From Jimi Hendrix to Jack White, Jimmy Page to the Black Keys, the fuzz pedal is a defining feature of rock music. Some see the distorted sound as only for garage or acid rock- something not quite accessible to the average listener. But it’s history and current usage actually are fairly widespread.
What does it sound like? Think of the Rolling Stones “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” or Beastie Boys “Sabotage.” It’s an effect that makes the sound a bit edgier instead of a clear chord or note. It’s been said the effect is like a massive bee stuck in a box. It’s not exactly the same thing as distortion or overdrive. It’s similar, but instead of sounding angry, its squared off sound waves just sound… like rock and roll. What are fuzz pedals used for?
Simply put, the pedals are used to make a more textured and interesting sound. In some ways, it mimics the human voice when particularly emotive or passionate. It’s not a consistent and pitch-perfect sound, just like an angry or excited singer. It turns out, that passionate dissonance is alluring, if hard to describe.
As many great discoveries are, the fuzz sound was a complete accident. In 1960 a sound engineer, Glenn Snoddy, was recording “Don’t Worry” with Marty Robbins. The sound from the bass player (Grady Martin) had a strange fuzzy sound due to a malfunctioning tube mixer. Everyone seemed to like the take with the fuzzy sound, which later became a hit in 1961, and so they didn’t use another take. The song is actually a standard country tune, apart from the strange, wonderful fuzz sound from the bass solo.
So, the quintessential rock and roll sound actually got its start from a country song.
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The Early Days Of Fuzz
The early product that produced this sound, on purpose, was the Fuzz-Tone, and in 1962 was still hard to find. Guitarists were eager to reproduce the tone in whatever they way they could. Many tried to concoct their own designs, anything that would twist and distort the sound. The Kinks guitarist Dave Davies was known to abuse his amp until it produced the right effect.
Many of the early pedals were inconsistent in their manufacturing, and Jimi Hendrix would buy huge amounts of them, carefully trying each one until he found the ones with just the right sound. The fuzz sound spread and became ever more popular from there. When The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and others all got on board and started using the British fuzz pedal called the Tone Bender, it was settled. The fuzz pedal was here to stay, distortion and all. People just could not get enough of the unique sound.
The Fuzz Pedals Of Today
Today’s fuzz pedals are much more uniform, and there are a lot to choose from. They also feature many more options and very user friendly. They all have those early experiments (based on an accident) as their framework. Modern guitarists utilize the fuzz pedal just as much as the classic rock stars. Jack White, with his reputation for using well-worn guitars and amps, often uses an old “Little Big Muff” which has been around 50 years. White focuses on technique, talent, and using whatever gear you happen to have around. The result is that much of his music sounds natural and imperfect, more like a live recording studio back in the 1960s than the hyper-produced sound of modern times. His music is direct nod to some of the classic rock guitarists he grew up admiring.
The Black Keys also have an identity just right for a modern homage to the old fuzz pedals. They didn’t start out having a bass player because the large, loud, fuzzy guitars just didn’t need it. What does the fuzz pedal do for you? Well, for the Black Keys, it provided just the kick the two-man garage rock outfit needed to sound like a band with three times that many musicians.
More Than Just For Rock Music
The fuzz pedal does not always have to mean hard rock and roll, though. It shows up in softer, pop music, as well. Jesus and the Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” using it with a sweet affect. There is even such a thing as “cello metal” which utilizes the fuzz pedal with cellos, which is perhaps not so strange, given that the original fuzz sound was from a bass player playing a country song.
The history of rock and roll includes many elements, certainly including a reliance on older rhythm and blues. But the revolutionary spark that gives it a special, crunchy, entertaining edge must be the fuzz pedal. It has enthralled musicians and listeners alike for more than fifty years, and though pop and hip-hop may have overtaken the top spots in music, there will always be a special place for rock and its fuzz pedal.