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Distorting - The Truth

Article from Making Music, March 1987

Tony Bacon gets hysterical with the fuzz box. Sorry. Historical.

In a previous life our own handsome Andy Honeybone defined a fuzz box thus: "A unit which takes a signal and squares it up giving a harmonically rich output with altered decay characteristics."

I presume the lad was trying to tell us in his technical fashion that fuzz boxes make your guitar go extra noisy by overdriving and chopping the smooth edges off the sound, thus helping along unconfident single-line playing and adding vast dimensions to chords.

Twas early in the 1960s when the distorting device now known as the fuzz box first appeared, and the invention is generally attributed in Britain to one Gary Hurst, who'd developed his idea for a fuzz box while working for an Italian keyboard firm. His Tone Bender footswitch appeared in 1964 and ads at the time imaginatively proclaimed: 'With this unit, it is possible to capture all the latest sounds of today from the wailing guitar sounds of Nashville to the home-grown rhythm 'n' blues so popular with today's groups."

20-year-old session guitarist Jimmy Page was one of the first to shell out the necessary £15 for the Tone Bender, and one of the earliest jobs he used it on to get a crude, rasping sound from his Les Paul Custom was P J Proby's 'Together' (recorded summer 1964).

No sooner had Mr Page done that than Jeff Beck was round to borrow the Bender for a Yardbirds session. They'd tried out some sitars for the new single, 'Heart Full Of Soul', Jeffrey explained to James, but it didn't work. So he used Page's fuzz box — and the result was released in June 1965.

The fad for the fuzz grew during the 1960s from these early experiments, and the historically curious would do well to cop an ear to delights such as Eric Clapton's offering on Cream's 'Sunshine Of Your Love' or Jimi Hendrix's pyrotechnical display during the Woodstock festival called 'Star Spangled Banner'. Non-guitarists joined in too: try Keith Emerson's Hammond rantings on 'America' (The Nice), or a milder-mannered but similarly be-Hammoned Steve Winwood throughout 'Gimme Some Loving' (Spencer Davis Group). All rely on the early fuzz pedal for their sonic prowess.

The next big leap for the sound of the fuzz box came when integrated circuits (ICs) replaced the internal transistors, and in the early 1970s fashion turned for a while to little boxes which plugged right on to your guitar's jack socket (Dan Armstrong's range, for example), or to combining fuzz with other effects in a single box. Later in the decade the introduction of silent switching did much to attenuate bonks and clanks as effects boxes were turned on by legion of fuzz-laden guitarists.

The most successful effects maker of the 1970s was a New York based company called MXR, who did much to popularise the phaser. By the mid-1980s MXR had dwindled, but before they went they claimed that their biggest selling effects box ever... no, not the phaser, but the Distortion Plus fuzz box. So the fuzz survived, just.

Now in the late 1980s we see something of a revival. We seem, in fact, to have a fuzz box, and to be in the process of using it.

A fuzz box may be called something else these days (overdrive, distortion, heavy metal, metal master, tube screamer, and so on), but it remains a good old signal squaring and harmonic enrichment device at heart.

A few companies are keenly recycling the history of the fuzz box. Some highlight one of the original intentions of the fuzz box — to synthesise the sound of a valve amp — by designing fuzz boxes with real valves in them. Guyatone made one; Chandler still do (the Tube Driver). Other outfits are re-releasing old classics — particularly, it seems, if jimi Hendrix had anything to do with them (eg Roger Mayer's Fuzz Face unit).

Fuzz will never die. Fuzz is all around us. And in fact it is here that we must leave our little historic journey, because the fuzz have just arrived. Something to do with a distortion of the truth.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Mar 1987

Feature by Tony Bacon

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