The electric guitar sounds 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.
Much in the way an internal combustion engine depends on a whole lot of things falling into place to work, so too does the electric guitar in getting its sound heard via an amplifier. Similarly to the engine, the sound of an amplified electric guitar is the product of a sequence of energy-transforming events.
Consider the process in its simplest terms: You pluck a string with either a plastic or metal pick or maybe your fingertips. That kinetic energy causes the string to begin vibrating. Those vibrations are then detected by the wound magnets in the guitar’s pickup, positioned immediately below the string. The pickup transforms the mechanical energy of the string’s vibration into an alternating current signal. That signal is then transmitted via a wire lead to an amplifier whose preamplifier section boosts the signal to a level that can be modified by the preamp’s tone and volume/gain knobs. The power stage of the amplifier then boosts that signal further to produce the voltage needed to drive the speaker(s). The speaker(s) convert the amplified signal back into sound waves, in effect reversing the action of the pickup.
Many of today’s guitarists further thicken the plot by placing various guitar effects pedals in the signal path between the guitar and the amp to achieve certain sounds. 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 Fender tweed 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 in the late 1940s and 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 British peers including Clapton and 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.
From Tube-Driven Console To Transitistor-Based Pedal - The Birth of the Maestro FZ1-A 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 FZ1-A Fuzz Tone, which was introduced in 1962. 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. Most of them weren’t much good. The problem with germanium transistors were their unpredictability and instability. Though they could produce rock-friendly sounds, they were inconsistent from one semiconductor to the next, resulting in circuits that varied wildly in their sound. And when the circuits got hot, the sound could change radically.
Other Fuzzy Sounds
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.
Take the case of Pat Hare and his hugely distorted guitar sound on the 1954 blues, “Gonna Murder My Baby.” While the exact means by which he obtained his enormous crunch tone is unknown, it seems certain that a seriously overdriven and under-maintained tube amp is at the heart of his sound. Hare’s brutally compressed power chords helped form the template for hard rock and metal guitar—still a couple of decades away. (The song is tragically ironic—Hare did in fact murder his girlfriend as well as a responding policeman in 1964, spending 17 years in prison until his 1980 death.)
The Tone Bender and Fuzz Face are born
One box to enter the fuzz sweepstakes was the Sola Sound Tone Bender MKI, which aside from its furry distortion also added sustain. A two-transistor version followed with the MK1.5, which would in turn inform the design of Hendrix’s beloved Fuzz Face. A third iteration of the Tone Bender, called the MKII Supa Fuzz, became a part of Jimmy Page’s signature sound on the earliest Led Zeppelin recordings. It seems likely that he became familiar with the MKII through his association with Jeff Beck who reportedly used the pedal to great effect on the instrumental, “Beck’s Bolero.”
The Morgan MKII is inspired by the legendary Tone Bender circuit and features 3 hand-selected NKT275 transistors that deliver classic '60s fuzz tone.
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.
Nearly 50 years after Hendrix incorporated a Fuzz Face into his rig, this version by Dunlop is still considered a go-to stomp for fuzzed-out 1960s and ‘70s distortion sounds.
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. After all, trashing your amp in the search for new sounds comes up against a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly, and guitarists wanted options. It's worth noting that the earliest offerings were typically identical or slightly modified takes on the original Tone Bender circuit.
Fuzz gets fuzzier
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 Dinosaur Jr. and Smashing Pumpkins. (Billy Corgan’s enthusiastic and well-documented use of a Big Muff is a signature part of the Pumpkins’ sound.)
This re-creation of the Big Muff Pi has a 3-knob control setup to fine-tune the fuzz and sustain factors.
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 Catalinbread, Fulltone, and Earthquaker Devices—each with their own unique take on fuzz.