Fuzz Tones, Types and Transistors
As mentioned, most of the types of fuzz on the market today are based on a few original circuits. Although they are related, the subtle differences in circuitry arrangement, materials and transistors, can make huge differences in tone. As there have been hundreds of variants and clones of each fuzz circuit, this chapter will focus on the main fuzzes you will likely encounter.
The original fuzz was an angry box, aggressive in the trebles and generally a harsh sound. The overall voicing was brassy, almost saxophone-like, not surprising seeing as this was what Gibson-Maestro was going for. The Maestro wasn’t as heavy as some of the other fuzzes on this list, however, it suits vintage uses, particularly garage rock.
The Tone Bender
The Tone bender sounded very much like the Maestro, no surprise here as the former’s circuit was based on the latter’s. With each of the Tone Bender’s successive versions, it became more unique, and really defined the sound of Fuzz in the mid-1960s. The sound became warmer and more mid-heavy than the Maestro, however, it was more saturated and aggressive, with the ability to control this saturation with the guitars volume knob.
The Marshall Supa Fuzz
Based on the MK2 Tonebender, the Supa Fuzz had a boomy low end, with a lot of sustain, however, the pedal was not as saturated as some of its contemporaries. It was a continuing part of the Moody Blues guitarist Justin Hayward’s set up in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Fuzz Face
The quintessential fuzz. It was based on the Tone Bender circuit but had its own sound completely. A lot less saturated, it could be described as softer, warmer and rounder. The early germanium versions sound like a freaked-out overdrive and evoke the classic tones of Hendrix when used with a Stratocaster. The Fuzz Face and its many clones are known to be especially responsive to a guitars volume knob; by turning the knob down the sound cleans-up, while keeping a slight fizzy jangle that can be very inspiring to play with. Dunlop continues to produce the Fuzz Face in its original spec, however, countless companies have their own versions including, Analogman and Fulltone.
Something a little different, the Octavia was developed by Jimi Hendrix’s guitar tech Roger Mayer. It produced an upper octave sound when cranked, which was more pronounced higher up on the neck. The sound was quite aggressive and at times dissonant, as the octave was never quite pitch-perfect, however, it made for some warped and weird solo sounds, think Purple Haze or Fire.
The Univox Super-Fuzz
The Super-Fuzz was invented in 1968 by the Japanese company Shin-Ei, which later became Univox. This particular unit was one of the heaviest of all. A personal favourite of Pete Townsend’s, and later many 90s stoner-rock bands, the sound was incredibly saturated, with a lower octave and an upper octave, albeit quieter than the Octavia.
The Big Muff
Whereas all the above share DNA in their circuitry, the Big Muff is very different. Created in 1969 by Electro Harmonix, the sound was compressed, sustained and incredibly saturated, with two stages of distortion – in fact, many argue that it isn’t technically a fuzz but indeed a distortion. The beefy noise, however, was undoubtedly unique and unlike any modern distortions. It became a hit with hard rock acts in the 1970s and saw a resurgence in the 1990s with alternative artists favouring the op amp circuit and Russian-made varieties. Many variants have been produced, and Electro Harmonix continues to produce most of them today.
Big Muffs are typically scooped in the mid-range, however different variants of the circuit have given the unit their own unique EQ characteristics. The Big Muff has also been a favourite for boutique manufacturers to replicate, with many modern fuzzes being based or build around this circuit. Some examples are Way Huge’s Swollen Pickle, Skreddy Rusty Rod and Pete Cornish’s range of custom fuzzes.
Fuzzes created up until the end of the 1960s all used germanium transistors, which are characteristically warmer and smoother and hence sought after by pursuits for their vintage tone. One downfall, however, is the fact that germanium transistors are very sensitive and behave very differently at different temperatures.
Some say that cold temperatures treat them well, and rumour has it, that Jimi Hendrix would test out a stack of new Fuzz Faces, marking the best ones, only to find the sound change once he had taken them home. Silicon transistors became readily available towards the end of the decade; they were cheaper and offered more stability at different temperatures, as well as higher gain. Fuzz manufactures that continued into the 1970s, namely Dallas-Arbiter and Shin-Ei/Univox, were quick to lap up truckloads of the new parts.
The Silicon Fuzzface
Silicon Fuzzface was an entirely different beast to its Germanium brother. The initial silicon units used BC183 chips, with BC108s and BC109s eventually being substituted. These fuzzes often sounded crisper, more defined and less woofy than their germanium counterparts. With a lot more gain on tap, they helped to nurture the rise of a heavier guitar sound in rock and roll.
Some silicon models produced ridiculous amounts of fuzz, especially if the transistors were mismatched, and especially the later BC109 unit. These units were almost impossible to use with a wah-wah and were not for the faint-hearted, but with the right care, achieved aural perfection. The more punctual mid-top end allowed for artists to cut through with solos – that cracker on Pink Floyd’s Time? Thank the BC-108.
The Shin-Ei Companion Fuzz
This unit was a bit of a rarity, also making use of the new silicon transistors. Created by Shin-Ei in 1970, the unit was probably closer to a chainsaw than a fuzz. This unit was raspy and nasty and sounded, unlike any other fuzz box. It became a favourite for noise and experimental acts such as The Jesus and Mary Chain. As the sound is pretty niche, it is not the most sought-after effect, however, there are still some clones available produced such as Earthquaker Devices Terminal Fuzz.
The mid-1970s marked the beginning of overdrives, and more and more amplifiers were developed that had a drive channel (crazy I know). The sound of the day moved further away from the twisted sounds of fuzz, towards the sound of heavy amp saturation, and so the fuzz-box lay dormant in the popular consciousness. Fuzzes made a resurgence in the 1990s with grunge and alternative bands, which eventuated in a new interest, and many new manufacturers replicating, perfecting or modifying original circuits with modern practicalities.