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Stompbox Classics: Tone Bender, Part 2

October 21, 2009
Hey fuzz freaks! Welcome back to Stomp School. This month we’ll continue our riveting discussion of Tone Benders. First a bit more history, and then we’ll explain how it’s relevant today. Last time we covered the early Tone Bender era, circa 1965–1966, which included the Tone Bender MKI and the MKII Professional Tone Bender. But there’s much more to the story, so check it out…


Colorsound Jumbo Tone Bender
The early Tone Benders produced by Sola Sound were actually very few in number. More common were the Tone Bender variants the company was subcontracted to build for other brands, such as Marshall, Park, Rotosound and Vox. Although they were all much the same under the hood, the only one of these to actually bear the name Tone Bender was the Vox MKII. By 1967, Vox had begun making the Tone Bender themselves, moving production to Italy. The Italian-made Vox became the most widely available and recognized of all vintage Tone Benders, but it was also quite a different beast than its predecessors, using a two-transistor circuit design that more closely resembled a Fuzz Face. The Italian subcontractor was Elettronica Musicale Europea (EME), who made the Vox Clyde McCoy wahwah and Vox combo organs as well.

More Changes
In 1968, Sola Sound released the Tone Bender MKIII, which was a three-transistor fuzz, much like the MKII, with the addition of a tone control and a different cast-metal housing. Only a handful of these were actually made, although a later Vox-branded MKIII was much more common. In 1969, Sola put the MKIII into a new enclosure and called it the Tone Bender MKIV. That enclosure was the now-familiar stamped metal case that Sola Sound would subsequently use for their Colorsound brand of effects.


Colorsound Power BoostBender
The year 1970 brought us the acclaimed Tone Bender Fuzz, again very much like the MKIV but with a different name and graphics. Although it bore no brand, the Tone Bender Fuzz had all the hallmarks of the early-70s Colorsound line. The earliest versions used three germanium transistors like the MKIV, but the circuit was soon revised to use the increasingly cheaper and more reliable silicon transistors that had recently become available. Another three-transistor fuzz, the Colorsound Power Boost, was added to the line at this time as well, and then renamed Colorsound Overdriver in 1973.

In addition to expanding their Colorsound brand, Sola Sound continued to manufacture its effects pedals for other British companies, such as Barnes & Mullins (B&M) and Carlsbro, but they reserved the name Tone Bender for their own products. The early 1970s saw the introduction of the Colorsound Jumbo Tone Bender and Supa Tone Bender. By this time, the circuit had been revised to such an extent that it was nearly identical to the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. Thus ended the era of the true Tone Bender.

For more than two decades, the Tone Bender as we know and love it today lay dormant and forgotten. There was a late-70s Colorsound Tone Bender Distortion, which used an IC and clipping diodes—this is not a Tone Bender. Sometime in the early 1990s, the Vox Tone Bender Fuzz (model V829) appeared, announcing itself as “Germanium Charged.” It did indeed use a pair of modern generic germaniums, but it’s still not what we consider a real Tone Bender. Of more significance was the mid-90s Sola Sound Tone Bender Professional MKII reissue, which was reportedly hand-built by the late Dick Denney, legendary designer of the Vox AC30. Now that was a Tone Bender! The example I have was built using three NOS metal can Mullard OC42 transistors. Unfortunately, the reissue was short-lived.


Colorsound Supa Tone Bender
With so few original Tone Benders in circulation, how do we account for the current Tone Bender craze? As I said in last month’s column, the phenomenon can be mostly attributed to the DIY effects community, which has grown exponentially over the last 10 years. The two-knob and three-knob classic Tone Bender circuits are among the most popular for DIY’ers to build. The momentum was building as Tone Bender intrigue took hold.

Parallel to the DIY movement has been the rise of the micro-boutique and individual pedal builders. Here’s where it gets good, because this odd little microcosm of music gear manufacturing has fostered more than a handful of skilled pedal builders with the passion and dedication required to track down rare and tuneful components, and then assemble them with the patience and precision required to bring you something like… well, like a hand-built, pointto- point wired MKII Tone Bender. And that, my friends, is a very good thing.

It’s a great time to be pedal freak, it really is. We’ll see you next time. Until then, keep on stompin’!


Tom Hughes
(a.k.a. Analog Tom) is the owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only (formusiciansonly.com) and author of Analog Man’s Guide To Vintage Effects. Questions or comments about this article can be sent to: stompschool@formusiciansonly.com. Analog Man (analogman.com) is one of the largest boutique effects manufacturers and retailers in the business, established by “Analog” Mike Piera in 1993. Mike can be reached at AnalogMike@aol.com.