Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Super GroundHogs Fuzz

During my last few years hunting for that "one fuzz to rule them all" perfect fuzz sound, I investigated literally hundreds and hundreds of albums, setups, schematics and actual pedals looking for those magical sounds that we all know and love so much. It's no secret that most of the fuzz hype and plethora of versions come from the seed designs of the early Fuzz Tone, Fuzz Rite, Fuzz Face, Big Muff etc. Once you hear a sound that you think you never heard before, and like it, you start digging in deeper, trying to understand what was going on during that recording that made the guitar sound so damn good. Over the years I've had some success tracking several epic guitar sounds which I truly admire like those created by legendary players like Dave Allen, Dick Dale, Robbie Krieger, Harrison, Clapton, Hendrix, Fripp, Gilmour, Page, Blackmore, Allman, Lee, Howe, Hackett, May, Barre, Iommi, Corgan, and many others. Each one with his own playing style, modified amps and the insane voodoo stories around the use of secret arsenal of fuzz and booster pedals.

Townshend using his Super-Fuzz
into the legendary Hi Watt stack
A few years ago I ran into the Groundhogs. I didn't know anything about them or about Tony TS McPhee the guitarist-vocalist-bluesist mastermind behind the band. What started out as mild appreciation quickly grew to hard core admiration. The sound produced by McPhee on albums like Split and the live albums completely blew me away and this was after I thought I heard it all. Boy was I wrong. McPhee's bluesy finger-picking style along with his massive use of fuzz, octave-fuzz, wah-fuzz, and modified amps is a demonstration of true hard rock personality: Inventive, powerful and lean. And I didn't say the word 'punk' yet. I tried everything from vintage fuzzes, octave fuzzes and different amp combinations and couldn't get anywhere near this crazy tone of his. He founded the Groundhogs after a song by John Lee Hooker. In 1965 they were his backup band during his English tour. Imagine that! 
Anyway, running around the web and trying to mimic his incredibly extreme and experimental sound I ran into a few interviews and forums suggesting that much like Pete Townshend, his setup included a few fuzz pedals. One which seemed most interesting, most over-the-top and most promising, was the Japanese Univox Super Fuzz. Definitely the most intense sound I've ever heard.

TS McPhee finger style on a Strat
TS McPhee finger style on an SG

Without offending any Townshend and Who fans I must admit that Tony McPhee, although maybe not as huge as Townshend, does a much better job ripping apart your ears and guts with his playing and sound techniques. His got a very bluesy fingerpicking style that shows how deep his playing is connected to traditional blues.

The Super-Fuzz controls
The circuit was designed in the late 1960s by the Japanese company Shin-ei, (who also produced another well known fuzz box, the Shin-ei Companion FY-2 and manufactured in Japan by Unicord. The first Super-Fuzzes were made in 1968, and production continued until the late 70s. The original Super fuzz had two knobs and a Tone switch, apart from the huge bypass switch. The BALANCE knob is a Master volume knob and the EXPANDER knob is like your regular FUZZ GAIN knob. The TONE control is a mid scoop switch which adds a whole new dimension to the pedal. Most of the layouts and schematics I found suggested several mods to the circuit for some added functionality and versatility.

And so, even though the circuit looks too big for a fuzz, I decided that once I get a chance, I'll build it. For a year or so I was just eyeballing the circuit not knowing if I was capable of the task, and it took me a long time to go through all the possible versions, layouts and schematics until I decided to go for the layout suggested by Mark at TagboardFX layouts which which was verified by numerous builders. However, as always, I could not resist the suggested mods which aimed to enhance the sound and versatility of the pedal.

I used old layouts by Derringer and by Mike Livesly which suggested a mod for reducing the clipping effect on the clipping OA-90 germanium diodes and even completely replace them. I added a switch to change the clipping from stock to mild and named it "SAT". When clipping is suppressed the volume of the pedal increases and the saturation is reduced. Overall this means less compression, a trimmer on a switch gives you a better control over the sound.

Another mod suggested by Derringer was to add a trimpot which can bias Q4 and Q5 to get a better matching of the trannies so that the octave effect is better controlled.

Also suggested by Derringer and others was a TONE pot which replaces the TONE switch. This switch is designed to give a mid-scoop tone option and using a switch and a pot you can actually move from natural to mid-scoop using a switch and with the pot you can move continuously between full mid-scoop and no mid-scoop. The only reason I kept both switch and pot is that the no-scoop mode doesn't sound exactly like the mid-scoop with knob fully CW. They do sound alike but not exactly the same.

All these mods really give the pedal a new life and with such a large scale circuit it only serves it right.

The Super Fuzz - gut shot.
Notice the switch connected to Q5.
And last but not least is the choice of NPN transistors. I went and ordered the 2SC828 with the twisted pinout and had to go through twisting the ECB to fit in the CBE layout. I also tried various combinations with 2N222A, 2N5088, MPSA18 and even BC108. The differences were not really significant and not worth the time. Super saturation, nasally, slightly gated and mean was the character no matter what I stuck in there. It even sounded less nasally and more crunchy without Q4 at all !!!! The Q4-Q5 giving you that octave sound can be defeated by taking Q4 out and leaving the circuit pure. A cool mod for the future. I also tested single coils and humbuckers. With different amps and different playing techniques.

I don't think this circuit is for everyone. It is really one for the fuzzoholics, fuzznatics and fuzzophiles. I might name this one Fuzz-o-phile instead too. But after 3 months of trying out different settings and different styles of playing I think I understood what was missing....

Super Fuzz with some added tweaks
The Q4-Q5 pair is really the essence of this pedal, and tweaking the 10k pot between them is really what gives it that nasal octave effect which is so unique to this pedal. So after trying various configurations I decided to drop the SATURATION switch and use it for toggling Q5 emitter (could have been Q4 instead) in and out the circuit. The SAT control is not an OCTAVE switch. This did miracles to the pedal because it gave me that fuzzy crunch without the rich harmonics which, although sounds good on riffs and solos, i.e. single notes, did not sound good but actually too muddy on chords and arpeggios. The back to back diode pair which was on the SAT switch are no hardwired as per stock. It is worth noting that when Q5 is disengaged, no SAT, the EXPANDER control is less effective.

McPhuzz - what a name!
Now it was time for the pedal's name:
Super Fuzz, Fuzz-o-holic, Groundhog Fuzz, McPhuzz. I had to decide. I think this pedal is closer to the TS McPhee's sound rather than the Pete Townsend sound. Being such an underrated player as he was and probably still is, I decided to name the fuzz - McPhuzz after TS McPhee. Really proud of that name...

Anyway, you can get the schematic of this pedal with the added controls on:
The original schematic on:
The Layout I used for 2SC828 trannys is that on:
And if you use regular transistors, use:
You can also use the layout from Derringer:
Or that by Mike Livesley:

All of the above layouts and schematics are confirmed. :)

So here's a sizable clip (24 min. long!) demonstrating all the Yings and the Yangs of this pedal with and without the Q5, with the SCOOP tone switch off and with the switch on and the accompanying scoop TONE control. The Q5 switch can be named OCTAVE or SUPER or something like that. The demo is played on a MIM Telecaster through a simulated amp.

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