Fuzz pedals are known for having a mind of their own. Since there doesn’t seem to be a simple guide to the “personality” of a fuzz pedal out there, I will attempt here to help you get the most out of this primitive and fun effect.
First, let’s talk about “fuzz”. What is a fuzz? Is it just a distortion? Is it the harnessed sound of Falcor’s voice? What, exactly, is it? In the simplest terms possible, fuzz is simply what your guitar signal sounds like as it is being literally destroyed. Some types do this a little nicer than others, some have no mercy; at the end of the day a fuzz pedal simply destroys your signal in the same musical tradition that started the 60’s revolution of love and setting your guitar on fire. For a brief history of how fuzz came to be, check out my previous article on the History of Pedals
There are two basic types of fuzz: silicon and germanium, which refer to the type of transistor used in the circuit. The first fuzz designs were all germanium and are usually the most sought-after fuzzes on the market. Germanium, (originally called Neptunium) type components existed in the electronics world as early as the 1940’s. It found its way as a very useful semiconductor material by the late 1940’s and helped in moving a lot of electronics away from the use of vacuum tubes, ushering in the beginning of the solid state era. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that silicon was introduced as a type of transistor material. Unlike Germanium components, which are very inconsistent and have a lot of variance, silicon offers closer tolerances and more reliable consistency from component to component.
Germanium and silicon have several different characteristics that might draw you to one instead of the other. Germanium fuzz will act a lot like a dirty tube amp, and even clean up when you roll back your guitar’s volume, in most cases. Silicon tends to not respond in the same way. Germanium also tends to be more mellow, rounded, and overall, more responsive. One of the quirky things about Germanium is that it is very picky about its environment. There are countless stories of famous sessions and recordings where that magic fuzz tone was accomplished from the player putting his fuzz face in the freezer for a while before tracking. The Germanium is truly temperature sensitive; if you’re playing at an outdoor festival in July, your fuzz will sound and react differently than your outdoor gig in December. This sounds crazy, but it is one of the reasons I prefer it. Silicon can be more precise, aggressive, and consistent in tone, without the inconsistencies of Germanium. In my experience, many silicon designs lean more towards a distortion, due to how precise they come across. In many cases, that is a great thing. I like to think of silicon fuzz as a cold can of Coca-Cola Classic and the way it burns rebelliously while going down your throat, and the Germanium is more like Pepsi-Cola, which goes down smoother and feels kinda classy. Both are great, but you usually want one or the other, not both.Back to top
Volume Pedal Woes (Active/No Loss Mod)
The Ernie Ball volume pedal is a true staple in many guitarist’s rigs, and since its release decades ago, it has been the best selling volume pedal on the market. However, there are a few flaws that should be addressed. In this article I will explain in detail why and how you need to audibly test your volume pedal’s tone against your clean signal path. Most people buy the EB Volume Pedal, plug it into their rig, and never think twice about it again. However, this is where we hope to help explain the problems as well as offer a solution we call the Active/No Loss Mod from our Mod Shop.
To understand why your EB Volume pedal is hurting your tone, let’s look at how it is designed and the issue at hand. You would think that after you plug up your new EB VP that your guitar goes into the Input and then out of the Output to your amp…right? Wrong!!! The Input of the volume pedal is tied in parallel to the “Tuner Output.” What does this mean you ask? It means that your guitar’s signal is not directly hitting the output, but rather it is hitting the tuner out as well.
This is a called a passive parallel split and it is killing your tone in a couple of ways. As you may have learned already from our “Buffer” article, your guitar’s output is a high impedance signal (high resistance/low signal strength). In simple terms, your guitar is a weak signal and when it hits guitar cables, pedals, more cables, and then another long cable to your amp…you’re going to need a buffer. In the case of this volume pedal, your weak guitar signal is getting split in half!!! Basically the parallel split is splitting your signal and weakening what was already in need of buffering. Everything mentioned above is assuming you have not placed a tuner in the “Tuner Out.” If you have hooked up the “Tuner Out,” then the situation actually gets worse. The input of the tuner attached to the tuner out will cause more loss due to the impedance drag on your signal path. This also causes transient noise between your tuner and signal path that shows up as background noise, pops, digital tones and other strange things you don’t want in your rig.
The other issue is the use of a passive potentiometer between your guitar and your amp. Your EB Volume has a potentiometer (volume pot) inside of it just like you have on your guitar, and this causes another load on your signal just like the parallel split. In a nutshell, you have two volume pots in use at once in your signal path. This results in more resistance and less signal flow ultimately causing a lot of high end loss, and your guitar’s pickups to not sound as they were designed to sound.
The bottom line is that if you use the EB Volume pedal completely isolated alone with no other pedals, it needs to be fixed in order to actually hear what your guitar and amp should sound like. If you use a Volume pedal with other pedals, then you really need to fix it. Lastly, if you use the “Tuner Output,” then you are compounding the problem by possibly allowing huge amounts of noise and loss into your rig.
In all cases, the EB Volume is causing tone loss, and we have just the fix!
Check out our Ernie Ball VP Active/No Loss mod!
Where Do I Place My Buffer?
Because we get this question a lot, I thought I would give a good solid breakdown on placing your “Little Black Buffer” in the right spot on your pedal board.
Generally speaking, you want to place a buffer first in your signal chain, directly after your guitar and before the first pedal in your chain. As long as you do not use a fuzz pedal in your rig this is the standard route to go. A fuzz pedal must always be directly after your guitar to insure that it is getting the correct input impedance to operate at its designed range of tones. A lot of people place fuzz with their drive and distortion pedals; this is not the proper place to have it. If you are a fuzz lover, just place the buffer directly after your fuzz box, and this will work great. Keep in mind that a Boss TU-2 for instance is a buffered pedal, and this rule applies the same. Always have your fuzz first. I love fuzz and usually place my buffer last because it is convenient to use it as the output to my board. The LBB fits nicely under most boards and helps save space by doing so.
Should you use two buffers (sandwich my board)? One first and one last?
The answer here is “what does your pedal chain look like?” If you have all True Bypass pedals, then you should use two buffers. This will give you the best signal strength and clarity possible. I usually have a buffered pedal such as a Timefactor, Boss DD20, Boss TU-2 or even a Klon on board, and in that case, I only use one Little Black Buffer as these units are helping the front of my board. Keep in mind that I use around 6 pedals and this is a good rule of thumb for that. However, if you use upwards of 10 or more pedals you should sandwich your board no matter what you have on it in my opinion.
Use your ears. My goal as a builder is to see players start trusting their ears. Place your buffer first, last or anywhere and listen for the change. You can hear it and you can know what is best for you simply by trusting your ears.
CAN A BOOST PEDAL BE USED AS A BUFFER?
This is a good question that I hear a lot. In my opinion, the answer is neither yes or no. Let’s say you have a clean boost and you leave it on all the time, it is keeping your signal strong but it is doing so in a different way. It is amplifying by the gain stage within, and ultimately due to the nature and design of most boosts it is coloring your tone. Our Mr Magic is a good example of this because it does adjust your impedance and makes a good buffer. The difference with the MM and our LBB is that it enhances certain frequencies by design, and that means that it is coloring your sound. This isn’t a bad thing, but for some people the enhancement is not wanted. There are many other boosts out there and they can be left on as a buffer but in 99.9999% of situations they will color your tone. I lean on the side of using your boost as a boost and let a designated TRUE buffer do your buffering. There are other things like BBE’s Sonic Maximizer and even pre-amp designs that do a very good job at what they do but are not designated “by design” as buffers, and to me, fall in this same category. You can go hunting with a pellet gun but just remember that there are other guns that would work a lot better!
Hope this helps those of you wondering about the LBB and placing it correctly.
An Overdrive Unveiling (The Tubescreamer)
This article is not intended to point fingers at any particular pedal builders and/or designs of any builders. I personally own or have owned several of these pedals and like what they do in their function. This article is intended to simply bring awareness to you as a guitar player to the designs and functions of pedals that you own or ones that you may consider adding to your arsenal.
A simple search on Google for the phrase “Overdrive Pedal” yields an amazing 455,000 results. A search on eBay will turn up around 1,500 results. These are pretty large numbers to sort through especially when you calculate the hype and marketing that is found in many places on the web. The popular guitar player forum “The Gear Page” alone will have your head spinning with opinion after opinion as to why “this” overdrive pedal is better than “this one” and so on. Forums like these are a very valuable tool for the player who wants to stay in the “know” regarding gear, but the truth is that sometimes the hand that feeds you can also hurt you. I want to shed some light on a problem that has been the source of literally hundreds of emails over the past year or so; I want to reveal to you the many “not so known faces” of a very popular circuit and how it can affect you more than you realize, even if you think you don’t own one.
Here is how a typical email as I mentioned earlier will start: “My board has a “Fulldrive” and a “TS-9” on it but I’m looking for something a little more real or open for my style. I’m thinking about getting a “Sparkle Drive” or maybe an “Route 66” because I hear they are pretty sweet.” There is a big issue with this email- the player has no clue that ALL of the pedals that he mentioned are based on the Tubescreamer design. There is nothing wrong with this in theory as the Tubescreamer is a classic circuit that is a staple in the history of Rock & Roll and other genres. In the hands of the right player, rig and style it can be amazing. The point I want to drive home here is that if you aren’t liking the sound and feel of one overdrive pedal, don’t replace it with the same or slightly different circuit. Some players simply need to realize that many of the pedals that may currently be on their board are about as different as Soda and Pop, Pancakes and Flapjacks or a Wiener and a Hot Dog.
Let’s look at what pedals on the market today, as well as other vintage designs from the past, really have living on the inside. Here is a list of pedals that all have one thing in common: their design and tone is much like that of a typical Tubescreamer circuit…
- Addrock Not So Ol’ Yeller
- Addrock Ol’ Yeller
- Aramat Green Machine
- Arion MTE-1 Tubulator
- Banzai Fireball II
- BBE Greenscreamer
- Biyang OD8-3
- BJF Little Green Wonder
- Bonzai Fireball 3
- Boss OD-1
- Boss SD-1
- BrownTone Hoochee-Mama
- Burris Boostiest
- Clark Gainster
- Clay Jones OD
- CMATMODS Signa Drive
- Cusack Screamer
- Danelectro Fab Overdrive
- Dubtronics Tubescreamin’ – out of production
- Digitech Bad Monkey
- Foxrox Zim
- Fulltone Fulldrive (1 & 2)
- Goudiefx TS-808 +
- GFS Greenie
- HBE Power Screamer
- Ibanez TSL
- Ibanez TS5
- Ibanez TS7
- Ibanez TS808
- Ibanez TS9
- Ibanez TS9DX
- Ibanez TS10
- Jacques Overtube
- Jacques Tubeblower
- Landgraff Dynamic Overdrive
- Lapido Pride and Joy
- Lovekraft Mojo Drive
- Lovepedal Eternity
- Lovepedal Kalamazoo
- Maxon OD-808
- Maxon OD-9
- Maxon SD-9
- Maxon ST-9
- Maxon ST-01
- Menatone Red Snapper
- Menatone Blue Collar
- MI Audio Blue Boy
- MI Audio Blues Deluxe
- MI Audio Blues Pro
- MJM Blues Devil
- MJM Phantom Overdrive
- MMFX Tube Killer
- MohoMods Multi-Screamer
- Musician’s Junkyard Screamer
- MXR GT-OD
- MRX Zakk Wylde ZW-44
- Nobels OD-X
- N.O.C.3 Pure Drive
- OLCircuits Mint Condition
- Onerr Carbon-x
- PedalMan 818 Pro
- Pedalworx Tejas Overdrive
- Pedalworx Texas Two Step
- Retro-sonic 808
- Reverend Drivetrain II – out of production
- Rodenberg 828
- Rogue ODV-5
- Shannon Overdrive – out of production
- T-Rex Alberta
- T-Rex Moller
- Toadworks Texas Flood
- TC Jaugernig’s DGTM
- Tone Freak Abunai 2
- Visual Sound Double Trouble
- Visual Sound Jekyll & Hyde
- Visual Sound Route 66 (overdrive side)
- Visual Sound Route 808
- Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive
- Vox V810 Valve-Tone
- Way Huge Green Rhino
- Xotic BB Preamp
- XTS (Xact Tone) Precision Overdrive
The scary thing is that this isn’t all of them…I will add more as I remember or discover them.
I hope that seeing this list has been an eye opening experience for you as it is for many people. Remember that the Tubescreamer is not a bad pedal. It is legendary but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Many of these pedals offer a unique touch to the old classic and can have a great place in your rig.
If you’re tired of the same old sound and have tried overdrive after overdrive only to notice that you get the same mid range boost with the same saturation, then you are most likely trying the same circuit over and over in a different package. If this is the case then check out our “Morning Glory Discreet Overdrive” or “Charlie Brown Channel Drive”. Other killer pedals like the Paul C “Tim” and “Timmy” or AnalogMan “King of Tone” and “Prince of Tone” are great options as well for something different and extremely un-Tubescreamer-ish.
Powering Your Pedals
It has caused grown men to cry and young children to laugh with glee…. Wait, wrong subject..
Pedals are great but if you aren’t feeding them what they need, they’re most likely gonna cause some problems. I hope to break down what power does for your tone as well as help you choose the best source for your needs.
I remember getting my first guitar pedal. It was one of those plastic Ibanez Soundtank Tubescreamers. I would sit and play, amazed that I could just stomp this newly found contraption and get a different sound than my little amp originally offered. With two guitar cables, my little amp, rip-off Strat, plastic pedal and a battery, I was going to rock the world. Little did I know I was doing something right; I was powering my pedal in the best way possible. Battery you say? That’s absurd! Just thinking about powering a large board with separate batteries for each pedal makes us all a little scared. Let’s look at the reason batteries are the best power source and how we can get the same results without the pain.
Why is the battery best? It’s not so much the power that the battery offers. It’s not that your pedal likes the battery any better than a power supply. It’s how the battery is all to itself. Because of this, the pedal is receiving isolated power. You may still be wondering how this matters. Power is power, right? Wrong.
What if you were to share a drink with five or ten people? Everybody just taking a sip and then they pass it back to you… Now that’s scary. When we don’t use separate sources of power for our effects, it is really no different than this. If one pedal has any DC noise, it will spread across the board causing hiss and hum that may drive you nuts. The most common cause for this is daisy chaining your pedals from one adapter like a “1 Spot”. These products are excellent, but when chaining multiple powered devices, you never know what you’re gonna get. If you’re noticing a lot of noise with your setup and you’re daisy chaining, this is most likely the cause. Overdrive and distortion pedals are particularly prone to this as they boost and pull on certain frequencies that cause DC noise. Daisy chaining is great for just a few pedals but if you’re running a big board, you may want to revaluate the situation. I can’t count the times I have helped someone with their noise issues and this was the cause. Not only can you experience noise issues but you may also not be hearing what your pedal really sounds like. Certain circuits need exact milliamps and pull to do what they were designed to do. Daisy chaining can severely affect the operation of your pedals if the supply that you’re using is getting weighed down. Now that we are seeing the problems, let’s look at a solution.
We want the isolation of a battery but the convenience of a daisy chain. How can all your pedals get what they need while making it easy on you? The answer is an isolated power supply! There are lots of these out there, but here are a few that I feel are the best. My favorite is the Voodoo Lab “Pedal Power 2”. It has eight isolated outputs, voltage sag option, external plug (great if you use a Whammy or other DC pedal), and its own balanced transformer to insure low noise. I run two of these under my pedal train and they save my tone everyday! Another great unit is the BBE “Supa Charger”. BBE makes great stuff and they always have reasonable prices. It’s real close to the “Pedal Power 2” minus the external plug and sag option. There have been cases were certain pedals hum on some of the outputs; if this happens, change the output until the pedal stops humming. This is a very straight forward and simple supply that will isolate your effects. There are other things out there like the Pedal Gear “Juice Box” and T-REX “Fuel Tank that can do the job as well. Just make sure it says “isolated” outputs. An example of an un-isolated supply is the Dunlop “Brick”. It’s really no different than the daisy chains because the outputs share a common ground.
It may be hard for you to justify shelling out some extra cash on one of these supplies, but if you’re serious about your tone and quality of your pedals, you won’t regret it.
Here’s a list of common pedals that MUST use their factory supply:
- Big Box Electro Harmonix “Holy Grail”. Don’t even try using another supply. It’s gonna cause problems.
- Digitech Whammy
- Boss DD-20 Giga Delay (can run properly on a Voodoo lab PP2. Hates being daisy chained)
- TC Electronics Nova Series
- T- rex Replicator
- FoxRox CC2/TZF
- Blackstar HT series
- Hughes & Kettner Tubeman series pedals
- (Let us know any others you know of)
The Mystery of True Bypass vs Buffers
Like many subjects in the guitar tone world, the subject of “true bypass” can cause some heated discussions. Some players say that if it’s not a true bypass pedal, they won’t play it. Some players say that you must have buffered pedals on board and there are many who just don’t care. I’m gonna take a shot at giving you a simple breakdown of what “true bypass” is and let you make an educated decision based on the facts, not hearsay.
Let’s start back in the day with the creation of the Fuzz Face and other units like the Treble Booster. In this ancient time there were no pedal boards, isolated power supplies, and in most cases, the pedal as we know it today was actually not even on the floor. Many effects were in boxes that simply sat on top of your favorite amp or that plugged directly into your guitar. Usually, they would always stay on and the guitarist would use the volume and tone knobs of the guitar to get variations in sound. It’s crazy how times change… Now most professional players and even some beginners have several stomp-boxes at their feet. With most modern music, one sound just won’t do. In my experience, the typical player who gigs regularly will have between four to eight units in their signal chain. This is where the question is born: “Are my pedals hurting my tone?”
To answer this question we need to understand what’s going on when we have a pedal in our signal path. Before we get to that, let’s look at what’s going on when you don’t have any pedals. Your guitar is plugged directly into your amp with one cable. Assuming that the cable is a good quality ten or fifteen foot cable, your guitar is most likely sounding good and strong. If we were to change that cable to a thirty foot cable, and then maybe fifty foot cable, something begins to slowly kill your tone. It’s called capacitance. This is a fancy name for “drag on your signal”. The more cable that is introduced between your guitar and amp, the more drag you will have. It’s a scientific principle that signal/energy/current looses its juice when it travels a distance. Your guitar signal from your pickups is no exception.
Now that we understand our signal can be affected with just the cable we use, let’s look at what happens when we add those fancy stomp-boxes. Imagine that you plug into a true bypass pedal and then from that pedal into the amp. When you have that pedal in bypass position, your signal is as if the pedal was completely invisible. The input jack is hard wired with the use of a switch directly to the output jack. The result is pretty good in this situation–assuming you have reasonable lengths of guitar cable on each end. Let’s add another pedal and another, and another… With a large board that has six true bypass pedals and five patch cables to connect them together, you have around five extra feet of cable in your path! You also have twelve points at which your path enters into a jack and out to the next. Assuming that all the switches are high quality, you’re gonna hear frequency loss. The high end will slowly begin to fade, and that sparkle that made you love your amp may not be there anymore. In almost every case of someone asking for advice on why their rig just doesn’t sound the same, this is the answer. The good news is, there is a solution.
The remedy is a high impedance buffer. Buffer you say? Aren’t buffers bad?
The answer is yes and no. Many people have been led to believe that any pedal with a buffer is bad… that’s not so. Many buffered pedals do great things for your signal. Most Boss pedals are a good example of this but still seem to end up with a bad rap. Brands like DOD and other budget pedals are where the “bad buffers” show up. Let’s talk about what a good buffer does.
Remember the last time you used a water hose out in the yard? Maybe the end of it didn’t have a nozzle on it, so you had to use your thumb on the end to get enough pressure to spray whatever you needed to spray. That’s what a buffer does. Without it your signal (the water) doesn’t have the pressure to make it to the amp. A good buffer will make your board come back to life and give the exact tone of your prized guitar to your amp!
Here’s the bottom line:
- Don’t believe everything you hear.
- Don’t freak out if you like your Boss pedal but have issues now because you’ve been led to believe its evil.
- Go true bypass when the option is there, but don’t let it control your hunt for “that sound”.
- In any case, use a high impedance buffer like our “Little Black Buffer”. (Shameless Plug…)
- Rock & Roll!
Here is a list of not so good buffered pedals that we feel need true bypass if used:
- Digitech Whammy
- Boss SD-1
- Line 6 Tone Cores
- Crybaby and Vox wah’s
- Older (Vintage) Electro Harmonix
- Most vintage gear does suffer from bad switching but can easily be modified.
Most of what I know on this subject is from personal experience and working on bypass circuits for several years. There are many great resources that I recommend as well:
Here’s a great video from Pete Thorn (Melissa Etheridge, Chris Cornell) and Thomas Nordegg (Guitar Tech for Frank Zappa, Steve Vai) discussing in-depth what happens with true-bypass and buffered signals.
Do You Really Know Your Pedal?
Before I even start to elaborate on my opinions and the common education of this subject, please know that there is no wrong way to use your effects. Some of the greatest tones in history have come from pushing the limits of what was “typical” on this subject. What I want to share with you are the ground rules and function that best suits our favorite pedals. Just like any good jazz musician will tell you, “You’ve got to know the basic progression before you can start to really improvise”. It’s no different with effects. Let’s take a simple look at what each effect does, where it came from and how it can best be used.
Compression may be the most misunderstood effect on the planet. What does it do? I can’t hear it! Why is it so confusing? We all have said these statements at some point in our guitar tone journey. So let’s dive into the world of compression…
Compression makes soft things loud and loud things soft by bringing them both into a common point of range. It can be a very subtle effect or, on the other hand, very obvious. My first experiences with compression where when I began to study the technique of slide guitar. I learned that many players used it to make their single note slide passages have more fullness as well as sustain. The next big lesson in compression I received was in the studio. Most effects in the “Dynamics” family are most commonly used in the pre- and postproduction of recording. This is because they offer a more polished and focused sound to anything they touch. The most common in this group are; gate, limiter and, yours truly, compression. These techniques didn’t really take their place until the late 60’s and on into the 70’s. That’s why all that 70’s disco funk and pop stuff has this almost “shiny feel” to them.
Compression can give your guitar something that it hasn’t had. It can make your mix in a band situation finally stand out as well as give you nice string definition. When you strum a six-note chord, compression has the ability to bring all six notes into an equal range so that the chord becomes huge but still focused. In the higher registry it can add a snap that is pleasing to the ears as well as a more rounded tone. One of my favorite examples of this is the funk tune where you hear the guitar placing little “chinks” on the up beat throughout a tune. Another is when you hear a modern rock tune and the high gain guitars seem to still have articulation and sleekness about it. Compression adds a nice touch to things that otherwise would have gotten lost in the mix.
The best placement is usually first in your chain for different reasons. The first reason is because when it is run first, everything after has the effect applied underneath. This makes your sound consistent throughout dynamically. The second reason is because compression likes to louden things up and quiet things down. If placed after a distortion that has any noise at all, that noise will be brought to the top along with everything else. This is the reason most players always use it first in line. This is especially good if you leave it on all the time.
Overall, compression can be that quiet friend that is there but never in the way. Like many, I find myself never turning it off. There is a certain polished sound that just seems to add that studio quality to anything I play. If you have never tried it, you may have a life changing experience when you do.
For a more in-depth resource on the technical jargon and operation of a compressor visit: https://www.theguitarfiles.com/modules.php?name=AvantGo&file=print&sid=115
Possibly the most entertaining effect ever, Wah has found itself on countless recordings and stages along with almost every guitar hero known to date. Every kid loves to rock their foot back and forth to get that familiar sound that has molded tons of great riff, solo’s and rhythm passages throughout the years.
The Wah is pretty self-explanatory and finds its place in the very beginning of the effects order as well. I run my compressor before to smooth out the transition of the sweep a bit, but many like it before. Let your ears decide on this one. Another placement involving Wah is whether to place a fuzz/distortion before. I like having one of my dirt boxes before as it can add a huge vocal/synth type growl to the Wah. If you’ve never tried this, just stick a fuzz or heavy overdrive distortion like the RAT or Big Muff before your Wah. The result is nice.
Lets approach some issues with the common stock Wah such as the Crybaby or Vox. The first issue is its reaction with pedals like the Fuzz or Univibe. When a Fuzz or Univibe is run after a Wah, it can loose its character pretty fast. You may find that the Wah has no sweep and is lifeless. This problem can be fixed by installing a buffer into the output of the wah that comes on with the wah. This is a simple and efffective way to make your Wah play well with other effects. (See Our Wah Section)
The second big issue is the stock bypass of the wah. If you own a typical mass produced wah, it may not have true bypass. The Wah can have the worst bypass of almost any pedal ever made due to the switching that comes installed. This is easily treatable and very inexpensive to deal with.
For more technical info on how the Wah works check out: https://www.geofex.com/article_folders/wahpedl/wahped.htm
The Fuzz Box has seen many fads and eras come and go in the guitar tone realm. Its nasty, rough and usually brutal tone just sounds so good! Let’s dig into the history and use of this great pedal.
In 1961 a legendary Nashville session cat Grady Martin was recording a guitar track for a Marty Robins tune, “Don’t Worry”, when his guitar amp starting acting crazy. For the first time, this beautiful but ugly Fuzz sound was recorded to tape. When the track was released, a band called The Ventures heard it and immediately asked their friend Red Rhodes if he could replicate the sound. Well guess what? He did. and that is how the Fuzz effect took flight. A few months later The Ventures released their album “2000 Pound Bee,” which is believed to contain the first recordings of the new Fuzz circuit. I never imagined that, as my dad made me listen to Marty Robins in his car, I was possibly hearing the invention of the effect that changed Rock & Roll. Popularity in the sound grew when The Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies used an amp that’s speaker had been slashed with a razor-blade to record their 1964 hit “You Really Got Me”. This was the first time that a song driven by distorted power chords was ever made popular.
The fuzz circuit was first produced and manufactured by a company called Maestro under the name, “Fuzz Tone” Model FZ-1. In the summer of 1965 Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones used one to record “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Because of the success of that single, The FZ-1 was completely out of stock by December.
Because of the circuit’s character and design, it sometimes has problems working well with other pedals such as a Wah. There are easy ways to fix this problem if it occurs. The most common place for Fuzz is first in line due to its impedance. Many great sounds have been found by trying it in different places such as after a booster or overdrive.
Other classic Fuzz pedals include the Electro Harmonix “Big Muff Pi”, Fuzz Face, Shin-ei “Companion”, Vox “Tone Bender” and the Mosrite “FuzzRITE”
The most used pedal circuit in all history is most likely the Ibanez/Maxon Tubescreamer. It’s hard to find a guitarist who doesn’t use this pedal regularly or at least own one. Popular pedals such as the Fulltone Fulldrive, Boss SD-1, Visual Sound Route 66, Cusack’s Screamer, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive and about 1000 more by almost every pedal maker on the planet. To better explain overdrive/distortion, let’s look at the origin of this classic pedal.
Once upon a time a man named Mr. S. Tamura got creative. He noticed that players had problems getting good tone in small venues where they couldn’t crank their tube amps. Because of the nature of the tube amp, the louder it is played the more it breaks-up into a natural crunchy overdrive. Tamura developed his circuit to simulate that break-up by using a method known as a variable gain op-amp circuit with symmetrical diode clipping. Most every modern overdrive or distortion uses this method, if not something similar. Now that we understand why overdrive came about, let’s talk about how we can use it in general.
Most guitarists will place their drives after Wah and compression but before other effects like chorus and echo. This placement provides a natural feel that works best with the other effects. Whether you’re playing Texas Blues, Indie Rock or Heavy Meta,l you are using an overdrive/distortion.
Other classic Overdrive/Distortions that are NOT based on the Tubescreamer are the Boss DS-1, Pro Co RAT, Marshall Bluesbreaker and the MXR Distortion +.
This family of effects includes chorus, phaser, flanger, univibe, and many others. The most popular of this family is chorus. Chorus is when individual sounds with roughly the same timbre and nearly (but never exactly) the same pitch converge and are perceived as one. That’s a nice way of saying it’s ever so slightly bending your pitch in layers upon layers. For guitar this can be as subtle as glassy shimmer or a strange space warble. Some of the best uses of this effect in my opinion are artists like Andy Summers of The Police and Eric Johnson.
Another classic effect from this family is the Univibe and Phaser which closely resemble each other. The Univibe was brought to the forefront by such artist’s as Jimi Hendrix and Robin Trower and is my personal favorite. Listen to Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and you will hear the pulse and throb that makes the Univibe so unique. It’s almost as though it breathes with your signal creating great textures and huge lead tones not possible with any of the other modulations. The Phaser was made popular by the likes of David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and many others. It is a little smoother and tame in many ways. The Electro Harmonix “Small Stone” and the MXR “Phase 90” are the two most popular pedal forms.
Flanger is a little different in function than the others. It finds its function by layering delayed signals slightly delayed by 20 milliseconds or so. This creates what is referred to as a comb filter. The Flange effect originated when an engineer would literally put a finger on the flange, or rim of a the tape reel so that the machine would slow down slipping out of sync by tiny degrees. The result was an effect like listening through a drainpipe. The Flanger is known for it’s thick swirling sound made popular by such artists as Eddie Van Halen.
Modulation is a love-hate relationship. If you like it, you use it a lot; if you don’t, you probably never will. I find that even though I don’t use it a lot, there is a place for everything especially in the studio.
The Octave effect dates back as far as notes have even joined forces. The guitar can benefit from this effect as it adds textures, fullness and even ambience. One of the oldest pedal forms is the Octavia Fuzz produced in the sixties. While producing a Fuzz tone, it also had a lower octave. Other pedals like the MXR “Blue Box” and the Dan Armstrong “Green Ringer” are good examples of analog Octave with distortion.
Over the years, technology and the advance in electronic processing have birthed other units like the Digitech “Whammy” and the Electro Harmonix “POG.” These offer such settings and octave up or down as well as harmonies and real time bending of pitch with a foot controller. Whether you’re looking to beef up a riff or make crazy organ sounds, octave may be your next best friend.
The Tremolo effect is the best example of a simple idea that changed history. Its first sighting in the guitar world was under the name Vibrato. Why Leo Fender called this effect Vibrato while calling the Vibrato arm of his new Stratocaster design a Tremolo arm is unknown. The Tremolo arm is actually creating what we know as Vibrato while the Vibrato circuit was producing a Tremolo sound. Some things we will never know… Anyway, back to the Tremolo pedal.
The sound is simply the opening and closing of your signal. The same effect can be made by rocking a volume pedal back and forth to turn the signal completely up or completely down. Some circuits use light to produce this process. A small light bulb will flash in time with the speed adjustment. As the light flashes, light controlled resistors open and close your signal. The great thing about this effect is that it fits in virtually every style of music and has been used as a staple in everything from blues and country to the British invasion of the 60’s.
I can remember hearing U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” album from my older brother’s room next door. I wasn’t really into music at the time and didn’t have a clue about what I was really hearing. Now I understand that The Edge was using delay to make his riffs and patterns fly above the rhythms of the band. Let’s take a closer look at an effect that has found a voice in every style and era of modern music.
Have you ever shouted across an open area only to find your voice bounce back in a second or so? That’s delay/echo. It is when a sound or signal is recorded and then repeated back at a controlled time. The first delay effects were achieved using tape loops improvised on reel-to-reel magnetic recording systems. Ray Butts’ “Echosonic” (1952), Mike Battle’s “Echoplex” (1959), or the Roland “Space Echo” (1973), used magnetic tape as their recording and playback medium. Electric motors guided a tape loop through a device with a variety of mechanisms allowing modification of the effect’s parameters. Analog delay came about in many forms including the Boss “DM-3”, Electro Harmonix “Memory Man”. The late 1970’s and 1980’s led to the development of the first digital delay effects. They were initially only available in expensive rack mount units until Boss released the “DD-2” Digital Delay pedal in 1984.
Today’s technology has brought about the ability to use super small SMD components and IC’s to create delay circuits that are small enough to fit in the body of a guitar! Both Boss and Line 6 have pedals that offer multiple types and replications of vintage or modern delays in a small pedal form. These make it easy to achieve classic delay tones without owning vintage and expensive equipment. Another huge improvement is found in the quality and function of Looper type pedals that use the same principle. With modern music styles and production techniques, rest assured that there will be exciting new delay units in the future.
Reverb is essentially layers upon layers of delay or simple echo. As the signal is stacked on top of itself over and over, it produces a long decaying tone that we all love. The sound itself is as old as time, but it holds a key part in so many elements of music today. The first Reverb circuits were found in early Tube Amps and used a spring chamber to create the effect. Rack mount digital versions were created in the 80’s, and today we have hundreds of quality units made by manufacturers all over the world. Some of the most popular pedal forms of Reverb today are the Electro Harmonix “Holy Grail”, Boss “RV-5” and the Danalectro “Spring King”.
Reverb tends to sit most comfortably last in the pedal chain as if it were coming from your amp. I have rarely ever seen anyone use it differently.
If you were a surgeon, you would hopefully know your tools. If you we’re a race car driver, you would know your car. My advice is to know what is possible from your guitar. Experiment and learn as much about tones and textures as you possibly can. You won’t be disappointed!
I hope you found this page helpful in understanding your effects and what they can do for you. There are tons of great websites where you can find more information on this subject. Feel free to email me with any cool facts or information you think could help improve this page at “[email protected]”, attention Josh.
Last revised on 6.11.09