How does a Fuzz pedal work?

fuzz explanationYou’ve heard of Fuzz pedals, and probably used one. But do you know how they work?


Fuzz is a type of distortion that was originally marketed in the early 1960’s as a device that you can use to emulate the sound of Orchestra instruments such as the Trumpet, Cello, Bassoon, Saxophone, etc. It was a Saxophone sound that Keith Richards wanted for the beginning of “Satisfaction,” that prompted him to try out a Fuzz pedal. It was also during this time that the Kinks, Link Wray, and many other early Rock & Roll and Blues guitar players reportedly punched holes in their speakers to get a fuzzy sound. You can hear a torn speaker in “Rocket 88” (the first Rock & Roll song), by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston. Other notable songs from that time that feature Fuzz are “You Really Got Me,” by The Kinks and “Rumble,” by Link Wray. The aggressive Fuzz tone of this song actually caused people to feel fearful, so the song was banned from the radio.

Fuzz Pedals

The first time Fuzz was created electronically and used in a recording was for a song called “Don’t Worry,” by Marty Robbins. The Fuzz effect on this song was created by a faulty preamp in the mixing console. The next year the producer recreated the effect and sold the design to Gibson, who made the first Fuzz pedal called the Maestro Fuzz Tone FZ1. The British version of this Fuzz effect was the Sola Sound Tone Bender. You can hear this type of Fuzz on many Led Zeppelin and early Rolling Stones songs. The Tone Bender was quickly followed by the Fuzz Face, a newer Fuzz pedal that was based on the Tone Bender and made popular by Jimi Hendrix.

Another significant Fuzz pedal that is similar to the others, but unique enough to talk about, is the Big Muff PI, which was created by Electro Harmonix. The Big Muff PI has been a very popular Fuzz pedal, and it’s been used by many great guitar players, including David Gilmour, Frank Zappa, and Kurt Cobain. A large portion of the Fuzz pedals available today are re-issued and modified versions of either the Tonebender, or the Big Muff PI Fuzz pedals.

Tonebender Fuzz pedals are very simple by nature and require only a few components: resistors, capacitors, potentiometers, and transistors. There are many easily obtainable, and inexpensive “Make Your Own Fuzz Pedal” kits available if you’d like to try to create your own Tone Bender Fuzz. Tonebender Fuzz has a very midrange tone. It adds some buzz, but the sound of your guitar will still come through. It cleans up nicely when you roll off the Volume on your guitar and it’s sensitive to your playing.

Fuzz Pedal Components

The main components to the Fuzz are the transistors. Germanium transistors were used before Silicon was introduced. Germanium transistors sound warmer and smoother than Silicon, and they are often the preferred transistor for Fuzz, despite reliability issues. Silicon transistors are much more dependable and offer higher gain, but they do have a much more sharp and treble tone. So, although Germanium is making a come-back, Silicon transistors continue to be used in almost all Fuzz pedals, as they have since the late 60’s.
Note: We’ll review the differences between Silicon and Germanium in greater detail in another post.

The Big Muff PI is a more complex Fuzz pedal (though still buildable), featuring four stages of transistors, which combine to create a very thick blanket of Fuzz. Most of the guitar’s signal is transformed by the pedal, leaving little of its original tone, and the Volume control does not do much to clean up the effect. What you do get is huge amounts of Fuzz and unbelievable Sustain. The Big Muff also has a Tone control that the Tonebender (original versions) does not have. Although a Germanium transistor version of the Big Muff exists, this Fuzz pedal is almost exclusively made using Silicone transistors.

Although the sound of these two types of pedals is very different, they both create their sound using transistors. Transistors are very lo fi amplifiers that distort and clip quite quickly, and add a lot of harmonic content when they do. The first transistor amplifies the guitar signal and feeds the second transistor a signal that will be too hot for it. So, since the second transistor can’t handle the signal, it clips it. The lo fi nature of the transistor causes it to add harmonic content to the signal when it clips, and the resulting blend of clipped signal and harmonic content is Fuzz. The more transistors you have, the more Fuzz you can create. You can see this with the thick fuzz of the four-stage Big Muff, as compared to the two-stage Fuzz Face.

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