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Article Submitted courtesy of Mason Hoberg.
Who doesn’t love a good fuzzy guitar solo? It’s like the guitarist’s equivalent of a really loud motorcycle, because something about it just feels so right. Ever since the effect debuted in 1961, fuzz has been the effect for the musician who wants to push their tone to the next level.
Even though it’s been around from more than 50 years at this point, fuzz is still going strong. It’s currently enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity due in part to the work of the newest generation of blues-rock artists such as Jack White, The Black Keys, and Gary Clark Jr.
This may come as a shock to some of you, but fuzz actually originated on the 60s equivalent of a Blake Shelton record. Listen to it below:
As out of place as the solo sounds, this early use of fuzz was actually incredibly influential. The effect was later reproduced by the engineer of the album, Glen Snoddy, using a transistor circuit. He pitched the design to Gibson, and it later went on to become the famous Gibson Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone. Does that name ring a bell? It should, it was used by Keith Richards on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Keith’s early adoption of fuzz proved to be a huge blessing for Gibson, as the pedal was so popular that all models sold out by the end of 1965. The Fuzz-Tone’s success also spawned a hoard of imitators, such as the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, Mosrite FuzzRITE, and the Vox Tone Bender.
So - the difference between fuzz and distortion is a bit technical. And as if it weren’t confusing enough fuzz, distortion, and overdrive are distinct effects that are all classified as distortion. Distortion describes a phenomenon of sound, and a "distortion" pedal is named after that phenomenon. To put it simply, distortion in music refers to the modification to the amplification of a signal and its overtones.
Overdrive and distortion both get their sound from "hard clipping" which adds harmonic and inharmonic overtones to the original signal. These pedals were intended to recreate the “soft clipping” of an overdriven tube amplifier. Soft clipping is the organic sounding distortion favored by musicians seeking a more organic tone while hard clipping sounds a bit more digital/harsh. The reason for this is that hard clipping emphasizes frequencies that tend to clash with the inputted signal to a higher degree than soft clipping. Fuzz dramatically alters the harmonic content of the original signal, introducing a verity of complex overtones. Rather than attempting to emulate an amplifier, a fuzz tone is a completely unique sound.
This might be a controversial opinion among all of you or not, but I would argue that the use of fuzz effects have remained largely unchanged since their debut in the early 1960s. Sure, there have been the occasional changes to the materials involved, or the techniques with which the effect is assembled, but overall a fuzz pedal from the early 60s won’t sound all that different from a fuzz made today.
Unlike a lot of studio technology that’s been popularized over the decades, fuzz will never sound dated. The signature raspy sound that fuzz pedals provide isn’t a passing fad; it’s a vehicle for expression that speaks to something in all of us. The effect is equally at home in songs that are slow and fast, exciting or sad, and mainstream or counterculture. As long as music exists, fuzz will always be around.
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