What Are Fuzz Pedals?
There is a weird blurred line between boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals. Especially for beginners, it can be difficult to sometimes distinguish them from one another. But luckily for you, we take you through all the key things about fuzz pedals, including their history, sound and what’s available out there. If you're interested in learning about Overdrive, Distortion and Boost pedals however, check out our Ultimate Guide to Overdrive Pedals.
Fuzz pedals have been a staple on pedalboards for decades, with guitarists loving the gritty and filthy tones that they deliver. But where did it all start?
Where did the “Fuzz” sound come from?
Where the “fuzz” sound came from is interesting, and you’d have to go back to the early 60s for the earliest examples. The legendary Nashville session guitarist Grady Martin recorded his guitar parts on the Marty Robbins song “Don’t Worry” by playing through a faulty preamplifier. This generated a brash, raspy tone with a sound similar to that of a baritone sax.
The Kinks also recorded their hit track “You Really Got Me” by being equally experimental, although slightly more deliberate. Guitarist Dave Davies went to extreme measures by famously slashing his amp’s speaker cones with a razorblade, as amplifiers in those days didn’t have the luxury of a distortion channel!
With these songs becoming mainstream and guitarists seeking ways to get similar sounds, the need for a unit that could generate this tone was evident. Early experimentalists would use faulty components in a similar way to produce a “broken” and distorted sound. Modern fuzz pedals are constructed similarly, but are wired with mismatched parts to produce the same effect. The advantage of this is improved reliability and more options to control your sound.
Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone pedal
Keith Richards used the classic Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone pedal to get his harsh sound in the renowned Rolling Stones track “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. Intended as a guide track that would be later replaced by a horn section, the iconic guitar riff remained and the rest is history!
This pedal is identified as the first widely available Fuzz pedal, designed and manufactured by Gibson from 1962. The popularity of the Stones’ song caused the unit to sell out at the end of 1965, and with increasing demand other companies took notice. This pedal was briefly re-issued in the 90s but many recreations exist today.
Jimi Hendrix used Fuzz to pioneer his “psychedelic” sound of the late 1960s, and his weapon of choice was the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal. With similar controls to the Maestro (Volume and Fuzz/Attack) as well as a pair of germanium transistors, this beast allowed the legendary axeman to get his game-changing sound. That famous recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock? That’s all Fuzz Face goodness.
These are now manufactured by Jim Dunlop, and the majority of their iterations of this classic pedal use silicon transistors for more stable operation. These produce a somewhat similar sound to the originals, but are regarded as having harsher sound with a more cutting top-end.
However, to meet the demands of players who crave the original sound that Hendrix pioneered, Jim Dunlop have brought back the Germanium transistors in their pedalboard-friendly Fuzz Face Mini Germanium pedal. A mix of old technology and modern functionality.
That brings us nicely onto the next section…
Germanium vs. Silicon
Most fuzz pedals use germanium or silicon transistors. This is something that is debated often, with guitarists curious as to which is better. As with most gear, it’s totally subjective and down to what you prefer, but we’re going to try and compare the two. After reading this, we hope you’ll feel confident about their differences and be more informed when buying a fuzz pedal for yourself.
The earliest fuzz pedals used germanium transistors, which is why there is a strong a sense of nostalgia for these with old-school purists. Germanium Fuzz boxes tend to produce a warmer and more-rounded tone with a strong mid-range, and are generally more reactive to picking dynamics and playing style.
Their tone is comparable with the early inspirations for the effect, producing a similar sound to a cranked faulty/old amp. Germanium fuzzes also react well to the volume pot on your guitar, with the level of hair reducing when rolling the control down.
There are a few cons with germanium transistors though. For example, they react to changes in temperature which affects their sound, so playing in a hot room or studio will make the pedal behave differently than playing an outside gig in winter. Many believe they actually sound better in the cold, but we’re not going to suggest putting yours in the fridge! They also store electrical charges, so there is generally a lack of consistency and they can sound different from day to day.
Silicon transistors were developed to be a more practical alternative to germanium, offering more reliability and consistency. Simpler to produce, silicon pedals are generally cheaper and deliver a brighter sound with more presence and top-end – allowing players to cut through busy mixes and get heard.
They also produce higher amounts of gain, giving you a more “in-your-face” tone with plenty of saturation. Unlike germanium, when rolling down your guitar’s volume pot the fuzz tone will remain and only the volume will drop. These days, most makers of fuzz pedals will use silicon transistors because of their availability and consistency.
DOD Carcosa on Andertons T.V.
The Big Hitters
We have already discussed the original Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone and the old-school Fuzz Face pedals, but what are the other renowned fuzz pedals out there?
This hugely popular pedal designed by Electro Harmonix was first made available in 1969. Intended to give amazing sustain to guitar players, this famous pedal became popular for its affordability and for offering a huge range of thicker bass-heavy fuzz tones. Its versatile tone (EQ) knob as well as the sustain control made it a more tweakable pedal compared to its predecessors. The pedal was and still is popular with bass players too, and the company have made dedicated versions for bassists.
The NYC Big Muff pedal was used by many players in the 70s, most notably by David Gilmour on the Pink Floyd albums Animals and The Wall. The renaissance the pedal had in the 90s was due to bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr, who used the pedal to achieve huge sonic walls-of-sound. The Pumpkins’ 1993 album Siamese Dream used the pedal as the foundation for their guitar sound, layering multiple rhythm tracks for an amazingly thick and saturated tone. Check out their songs “Cherub Rock” and “Today”, you’ll be amazed by the guitar sound!
There have been many iterations of this design, with many separate companies imitating the circuit or making modified clones – including Thorpy and Wren & Cuff. The most common NYC version is immediately recognisable to gearheads, but the Green Russian Sovtek Big Muff is a rare and highly desirable model.
Offering a more engulfing low-end with slightly less sustain, the Sovtek Big Muff is often compared with its American cousin and is preferred by players (including Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys) for its more unique sound. This is no longer available, however the Way Huge Russian Pickle fuzz released at the 2017 NAMM show is a fantastic recreation of this sought-after design.
Way Huge Russian Pickle on Andertons T.V.
We've taken a look at a number of traditionally-made fuzz pedals, using old-school analogue technology. However, the tweakability offered by modern digitally-designed pedals are certainly attractive, as you'll find out below!
How can anyone write a pedal guide without mentioning Boss? Their FZ-5 may not be held in as high-regard as the aforementioned pedals, but the amount it can do is worth noting.
Using Boss’ celebrated digital COSM technology, the FZ-5 can convincingly emulate classic fuzzes of the past with it’s mode switch. The ‘M’ position provides you with a retro Maestro FZ-1 inspired tone, whilst the ‘F’ mode recaptures the sound of the Fuzz Face. The ‘O’ setting gives you the distinctive Octavia sound, delivering that sweet fuzz/octave-up tone that Hendrix and Jeff Beck used to great effect. In terms of versatility, the FZ-5 is pretty hard to beat.
Unlike the Big Muff pedals and it’s many versions, the Boss FZ-5 is far more pedalboard-friendly in a conventional stompbox size. So not only can you get 3 iconic sounds out of the pedal, but you can easily find room for it on your pedalboard.
Stone Deaf's Fig Fumb Parametric Fuzz pedal offers analogue tones, but can be considered as somewhat of a hybrid as it is digitally-controlled. Providing more tonal flexibility, this pedal has a parametric EQ to give you a huge range of tones, letting you find the perfect fuzz sound. An ergonomic built-in noise gate also keeps the noise down, which is a hugely useful addition.
Eventide's H9 Max multi-effects unit features a set of extremely high-quality effect algorithms from a raft of their current and older pedals. Making it arguably the most-powerful and versatile pedal on the market currently, the H9 also has distortion and fuzz algorithms available, making it a great option. With MIDI functionality, you can save multiple presets within the H9 and flick between them easily with a MIDI-enabled switcher or controller.Find out all about these in our Ultimate Guide to ABY & Switchers.
Octavia pedals, also known as Octave-Fuzz, are another fuzz-based effect that Jimi Hendrix popularised. Originally designed by the renowned Roger Mayer, this effect combines a gnarly fuzz sound with a reproduction of the guitar input signal – raised or lowered by an octave. This produces a thick, doubled-sound perfect for lead guitar, with the higher octave cutting through more prominently in mixes and being heard.
The most famous example of this is in the “Purple Haze” solo, and this unique effect has been heard in many recordings since, including QOTSA’s “Little Sister” and more recently in Royal Blood’s “Little Monster” and others.
You can check out our range of these awesome pedals above or by clicking here, including the Catalinbread Octapussy which recreates that old-school octave-fuzz sound of the 60s and 70s but with more modern functionality.
Where Do I Place a Fuzz in my Signal Chain?
Some say there aren’t any rules when it comes to setting up your pedalboard and determining pedal order, but with fuzz pedals it’s different…
Fuzz pedals hate buffers. Period. A buffer is a device that restores the clarity of your signal, by converting the high-impedance created through a long cable run into a low-impedance signal. This means that the sweet top-end of your guitar sound is maintained, giving you the purest and fullest tone. Most people would therefore try and place the buffer first, so that the signal is converted as soon as possible. However if you’re using a fuzz, then make sure it is placed before the buffer.
Why? Well, fuzz pedals have a low-impedance which loads the guitar signal, and the circuitry of the pedal co-operates with your guitar to sound its best. So by placing a buffer between the two, you’re essentially interrupting the way they interact and you’ll be compromising your fuzz sound.
So make sure that you place your fuzz pedal as early in the chain as you can. Most modern pedals are “true-bypass” these days, but be wary of Boss pedals and certain other brands that make buffered pedals.
Fuzz & Wah
Despite the above advice, there is a situation where placing a buffer before a fuzz can be necessary. Using a wah with a fuzz is like trying to tame two wild beasts at once – they both make a lot of noise alone and when put together things can get truly out of control!
Some people love running a wah into a fuzz, as it gives them that soaring Hendrix sound (think “Voodoo Child”), but it can just sound weird in some setups. So why not run the wah after the fuzz? Well, that can sound even worse, exaggerating the wah sound and producing a harsh, chaotic tone which will deafen your audience. This is because a wah has a fairly high output impedance, whereas a fuzz has a far lower input impedance. This means that you just can’t get the most out of your wah, as it’s range is hindered by the fuzz.
So this is where a buffer may come in handy. If you run a wah into a buffer and then that into a fuzz, this can resolve the problem and give a more natural and usable tone. Basically, the buffer will convert the high impedance signal from the wah back into a lower impedance, which the fuzz “prefers” in this context, so to speak. You can buy specialised buffer units, such as the TC Electronic Bonafide Buffer or JHS Little Black Buffer to do this. Click here to check out our full range of buffers.
If you try this method then it’s important to find a way to turn off the buffer when you don’t require the wah, so that you can get the best out of the fuzz normally. A true-bypass wah with a built-in buffer that is engaged only when you turn on the pedal is one solution, although they’re hard to come by. The best solution is to run your pedals though a switching system like the Boss ES-8 or ES-5 units, where you can isolate and rearrange the order of your pedals on the fly. They’re expensive, but they make your setup more tweakable so that you can experiment and overcome signal chain problems!
Fuzz in the 21st Century
It’s fair to say that fuzz is associated a lot with classic bands or musicians from back in the day, but the effect is still used by various musicians across the globe.
Queens of the Stone Age are well-known for their unique guitar tones, and on albums such as Rated R and Songs for the Deaf they drive their heavier songs with some ultra-thick fuzzy rhythm tones. They achieved this in unconventional ways, by running vintage heads into bass cabs, combining multiple sound sources and using EQ pedals to pump the lower mid-range. However, these methods led to what can be considered a “fuzz” tone, and recently frontman Josh Homme has been seen using the Fuzzrocious ‘The Demon’ and Stone Deaf PDF pedals in his live rig to recreate his recognisable sound on stage.
Are there other bands or artists out there pioneering fuzz in the 21st Century? Let us know and leave a comment!