Sola Sound was the first British manufacturer to offer a fuzz box, the Tone Bender MkI from 1965. Most Tone Bender models (including the MkI, MkII, MkIII, and MkIV) featured three germanium transistors, although the “Mk1.5” had two.

Early Production Units
Excluding early experimental units and one-offs from the likes of Mayer and Rhodes, commercial fuzz boxes really hit their stride in 1965 and ’66, by which time every music-electronics manufacturer worth their salt simply had to have a one on the market.

Although the concept had originated in the U.S., the U.K. was such a hotbed of creativity in the mid ’60s—both in terms of music and the gear used to make it—that far more new designs were springing from those shores, although several of the early units (including the Sola Sound Tone Bender) were largely copied from the Maestro Fuzz-Tone circuit. Significant early British fuzz boxes included the Vox V816, the Rangemaster Fuzzbug, the Arbiter Fuzz Face (Hendrix’s favorite, although his were often modified by Mayer), John Hornby Skewes’ Zonk Machine, WEM’s Pepbox, the Vox Tone Bender, the Baldwin-Burns Buzzaround, Marshall’s Supa Fuzz, Rotosound’s Fuzz Box, and the Selmer Buzz-Tone. Meanwhile, the U.S. saw the development of the Mosrite Fuzzrite and Sam Ash Fuzzz Box, although more would follow in the next year or two—notably with Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews first supplying the Foxey Lady fuzz to Guild before releasing his own Big Muff Pi in 1969. And from there on out … good luck keeping up with the explosion.

Unforgettable Fur
It’s easy to see why the fuzz pedal became such a sensation early on, when there was no other means of achieving saturated distortion other than cranking up your amp to ear-blistering decibel levels. It’s impressive that the effect has continued to proliferate for more than 50 years, though—even in the face of more realistically tube-like overdrives and multi-channel, high-gain amps with effective master volume controls that allow fully tube-driven lead tones at more reasonable volumes. The fact remains that, when used well, fuzz slathers the guitar in an infectiously rich and textured soundscape that really can’t be achieved in any other way, or at least not as simply as plugging into one of these minimalist boxes.

Although fuzz was first developed to imitate distorting tubes, it was often seen by the marketing departments of early manufacturers as a means of enabling guitarists and bassists to imitate the razz and rasp of a horn player. Hence the names that adorned some models, like the Maestro Bass Brassmaster and the Roland Bee Baa (which takes us full circle to Keith Richards’ use of the Fuzz-Tone on “Satisfaction,” with which he recorded a guitar line that was originally just intended as a holding place for a horn part that never happened).

Although fuzz was first developed to imitate distorting tubes, it was often seen by the marketing departments of early manufacturers as a means of enabling guitarists and bassists to imitate the razz and rasp of a horn player.

The pedal’s greatest efficacy became, though, its ability to help push a good amp to where you wanted to get it. More tone-conscious early proponents—Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page among them—soon learned to incorporate fuzz into a well-blended sonic stew in which the device helped push an on-the-edge tube amp into luscious overdrive, rather than jumping out as an effect in its own right.

Some of the better latter-day users of the circuit exemplify why fuzz remains so addictive. Listen to the irresistibly thick, juicy pillow of tone that Dan Auerbach achieves on Black Keys songs like “Lonely Boy” or “Money Maker,” or the relentless granular grind of Fu Manchu’s “Evil Eye,” and you hear sounds that are really only achievable via a good fuzz pedal. Put another way: Fuzz might have proved a means of imitating a cranked tube amp early on, but it has long since established its own thing—something that even cranked tubes can’t match.

From Subtly Dynamic to Utterly Unhinged
Part of the beauty of a good fuzz pedal is that, while it can be used to create some extreme noise, it also allows a lot of dynamics and player control when used judiciously. While the most popular fuzz circuits contain two (Fuzz Face), three (Tone Bender), or four (Big Muff) transistors—the components responsible for the bulk of the “clipping” or distortion—the more austere versions can be made with a total of 10 components, so there often isn’t a whole lot going on inside a fuzz box.

The British engineer Roger Mayer, who built early custom fuzz pedals for several notable guitarists and for a time was guitar tech for Jimi Hendrix, put it to me like this: “A simple circuit, if it’s designed in a certain way, becomes a very complex thing, analytically. It becomes organic, so the actual sound itself then begins to take on a human quality, because quite naturally you are taking information from the guitarist’s playing technique or from the input, and that’s control in itself, determining its own output. It hasn’t had an algorithm or a set of parameters placed on it to predetermine the sound [the way a digital effect has].”

Jimi Hendrix preferred the Arbiter Fuzz Face, which took his amp’s tone to new places and allowed his inimitable touch to remain intact, thanks to the device’s responsiveness to pick attack and other factors.

So Mayer is saying that much of the beauty of a good fuzz is in its controllability—that it can be “played,” or controlled, according to the strength of the player’s pick attack or the setting of his or her guitar’s volume control. This is one of the fundamental characteristics that makes a good fuzz pedal amenable to use in virtually any style. Pick lightly or dial down your guitar’s volume, and many of the better fuzz pedals will clean up to a surprising degree, retaining a juicy thickness in the guitar tone, yet without the inherent fuzz and outright distortion that the effect was made to produce. That, according to Mayer, is when “it takes on an organic quality, a very human type of sound. All that stuff that was done with Jimi on all the records, even the stuff that was very distorted, it was very human sounding.”

On the other hand, bend a fuzz beyond what it was intended to do and you can produce some extremely creative and expressive sounds. In addition to the balance between gain (a knob also often labeled “fuzz” or “sustain”) and output levels, the variables between other internal parameters can greatly affect the character of a fuzz pedal’s sound. To tap into these variables, creative makers are adding controls to govern things like transistor bias settings, battery condition, modified EQ filtering, added booster stages, and to simulate over- or under-spec components, the manipulation of which can change the sound of what is otherwise a known classic—a Fuzz Face or a Big Muff, for example—into something wild and unrecognizable. ZVEX was one of the first makers to do this in a successful production model with its Fuzz Factory, and several other pedals have gone that route since: notably the Blackout Effectors Musket Fuzz, EarthQuaker Devices’ Hoof, Epigaze Audio’s Singularity Expanded Vintage MkII, and the Death by Audio Supersonic Fuzz Gun, among others. Meanwhile, the Fuzz Factory itself went further over the top in 2016 as the Fuzz Factory 7, with added control parameters.

Twist the gate and comp knobs on a ZVEX Fuzz Factory, and you can take the pedal from smooth and thick to spitty and harsh to glitchy and verge-of-death sounding, recreating the otherwise accidental freak tones produced when a pedal’s battery is losing voltage or its transistors are improperly biased. Tap these intentionally and bend them to your own creative ends, and you’ve got a pedal that’s exponentially more expressive than the standard fuzz.

Author Dave Hunter demos six different fuzzboxes to show you the flavors of filth.