The fuzz-driven electric guitar sounds of the 1960s and 1970s that we today consider iconic have their roots in an odd history. One that’s littered with amps falling off car roofs and musicians doing savage and sometimes innovative things to their gear. It’s also a history of turning flaws into virtues—distortion and feedback being two prime examples.
Many of today’s guitarists create their own unique sound by placing various effects pedals in the signal path between their guitar and their amp. But long before these stompboxes existed, guitarists were looking for ways to coax unique sounds out of their rigs.
In the beginning, it was the overdriven sound of low-power vacuum tube amplifiers that provided fodder for rockabilly, R&B and blues guitarists intent on adding grit to their tone. Small amps, such as the tweed Fender Champ, were easy to drive into distortion, even at relatively low recording volume levels. As a result, the Champ played a notable role in the pop-music arena, appearing on hundreds of singles from its introduction in 1948 and onward through the 1950s.
Fuzz Hits The Radio
As emerging sounds such as blues-rock and surf guitar appeared in the 1960s, artists as diverse as Dick Dale in California and Keith Richards in the UK sought out ever bigger and more novel sounds. Richards, like his emerging British peers, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, wanted to replicate the raucous, overdriven tones they’d been hearing on American blues and R&B records tracked in the 1950s. A couple of American singles in particular had perked up these Brits’ ears.
The 1951 R&B hit, “Rocket 88,” by Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm, often cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, featured a heavily distorted guitar. Though the facts have been blurred by time, producer Sam Phillips, in whose fabled Memphis studio it was recorded, maintained the amp’s accidental “fuzz tone” was the result of it toppling off the roof of the band’s car as it headed to Memphis. According to Phillips, the amps interior had been stuffed with newspaper to hold the dislodged speaker in place, creating its unorthodox sound. Ike Turner remembered it differently, saying the amp had been rained on in the trunk of the car, producing the distorted sound. Either way, the prominent and distorted guitar together with a raw vocal from Jackie Brenston and booting sax exclamations combined to elevate an otherwise fairly ordinary jump blues song into a whole new genre.
In a startlingly similar story, rockabilly guitarist Paul Burlison of The Rock and Roll Trio maintained that the much-emulated fuzz guitar sound he got on the influential “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” resulted from dropping his amp. The incident caused a tube to become unseated, and anytime he wanted to get that fuzz tone back, he’d loosen the tube a little.
The Birth of the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone
Another documented early fuzz bass sound also grew out of a malfunction. During a 1960 Nashville recording session with country-pop singer Marty Robbins, a transformer blew in the tube-driven Langevin recording console, giving bassist Grady Martin a thick layer of hair on his bassline for the forgettable ballad, “Don’t Worry.” Engineer Glenn Snoddy was intrigued by the accidental effect and set about trying to replicate it without disabling a circuit in his mixing desk. Snoddy tinkered with solid-state circuits exploiting the germanium transistor’s tendency to spew out strange, distorted tones.
In 1962, Snoddy sold his circuit design to Gibson who then began producing what is commonly thought to be the first commercially available effects pedal, the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone. Three years later, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards would begin toying with a Maestro fuzz box while on a U.S. tour. In so doing, he came up with the fuzzed-out signature guitar lick that would transform “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from a typical folk-rock protest song of the era into a romping, stomping teenage call to revolution.
“Satisfaction” turned into a huge hit, and other manufacturers raced to get their own fuzz boxes into the burgeoning guitar market being fueled by the British Invasion. We'll dig into those shortly.
Other guitarists took a different tack in their thirst for ever more radical sounds. In one of the more notorious cases, legend has it that Kinks guitarist Dave Davies took a razor blade to the speaker of his wimpy Elpico amp’s speaker, slitting it to induce the sound of extreme clipping. The result: the proto-metal guitar sound in “You’ve Really Got Me.” But even in 1964, for some guitarists, this kind of brutal sound shaping was already old hat.
The Tone Bender Emerges
In 1965, the Sola Sound Tone Bender MKI arrived on the market. Perhaps the most influential fuzz pedal ever made, the Tone Bender was a result of a partnership between designer (and former VOX employee) Gary Hurst and British music shop Macaris, run by brothers Larry and Joe Macari.
Influenced by the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, the Tone Bender was designed around three germanium transistors, offering players players a healthy heaping of distortion and plenty of sustain. The Tone Bender quickly found itself in the rig of players such as Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood, and its groundbreaking sound was heard on The Yarbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" and Spencer Davis Group's "Keep on Running".
An extremely rare two-transistor version of the Tone Bender followed with the MK1.5, which would in turn inform the design of the soon-to-appear Fuzz Face. A third iteration of the Tone Bender, called the MKII, became a part of Jimmy Page’s signature sound on the earliest Led Zeppelin recordings. It seems likely that he became familiar with the Tone Bender through his association with fellow Yardbird Jeff Beck. Two further iterations of the Tone Bender would appear throughout its first run, the Tone Bender MKIII and Tone Bender MKIV, which bore a heacy resemblance to the emerging Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi.
In addition to the Tone Benders sold under the Macaris' Sola Sound and Colorsound brands, Sola Sound produced models for other leading brands of the day, most notably VOX and Marshall, as well as their offshoot Park.
Modern tributes to the various iterations of the Tone Bender abound, from the extremely limited-edition MKII-replica BOSS TB-2W Waza Craft (made in collaboration with Sola Sound), to the JHS Bender and re-issued Park Fuzz Sound, which pay tribute to the MKIII model.
The Park Fuzz Sound is a modern re-issue of the original, which was a re-branded Tone Bender MKIII.
The Fuzz Face Appears
One of the more memorable fuzz boxes to come along was the Arbiter Fuzz Face that debuted in 1966. Soon adopted by Jimi Hendrix, it became an integral part of his sound. Still popular today, Dunlop makes several Fuzz Face variations including the JH-F1, which was based on a collection of vintage Arbiter stomps that generated the distinctive fuzz effect found all over Electric Ladyland. Jimi was among those guitarists who discovered that the Fuzz Face’s effect could be further tweaked through battery-sag artifacts. He and other fuzz-obsessed guitarists would keep dozens of batteries on hand, each with a different charge level as they sought out new fuzz tone variations.
Dunlop's Jeorgg Tripps does a Fuzz Face shootout.
In time, silicon transistors would be developed that were far more predictable in their sonic output and continue to be found in all kinds of analog guitar effects pedals. Silicon transistors produced a notably grittier, edgier signal that was right at home in the emerging hard-rock scene. The addition of integrated circuit boards made these second-generation stompboxes more stable.
With improvements in solid state technology and lots more experimentation, many new fuzz and distortion effects pedals began hitting the market. Manufacturers like VOX, Marshall and Rotosound, all became players in the quest for fuzz. As mentioned previously, the earliest offerings were typically identical or slightly modified takes on the original Tone Bender circuit, many of which were actually produced by Sola Sound.
Fuzz Gets Fuzzier - Enter the Big Muff Pi
By the early 1970s, fuzz box technology had advanced through the use of cascading-circuit designs in which clipping effects are magnified by additional sections in the circuit—a sort of fuzz feedback loop that contributes to the sustained grind. It’s that sound which continues to be a potent tool in guitarists’ signal chains to this day.
The trouble with these cascading circuits was their tendency to produce excessively raspy sound. Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews solved this problem through the use of capacitors to nullify the rasp factor. Using four discrete transistor stages the Big Muff Pi and several later iterations have become fixtures on some of the important pedalboards in guitardom. Notable Big Muff users include David Gilmour and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys as well as J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Notably, in late 2017 EHX released the Big Muff Op-Amp, a re-issue of a late '70s iteration famously used by Billy Corgan on the Pumpkins' Siamese Dream album.
A quick taste of the Big Muff mojo—it’s still built in New York City!
It seems that fuzz tone will never fade away. The latest generation of rock and metal guitarist still embrace its power to amaze us with a seemingly endless variety of voicings. Boutique pedal makers are still experimenting with the often bizarre but frequently rewarding sounds to be coaxed from germanium transistor circuits. You’ll find a huge selection of fuzz effects pedals along with their cousins, distortion and overdrive stompboxes, at Musician’s Friend.
Beyond stomps from major brands like BOSS, TC Electronic and MXR, you’ll also find a sweet collection of boutique fuzz boxes from the likes of EarthQuaker Devices, Wren and Cuff and Dunlop—each with their own unique take on fuzz.