Breaking Down The Overdrive Effect, Part II: Distortion and Fuzz

A few days ago, we detailed a brief history of the overdrive pedal as well as cleared up some of the confusion between the differences and similarities between it, distortion and fuzz. You can read that post here: Breaking Down The Overdrive Effect. This is a continuation of that article. Today, we’re going to give you the deeper look at both the distortion and fuzz effect.

Breaking Down Distortion
By definition, distortion pedals are pretty much designed to change a guitar’s signal in and of themselves. To use a rough analogy to tube amp tone, where overdrives are looking to take you into anywhere from pushed to cranked JTM45 or tweed Bassman, distortions aim to do the Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, Bogner Ecstasy, or six-Laney-full-stacks trick in a 3"x5" box. These pedals are meant screw with your sound. They generally filth it up and slap their own notion of the ideal heavy rock or metal EQ all over your tone’s backside. But of course they will also boost the guitar signal as well (depending on the volume/output/level settings) and the sound we associate with them is still some confluence of pedal and amp, not to mention guitar.

Basic distortion boxes can be built around a simple system of transistors and clipping diodes, to both boost the signal and alter the waveform. Most units, however, very roughly resemble the standard mass-production overdrives detailed in our previous article, with the heavy work done by opamps, some tone-shaping stages and input/output buffers. The ProCo Rat set the standard for heavy distortion sounds above and beyond the capabilities of the MXR Distortion + and the Ibanez Tube Screamer, although in fact its design is surprisingly similar to the former, with silicon diodes in place of germanium, and an added tone control.

All mass-market brands offer at least one distortion pedal – and often many. Boss, for one, tries to cater to all possible tastes. Its DS-1 (not to be confused with the SD-1 overdrive) is one of the workhorses of the breed, with some famous players happy to stomp on its rectangular switch, including both Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. The DS-2 takes things a step further, while the MT-2 Metal Zone and MD-2 Mega Distortion get successively grittier. And Boss isn’t the only one, with DOD, Ibanez, Marshall and many, many others doing the same, along with a few of the boutique makers. This abundance is most distinctive in many “metal” pedals that go beyond even the standard distortion sounds. These generally offer the archetypal scooped-mid sound with thudding lows and crispy highs. Many are adjustable for anything from classic rock to metal sounds, with a tone control that acts more to reduce or accentuate mids rather than the usual high boost/cut, and often a “resonance” control or similar to adjust the fullness of the bass.

Getting a Feel for the Fuzz
Other than the old cranked amp or faulty preamp channel, these are the predecessors of true distortion units. Fuzzes were also among the first of the transistorized guitar effects being built back in the early 1960s – which is no surprise when you discover the simplicity of most of them. It’s almost pointless to describe the sound of a vintage-style fuzz tone more than the name already does. They slather a slightly wooly, rounded, warm but sparkly distortion all over the guitar signal – in other words, fuzzy – to give more meat, girth, and sustain to the sound. More imposing units will adulterate the entire signal and bend it to their own synthetic demands, known in the business as “brick-wall processing,” as Hendrix-approved effects builder Roger Mayer puts it himself (meaning your signal hits that wall and cannot pass through without a total transformation of its nature and character), while those which many consider to be the more playable devices retain elements of your dynamics, touch, feel, and core tonality. In the case of “brick wall” type fuzzes, the resultant sound is still, usually, more processed and artificial than any of the preceding types of pedals in this category. The more dynamic fuzz pedals, however, are great for working with you and preserving the core elements of your touch and original tone. Turn a tube amp up to where it’s starting to break up and you’ve got gentle overdrive; crank it to the max and you’ve got heavy distortion. Pull out one of the pair of output tubes, use the wrong-value bias resistor on a preamp tube, or beat it senseless with a crowbar and you might just get it to sound like fuzz. It’s not a natural sound, but it can be a great one, and it’s a major part of many players’ signature tones.

If the fuzz is the original player of the overdrive effects, then the Arbiter/England Fuzz Face (introduced 1966) is the godfather of the fuzz pedals. A handful of other fuzzes came first, but this distinctive round, smiling box is the one most guitarists point to when identifying the fuzz tone of the gods. Why? Two words: Jimi Hendrix. And you can’t mention the tone of the Fuzz Face without mentioning another two other words: germanium transistors. When these fuzz fans point to the Fuzz Face, however, they don’t point to just any Fuzz Face. They point to a good one. The quality of these pedals varies wildly, mainly because the tolerances of germanium transistors themselves varies wildly and sorting out the good ones was more work than the makers could afford to put in (or, perhaps, knew was necessary). Contemporary makers from Fulltone to Z.Vex to Mayer take the time and trouble to laboriously sort their germanium transistors, and it pays off huge in terms of tone and consistency.

Many readers will already know that germanium has been the effects buzzword of the past many years. These transistors are considered softer, rounder, more musical. Don’t be fooled: that doesn’t mean they make music all by themselves, you have to make music through them. But that’s not such a bad thing. Open up a Fuzz Face for the first time and you’re likely to be startled by its simplicity, and other early fuzzes like Maestro’s Fuzz-Tone (1963) and Sola Sound’s Tone Bender (1965) are equally basic. As far as the Face goes, you’ll find fewer than ten components on the board, two of them being those crucial AC128 or NKT275 transistors. Interestingly, the Tone Bender originally used two OC75 germanium transistors made by Mullard, the highly-regarded British tube manufacturer.

Not much going on here inside of a vintage Fuzz Face.


Later makes of fuzzes, and later generations of those above of overdrives and distortions, moved on to silicon transistors. Many players found the silicon-based models a little harsher sounding and love for the original germanium transistors began to grow. Even with that said, plenty of guitarists get along just fine with the silicon variety. Eric Johnson, well-known for his outstanding tone, has used a silicon-transistor Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face to drive the rhythm of his famous multi-amped, multi-routed set-up. He also holds the unit together with a rubber band because he says the bottom plate’s central mounting screw affects its tone. Make of this what you will.

High-end builders of today have gone back to germanium en masse for their classic fuzz tones, and most of them test their transistors to sort out the few that will do the job correctly. They put them in anything from vintage-style units (like Fulltone’s ’69, Frantone’s The Sweet, and Roger Mayer’s Classic Fuzz) to way-out updates of the breed (such as Z.Vex’s Fuzz Factory).

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