sanford Clark's song Go On Home by guitarist Al Casey. Depending on exactly when Hazelwood had this box commissioned, and no one seems to know, it may have predated all others.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Marty Robbins recorded his hit Don't Worry in 1960, on which bassist Grady Martin played through a broken channel of the Langevin tube mixing board, resulting in an overdriven bass solo that recording engineer Glen Snoddy loved and refused to fix. This eventually led Snoddy to create his own fuzztone prototype, a three-transistor circuit utilizing Germanium 2N270s which he brought to the attention of the Gibson guitar company in 1962. This prototype became the Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1, the world's first commercially available fuzz pedal.

A Maestro Fuzz-Tone ad by Gibson, and an original FZ-1 unit with attached instrument cable.

Inspired by Grady Martin's bass tone, another fuzz box was made in California by musician and electronics tech Orville "Red" Rhodes, a simple transistor circuit housed in a metal box with level knob and on/off switch. While never going into production, a few of these "Rhodes" fuzz tones were built for friends, including Nokie Edwards and Billy Strange of The Ventures, who used it on "2,000 Pound Bee" in 1962, the first known use of a fuzz tone on a rock'n'roll record.

Across the pond, Vox design engineer Dick Denney claims to have prototyped a simple 2-transistor fuzz circuit in 1962, based on transistor cookbook circuits and likely inspired by those American recordings and/or the Maestro unit, but as the Maestro was not selling much in America at the time, Vox did not pursue the production of this design yet. A couple years later, in 1964, English electronic tech Roger Mayer was approached by a young session guitarist named James Patrick "Jimmy" Page to build him something that would capture the sound of The Ventures' fuzz guitar, before anything of the sort was available for sale in London. Mayer's original pedal was rumored to be similar to the FZ-1 circuit (although he claims to have never seen one in person), but used Mullard Germanium transistors as well as several other components more easily available in the UK, giving a richer tone with more sustain than the Maestro. Page is rumored to have used this unique pedal for the next few years, both on session recordings and later with the Yardbirds.

Back in the States, Gibson produced 5,000 FZ-1 units in it's first production run of 1962, initially marketed as a way to imitate the sound of a baritone sax or trombone with a bass guitar, with extremely disappointing sales. So disappointing that in 1963, only three units were made, followed by zero in '64. The pedal was viewed as nothing more than a novelty by most, until Keith Richards stepped on one in 1965 to simulate a horn section playing the melody of the Stones' new song, "Satisfaction". Keith originally envisioned an arrangement closer to how Otis Redding would eventually record the tune and never intended the fuzz guitar version to be released, but the scratch track worked so well, it remained, and modern music would never be the same.

A 1965 Maestro FZ-1A, reissued by popular demand.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a fuzz; Maestro reissued the original Fuzz-Tone as the FZ-1A in America. As the unit was expensive to import and difficult to obtain in England, design engineers in the West End music shops got busy. The most notable was Gary Hurst, employee of the Macari's Musical Exchange on Denmark Street; Upon the request of Vic Flick (creator of the James Bond theme) for more sustain out of the Maestro unit, Hurst swapped out the original transistors for Mullard OC75s, adjusted the bias voltage for a smoother, less harsh tone, built it into a wooden wedge-shaped enclosure, and named it the Tone Bender. The original models, now known as the Tone Bender MkI, were used by Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, and Mick Ronson, amongst others. Hurst formed Sola Sound Ltd. with Larry Macari, and the first run of metal-enclosed Tone Benders were produced for sale exclusively at the Musical Exchange.

 Tone Bender wooden-box prototype (left), and a 1st-run production model (right)

By 1966, everyone had a hand in the fuzz game; the Mosrite Fuzz-rite and Sam Ash Astrotone were fellow American responses to the Maestro, and Vox finally jumped in with the V816 Distortion Booster, a two-transistor unit based on Denney's earlier prototype that plugged directly into the output jack of the guitar itself. There was also a two-transistor Tone Bender pedal under the Vox name, licensed from Hurst and manufactured in Italy, with curious circuit origins; Denney says it's his original 2-transistor design, while Hurst has both laid claim to and denied designing a 2-tranny circuit in separate instances. Either way, this model became known as the Tone Bender Mk1.5, although there was no labeled designation at the time. The circuit was also virtually identical to that of another London-based manufacturer, Ivor Arbiter and Arbiter Music, whose Face line of effects pedals were based on the look of a round mic stand base, and included the Treble & Bass Face, Trem Face, and of course, the Fuzz Face.

A 1966 Arbiter ad featuring the Fuzz Face, and a vintage Fuzz Face pedal

The Arbiter Electronics Ltd. Fuzz Face was made incredibly popular by one James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix, who began using the pedal in late '66 to overdrive his already-cranked Marshall Super Lead amps. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd was also a fan of the Fuzz Face, using it heavily throughout the late 60s and early 70s on both recordings and live. These early designs, using now-coveted NKT-275 Germanium transistors, varied greatly with guitar output level and pickup impedance, and players like Hendrix and Gilmour preferred Stratocasters for this very reason, cranking the knobs on the pedal and using the guitar's volume and tone controls to vary from clean to over-the-top dirty and all shades in between (the Fuzz Face-Strat combo is just about the perfect pairing, as tonemeisters Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson later discovered as well). Depending on where and when it was purchased, a Fuzz Face could be labeled "Arbiter England", "Dallas-Arbiter", "Dallas Music Industries Ltd.", "CBS/Arbiter Ltd.", or even "Sound City", after the shop owned by Arbiter in London's West End. Nowadays, Jim Dunlop has reissued several versions of the Fuzz Face, including later silicon transistor circuits.

It's important to note at this time that Germanium crystal transistors are incredibly inconsistent, with leakage, voltage, and temperature fluctuations a constant issue. Meticulous designers like Gary Hurst and Roger Mayer would measure the hFE gain of each unit, accounting for leakage and ideal voltage, using the appropriate bias resistors, and still sort through a hundred pieces just to find maybe 30 choice units. Many guitarists even preferred to use 9-volt batteries that were nearly dead, rather than fresh, for a warmer tone. When manufacturers such as Arbiter and Vox began mass producing these designs, that attention to detail was lost, and quality suffered. By the end of the 60's, most designers and manufacturers had switched to the newer and more consistent silicon transistors with great result, although there is nothing quite like a carefully selected and properly tuned Germanium fuzz, in my humble opinion.

A Macari's Musical Exchange ad for the Tone Bender MkII (top), original Tone Bender MkII & Marshall Supa Fuzz units (middle left), two versions of the Vox Tone Bender (middle right), and a sextet of MkIII models (bottom).

Later in '66, Gary Hurst refined his three-transistor design further in the Tone Bender Professional MkII, still manufactured by Sola Sound as well as licensed to other companies in the form of the Marshall Supa Fuzz and again as the Vox Tone Bender. This OC75 (sometimes OC81D) design became one of the most popular and widely-used fuzz circuits in England, due to it's thick, smooth yet expressive sound, incredibly intense at full guitar volume but capable of a similar range as the Fuzz Face when backed down. Being used by Jimmy Page on the first Led Zeppelin album and Jeff Beck on Truth (in the form of a Supa Fuzz) didn't hurt it's legacy, either; the MkII was the pinnacle of Germanium transistor circuits, as it was a bit more user-friendly than the Fuzz Face and less finicky with guitar pickup impedance matching (Page used it with his Tele, Beck with his Les Paul, two instruments not known to be as friendly with a Fuzz Face as a Strat).

Further revisions of the Tone Bender evolved in the 1968 MkIII and '70 MkIV models under the new Sola Sound Colorsound brand, now featuring tone controls and brightly-colored metal enclosures, while Gary Hurst became less and less involved with the company at this point. These fuzz circuits could also be found licensed as the Rotosound Fuzz Box, Park Fuzz Sound, and Vox Tone Bender (yet again). The Colorsound brand was widely popular, although these would be the last of the "vintage" Hurst 3-transistor circuits, and would never eclipse the legacy of the Professional MkII.

Some guitarist doing yoga alongside his original Vox wah, Octavio, & Fuzz Face pedals (Univibe hidden far right).

An original Roger Mayer Octavio (left), a Tycobrahe Octavia (center), and a Mayer Axis Fuzz (right)

1967 also brought us the landmark fuzz tone masterpiece Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, featuring both the Arbiter Fuzz Face and the new Roger Mayer-designed Octavio pedal, the first pedal to produce an upper-octave harmonic ghosting effect in addition to fuzz by utilizing full-wave rectification circuitry (listen to the "Purple Haze" guitar solo for an example of this). Originally using a small transformer to achieve this, the circuit was later altered to use transistors and diodes for the effect. The design was allegedly copied and reproduced in the U.S. as the Tycobrahe Octavia, one of the rarest pedals ever made, with much debate as to it's exact origin; it could have been an employee of Mayer's that went rogue, or a broken Octavio that Jimi dropped off locally to be fixed and never returned to pick up. The original Octavio has recently been reissued by Jim Dunlop, along with the Fuzz Face and Jimi's other favorite effects. Roger Mayer also has a full line of pedals based on his original 60s designs.

Later in '67, Mayer would design the silicon-transistor UFO-shaped Axis Fuzz (see? my conspiracy theory might be valid!), as inconsistency in Fuzz Face components and build quality often led to Jimi sorting through a dozen units in order to find one or two that met his standards. Arbiter would respond with their own silicon Fuzz Face in a blue-grey enclosure, also used by David Gilmour along with the original Germanium model.

Three Super-Fuzz pedals, an original '68 Univox (left), a '70s Univox and Ibanez Standard Fuzz (right) 

Japan jumped into the fuzz scene in 1968 with the Univox Super-Fuzz, a silicon-transistor design manufactured by Shin-Ei incorporating similar qualities of both the Tone Bender and Octavia, as it provided a thick, rich fuzz tone with the additional upper octave harmonic. This became Pete Townshend's fuzz of choice throughout the next decade, including the infamous Live At Leeds album, and is currently favored by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. Later in the 1970s, the Super-Fuzz circuit was licensed to Ibanez and rebranded as the Standard Fuzz

Around this same time, the Fender Blender and Ampeg Scrambler octave-fuzzes also came onto the scene as their respective manufacturers' first forays into the fuzz world. Although not very popular at the time, both developed strong cult followings and were later reissued.

Two early Muffs, the first "triangle" version (left), and the "Ram's head" 2nd version (right).

The shift to silicon transistor circuits paved the way for America's next massive contribution in the form of Mike Matthews' Big Muff in 1969. Manufactured by Matthews' Electro-Harmonix brand, this 4-transistor circuit was the biggest, thickest-sounding fuzz to date, and ushered in a new era of tone. David Gilmour became a Big Muff aficionado in the mid-70s and lasting for the rest of his career, using many of the various circuit revisions (particularly the v2 "Ram's Head" model) both in studio and concert, including their epic The Wall album and tour (the "Comfortably Numb" solo is pure Muff). Hendrix is rumored to have purchased one of the first models before his death, and Carlos Santana used one throughout the 70s. Muffs saw a resurgence in the early '90s by alternative groups like the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and Dinosaur Jr., and again in recent years by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Jack White. 

An original fuzz-covered fOXX Tone machine (left), and fOXX Fuzz&Wa&Volume pedal (right)

Timeless designs like these rarely go out of style, and the Big Muff quickly influenced it's competitors, the most notable of which was the fOXX Tone Machine in 1971, a purple fuzzy velour-covered 4-transistor fuzz with a switchable upper octave that was much stronger and (in my opinion) more usable than the Octavia or Super-Fuzz as a stand-alone octave effect. The Tone Machine was and still is a big favorite of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and has also been used by Adrian Belew and Peter Frampton over the years. The same octave fuzz circuit can also be found in the fOXX Fuzz&Wa&Volume Machine pedal, including (you guessed it) wah and volume with a treadle foot controler. Justin Chancellor, bassist of the prog-metal group Tool, uses one of these original pedals in his massive rig, along with a Tone Bender MkIII. 

Three silicon Tone Benders: a Supa, a Fuzz, and a Jumbo.

Sola Sound/Colorsound also responded to the Big Muff with the silicon 4-transistor Supa Tone Bender in 1973, as used by Steve Hackett of Genesis. The same circuit would also be labeled as the Tone Bender Fuzz, and a simplified variation as the Jumbo Tone Bender in 1975. Aside from the Tone Bender name, these were purely Muff clones and beared no relation to the classic Gary Hurst Tone Bender circuits.

My friend Kurt Martin's Experience pedal; he was smart enough to grab an original.

Although the fOXX company didn't last very long, the Tone Machine inspired the Prescription Electronics Experience pedal of the early '90s, one of the first true boutique pedals of the modern era, hand-built and custom painted (each pedal was unique), featuring a separate footswitch for the octave effect as a much-needed improvement over the original toggle switch of the fOXX. The Experience also featured a Swell circuit to simulate Jimi's backward guitar, based on the rare Boss SG-1 Slow Gear pedal of the 80s (I'm still kicking myself for not purchasing an Experience pedal in 1994 when I first tried one at a Sam Ash store). The custom one-of-a-kind psychedelic paint jobs were gone by the end of the 90s, replaced by solid-colored enclosures to increase production. Prescription Electronics eventually went out of business, but not before paving the way for other boutique builders such as Fulltone, Z.Vex, Menatone, and many others.

Each of these designers and manufacturers could warrant a blog of their very own, and many do exist, but for the sake of brevity, I've kept this timeline limited to the more poignant and influential models throughout the 60s and 70s. While there are many other incredible pedals out there, most are derived from and owe a debt of gratitude to the models featured here. A few current manufacturers make excellent modern interpretations of the classics in addition to the Jim Dunlop reissues, particularly Analogman in the US and D*A*M in the UK. I've got one of each, an Analogman Sun Face with 2SB Germanium transistors that sounds like pure Hendrix heaven, and a D*A*M Tone Bender Professional MkII that can wake the Gods like the hammer of Thor when cranked. Gabriel Currie of Echopark also makes a great Germanium fuzz, the F-1, reminiscent of the original Maestro and Mosrite Fuzzrite designs, but with it's own unique character and incredible interaction with guitar volume. Most importantly, the original designs that helped shape modern music are still alive and well in these great products.

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  1. This was awesomely thourough. Thank you for taking the time to write this!

  2. Have no idea where they found one way back ... but my parent's got me one (Maestro Fuzz) for Xmas way back in the Stone age. That, combined with my Sears amp and I got great B-25 divebombing sounds. Scared the Shit out of em' 1st time I did that !

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  6. Nice FUZZ history overview! A few points: I'd say the Meastro FZ-1A in late '65 was more of a "redux" than a "reissue" - different transistors and 1.5 volt (single AA) vs. 3 volt (2 x AA) of FZ-1. Graphic logo became bit smaller & slightly different. The photo you posted of an FZ-1 looks like a gold knob c'67-68 FZ-1A. The black knobs on the FZ-1A are non-original - those are from c.68 FZ-1B. Also, "Japan jumped into the fuzz scene" a bit earlier than mentioned with Ace Tone releasing the Fuzz Master FM-1 (a 3 transistor, 3v black wedge, similar to FZ-1) by late '66-early'67. I have one with Warranty card from Spring,'67). They were probably developed and built in '66. The FM-2, c.'69 & FM-3 c.'71. Cheers, Fuzz-On!