Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, June 04, 2012

The All-New Family of Fuzz

(Whoops...I blinked again, and another month blipped by without my knowing.  I gotta stop blinking!)

I've posted before about our Family of Fuzz, i.e. the strangely growing collection of feline residents in the homestead shared between my family and my FIL.  Today I'd like to talk about my own, personal Family of Fuzz.  This is not the sort that purrs and sheds.  Rather, it's the kind of fuzz that guitarists and bassists can appreciate.

[Warning:  Gear Freak post]

Fuzz, or the "fuzzbox", is the oldest type of true guitar effect pedal.  (Vibrato, tremolo, and reverb effects are older, but they weren't pedals at first.)  Ironically, it was invented as the result of an accident. Malfunctioning studio equipment created a weird sound in a 1961 recording that caught the attention of the iconic surf band, The Ventures.  Their quest to replicate that sound led to the release of the first-ever guitar effect pedal, the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, in 1962.  It didn't catch on until 1965, when the Rolling Stones used one in "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".  Then there was an explosion of new models by various manufacturers that played an important role in the careers of many guitarists of the day.  From the mid 70's, the development of overdrive and distortion pedals pushed fuzz into the background, but it saw a revival again in the 1990's.

Fuzz works on the same principle as overdrive and distortion, i.e. an overloaded amp circuit.  However, it differs in that it doesn't use complex circuitry to create an amp-like tone.  Rather, the input signal from the instrument is "hard-clipped" (i.e. the tips of the waves are cut off) to an artificial extreme that creates an almost perfect square wave.  The result is a tone that, depending on type, can be described as "buzzy", "metallic", "raspy", "flute-like", or "violin-like".  It's a very unnatural sound.  It can be either beautiful or extremely ugly.  And yet it offers much to the imagination.

Perhaps ironically, I had no interest whatsoever in fuzz for most of my "career" as a guitarist.  It wasn't until the fuzzbox models in my Line 6 PODxt fired my curiosity...and led me to do some research...that I began to sit up and take note.  Now it has become something of a passion.  So let me introduce you to my current Family of Fuzz:

Electro-Harmonix (EHX) Big Muff Pi Distortion/Sustainer

EHX Big Muff Pi
Don't let the fancy title fool you.  This is a fuzz pedal.  It was my first fuzz purchase.  I got it used at a local "recycle shop" (the polite Japanese term for a pawn shop).  It's a big, clunky thing that doesn't look like it would stand up to much beating.  In fact, despite its notorious lack of roadworthiness, the Big Muff has been something of an industry standard since the late 60's, and its list of users is a lofty one.  It has played an important part in the sounds of artists such as Carlos Santana and David Gilmour for nearly half a century.  (Santana still uses one.  Gilmour reportedly switched to an Analogman Sunface a few years ago.)  Especially during the 70's, it was used in hundreds of recordings and stage performances.  Marginalized and nearly rendered extinct in the 80's, the Big Muff made an unexpectedly big return in the 90's thanks to the British alternative and American grunge scenes.  Bill Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. were especially noted for putting the Big Muff back on the map...and spawning an explosion of boutique clones with various improvements.

The Big Muff Pi is not a versatile pedal.  It is often called a "one trick pony".  Still, it does what it does very well, whether beefing up power chords or adding a flutey sustain to solos.

Example in my work:  The rhythm guitar that opens up "Dancin' Round the Valley" and continues through the whole thing.

Danelectro French Toast Octave Fuzz

Dan Electro French Toast octave fuzz
"Octave fuzz" is a development of the fuzz pedal that generates intense harmonic overtones that, depending on how it's used, can create an octave tone effect.  The first was the fabled Octavio used by Jimi Hendrix.  Now there are lots of different ones on the market including the little Danelectro French Toast.

This was a pure impulse buy.  Since the end of the 1940's, Danelectro has made its name producing gear that is cheap but of very reasonable quality.  Gear snobs try to scorn the brand for its low cost, but more level heads tend to keep proving them wrong.  The French Toast is no different, and there is lots of debate about it in guitar forums.  I picked up mine just out of curiosity when I was at Soundhouse to get something else.  (The proverbial, "Well, I have another few thousand yen in my pocket [around $30], so why don't I get that, too?")  I have to say that it lives up to its reputation among unbiased users.  In regular fuzz mode, it is designed to sound like the Foxx Tone Machine of the 70's.  The octave mode does exactly what it is meant to do, too.  I've gotten good use out of this quirky, little box.  I'd say the only drawback I see is its cheap, plastic construction, especially in its controls, meaning I have to treat it with a bit of care.

Examples in my work:  (Regular fuzz mode) The rhythm guitar starting from :30 in "Deep in your Soul" and continuing through most of the piece.  (Octave fuzz mode) The weird solo from 2:27 in "Doctor Dark".

Subdecay Flying Tomato Fuzz

Subdecay Flying Tomato fuzz
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why I got this one...especially since I'm not the one who got it; it was an anniversary present from my wife.  Even so, I picked it.  Certainly there were other fuzz pedals that were higher up on my wish list at the time.  I guess it was partly curiosity, partly brand loyalty (since I'm a fan of Subdecay), and partly loyalty to the home country (since Subdecay is located in Newberg, Oregon).  Whatever the reason, I have it, and I've been making great use of it.

The Flying Tomato is kind of an enigmatic, little pedal.  It is based on the early, two-transistor fuzzes of the early 60's  (Later fuzzes like the Big Muff have three transistors) but has a number of modern improvements.  For one thing, its two-band EQ knobs offer a lot more tonal variation than classic fuzz boxes (which didn't usually have tone knobs).  It also has a "bias" knob which allows you to punch the transistors to make them edgier or starve them to make them splattier or gated.  It also has a buffer switch that makes it less of a pain in the butt to use in a pedal board.  All in all, it's a very versatile fuzz which I originally intended mainly for rhythm or "texture guitar" work, but I have been using it mostly for solos.  (Of course, with the newer purchases, it'll probably go back to being mainly for rhythm/texture use, but who knows?)  Its only troublesome point with me is that it does NOT work well with my CryBaby Wah, with or without the buffer engaged, but that's just a limitation rather than a problem.  Sadly, the Flying Tomato never seemed to get much attention, certainly not as much as it probably deserved, and Subdecay appears to have discontinued it.

Examples in my work:  The short, whammy-laden solo from 1:25 and lots of other punches in "Deep in your Soul", solos at 1:06 and 1:12 in "Clackamette".  (By far the best solo I've done with it is a Gilmour-esque one I did in a song that isn't mine, so I can't share it!)

Barber Trifecta Fuzz

Barber Trifecta fuzz
 I eyeballed this pedal longingly for a few years.  What's really amazing is that I actually waited those few years before actually getting it.  Okay, sure...I ordered it when the dollar took a sharp plunge against the yen AND I had a special coupon from a particular American music store, but still...considering what it can do, it is surprisingly inexpensive, especially for a handmade boutique pedal from Pennsylvania.  (It's very similar in price to the Flying Tomato [above].)

It's called the "Trifecta" because it's actually three different fuzzes in one.  It has three separate, switchable clipping circuits, each based on a different classic fuzz pedal:  EHX Big Muff (the old classic "triangle" version), Colorsound Jumbo Tonebender, and Vox Supa Tonebender.  The three modes aren't immensely different, since they share the same tone stack, but they respond in different ways to allow a wide variety of applications.  The tone controls of the Trifecta also give a lot of different options, including the handy "sludge" control that controls pre-gain bass EQ...a handy feature that allows the Trifecta to be used with pretty much any kind of pickup.  (Classic fuzzes generally only worked well with single coil types.)  It also works VERY well with my CryBaby Wah.  Generally speaking, the Trifecta can deliver growling power chords, vintage buzziness, or a wonderful, smooth, singing tone with equal ease...on any of my guitars.  I got it intending for it mainly to serve as my "go to" soloing pedal, but I may use it for a lot more than that.

This is still a new purchase, so I haven't recorded with it yet.  I'm looking forward to putting it through its paces.  

Devi Ever Soda Meiser Fuzz

Devi Ever Soda Meiser fuzz
Portland-based Devi Ever is a very interesting and intriguing individual.  She is also a veritable shamaness of guitar effect goodness.  She has personally designed and, together with her partner, built a whole pantheon of pedals, the overwhelming majority of them of the fuzz variety.  Each is a work of art; while I've heard some of them described as "kind of like a Big Muff", "something like a Tone Bender", "kind of like Brian May on drugs", etc., none is a copy of anything.  They are unique and full of personality, just like the woman herself.  It's really not all that surprising that her art graces the pedalboards of a lot of prominent guitarists including Bill Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Noel Gallagher (formerly) of Oasis, to name just a few.

What is surprising, and what I didn't know until I looked into it (and had to pick my jaw up off the ground afterward), is that her wares are NOT punishingly expensive.  In fact, their prices compete with regular off-the-shelf types!  When I found that out, and located a dealer, I debated with myself intensely as to which Devi Ever pedal I would get first.  It was a tough call that will probably get tougher later, but I settled on the Soda Meiser.

The Soda Meiser is "kind of like a Big Muff" at lower gain settings.  But its gain goes a lot higher.  So does its volume...LOTS of volume...  The pedal itself is small and has the vibe of something you'd expect to see in an Oregon Coast craft store, but it packs one hell of a punch!  By fiddling with its "pregain" knob and the volume pot on the guitar, one can get either a "dying battery" crackle, a mild, splatty fuzz, a bold, ringing lead tone, or one hell of a brutal growl.  At any rate, despite the cute bit of kitty tape stuck on the side, this little pedal is built to rip!  And that's exactly what I'll be using it for.

This is a new purchase, so I haven't recorded with it yet.  You'll know when I do.

So...what's on the wish list now...?

As far as fuzz is concerned, anything beyond what I have now would probably be an "aficionado purchase", i.e. just something cool to add to the collection and/or show my fan loyalty.  There are a lot of really nice (or nasty in a good way) fuzz pedals out there, after all, and some of them are very affordable.  As far as "practical need" is concerned, however, well...I was considering getting a Fuzz Face style box like MXR's relatively inexpensive M108 Classic Fuzz or even one of the Fuzz Face reissues put out by Dunlop.  However, my Trifecta can do a pretty good silicon Fuzz Face sound, and the Flying Tomato is very similar.  That means the only thing I could be said to be lacking is any kind of germanium fuzz.  Old style germanium transistors tend to sound prettier than modern silicon types but are more expensive and notoriously unreliable.  On the other hand, Earthquaker Devices, one of my favorite non-Oregonian boutique pedal builders, has some germanium or germanium/silicon hybrid fuzz pedals that are affordable and excellent.  I especially like the Dream Crusher, which is a modern clone of the germanium Fuzz Face and very reputable.  Hartman also has a great vintage germanium Fuzz Face-style pedal that falls just within my price range.  There are no doubt others as well.  My next fuzz purchase, when and if that may be, will likely be one of those.  Either that or I'll grab another one of those awesome (and AFFORDABLE) works of art from Devi Ever.  :-)


  • Interesting. I am one of those people who likes listening to music quite a bit but has almost no musical talent. (Or put another way I would love to be able to play but have no desire to practice :-))

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 12:22 PM  

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