Effects have always been an important aspect of the guitarist's sound. In order to use them to their full potential, it is important to understand how they work, how the order in which they are placed in the signal chain affects tone and which ones work well with the style and genre you associate yourself with. Each instalment in this column will examine the basic categories of effects in the same order that they are usually placed in the signal chain. Each column will focus on some of the history makers plus review the best new units on the market.
Types of devices and their conventional order – Gain-shaping devices (fuzz, overdrive, distortion, etc.), tone-shaping devices (wah-wah, EQ, etc.), time/modulation based devices (chorus, flange, etc.), pitch based devices (harmonizers, octave dividers, etc.), time based/ambient devices (reverb, delay, etc.) are popular types of effects and are generally placed in the order I’ve listed. They will be discussed in detail in future columns. Some of these categories overlap, one example would be gain-shaping and tone-shaping effects. A good illustration of this would be an EQ. An EQ could be used to overdrive your amp or could be used in a more conventional manner, to EQ unwanted frequencies out or to add deficient frequencies to your tone. Another would be the wah-wah pedal. While it is a good example of a tone-shaping device, as it is basically a manually adjustable active bandpass filter (adjustable with your foot), there are guitarists who set it in a stationary position and use it to drive their amp a bit (Michael Schenker). Before we move on to this month’s subject of gain-shaping devices, let’s first discuss some other issues first.
Analog or Digital – Up to the 60s effects, like amps, were powered by tubes. So was everything for that matter, televisions and radios for example. The advent of transistors gave birth to a new era; things could be made smaller and portable. Transistors didn’t need to be replaced like tubes thus any product utilizing them needed little maintenance. The problem with transistors (tubes as well for that matter) is that they are noisy and they also colour tone. The fact that transistors colour tone can be a good thing however, a little warmth and distortion can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered in certain situations. The last two decades have brought forth new digital effects. Digital effects unlike analog effects are clean sounding, incredibly versatile and easily programmable. If you are a session player on a gig that requires you to change sounds a lot, it can be a blessing. Unfortunately digital effects tend to lack personality and can sound cold and sterile (although this is changing every day). Many players use digital and analogue technology together. Although, analog effects are once again popular, it is difficult to manufacture them. The reason is simply because, the transistors that were commonly used in their original construction are not manufactured anymore in any great quantity.
True Bypass – True Bypass is a switching method where when the effect unit is bypassed, the signal goes straight from the input jack to the output jack without passing through the circuitry in the box. In effect, it is a straight wire through the box and does not degrade the signal because there is only the micro-ohm resistance of the jacks, wires and switches inline with the signal. This keeps noise and loss of signal to a minimum. True Bypass pretty much goes without saying in the manufacturing of today’s effects but vintage analogue effects were not manufactured with it and will need a mod if you want it.
Effects Loops – Many amps have effects loops built in to them. This allows you to plug certain effects directly in between the pre-amp and power amp in your amplifier. There are two different types of effect loops, Parallel and Series.
- Series - A series effects loop sends the entire signal through the loop. When using a serial effects loop, you will generally control the mix from the effect unit itself.
- Parallel - A parallel effects loop sends around half the wet signal through and the other half continues to the power amp unaffected. A mix dial on the amp can usually be used to control the wet/dry ratio; therefore the mix level on the effects run through the parallel loop should be set at 100%. Some effects don't work well mixed with your dry signal however, like tremolo for example. Others do, like delay. There are some amps that have both loop types on the amps allowing you to send your effects through both in various combinations.
As a general guideline, run tone and gain-shaping devices such as distortion, overdrive, fuzz, wah-wah, EQ as well as certain modulating effects such as phase shifters, vibrato and tremolo in front of the amp and time based effects such as delay, reverb to the loop. Chorus and flangers are a tossup depending on the sound you are looking for. Again, vintage effects are powered with tubes or transistors, which colour tone, and many guitarists prefer to run all these in front of the amp, the tube or transistor in the effect becoming part of the overall tone. These things are all a matter of taste and experimentation is the key to finding the right pattern for your sound. Now on to this month’s subject, gain-shaping effects, fuzz in particular.
Gain-Shaping Devices – Distortion, overdrive, fuzz, pre-amps and treble boosters are all somewhat similar devices and are often interchanged or combined for the desired clipping effect. Even before the first fuzz was created (and there are conflicting stories on who actually did do it first), guitarists had been trying to make their amps break up since amps were invented. The obvious method was to simply turn it to ten and let nature take its course. Strangely enough amplifier makers, being a bit more sensible than guitarists, made amps with enough headroom so that they wouldn't distort. After all, who would want an amp to distort? The new trend these days is low wattage amps. Rather than 50 and 100 watts, the 18 and 32-watt amps are becoming quite popular, especially for recording. The reason is simple, natural overdrive becomes a whole lot easier. Still many guitarists, me included likes the bass response of 100-watt British style amps. A blasting amp combined with one of the clipping devices we will be discussing, can lead to pure bliss.
Before the advent of clipping devices, guitarists were known to purposely slash speakers or unplug tubes to get the desired effect. That was until around 1961. The generally believed to be true story is that in Nashville, during the 1961 Marty Robbins "Don't Worry" session, the guitar channel in the tube powered recording console began malfunctioning and distorting and the result was that everyone liked the fuzzy sound. After the recording was done Glen Snotty, the engineer, fixed the channel but duplicated the circuit and turned it into some kind of device that Nashville guitarists started using. The design eventually fell into the hands of Gibson, Maestro or their parent company Chicago Musical Instruments and became the Maestro Fuzz-Tone.
The Fuzz race was on and would eventually lead to all sorts of devices such as distortion and overdrive boxes. Any of these devices may be used with a completely clean amp or an amp in one stage or another of being naturally overdriven. Generally speaking, the combination of the overdriven tube amp coupled with the germanium transistor equipped fuzzes lead to spectacular tonal results. Think Jimi Hendrix or early Jimmy Page.
Wah-wah first or second? – There are some grey areas here regarding order. One school of thought says that as the wah-wah is basically a tone knob (like on your guitar), it should be next in line after your guitar. Jimi Hendrix typically did this. There are some issues with certain fuzzes however. Strange howling can be caused by the mismatched impedance of the wah-wah and fuzz when the wah is placed before the fuzz (typically the 60s fuzz faces and other similar units). Therefore many guitarists place the wah-wah after gain-based effects. Regardless of whether or not howling occurs, there is definitely a different tonal quality regarding the wah-wah/gain order. Now on to our first category of gain-shaping devices: fuzz, and the makers and models that have made history:
Fuzz – Although definitely a different sound than traditional distortion and overdrive boxes, the Fuzz box was the predecessor to both these. Some Fuzz historians claim the first fuzz box to be mass manufactured was the Maestro Fuzz-Tone first manufactured in or around 1962. British maker Sola Sound (later to become Colorsound) would soon follow with their MK I Tone Bender. Sola Sound (or Colorsound) was run by two brothers, Larry and Joe Macari who also ran a London music store called Macari's Musical Exchange where you guessed it, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck used to hang out in the mid 60s.
The first era of fuzz pedals were equipped with either two or three germanium transistors. These pedals produced great tone, but many of these transistors turned out to be manufactured inconsistently and were not really reliable. They were also actually affected by temperature. That's right, temperature can actually change the way the Germanium transistor works and ultimately change the way the effect sounds. To resolve this problem Analogman's Sun Face, a sort of modern day clone of the 1968 germanium Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, actually has a dial that allows you to decrease voltage during hot temperatures. What an idea!
In the 70's, most germanium transistors were replaced with silicon transistors. Silicon transistors were more compact and reliable. The silicon transistor yields much more gain and the sound is brighter in comparison. Many guitarists still prefer the warmth and raspier tone of the germanium transistors.
How to use fuzz – If you are not used to using fuzz, you will be surprised how bad it sounds at first. There is a special trick to using it and when you figure it out, you'll find that using a fuzz can lead to pure tonal ecstasy. First you want your amp to be a little crunchy sounding, you don't want it either too clean or too gainy. Imagine a 60s 100- watt Marshall without a pre-amp, this is the sound you are looking for. When you turn the fuzz on, it sounds best with your guitar volume turned back between five and nine. There is a sweet spot right around there, but you really have to search for it because where the sweet spot is depends on the sound of your amp and guitar. Your guitar volume full open is another sound all together but all the warmth and dynamics become obvious with your guitar turned back. This is why you see more experienced guitarists always messing with their volume knob on their guitars, they are looking for that sweet spot and this holds true when using any gain-shaping device, but even more so when using fuzz. A good fuzz cleans up nicely when you roll back the volume on your guitar even more and adds a certain warmth that you can't get without it. Jimi Hendrix' famous clean rhythm parts were often done with the fuzz on.
On to some of the legendary Fuzzes before getting to some newcomers:
Arbiter Fuzz Face – This Fuzz designed and built by London’s Arbiter Music in the mid 60s became famous because of its most famous user: Jimi Hendrix. The Fuzz Face was an important part of his set up and you can hear it on most of his first record, “Are You Experienced” in songs such as “Foxy Lady,” “Purple Haze,” and “Third Stone From the Sun.” David Gilmore was also a user. There were several versions manufactured over the years (first with germanium transistors and later with silicon ones) but many players, yours truly included, seem to say that the Germanium NKT-275 Model sounds the best. They are not made any more by the original manufacturer, Dallas-Arbiter Music but there is a reissue made by Dunlop. Some musicians purchase it and do a mod to make it sound closer to the original version.
Roger Mayer Axis Fuzz – Designed and built by Guru Roger Mayer for Jimi Hendrix in 1967. This Fuzz came into play in Jimi Hendrix’ “Axis: Bold as Love” record and can be heard on several cuts including the title track. Jimi set up both his Arbiter Fuzz Face and Axis Fuzz right next to each other on many occasion. The Axis Fuzz is known for its very smooth sound, which cleans up nicely. Although it can still be categorized as a fuzz, it was manufactured a bit differently than the Fuzz Face and is somewhat different sounding. Roger Mayer is manufacturing it again.
Maestro Fuzz-Tone – Originally built in 1962 or 1963, the Maestro Fuzz-Tone was made famous by the 1965 Rolling Stones hit “Satisfaction.” Keith Richards used it on the very distinguishable intro of the song. Unlike the other two Fuzz boxes previously described, the Fuzz-Tone was not produced in England, but in America by Maestro, a sub-division of Chicago Musical Instruments or CMI (later to become Norlin). Another sub-division of CMI was Gibson, thus the often heard name: Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone. In 2001, Gibson re-acquired the rights to the Maestro name and reissued the Maestro FZ-1A Fuzz-Tone.
Vox Tone Bender – Although likely most of these early units were made in Italy, the Tone Bender was yet another groundbreaker from a British company. Although Jimmy Page, like Hendrix, had Roger Mayer build boxes for him, he was said to have used the Tone Bender on Led Zeppelin’s first two records. The best supposed years for the Tone Bender were from 1966 to 1968. Sola Sound (or Colorsound) also made a three-knob version of the Tone Bender for Vox.
ANALOG.MAN Sun Face – The problem with germanium transistors is that they have to be tested one by one to get consistent results. That is why no company is very interested in building real germanium fuzzes. ANALOG.MAN has taken the time to test the transistors and is now building the Sun Face, which is consistent with the best of the old Arbiter Fuzz Face units. ANALOG.MAN will custom manufacture one for you with a variety of germanium or silicon transistors, including the NKT-275 transistors, which are the same as the original ones used in the mid 60s Fuzz Faces, not the cheapo ones used in some reissues, and I strongly suggest the NKT-275s over the others. As I mentioned previously, you can order your Sun Face with a dial to adjust voltage in times of extreme temperature, although some players are known to turn the dial up all the time, creating a clearer tone. Inside the box, there is a clean input adjustment knob that you can turn back a bit. This basically does the same thing as when you turn back the volume knob on your guitar, so if you don't particularly want to tweak your sound with your guitar's volume knob, you have another options in finding that sweet spot. They are all manufactured with true bypass so won't shade your tone when off. In my opinion, if you are looking for a good vintage sound, there is nothing better than this. The first time I used one of these, I actually got more excited than I have in years about any one particular piece of equipment. I generally set the volume at 12 or 1:00 and the fuzz knob at about 3:00 with the voltage control straight up.
More information can be found here: http://www.analogman.com/fuzzface.htm
E.W.S Fuzzy Drive – The Fuzzy Drive is the second pedal offered by E.W.S. after their modified Arion SCH-Z Chorus, which I will get to in a future article. Unlike the original vintage fuzzes, this one is not manufactured with a germanium chip and therefore, although without a doubt characteristically a fuzz, has a definitely more modern sound. One thing that undeniably sets it apart is its flexibility; you can blend overdrive and fuzz quite effectively by setting the gain and tone knobs at complimentary levels, something you can't do with most fuzzes (gain and tone back for more of a fuzzy overdrive, and up for more of a traditional fuzz type vibe). As with any good gain-shaping device, it cleans up nicely and with a little volume knob tweaking on your guitar, you can find a nice balance between clean and dirty, warm and bright. The Fuzzy Drive has a surprising amount of variation and is a quite a lot of fun to play with. It is manufactured with true bypass and as it is not manufactured with germanium transistors, it works well with both pedals in front as well as behind it. As I prefer to use it as a fuzz boost with a crunchy Marshall, I set the volume at about 2:00, gain at 2:00 and tone at about 11:00. This gives me a nice warm sound with my guitar volume back to about 6.
More information can be found here: http://ews-us.com/item_fuzzy_drive.php?item=custom
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