A Cavalcade of Pedals from Tech 21, Electro-Harmonix, Voodoo Lab, and Walrus Audio
The Guitarist’s History of Grit (Abridged)
Book 1: Once upon a time there was an amp and it was too small. Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Link Wray and others used it to play live gigs and to make records.
Book 2: In 1956 the Rock ’n Roll Trio recorded “Train Kept A-Rollin’” using a “push-pull” amp that was missing one of its output tubes. The first time (live) it was an accident; the second time (on record) it was on purpose. Maybe it was pushing, maybe it was pulling, but it was not doing both as it heaved and ho’d its way into history more or less reproducing only half a wave of each note played.
Book 3: Once upon a time there was an amp, and it was broken. It was used to record Marty Robbins’ 1961 hit, “Don’t Worry.”
Book 4: In 1964 The Kinks released “You Really Got Me.”
Book 5: In 1965 “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was unleashed.
Epilogue: And thus it was written. From then on, to the great frustration of audio engineers and amp designers alike, everything they would hold dear, everything they believed in and strived for since that first Audion was lit by Lee De Forest back in 1906, would be flushed down the drain. Crazy kids.
Right off, let’s make a distinction between Distortion and Fuzz. Originally, distortion was what is known as an artifact, something that naturally occurs as a byproduct of something else. Turn an amp up loud, and it will distort. Use a too-hot pickup, it will distort; cut your speakers with a razor blade, they will distort.
Fuzz, on the other hand, started out as an effect to be used through an undistorted amp. The Maestro FZ1 used on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was such a product – three germanium (Ge) transistors, nine resistors, four caps and a penlight battery on a phenolic board inside a metal cheese wedge. I had one back in the day, and it was cool. However, it always seemed to break and make weird noises at the most inopportune times. I learned from an electrical engineer, who shared my house with me and also happened to be my father, that the germanium transistors in that thing were leaky, temperature-sensitive junk and that if I were to replace them with more stable silicon (Si), everything would be better. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. It seemed to lose its randomness, the “insanity.” I eventually sold it, to be replaced by …
On December 1st, 1967, the Who played at the Long Island Arena, and I was there along with a bunch of like-minded friends. The set list included “Pictures of Lily,” “Substitute,” “Run, Run, Run,” and more. After the requisite end-of-show destruction, one of my friends reached up onto the stage and stole Townshend’s Goya Panther fuzz. Eventually it wound up with me. The Panther was cool, not just because it was stomped on by the Master himself, but because it also had a treble boost function which really helped my homemade guitar amp sound better. Better, not good.
Even with its fabulous provenance, both “royal” and guilty, the Panther still left me short of what I heard at that show. I turned to Ronnie, an older and wiser guitar-playing employee of my Dad’s electronics firm.
Me: “I saw the Who the other day and Pete’s guitar sound was crazy. It was like, well, I don’t know how to describe it. It was all distorted, but not like a fuzztone.” (I went on to tell the tale of the ill-gotten Panther.)
Ronnie: “Yup, he’s using three Dual Showmans, all hooked up together, all turned up all the way, and when he does that thing with his arms, he adds the fuzz to it so the whole thing just melts down.”
“Won’t the amps blow up?”
Not only did I learn the difference between distortion and fuzz that day, I also learned to never turn my amp down again.
Today, manufacturers of EFX products make the distinction between a fuzz pedal and a distortion pedal. In general terms, the former is designed as an effect, the later to mimic three Dual Showmans (or facsimiles thereof) nailed.
Most of the original fuzz units, whether they be Faces, Maestros or Benders, used a similar two- or three-transistor circuit. Others that call themselves Machines, Octavias or Blenders add diodes to create a beat frequency or heterodyne octave effect. Distortions, like Screamers, DSs, and TSs, are most often based on integrated circuit operational amplifiers (IC op amps). These op amps are literally micro-sized audio amplifiers that are overdriven for effect, just as a full-sized one would be. The similarities are many, but like snowflakes, each one has its own twist on the theme. And that’s why we love them. Collect them all and trade ’em with your friends.
For this series of articles, we put out an APB to a group of manufacturers who responded to our request with a fine group of pedals. What follows isn’t a race or a contest and it’s by no means all-inclusive, but rather it’s a current slice of an audio engineer’s worst nightmare.
Check out the reviews here: