UPDATE: Based on cool info supplied by YOU, dear readers, I’m expanding the scope of this piece. I’m furiously wiring up clones of some very rare models, and I can promise many cool and interesting surprises. Thanks, guys!
Okay, now that we’ve all gotten that silly “reading” stuff out of our systems with Book Week, it’s time to get back to the real focus of this blog: nasty, filthy fuzz pedals.
Those posts generated many interesting comments — plus some misinformation on my part. For example, I said that the original Fuzz Face circuit is a close cousin to the Tone Bender Mk I, which would mean, for example, that known Mk 1 user Mick Ronson was essentially using a Fuzz Face between his Les Paul and his Marshall. But subsequent listening and reading makes me believe I was wrong. So I figured it was time to play fuzz detective and sort the facts from the other stuff.
First, I made clones of all the early commercial fuzzes. I’ll be posting a compare-and-contrast video in the coming days. (The audio forensics will be quite incriminating.) Here’s the lineup:
I’ve also re-read the experts, and man, even my most trusted sources contradict each other right and left, especially when it comes to those darn Tone Benders. While I have absolutely no inside dope on what actually transpired, I think David from D*A*M Stompboxes offers the most convincing Tone Bender chronology, which you can read here.
Anyway, here’s my best guess about how the early fuzz years unfolded:
- Fuzz effects before 1962 were usually created via malfunctioning (or deliberately damaged) gear.
- In 1962 or 1963, Maestro introduced the first mass-produced fuzz pedal: the Fuzz Tone FZ-1. (The “Satisfaction” fuzz.) It used three germanium transistors.
- In 1965 Gary Hurst altered the FZ-1 circuit for more sustain. This became the first Sola Sound Tone Bender (the so-called Mk 1). This, apparently is what Ronson used, and the circuit differs greatly from that of a Fuzz Face.
- In 1966, Sola released a two-transistor Tone Bender, now known as the Mk 1.5. That same year, Dallas Arbiter released the first Fuzz Face, a two-transistor circuit that’s very similar to the Mk 1.5. (David from D*A*M floats the theory that the circuit was “leaked/loaned” to Arbiter.) Italian-made Vox Tone Benders use a similar circuit. (If you google “tonebender mk 1, chances are you’ll find many Mk 1.5 schematics along with the correct Mk I schematic.)
- Sola quickly reverted to a three-transistor design, unleashing the explosive Mk II. Sola also built the nearly-identical Supa Fuzz for Marshall.
[UPDATE: In comments readers Eric Lubick links to a 2009 interview with Tone Bender creator Gary Hurst, who emphasizes the drop in quality between the initial made-in-UK Tone Benders, which were just rebranded, UK-made Mk IIs, and the later Italian ones, which used a two-transisor design.]
The explosive Mk II is probably the most coveted Tone Bender (though not by me, for reasons I’ll cover in the demos). And FWIW, I’ve found that any properly functioning germanium transistors of equal hFE (the metric used to indicate transistor gain) sound very similar, regardless of model number. Unlike with silicon transistors, there can be substantial hFE differences between two transistors of the model, and opinions vary greatly about the optimal hFE ratings for germanium fuzzes. But if anyone tells you the magic ingredient in a pedal is a particular model of germanium transistor, be skeptical — especially if they’re trying to sell you something.
So do any of you guys have a definite favorite among these classic fuzzes? Can any of you fuzz mavens point out details I may have gotten wrong? Any particular types of chords or single-note phrases you especially want to hear in the upcoming demos? Any particular guitars? And most important, what do you think it will sound like when I turn on all of them at once?