In a previous entry into this “wondrous”, if not “ponderous” blogspace, I alluded to the fact that an industrious EE/designer could make a nice farthing or two just creating distortion pedals for electric guitar players. And even in that fleeting light-hearted moment I was quite serious, so much so that I think this subject should be pursued further. Why? Well, if you happened to see the September 2011 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, you may have noticed that the bulk of the issue is devoted to all things fuzz. Features include All About Fuzz, History of the Fuzz Face, 25 Fuzz Pedal Roundup, Fuzz Designer Roundtable, and 20 Fuzzed Out Song Classics.
Of all the electronic effects pedals that musicians use, guitarists in particular, never has there been one type that’s created so much room for so much controversy, conversation (sometimes violent), and creativity as the fuzz box. There are extremely complex instruments out there that involve tons of R&D, present Homeric layout issues, and usually tons of money for the end user. These include analog and digital delays, choruses, flangers, reverb units, ring modulators, rotating speaker, and emulators of all the aforementioned. None of these generate as much press and personal interest as the fuzz box.
What one might view as the simplest things to create, a device that enables something that was once reviled by all, distortion to be exact, offers the most potential for creativity and income. Since the late 1950’s when players began begging electronics designers and engineers to help them get some of the same sound they got when cranking their amplifiers’ volume controls up to 10, and in some cases 11, to the present, the quest for fuzz, or distortion, or tone goes on nonstop. And the pursuit goes on with a passion! You should also check out Lou's insight on his blog dealing with tubes versus transistors.
One would think that by now, with all our high-tech tools and apps, some lucky designer would have long since designed the ultimate fuzz/distortion/tone pedal that interfaces with everything from a PC to New Caledonia Mahogany Elbows. However, I’ll go on record as saying it is impossible to design the ultimate fuzz/distortion/tone pedal that interfaces with everything from a PC to a Big Mac (sans lettuce). It is impossible because, unlike the general, non-guitar-playing customer, the fuzz-box end user is perfectly imperfect from a designer’s point of view.
An example is definitely necessary here. Let’s say you are designing a digital media player. Once the device can play all the formats accurately, MP3, WAV, AIF, etc., there really is no room for audio improvement. The only opportunity for what some believe is innovation is to cram countless other and oft times unrelated functions into the device that are of no value audio wise. But the goal here is merely to keep the end user distracted, believing he or she is happy. This design strategy will not work when dealing with a fuzz box and a guitar-wielding end user.
With a fuzz device, or any musical effects pedal for that matter, the rule is less is more unless the more is easily accessible and actually of use. Most guitarists prefer having several pedals that do different things than one that does it all and they have to constantly step on it or adjust dials and buttons. Of course there are always exceptions and variations, but this is generally the case.
In terms of the fuzz/distortion pedal, every month at least three new ones or variations of older ones hit the market and each is different. The differences are quite obvious at times and extremely subtle at other times. No matter how you analyze it, fuzz, like rock and roll, is here to stay.
Next time, in Part II (two) let’s try define as close, yet as loosely as possible the differences between fuzz, distortion, and tone. In the mean time, charge up some 9V batteries.