Fuzz Pedals – Evolution and Best Choices

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What is the difference between distortion, overdrive, muff or fuzz pedals? This is the question I made myself long time ago, when I started hearing all these different terms. As a guitarist with background in sound engineering, I understand what distortion is. Even without that background you should have a nice guess on that. So let’s start with this quote:

Overdrive, distortion, muff and fuzz pedals are all distortion effects.

Why then so many classifications? Well, write a tweet saying that band X do heavy metal and you will get hundreds of responses telling that you are wrong. “Everyone knows that band X is trash/speed/epic/glorious/majestic metal”. We, as humans, need to classify in order to understand better. In this case, we group different types of distortions.

So what are the specifics of a fuzz pedal compared to an overdrive pedal? As you might expect, the boundaries are not that clear. I found this definition in Wikipedia which summarizes pretty much our topic:

The terms “distortion”, “overdrive” and “fuzz” are often used interchangeably, but they have subtle differences in meaning. Overdrive effects are the mildest of the three, producing “warm” overtones at quieter volumes and harsher distortion as gain is increased. A “distortion” effect produces approximately the same amount of distortion at any volume, and its sound alterations are much more pronounced and intense. A fuzzbox (or “fuzz box”) alters an audio signal until it is nearly a square wave and adds complex overtones by way of a frequency multiplier.

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The history of Fuzz Pedals

Fair enough theory. Guitarists are hungry creatures in search of their own tone (or their favorite musician’s one). We want to get the perfect tone for this solo or that lead guitar part. We want to use pedals available in the market but we do not know even how to start.

As we know, we learn best by imitation, we all listened to the greatest rock guitarists performing and recording with different distortions and getting unique tones. So why not to start the looking at the roots?

Starting with Keith Richards and Rolling Stones, passing through Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, rock and blues guitarists have been using fuzz pedals for a long time now. Below you can find a list of fuzz pedals which fired up the start of this nowadays classic sound.

Guitarists and Fuzz

  • Maestro Fuzz Tone – Used by Keith Richards on Satisfaction.
  • Tonebender MK I (designed by Gary Hurst) – Used by Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds (Heart Full Of Soul).
  • Mosrite Fuzzbrite – Classic, biting garage rock fuzz, great for aping the Morricone soundtrack fuzz guitar tone.
  • Solasound Tonebender MK II – Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds (Over, Under, Sideways, Down), Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin I).
  • Vox Tonebender – the main fuzz used by The Beatles.
  • Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face – Germanium trannies from 66 to 70 (Jimi Hendrix used these on Are You Experienced? warm, woofy sounding) switched to Silicon trannies around 1970 (Jimi used these in the Band Of Gyspies-era – sharper, more gain).
  • Jordan Bosstone – Over the top, spitty psych fuzz, popular in the late 60s, early 70s.
  • Kay Fuzztone – Orange plastic fuzz, with a filter operated by a treadle (a favorite of Daniel Lanois, used by The Edge on the main riff in Elevation).
  • Shin-ei Companion Fuzz (FY-2) – Hyper compressed over the top fuzz. Several different versions, with different amounts of trannies. Came in a Fuzz Wah version, too. 
  • Univox Superfuzz – Crazy, biting fuzz with upper octave qualities. Awesome sputtering decay. Used by Pete Townshend circa Live At Leeds.
  • Roland Bee Baa – Crazy silicon fuzz with a Treble Boost circuit.

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The Origins

The idea came from the sound produced by a mixing board in a Nashville recording studio – one channel had a tube die (or something die, at any rate) and produced a buzzing sound. Grady Martin liked the sound and used it on the Marty Robbins session. It turned up on a few more tracks recorded there over the next few months until someone finally fixed the malfunctioning preamp.

One of the engineers from that studio then created a little device that tried to replicate the sound. He the licensed the design to Gibson, who released it as the Maestro Fuzz Tone (Maestro was Gibson’s accessories brand). The Fuzz Tone hit the market in ’62. One of the first records I know of that has the Maestro Fuzz tone sound is a Phil Spector production: the Disney song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” as recorded by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. That came out in ’62, presumably mere weeks (maybe a couple of months) after the Fuzz Tone became available. But the sound didn’t become really popular until ’65, when the Rolling Stones released “Satisfaction”.

In Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Guitar Effects some great statistics are quoted regarding the production figures for the Maestro Fuzz Tone. Hundreds were made when the product was launched in ’62; then production dwindled to next to nothing over the next couple of years, as the original batch sat unsold in stores. Then production spiked again as soon as “Satisfaction” hit the charts. 

The English designs (Fuzz Face, etc.) were the result of the imported Maestro units being really expensive in the UK. Locals made their own versions, and generally improved on the design. Other copies were being made in Japan. In the 60s the Japanese imports were widely marketed in the US.

3 Best Fuzz Pedals in 2019

We have the market loaded with fuzz pedals options. Choosing where to start is often difficult. We have our own preferences and we got insights from our Instagram community. Have a look at these three suggestions. You will be delighted with any of them.

Consider also looking at smaller brands which are doing a great job. These, although being less known, will be a great option most of the times. Manufacturers are pushing their boundaries in order to get the perfect tone. So our recommendation is to keep trying different ones with your own hands. Buy them, use them, exchange them.

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