Why do we (lovers of rock and roll like myself) have such an attraction to the gnarly, distorted sounds of overdriven instruments (guitars, bass, synthesizers, whatever) heard on thousands of classic albums? What’s the appeal? Is it a conscious choice to embrace these unpure signals or the subconscious at play?
I think it goes along with the whole ethos of rock and roll: making loud sounds LOUDER because you can and want to. Expression in its simplest form: volume. The pleasure and, dare I say, relaxation that comes from a slow and steady stream of airwaves that bathe your senses as you sit in front of a blaring stereo. Or the celebration of firing off your favorite track from your iPod, listening as it travels like an ever-climbing rocket launched toward the sky. What’s wrong with pretty, soft and sweet?? Nothing…that’s what cheesy ballads are for.
I can’t explain it, but as a guitarist and music listener I am completely obsessed with distorted, overdriven, fuzz tones…this obsession leads me on what seems like a never-ending journey in search of the thickest and wooliest tones I can find (on record and in the form of various musical instruments/effects/random items used like instruments ala THIS). I find the greatest appeal and charm in the fuzzes; overdrives are great for a crisp boost and adding smoothness to a sound, distortions for articulation and sheer power; but fuzzes sit in between the two like a bearded, fat man in the middle seat on the 3:15 bus.
Without getting into all the minutia involved with these effects (silicon vs. germanium transistors, transistor bias, input voltage chokes, etc.) there are so many variations on this fuzz sound that you can have a different one for breakfast every day of the week…mmmm. From a soft clip to a hairy, lo-fi growl; a mid-scooped rasp or a throaty, mid-high bark; a smooth grind or a sputtery, dying battery bit-crushed sound.
Listen closely to the loose, slightly uncontrollable quake of the most famous fuzzboxes of all time, the Electro Harmonix Big Muff; that beautiful sound created when a note or chord is so saturated with electrical input that it has reached critical mass; one that has begun to crumble and is on the verge of collapsing in upon itself. It’s almost as though these devices are shaking the subtle harmonics out of each note, dissolving the composure of these tame and normal sounds and releasing their inner soul. Electric bloom!
Let’s take a trip through the history/highlights of the fuzz sound:
Early/Mid ’60s: Musicians stumble upon this magic box that makes their instruments sound like they’re capable of leveling a small building. Naturally, the human ear (and more importantly brain) likes this and wants more. No longer do musicians have to tear the cones in their speaker cabinets to get this glorious sound. British bands like The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones come to America with their fuzz boxes; little girls scream; young men revel in the sound of syrupy, distorted guitars…
Late 60s/70s: The Beatles take fuzz tones psychedelic, Hendrix single-handedly destroys and rebuilds what we knew as guitar playing (using only wood, steel strings and a FuzzFace pedal) and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour slyly sneaks some fuzz into his soulful lead guitar voice. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons was stringing together up to 6 Expandora fuzzes to create his ‘Lapdog of Distortion’, heard on records like Tres Hombres, which he used to bring some Texas heat to the blues. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin…Rangemasters, Tone Benders, on and on we go…
Late 70s/80s: Besides a couple Sabbath-clone bands, I’ll be skipping this decade. You can thank hair metal for that one (bastards!).
Late 80s/90s: Ahhh, rebirth of the fuzz: J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr., Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo & Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins break out those ancient fuzz machines and in doing so, help define the alt-rock thing going on at the time. Enter the almighty fuzz lords Kyuss…masters of the massive-volume amp riffage that would later give birth to bands like Queens of the Stone Age and stripped down garage-rock bands to follow in the…
2000s -now: Fuzz revival is in full-swing with lo-fi garage rock and between the albums Elephant & Magic Potion you can hear almost every classic fuzz tone known to mankind. Then there are bands like SunnO))) that are capable of re-awakening dormant volcanoes with their sub-sonic, fuzzed-out rumble.
In a future installment, I’ll do the trifecta for gearheads: a trident review of some fuzz pedals that have me giddy as a school girl: the Swollen Pickle MkII, Fuzz Factory and the Bluebeard Fuzz. And if this wasn’t totally boring for you, check out the awesome documentary Fuzz: The Sound That Revolutionized the World.