. . . to a blog about all the things you can do with — or to — a guitar or a bass. Topics: DIY, instruments, amps, effects, recording, software, technique, music history, music heresy.
Here’s reader Freddie Lenzel, writing in response to my post on the bizarre late-medieval composition Fumee fume par fumee:
To me, it sort of sounds like The Shaggs from the Dark Ages. But seriously, it’s really interesting. Greetings from Spain, love your blog.
(But first: If you don’t know the Shaggs, stop reading this second and make your acquaintance with the group and their 1969 magnum opus, Philosophy of the World. Kurt Cobain cited it as one of the five-best albums of all time, and Frank Zappa insisted that the Shaggs were “better than the Beatles,” words that inspired this indie-trash tribute album. Meanwhile, NRBQ’s Terry Adams, who launched the Shaggs revival by getting Philosphy re-released in 1980, rightfully compared their homespun sound to Ornette Coleman’s free jazz.)
The Shaggs weren’t the only band to make an album before they knew how to play or write music, but they were one of the best. Many musicians, when first exposed to the Shaggs’ idiot-savant sound, compare it to what might result if you explained music to an alien species unfamiliar with the concept, and then sent them into the studio before letting them hear any actual music. Shaggs songs have no underlying chord structures, no consistent meter, no conventional phrasing, and little harmonization. It’s just odd, meandering “melodies” that stumble along until singer/guitarist Dot Wiggin happens to require a breath. Why, it’s practically…medieval!
NOTE: I am a known perpetrator of musical hoaxes, but this isn’t one of them. This bizarre composition really is over 600 years old.
As Marsellus Wallace once quipped: “I’m'a get medieval on your ass.”
I’ve been obsessing again on a medieval composition that’s fascinated me since my geeky teens. It’s Fumeux fume par fumee, a bizarre artifact from a bizarre moment in music history: France in the final years of the 14th century.
(If you’re wondering why I was listening to medieval and Renaissance music when I was 17 instead of Zep and Floyd, and what the stuff brings to my guitar playing today, read on. But first, that freaky music!)
The world that produced Fumeux fume par fumee wasn’t your storybook Middle Ages. We’re talking Hundred Years War, Black Death, Papal Schism — and a radical musical style of head-spinning complexity and abstraction. It was dissonant music for dissonant times. The death rattle of the Dark Ages.
The 14th century had witnessed the rise of ars nova, a florid and intellectual style characterized by bold new approaches to counterpoint and musical structure. But by the 1380s or so, ars nova had mutated into ars subtilior, an even more abstract and experimental style.
“Ars nova” means “new art.” It was.
“Ars subtilior” means “more subtle art.” It wasn’t — unless by “subtle,” you mean “characterized by extreme dissonance and chaotic rhythms.” And Fumeux is a perfect embodiment of this radical style.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
You probably don’t need me to specify why this music is so freaky, but I will anyway:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a guitarist in possession of a single Face Fuzz must be in want of cool Fuzz Face mods. (Sorry, Jane.)
Case in point: The comments section for the new Fuzz Face project.
We’re far from the first to cover this ground. In fact, I should have mentioned a couple of great articles on Fuzz Face mods. We’ve talked about the technique of using sockets in your build so you can audition multiple components. Years ago DIYer Gary Burchett took this notion to its logical conclusion with the Multi-Face, a Fuzz Face with most of the components socketed. It’s definitely worth trying this. Meanwhile, this Instructables project by randofo explains how to create a super-versatile Fuzz Face using switchable components.
Trust me — despite the simplicity of the circuit and the sheer number of adventurous souls who have deconstructed and reconstructed it, it’s hard not to play around with it and find something cool and new. That too is a truth universally acknowledged!
The Fuzz Face has inspired countless spinoffs since Ivor Arbiter unveiled the device in 1966. Some introduced meaningful improvements. Many didn’t.
The goal of this project, created by my friend Mitchell “Super-Freq” Hudson, is to create a pedal very similar to the original. It’s a great way to explore one of the iconic sounds of ’60s rock (and lots of ’60s-influenced rock).
The instructions are available here. [19MB PDF.]
You can order a kit from Mammoth for $45. (Disclosure: Neither tonefiend nor super-freq has any financial stake in these kits. I simply asked the Mammoth guys to create one for your parts-sourcing convenience. All necessary parts are readily available from other vendors.)
Most sentient guitarists love Hendrix, but not everyone is equally fond of his signature distortion pedal.
So what’s your take on the Fuzz Face?
I used to hate them — but only because my sole exposure to them was via the crappy reissues of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. They sounded so brittle and harsh! Not till this century did I encounter the pedal in its original incarnation.
What a difference!
Vintage-style Fuzz Faces produce tones that are warm, rich, and unbelievably dynamic. It was like the first time I tasted a vintage-style daiquiri. Like the Fuzz Face, the classic daiquiri is a delicate concoction made from a few simple yet complexly interactive ingredients — nothing like those nasty blended drinks that taste like Slurpees spiked with Everclear.
Here’s everything I love about vintage Fuzz Faces, compressed into 60 seconds:
My DIY version is based on inventor Ivor Arbiter’s original 1966 schematic. That’s also the basis for a new DIY project created by my stompbox-buildin’ pal Mitchell Hudson, who runs the cool DIY site Super-Freq. We’ll both be posting it on our sites in the next few days. You can source the parts on your own, or order a kit for less than $50 — not as cheap as some of our other DIY projects, thanks to its two relatively pricy germanium transistors.
Most lore about “mojo” stompbox parts is utter nonsense, but there is something harmonically unique about the germanium transistors used in ’60s fuzz pedals, including original Fuzz Faces. (See my “Germanium Mystique” post/rant for more info.) You don’t need germanium for a good fuzz sound — there are many great tones available via silicon transistors, integrated circuits, and digital modeling. But one problem with those god-awful Fuzz Face reissues was that they often simply substituted high-gain silicon transistors for germanium ones without modifying anything else in the circuit. The result was more gain, but at the cost of harsh, excessively bright tones and inferior dynamic response.
In the last decade or so, builders have wised up. Numerous manufacturers offer authentic ’60s-style replicas. Meanwhile, the DIY community has created countless variations, many of which use post-germanium parts to great effect. These days it’s pretty easy to find a Fuzz Face that doesn’t suck.
I’ve build many Fuzz Face variants, but until Mitchell created his Fuzz Face project, I’d never done a strict original, with positive-ground wiring, PNP transistors, and few latter-day “refinements.” (Don’t sweat it if those terms mean nothing to you — they’re all explained within the project.)
Anyway, that’s the circuit you hear in the video above. It’s not a fuzz for all seasons — it doesn’t have a ton of gain, and its loose, spongy distortion is unsuitable for metal and modern hard rock. But I love its warm, non-macho timbre and phenomenal dynamic response. It’s simple, classic, and delicious, much like this.
If you like reading about internet memes that have just passed their sell-by date, tonefiend is the place to be!
Witness this brief video on triggering goat sound via guitar, created in a fit of
It’s based, of course, on the unbelievably popular video of unbelievably weird goats making unbelievably human-like sounds. It’s inspired countless spinoffs, including mine. I made these in my hotel room in Frankfurt during Musikmesse, feeling grateful the entire time that I live in an era when you can do crap like this in a German hotel room at midnight. Because trust me, there weren’t a lot of alternatives.
Tech details: homemade Strat, Fishman TriplePlay, Apple MainStage software hosting NI’s Kontakt sampler, goats.
Do you too wish you had guitars that yell like goats that yell like humans? Grab the raw samples here, or download this Kontakt Instrument, which should play just fine using using the free Kontakt Player.
And yes — that new 100% retro-analog DIY project will be here SOON! :)
Okay, I promise: tonefiend is not going to become an all-digital blog. I’ve got two new DIY analog pedal projects in the pipe, plus a piece on that delightfully retro technology, the book.
But while there’s more to life than MIDI, for the last few months my particular life has been all MIDI, all the time. I worked on the documentation for the Fishman TriplePlay MIDI guitar system, then demoed the product at MacWorld and Musikmesse. And now that the smoke has cleared and I’m off the Fishman clock, I’m still obsessed with the musical possibilities here. In fact, I’m just getting to the fun part: bending the technology to taste and making
I’m posting two new pieces spun off from my Musikmesse demos. Technical and musical comments after the videos.
In my first TriplePlay demo, I used simple, recognizable acoustic instrument samples. For the second one, I focused on aggressive/distorted sounds. But now I’m getting into what really interests me: solo guitar arrangements featuring hybrid colors, deployed so that it’s often difficult to tell the guitar sounds from the synths and samples.
My pal Jeff Cross from Apple sent me a brief email:
please tell me you’ve seen these…
No, I had not. And they’re soooo good. All three are from YouTube user MotorGoblin. I don’t know anything about him, beyond the fact that he’s clever, funny, and very musical.
Anyone have any similar techniques to share? (I’ve been meaning to do a post on my “plastic tube Leslie”…)
While responsible guitar journalists like my ol’ pal Art Thompson from Guitar Player and the fine young fellows from Premier Guitar scoured Musikmesse 2013 tirelessly and systematically, I did the opposite, randomly stumbling through the vast exhibition halls in a jet-lagged daze between my performances, aiming my iPhone at anything vaguely cool or weird.
The result: this collection of poorly focused images and poorly researched comments. But since I wasn’t being paid to cover the show, I have nothing to lose except your respect, dear reader.
My headline is charitable — this is more of a quarter-assed Musikmesse report.
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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author, as if anyone else would think such weird stuff.
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