Friday, October 31, 2014

"Maestro..., master Your Fuzz and You Shall Get...Your Satisfaction"

Ladies and Gentlemen, silicons and germs, the moment we have all been waiting for. For the first time on the list of successful projects after laying on the operation table for nearly a year of searching and digging all over the ethereal cyber space. The psych monster, the acid master, the fuzz maister, the fuzz-a-delic, satisfuzzy, buzziest, Maestro Fuzz Tone.

probably the first stomp box that was designed to sound like a distorted amp, or in that specific case, a burned-out recording channel. It's funny that this pedal was promoted as a novel sound technique to imitate the timbres of reed, wood and brass wind instruments like a sax, a tuba or a clarinet, string instruments like a cello or a violin, and could also create a new never-before-heard "Fuzz Tone" sound.

The Fuzz Tone Patent (1965)
The story goes that it took 3 people to invent this crazy world-shattering sound during a recording in Nashville back in 1960. Country artist Marty Robbins recorded a song called "Don't worry" which featured a solo part played by Grady Martin on a 6-string bass. Grady Martin was known for playing guitar country music like crazy through amps, often reaching high level of distortion. Other blues artists did that as well probably much earlier. Nevertheless, Grady was lucky enough to play the bass solo on Robbin's recording into a busted recording channel which was operated by a session engineer called Glen Snoddy. The solo recording came out heavily distorted (and imagine that on a peaceful country prairie love song), but quite miraculously it was kept and released as is. I can't help thinking that it was Grady who liked the way it sounded and convinced the producers to keep it. And what a distorted sound it was. It was a sweet reedy buzzy solo that proved to be a good gamble as the song became an immediate hit. Snoddy decided to keep the busted channel on the mixing board and recorded more tunes using it. Realizing the potential of the sound technique he goes to the Gibson Guitar Corp. and sells them his idea of a Fuzz Tone effect unit. They probably investigated the busted channel and two years later, in 1962, the Fuzz Tone was available as the first Fuzz or Distortion effect box. So it too three people to discover the fuzz, really, and then a forth dude, Revis Hobbs, the co-author and co-inventor who shared the patent with Glen Snoddy, applied for in 1962, probably, and approved by 1965.

The original Fuzz-Tone
The story also goes that in spite of its early success in country music, it took something else to turn this tone shaping monster into a world-wide fuzz mania. By 1962 over 3000 units were manufactured By Gibson through the Maestro brand in Kalamazoo, MI. By 1965 only a few hundreds were sold and it seemed it was over for the Fuzz era. Only they didn't know that the British invasion, which started a year earlier, brought the one and only Rolling Stones' Keith Richards to Los Angeles, to record a second version for the Stones' new single, Satisfaction. Richards was looking for something new to flavor his guitar tone and the session technician ran over the corner to get a new little box which would make his guitar sound like a brass section which they planned to include later in the recording. He came back with a Maestro Fuzz Tone in his hand and they forgot all about the brass section they planned....When Satisfaction hit the streets the entire Maestro Fuzz Tone stock was sold in a few months. It quickly became the staple tone of the garage scene in the US, rock'n roll on both sides of the Atlantic and then the defining tone of psychedelic, acid and hard rock around the world.

Already in 1965 manufacturers like Sola Sound (Macari's Ltd.) Baldwin-Burns, Sam Ash and Mosrite started issuing their own versions of a fuzz pedal, each using different architecture to achieve fuzz sweetness. The Tone Bender MKI from Sola-Sound is probably the only one which really relies on a similar design. The Fuzz-Tone was also known as the FZ-1 using 3V and soon afterwards was relased again as FZ-1A using only 1.5V on a single AA battery. Other variants followed like the FZ-1B and the Maestro MFZ fuzz , but they were already different beasts operating on 9V batteries and sounded quite different than their predecessors. 

Relying on germanium transistors, 3V batteries (1.5VX2) and a very tricky design which was heavily dependent on the transistors' unique characteristics, it is no surprise that the design soon proved to be inefficient in producing a massive rocking sound, and new versions quickly topped the original, leaving the original design in the shadows for decades. The story behind the evolution of the Tone Bender is another interesting story.... but, we'll leave it to the Tone Bender post.

Check out the YouTube video below for the original Fuzz Tone commercial which actually makes more use of a bass guitar for fuzz tone than for the electric guitar.

The great story of country music and the Fuzz Tone, as well as many sound clips of country tunes incorporating fuzz guitar can be found here:

John Lennon with the Maestro at his feet
While 1962 was not the year that marked the birth of the Fuzz era rock, 1965 indeed marked the birth of evolution from rock'n roll to all out rock. After the Stones it was the Beatles turn to stick the Maestro fuzz (and other fuzz pedals too) on Paul's bass line on the 1965 hit "Think For Yourself" from the Rubber Soul album. 1965 saw other bands like the Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) put the fuzz to good use (although it was a Tone Bender usually). From 1966 it was a race to the top as almost every band on both sides of the Atlantic used a fuzz on guitar or boss or both. The Doors used the Maestro FZ-1 exclusively into an acoustic amp to get their unique splattering trumpet-like sound (Hello I love you, When the Music's Over, Spanish Caravan and many others), and even Hendrix used it on Voodoo Chile slight return. In fact, it seems that the whole garage psych revolution was heavily based on the Maestro beast and bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds, The United States of America, Strawberry Alarm Clock and others had their staple sound based heavily on the Maestro Fuzz Tone, though many think that some of those sounds were achieved using fuzz guitars like the Vox teardrop. The debates about who used what are still goin' on these days and the mystery will probably never be completely revealed.     

Now, when I started Fuzz Quest this was what I wanted. I got shivers listening to The Seeds, Roky Erickson, Strawberry Alarm Clocks, Ennio Morricone spaghetti western classics, and I couldn't understand what was so different about these tracks that made me loose sleep over. Later on I also realized that prog legends like Hackett and Howe also used the FZ-1. After building the Fuzzrite I was pretty happy but I knew my mission would not be complete without a true piece of germanium history. The Balwdin Burn Buzzaround was a fantastic build and a true gem but it was really modern sounding circuit and didn't have that delicate muffled buzz so typical of the Maestro Fuzz Tone. Maybe the closest is the Tone Bender MK1 which shares similar architecture but this one was even harder build, bias and tweak without having the right germs. 

A typical stock FZ-1 schematic
The circuit in itself is no secret and many schematics are available, most of them correct nowadays. The only magic going on in the circuit are the germanium trannies. It seems that they got to be leaky and low gain and I had a bunch of AC128 running around the table from my early builds (Fuzz Face, Fuzz Factory, Buzzaround etc.) and after measuring them I had a pretty good idea which ones would fit the circuit. My first attempt was building a circuit with many trimmers for biasing all the germs and I did get it to sound pretty good but it was just to hard to bias right so I ditched it. I researched the forums some more and waited until the DIY community shared some more info and after a while I went and did it again. This time I didn't have any trimmers at all. Just the right germs. Well, almost. I guess the leakage of my germs were a little out of spec, cause it didn't work...AT ALL.

So I went in again and dug little deeper and found out that it was Q2 that didn't open up right. I added a trimmer on the 1k5 biasing resistor and once I lowered the value down to about a hundred Ohms.....VOILA.... I heard what my ears so longed to hear....Fuzz heaven. I tried a lot of amps, reverbs and pickup scenarios and indeed this pedal is the psychedelic time capsule. It is sweet and aggressive at the same time, it's soft and mean, buzzy and smooth, opened and compressed, clean and dirty and all the contradictions you want in a single pedal. The ATTACK pot goes from almost clean but a little gated to smooth and mean. The VOLUME gets you above unity but not a whole lot more. The VOLUME also has some effect on the sound itself with a fuller body as you dime it. I really wanted to use a 9V power supply so I added the TagboardFX layout for the inverter from 9V to 3.3V and then to -3.3V. I added a STARVE knob to get the voltage tweaked between -2V and -3.3V. At -3V and above the sound is better, stronger, fuller. Below -3V you start getting that nasal buzzy compressed sound that made me build it in the first place.

So the recipe is - build the pedal add a 2k trimmer for Q2. Pick out germs that have above 400uA of leakage. and gain between 60-90. Actually I have Q2 at 600uA leakage and it sure increases the hiss noise but the biasing can really help clean it a lot. was time to box it.

There aren't many fuzz pedals with boring names. FZ-1 or Fuzz Tone is probably one of the most boring uninspiring names in pedal history. The graphics of the pedal is also quite lame. It is all negligible next to the awesome wedged enclosure.....which I don't have. I have a regular 125B enclosure which is small and straight. So I had to have a good name and good graphics. A long time ago I decided to name it Chocolate Fuzz ( it?) and now that the space is so small I shortened it to Choc'late Fuzz. Good name, I think. I changed ATTACK to TASTE in light of the chocolate thing. For the graphics, I tried to completely recolor the black enclosure to chocolate brown. It came out so bad so I wanted it off. I used a rought sand paper to wear it down and the effect was so great that I left it as it is. Amazing vintage look. When I painted it I added some glitter sparkle to the color which didn't look good at all. After the sandpaper work the glitter became so vintage looking and so inspiring that I just completely fell for the design. I really have to thank my wife for helping me out with this one. She's a designer and all and she knew that the vanilla white with the pale turquoise would work perfectly with the rusty vintage brownish background. She also gave me the glitter powder. 

So to sum things up, I never actually played an authentic Fuzz Tone FZ-1 before and I probably never will. Thanks to the invention of stereo recording and mixing in the 1930's and the first LP in stereophonic sound, released in 1958, many records in the 60's were released with a hard stereo panning which enables one to completely isolate certain tracks by playing only one channel. Check out the Doors as a great example for that (Hello I Love You has the fuzz guitar only on the right channel). After many hours of listening to separated stereo channels I've been able to find setups which sound very similar to many of my favorite recordings.

The pedal has 3 knobs, VOLUME, ATTACK and STARVE. The ATTACK goes from very mild boost which sounds amazingly similar to the "clean" punchy sound on Roky Erickson's early albums (Tried to hide comes to mind) to full on fuzz-a-delic mayhem. The STARVE is what really gives the pedal it's distinct tone. With the STARVE maxxed out the sound is very full and modern-like but not very garage-psych like. As the STARVE is decreased the pedal comes alive. The VOLUME is straightforward except it does change the sound a bit. The pedal is not very strong in volume and I usually have the VOLUME dimed or close to dimed. I bet that part of my experience and mods were a result of the AC128 germs I used. Obviously, others might get different results with different germs.

So that's yourself a favor and build this one. If you are a garage psych fiend build this one, a Fuzzrite and the Orpheum. If you are a complete lunatic add the Buzzaround and a Tone Bender to the bunch. And this is only assuming you already have a germy Fuzz Face, of course. Did I say lunatic?

A real milestone on my part here. I think I would slow down my fuzz builds now....ha ha, not really.

Anyway, a great layout with a lot of feedback can be found on the TagboardFX blog:

Below are some clips taken with single coils Tele and ES335-style humbuckers. You'll hear many riffs and pieces from known classic tracks by Captain Beefheart, The Doors, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Stones, Beatles and Ennio Morricone. I loved this pedal so much that I did 5 demos with it. 2 with bass guitar on a Bassman style amp and an old Ampeg amp (all emulations). The two guitar demos are played through the Brittania VOX AC30 pedal emulation and a cabinet emulation. For classic mid 60's psychedelia the pedal works best with the VOX style amps and Fender twin reverb style. The Man with a Harmonica is from the Ennio Morricone's classic soundtrack. I think that the pedal, nails the sound perfectly if played on the right setup.


  1. Wow.. Nice build and build report. Thanks! Grady Martin also released an instrumental song called "The Fuzz" and the fuzz sound on that recording is very similar to what was heard on "Don't Worry". Both recordings were released pretty close together ("Don't Worry" on december 1960 and "The Fuzz" on january 1961) and I assume that they might have used the same faulty preamp on both recordings..

    1. Thanks for the comment. Grady used this faulty channel on more than a few tracks during those years, for sure. "The Fuzz" is probably one of those, as far as I understand.