The Fuzz Factory, from ZVEX, was among the first modern germanium-based dirt pedals to incorporate more complex controls and expand the potential of the effect.
The fuzz boom of the mid ’60s was enabled by a boom in transistors. These compact, solid-state amplification devices made it possible to design sonic circuits that would have been unfeasibly cumbersome to achieve with tube technology. These early transistors were made with a chemical element called germanium—a silvery-white metalloid that is part of the carbon family and acts as a semiconductor when correctly harnessed in an electronic circuit. Fans of the earliest vintage fuzz pedals swear by the sonic properties of germanium transistors, which tend to be a little softer sounding and more compressed than the silicon transistors that proliferated by the late ’60s. As a result, players often cherish these early pedals, while many makers continue using germanium transistors in contemporary designs.
The granddaddy of fuzz pedals, the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, used three RCA 2N270 germanium transistors, while most versions of its British semi-equivalent, the Sola Sound (later Colorsound) Tone Bender, also carried three germanium transistors in the interesting combination of one Mullard/Phillips OC75 and two Texas Instruments 2G381s. Many other classics, however, including the Sola Sound Tone Bender “Mk1.5” and the Arbiter (later Dallas-Arbiter) Fuzz Face, were made with only two germanium transistors. In the Fuzz Face’s case, it was usually NKT275s or AC128s. According to Dan Coggins, designer of the legendary Lovetone pedals of the mid to late ’90s, “Although they [the NKT275 and AC128] are both germanium, they do sound slightly different because of the geometry of the construction inside them. I’ve fiddled with old Fuzz Faces that I’ve fixed for people, and I’ve put in AC128s [in place of NKT275s] because that’s all I could get … and they certainly sounded different, though I don’t know if they sounded better. It all depends.”
It’s worth noting that fuzz fiends can easily go down the rabbit hole chasing the supposed “sounds” of specific makes of germanium transistors, but, while transistors can influence circuits differently, it’s always worth trying any pedal as a whole before deciding you must have the particular traits of one type of transistor or another. Nevertheless, there’s little argument that good germanium transistors can do something that just isn’t easily achieved without them. That said, transistor type is really a matter of horses for courses: Plenty of great tones can be achieved with non-germanium components. While germanium transistors are essential to ZVEX’s Fuzz Factory and Fuzz Probe, for example, Zachary Vex tells us, “I’m not absolutely hung up on the concept of germanium being the be-all and end-all for fuzz. I mean, there’s an awful lot of fuzz textures.”
Along with their appealingly organic sound, germanium transistors can exhibit wide swings in tolerances, meaning any two—or 10—coming off the assembly line side by side rarely sound exactly the same. Aware of this phenomenon, good latter-day makers test and sort germanium transistors to find those that perform as desired. As Roger Mayer told me, “The reality is that you’ve got to buy thousands of them. Then you’ve got to sit down and test them all, and you’re only going to come up with a small percentage that are any good.” Manufacturers in the ’60s and early ’70s didn’t go to such trouble and tended to load in transistors semi-randomly. As a result, early fuzz pedals that used them could sound quite different. Players hip to these wide swings understood that they often needed to try 10 or 20 Fuzz Faces or Tone Benders to find the best-sounding examples among them.
The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi was one of the first silicon-transistor-based fuzz pedals and remained so from 1969 through the Sovtek era to the present day—save for some special editions, like the EHX Germanium 4 Big Muff.
Germanium transistors also react to temperature, often sounding optimal when cooler and losing composure a little as they heat up. “You should stick your germanium Fuzz Face-type pedal in the fridge,” Vex laughs as he only half-jokingly advises an experiment. “Leave it in there for a few hours, take it out, plug it in, and listen to the way it changes as it warms up—because it’ll change a lot. The gain on the transistor will change almost by double, depending on the temperature range.”
The advent of silicon transistors in the late ’60s brought tighter tolerances to these small components, and a more consistent performance to the pedals that contained them. They also changed the inherent sound of these circuits somewhat. While many players mourned the absence of specific qualities of germanium transistors—arguably heard as a rounder, more musical sound—others dug the attack and aggression that silicon brought to these pedals, and found it just right for the heavier forms of rock that evolved from the late ’60s into the ’70s.
Fuzz Faces started to incorporate silicon transistors in 1969, and around this time many other makers started switching to silicon, too, simply because they were touted in the industry as being more rugged and more consistent. Electro-Harmonix’s Big Muff Pi was a silicon design right from the start. And for all the talk of silicon fuzz pedals being edgier and more harsh, with more jagged clipping when pushed into distortion, they can certainly be used to create extremely warm, round, musical guitar tones when desired. It’s telling that tone hounds like Eric Johnson and Joe Bonamassa have long preferred silicon fuzz pedals. Ultimately, there’s a huge variety in silicon fuzz pedals, too, and this later (if only slightly) technology accounts for a larger swathe of today’s fuzz market than germanium transistors do.
Several makers also provide the opportunity to sample the differences between silicon and germanium in circuits that are otherwise similar. Analog Man, for one, makes several renditions of the Sun Face fuzz, a Fuzz Face clone, using various types of germanium and silicon transistors—the germanium Sun Face AC128 versus the silicon Sun Face BC183, for example. Jim Dunlop manufactures several iterations of its current Fuzz Face using germanium and silicon, and Fulltone offers both the ’69 MkII and the ’70-BC, which use germanium and silicon, respectively. Some other components usually vary, too, reflecting changes necessary to optimize each particular circuit, but these pedals do provide at least a semi-accurate A/B experience of the two technologies.
Several modern pedals, including the Black Cat Super Fuzz, are designed to emulate the widescreen sounds conjured by the Univox Super-Fuzz, which was Pete Townshend’s go-to box from the late ’60s to late ’70s.
Although germanium and silicon represent the classic fuzz dichotomy, other forms of technology have been used to create that sound. In 1978, Electro-Harmonix released the Big Muff Pi V4 using op amps (which later proliferated in standard overdrives and other types of pedals), while some makers have also included diode and LED clipping stages to achieve different ends. The latter—seen in stompboxes such as Keeley’s Psi Fuzz (which also uses an op-amp stage), the Black Arts Toneworks Pharaoh Supreme, and El Rey Effects’ Mystic—is generally intended to voice the character of the overall distortion, often to smooth out the potentially fizzy highs that some circuits might otherwise display.
Then and now, though, other alternative approaches blend a variety of technologies to come at the whole thing somewhat differently, yet resulting in an effect that’s still heard as fuzz. The Univox Super-Fuzz, for example—the choice of the Who’s Pete Townshend from the late ’60s to the late ’70s, and now a major cult favorite (popularly recreated today by Black Cat as the Super Fuzz)—uses several transistors to create and blend both fuzz and subtle octave-up effects, with added square-wave-clipping fuzz over the top from a pair of germanium diodes.
Tackle the Tone
Having covered the history and the tech, it really just remains to say get out there and try some fuzz! Given the immense diversity of fuzz pedals, and the vast range of sounds they can help you achieve, there’s really no reason to exile these pedals into the narrow stylistic box in which many players constrain them. Experiment with the subtleties, the extremes, and some of the classic sounds in between while integrating fuzz into your rig the way it was intended: as an extension of the guitar-to-amp connection, rather than a stylistic brick wall.
Whether it’s used to propel new-age blues raves like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Soul Trance” or Gary Clark Jr.’s “When My Train Pulls In,” or for mammoth grunge like Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” or Fu Manchu’s cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla,” or more experimental, otherworldly, yet still inherently musical sonic excursions like Sonic Youth’s “Starfield Road” or Dead Meadow’s “Sleepy Silver Door,” a good fuzz pedal can very likely open up new creative worlds for you, too.