Fuzz Face:
The Daiquiri of Distortion Pedals?

fuzzlimeMost 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.

43 comments to Fuzz Face:
The Daiquiri of Distortion Pedals?

  • el reclusa

    Strangely, I’ve never owned a Fuzz Face, but have been curious for some time now. I do, however, love me some Tone Bender, which isn’t THAT far off, if I’m not mistaken. I flubbed my first DiY Fuzz- a three-knob Bender- horribly, but had a handy friend sort it out for me, and I dig the Germanium goodness of it. That said, I wonder if substituting lower-gain transistors than the ones that came with the kit would get me more in the Stones-y ballpark? As it is now, there’s a lot of that flavor, but it ventures into almost Big Muff territory pretty quickly.

    I digress, though- I’m FINALLY goning to get some time this summer to delve into building some fuzzes and whatnot, and this sounds like a pretty cool project.

    • joe

      I love Tone Benders as well, especially the MkII. But yeah, those are definitely “gainier” and a little less dynamic than a well-tuned Fuzz Face. And you’re pretty much correct — Benders are sort of a middle ground between Faces and Muffs.

      I have a definite bias here: I like lower-gain transistors, and I prefer fuzzes without tone controls, like the Fuzz Face and MkII. 🙂

      I hope you manage to find some building time! This is real fun stuff, and I know you’re DIY at heart! (And you’re more talented than I am — I ruined at least three or four fuzzes before I got one right.)

  • Grant

    I fell in love with the Fuzz Face when I purchased a Sun Lion-style pedal a friend of mine made using the D*A*M layouts of the Fuzz Face and Rangemaster. I must say I agree on every point about the pedal.

    While on the subject of old fuzzes, I picked up an original, albeit second version (so it’s not exactly the “Satisfaction” pedal), Maestro Fuzz-tone (also a relative of the first Tone Bender, I am told) for 30 bucks not too long ago. It runs off of a single AAA battery and has a very nasally, but cool, tone- any experience/ fascination with those?

    • el reclusa

      No experience with these to speak of, but I have a feeling I’d LOVE one.

      • joe

        They’re very exciting when they’re good. But it’s real easy to encounter. . . unexpected results.

        Try the project and see what you think. (Though you might want to socket both the transistors and capacitors so you can customize it to taste. Man, some of the coolest pedals I’ve ever made started out as Fuzz Face experiments/accidents.)

        In some some segments of the DIY community I’ve detected a sour attitude regarding boutique pedals derived from the circuit. “I hate all those builders who stumbled on some minor Fuzz Face variation and thought they created something new? Damn boo-tweakers!”

        But you know what? You can come up with some minor Fuzz Face variation and create something new.

        :finger:

        • el reclusa

          Can’t wait to give it a try! Unexpected results are sometimes the best. As I recall, didn’t you have a broken FF variant that made the “Meet Ze Monsta” sound? I’m really curious about adding ways to controllably, repeatedly emulate “broken”.

          • joe

            I’ll tell you exactly how to do it: Replace R4 with a 10K pot. At lower settings, it’ll sputter and fart. 🙂

  • Jorge

    My problem with the Fuzz Face is that it usually doesn’t sound that good with humbuckers, and the sound tends to get lost in the mix in a band situation. The fuzz by itself sounds like the end of the world, but when you hit it for a solo is barely ok. For the “mojo” crowd, I’m using a Sunface with NKT275 “white dot” transistors. 🙂

    • Bear

      Try wiring a potentiometer as a variable resistor in-line with the input after the pull-down resistor and before the input cap. ZVex uses a 1M log pot on the Mastotron like this labeled as an impedance control. Fulltone uses a 50K pot for the ’69 Fuzz, labeled “Bias.”

      I think ZVex might have even have had active pickups in mind, which can really play badly with most vintage fuzz, so that may be more range than you need. I’d expect Fulltone’s to be adequate for more traditional PAF type humbuckers.

      If you don’t want an extra pot or a trim control in your pedal, you can always breadboard, test with your guitar, and test the value of your pot to pick a resistor value to hard wire in. On a guess, I might try a 100 ohm. That’s the stock resistor in the Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz, a silicon FF derivative.

      • joe

        Great advice all around, Bear. Thanks. I liked the way the pedal I demoed sounded with humbuckers, but the humbuckers in question were medium/low vintage output. You’d definitely get different results with hot, hard-rock pickups. Oh — and I’m pretty sure Fuzz Faces don’t work at all with active pickups. Just like they sound terrible after a buffer, including the ones in most Japanese stompboxes. Context matters a lot here!

        • joe

          Oh — and another thing about humbuckers and Fuzz Faces: my friend Linda (of Great Epiphone Swindle fame) is a major Mick Ronson authority, and she insists he played a Tone Bender Mk1, which is real similar to a Fuzz Face, and certainly sounds more like one than say, a Tone Bender MkII. But again, he would have been using vintage-output pickup.

          • Bear

            I’m not Tonebender obsessive enough to know what a Mk I sounds like, but there’s a version generally known as the Mk 1.5 that’s the same circuit as the Fuzz Face with mild component differences, the most significant of which is the input cap (5uF).

          • joe

            Yeah, I doubt you could hear any difference between a 2.2uF and a 5uF input cap. In other words — pretty much just a Fuzz Face.

  • Oinkus

    Only used the crappy rebuilds that sound awful. The dynamic available with just a volume control is pretty great !

  • Dean

    Terje Rypdal got some of the best distortion tones from a Tonebender! Listen to the crazier parts from “Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away” (1974) and prepare to be amazed.

  • Strangely enough, I just posted about the much-maligned Dunlop JH-2 Jimi Hendrix fuzz, which is one of those ‘let’s throw some random transistors into this circuit and sell it’ fuzzes. I bought it in ’89 and threw it in a box after one rehearsal, but have since have found ways to make it work – and work well. (A Joe Gore Codpiece booster doesn’t hurt). Anyway, if you wanna’ hear the opposite of this FF, check this out: http://inspireformation.blogspot.ca/2013/05/dunlop-jh-2-jimi-hendrix-fuzz-revisited.html

    • joe

      Hahahahaha! Is that the one with the black box? We got one in for review at Guitar Player in the early ’90s, and it was totally broken, emitting only an intermittent fuzz fart. Dunlop replaced the review model … and I bought the broken one. It was one of my main sounds in PJ Harvey, especially on “Meet Ze Monsta.” It was stolen on tour, though by that point there were other pedals that provided those farty tones on purpose, like the Z. VEx Fuzz Factory and the Lovetone Big Cheese. I have no idea of what that pedal was supposed to sound like. Now I’m curious. Thanks!

      • Mine came in the Fuzz Face style enclosure, but I’m pretty sure the circuit was the same (if only because of the lack of thought that went into it in the first place). These days I have a Fuzz Factory clone (that a buddy built for me – I’m still to chicken to heat up a soldering iron) which can be set to behave and sound much like an old Fuzz Face, but when I want really gonzo, on-the-edge-of-harmonic-meltdown-fuzz, I turn to the JH-2.

      • el reclusa

        …and then I scrolled down and saw this. :smirk:

        I was OBSESSED with thay sound as a younger fella. Actually, I kind of still am- that record is top-to-bottom, timelessly cool.

  • smgear

    yeah, that’s on the list now. Lovely ditty there too. On a completely off-topic note, the recipe at the end reminded me of the ridiculously awesome Australian tv show Danger 5 (http://www.sbs.com.au/danger5/ – I think you might be able to find it on hulu or one of those). One of the characters is italian and whenever he kills someone, they always tell him a cocktail recipe before they die.

    • joe

      Oh, I have to check that out. I stole the idea from Fuzz Box Girl, who includes cocktail recipes in her YouTube fuzz demos. She’s funny and cool, and I dig her Cro-Mag riffing. Plus she said nice things about one of my pedals. 🙂

    • mwseniff

      Danger 5 is way cool, my daughter and I were watching an episode last week when she visited. The cigarette smoking alone is worth the price of admission.

  • I’m kind of new to Fuzz’s. I have a silicone one that is ok. I like messing around with it, there are some cool sounds but I’m not crazy about how finicky they are. One of these days I’ll have to try out a good germanium one.

  • Elliot

    yes! so excited for this! Fuzz Face and Tonebender are my favorite fuzzes, and germanium is drool worthy.
    gahh your tone in that video! its everything that made me love guitar in the first place..cant stop hitting the repeat button.
    im going to be sitting by the window like a puppy until the mailman arrives with my transistors…

    • Elliot

      oops..meant to post that on the Super Fiend page, im too excited to focus
      :stupid:

      • joe

        Wow — I can’t imagine a higher compliment. Thanks! 🙂

        • Elliot

          you are welcome! ive been dabbling with alot of fuzz circuits only to wind up here and realize all i really want is a Germanium Fuzz Face.
          the warmth, the fatness, the unmistakable roar
          and then you turn down your volume and..WOW!
          thank you for helping me find what ive been searching for.

  • I just got a pile of Ge transistors. I thought I’d build a few of these for some friends. WE should start a forum topic to discuss the project.

  • Digital Larry

    If anyone comes across a pile of NOS Ge transistors in SOT-23 surface mount, please let me know! :smirk:

    • joe

      LOL — I’m still trying to get to the bottom of the question of who’s making these new production germanium transistors. BYOC says they get their New Jersey semiconductor (http://njsemi.com/).

      Is there any reason you COULDN’T make an SMD germanium transistor? Does it need to be that bulky? Also, I don’t imagine there’s any reason you couldn’t integrate an old-school germanium transistor into an otherwise SMD layout.

  • Hola, Joe,

    I've already got a DIY Fuzzface that I'm digging on:

    http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3078710/fuzzface.jpg

    However, since my pedal building sickness started with your Badass Distortion project and I've built all of the other ToneFiend DIY club projects, so it was sort of a given to me that I'd eventually build this one too 🙂

    The first one I built I was very "by the book" and careful. I ordered an expensive set of properly matched germanium transistors, etc. I have no complaints with the sound. I love it.

    When I approached this one, I wanted to put a little Joe-ttitude (sounded way cooler in my head) on it so I just grabbed a couple of Russian MP20a germs that I had previously tested at about 49-55 hfe and popped them in there. DAYUM it sounds good. I tested it though a Mullinax "Oh, Salvation" P-90 bridge pickup (http://mullinaxpickups.com/products.php) and I had some Tones of Doom happening. It's quite a bit heavier than expected! I can't wait to try this out with a bass. It's got a wonderful Tight/Loose sound, I can never properly describe guitar sounds… :/ It sits where it should, but within that space it's absolute Fat Fuckin Fuzz.

    I had wondered how much the hfe of the transistor affected this circuit so while I had it all splayed out, I popped a couple of 100-110 hfe MP20a germs in instead. If you haven't tried it, you should if just for fun. It's Fuzzageddin, dude. Seriously it gets ugly in a very satisfying way. Still I liked the 50-ish hfe ones better in the long run. Even with those, there's a lot more gain on tap than I expected.

    This pedal might actually pull me away from my Sola Mk II Tonebender. Maybe.

    GREAT project, Joe!

  • joe

    LOL — great idea: The eyeballs on the knobs! Love it.

    Pull you away from your Tone Bender? Wouldn’t shock me. I mean, you can’t argue with the brutal impact of a Mk II. But the Fuzz Face is so much more interactive!

    One Fuzz Face recipe I like: using a REALLY low hFE transistor for Q2. You can even try installing a germanium transistor “upside down.” (A, transistor of, say, hFE 150 might have enough leakage to measure hFE of 5 or 10.) The results are counter-intuitive: low-gain Q2 can yield an ultra-fat, square-wave-flavored grind.

    • I’m a “waste not want not kind of guy” so I have a bag of low hfe cast-offs sitting around here somewhere. I got lucky in that I didn’t have any really leaky ones, but I do have one with an hfe I tested around 25. I’m definitely going to try it out in this.

      As to the tone bender.. I’ve never been a terribly accomplished “lead” player. I spent way too much time trying to take care of the vocals, guitars, bass, drums and keyboards + production and sort of spread my skill-building time thin. What I am is a pretty solid rhythm player and I love being the top layer of a the rhythm section with the drums and bass. YYZ by Rush is a perfect example. Somewhat due to that, I never quite got on with a Big Muff (heresy! I know!) but the tone bender absolutely rules for churning out a riff that demands to be heard.

      That said, this FiendFuzzFace had me noodling like an idiot with a biog stupid grin. At one point I just tossed my pick and got lost in the groove. It’s amazing to me how good this homemade pedal sounds.

  • The mystery about the Fuzz Face circuit is that no one knows for sure how the original designer intended it to work.

    With the wind in the right direction and the transistor gains being just right it will emit a fairly soft clipped, equal mark space, square wave. But it might just as likely put out spluttering bursts of narrow spikes.

    What do you think the ‘good’ Fuzz Faces do? The general wisdom seems to be that a good sounding Fuzz Face puts out an ‘asymmetric square wave’ but my money is on being close to producing equal mark-space square waves.

    In my opinion, part of the reason the germanium ones sound good is because the germanium transistors were usually very low gain. As a result the circuit only just about goes into clipping. Hence the dynamic response. Also the guitar electronics become part of the input circuit, which explains why it cleans up so well when the guitar volume is rolled back and why it doesn’t work well when driven from other pedals, which don’t offer the same output impedance as a passive electric guitar.

    This is where a variable resistor on the input of the Fuzz Face can come in handy when plugged in to another pedal.

    • joe

      For me, the big mystery us, how did Gary Hurst create the circuit as the “Tone Bender 1.5,” but the nearly identical circuit became the Arbiter Fuzz Face, while Tone Bender moved on to the iconic (and decidedly non-dynamic) Mk II.

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