Guitar Player (October 2005)
By Barry Cleveland
Fuzz Pedal Roundup
Five Ways to Get Fuzzy
Historians never tire of haggling over whether so and so was the first to use ultra-distorted guitar tones, but everyone agrees that the first commercially available fuzz pedal was the FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone introduced by Maestro in 1963. Originally marketed as a device to make electric guitars sound like brass instruments, it wasn't until two years later when Keith Richards deployed the device on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" that guitarists finally got hip to the FZ-1's potential. The overwhelming response to the fuzz buzz lured many other manufacturers to the party, and before long players could choose between dozens of competing models. Most of those fuzzes are now consigned to the dustbin of time, but a few not only endured, they spawned countless imitators, and the great majority of fuzz pedals introduced since that time are simply modified versions of the FZ-1 and other classics such as the Sola Sound Tone-Bender (1965), Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face (1966), and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi (1970).
Someone's always trying to build a better fuzz, however, and enough guitarists still beat paths to their doorsteps to sustain an appreciable number of modern-day manufacturers. Nonetheless, nearly all currently available fuzz pedals are either strict recreations of classic circuits (sometimes using NOS or "new old stock" components), recreations of classic circuits modded for improved performance, or truly new designs incorporating significantly different features. The five fuzz pedals featured in this roundup fall into all three categories: The Foxx Tone Machine purports to be an authentic re-issue of the early-'70s original, the Euthymia Crucible Fuzz and Sub-Decay Stupid Box are modified versions of classic designs, and the Demeter Fuzzulator and Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz sport significant new features not found in other fuzz pedals.
"Good" fuzz ultimately comes down to personal aesthetics, but some general considerations can be useful when assessing prospective additions to your tonal arsenal. For example, would you be happy with a pedal that makes basically one good sound, or is tonal variety important to you? Does your style require lots of sustain? Do you play mostly single-note lines and root-fifth power chords, or is individual note articulation within complex chords an issue? Does it matter whether the sound cleans up when you roll back the volume on the guitar? These are a few of the factors that were considered during our evaluation.
The five pedals were tested using a variety of guitars including a late-model PRS Custom 24 Brazilian, a mid-'70s Fender Stratocaster, a reissue '62 Fender Telecaster, and a '69 Gibson Les Paul Custom. Amps included a '60s Fender Twin Reverb loaded with JBLs, a mid-'70s 50-watt Marshall half-stack, a Rivera Chubster 40 1x12 combo, and a Universal Audio LA-610 tube preamp (for direct recording). Naturally, each pedal sounded somewhat different with the various guitar and amp combinations, so descriptions are given in general terms. The pedals were fitted with fresh 9-volt Energizer batteries, which in each case required removing four screws to access their battery compartments, though all but the Foxx and Euthymia also have AC adaptor sockets (and one may be added to the Euthymia as a $10 option).
Foxx Tone Machine
Steve Ridinger, currently the president of Danelectro/Evets, invented the Foxx Tone Machine back in 1971 when he was only 19 years old. This reissue Tone Machine ($249 retail/$199 street) cops the look and feel of the original, including the, er, fuzzy exterior covering, available in blue, black, red, yellow, purple, and lime green, with the only exception being that the word "octave" is now spelled correctly. That's octave as in adding an octave above the fundamental tone, a la "Purple Haze," which you do by flipping a sturdy metal toggle switch. There's also a metal bypass footswitch and plastic Volume, Sustain, and Fuzz Mellow-Brite (sic) knobs. The Tone Machine has all the subtlety of a WWII German buzz bomb. It roars with full-bodied fury on even the most conservative settings, and with the Volume and Sustain knobs cranked the amount of gain is truly scary. The basic tone is big and brawny, with the Tone control varying the amount of top-end bite, and the Octave switch adding an almost synth-like edge to all notes, not just those above the 9th fret, as with many octave-fuzz pedals. The Tone Machine was especially impressive with the somewhat anemic Stratocaster, endowing it with truly mammoth girth and weight. The pedal is somewhat noisy, it tends to pick up radio signals on extreme settings, individual note definition is nearly nonexistent, and it doesn't clean up well when you roll back the guitar volume, but who cares? The Tone Machine faithfully reproduces the glorious strum and drang of the original, and that's all that former and future Foxx fans need be concerned with. Kudos: Captures the sustain and ultra-thick tone of the original. Octave effect adds synth-like edge. Concerns: Relatively noisy. Can be radio-phonic.
Euthymia Crucible Fuzz
Euthymia founder Erik Miller focuses exclusively on fuzz, and hand-builds several types in his home workshop. The Crucible Fuzz ($125 retail/street N/A) is based on the modified silicon Fuzz Face circuit Dave Fox and Crest Audio introduced in the late '80s, but boasts considerably higher gain than those units. As with the original '60s Face, the Crucible has no status LED ("You will have no difficulty knowing when it is in your signal path," says Miller), though unlike the Face, it sports true-bypass switching. The Crucible's baked-on Hammerite finish and Bakelite Daka-Ware Volume and Fuzz knobs add more than a dash of retro flash. Despite its Fuzz Face ancestry, the Crucible sounded a lot like a robust Big Muff Pi when used with several guitar/amp combinations, generating silky smooth sustain and a massive, if slightly flabby, bottom end. There's no tone control, but the overall balance of frequencies is good, and the voicing is very sonorous and satisfying. The Fuzz control produces little more than a slight buzziness in the first part of its range, but goes into major sustain when fully cranked. Individual note definition is impressive, and the sound cleans up beautifully when the guitar volume is lowered, but the unit proved radiophonic in two different environments, suggesting shielding issues. The Crucible Fuzz is a great-sounding pedal that basically does one thing really well. Kudos: Delivers major sustain and low-end heft. Has impressive note definition. Cleans up well. Concerns: Can be radio-phonic on some settings.
Sub-Decay Stupid Box
Based roughly on the soft-clipping circuitry of vintage Tube Screamers, but designed to deliver more drive and greater frequency control than traditional distortion pedals, the Stupid Box ($125 retail/street N/A) easily traverses both overdrive and fuzz territories. The pedal's sturdy metal casing sports a bright yellow paintjob, and its green LED and Level, Tone, and Gain knobs combine with a mouth graphic to form a smiley face that, according to the manufacturer, "You will never get tired of stepping on." True-bypass switching via a metal footswitch completes the package. (Note: the latest version of the Stupid Box is housed in a considerably smaller enclosure than that of the review unit.) The Stupid Box produces sounds ranging from tube amp-like crunch, to tight but generally polite fuzz tones, all with a wonderful smoothness. There's plenty of low-end and midrange warmth, but little brightness or overt edginess, even with the Tone control maxed out, making the Stupid Box more suitable for blues and classic rock sounds than searing psychedelic sizzle. Individual note definition is quite good, and the distortion cleans up very much like with a tube amp when you back off the guitar volume. The unit is relatively quiet overall, even with the Level control turned all the way up, and there's lots of level. The Stupid Box is a smart choice for anyone seeking a superior distortion pedal with a fuzzy edge, though it isn't wild and crazy enough to crank out, say, a Count Five "Psychotic Reaction"-type blast. Kudos: Lots of tight bottom and focused midrange. Has excellent note definition. Cleans up exceptionally well. Quiet. Concerns: Limited Tone control with little high-end sizzle.
Demeter Fuzzulator - Editors' Pick Award
Following on the success of his Tremulator and Compulator pedals, audio guru James Demeter decided to try his hand at fuzz, and as might be expected, the resulting Fuzzulator ($239 retail/$199 street) is a studio-quality device with some original twists. There's what Demeter calls a Tone Pre-Emphasis Circuit, which is supposed to "enhance the proper frequencies to give the distorted sound focus," along with a Loose/Tight switch that toggles between "tight" sounds produced by using LEDs to generate distortion, and "loose" sounds produced using a combination of silicon and germanium diodes. Fuzz, Volume, and Tone knobs flank a status LED and a sturdy metal bypass footswitch on the unit's face, while a mini trim-pot for setting overall volume is located on the side. Due to its dual distortion circuits, the Fuzzulator is really two pedals in one. The LED circuit produces an unmistakably "fuzzy" tone, but with a little of the smoothness and glassy attack of an overdriven tube amp; whereas the diode circuit dishes up a full-bodied and harmonically rich buzz reminiscent of a hot-rodded Fuzz Face. The unusually wide-ranging Fuzz control dials in degrees of distortion from a gentle rasp to seriously supersaturated, while the equally versatile Tone control sweeps from dark and smooth to bright and edgy. The Fuzzulator cleans up well when you roll back the guitar volume, individual note articulation within chords is astonishing even on the most extreme settings, and the unit is amazingly quiet. Kudos: Offers a huge range of high-quality tones. Cleans up well. Quiet. Has excellent individual note articulation. Concerns: None.
Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz
If having a vintage-style fuzzbox is a good thing, then having six has to be even better, at least that's the concept behind Seymour Duncan's Tweak Fuzz ($149 retail/$99 street). In lieu of a typical tone control, the pedal features a rotary Tweak switch that selects one of six preset voicings, each of which interacts with the Gain control differently. The Tweak Fuzz's discrete class-A circuitry results in low-noise operation, as its true-bypass switching eliminates tone sucking. The unit's 1.6mm steel casing makes it as sturdy as the proverbial tank (and nearly as heavy), while a ribbed plastic pad on the bottom helps keep the unit from sliding around on even slippery wood stages. The Tweak switch operates a little like the Vari-Tone switch on Gibson ES-345 guitars, moving from relatively thin sounds to considerably meatier fare, though all settings bulk-up and sing with nearly endless sustain when you crank up the extremely wide-ranging Gain control. The Tweak Fuzz doesn't clean up particularly well, and individual note definition is only moderately good, but those are mere quibbles. Overall, the sounds are tight and punchy, boasting a lively square-wave edge that endows them with true vintage fuzz authority, and in the end that's what a great fuzz pedal is all about. Kudos: Tweak switch provides unusually wide range of tones. Delivers nearly limitless gain and sustain. Concerns: None.