The first 100 or so Tone Bender MkI fuzzes were housed in wooden enclosures, after which they were produced in black folded-steel boxes with a gold top panel. Photo courtesy of Stuart Castledine
Initially conceived as the British answer to the American-made Maestro Fuzz-Tone (built by a subsidiary of Gibson), the Tone Bender—and its somewhat confusing iterative evolutions over the years—went on to carve out its own definitive place in history. Its rank in the sonic pantheon in the sky is assured by its use on seminal recordings by a plethora of legendary guitarists from the British scene in the mid-to-late 1960s. Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Mick Ronson, and Pete Townshend were among the many users who deployed the Tone Bender to devastating aural effect.
The popularity of the U.S.-made Maestro FZ-1—and its scarcity in the U.K.—were leading impetuses for the design of the Tone Bender. Photo courtesy of Tim's Gear Depot
To be sure, the Tone Bender has a convoluted, murky history. But while it went through many changes during its time, each version had something to offer to eager guitarists who were ready to kneel at its altar of fuzzy brilliance. A host of differing companies and individuals all played a part in bringing its thunderous tones to fruition, so let’s make our way through the haze of history and attempt to find some clarity on the story behind this titan of tone.
In the Beginning…
Electronics engineer Gary Stewart Hurst, a former Vox employee, designed the first iteration of the Tone Bender MkI in 1965. Heavily inspired by the Gibson-built Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, which was hard to obtain in England at the time, Hurst produced a 3-transistor circuit after being asked by session musician Vic Flick for a pedal that would emulate the sound of the FZ-1 but with more sustain. (Flick, an in-demand session player of the era, is now most famous for playing the iconic James Bond riff.)
A critical Maestro design element that Hurst changed was the use of 9V power. Although this is now standard in virtually all guitar pedals, the few pedals that existed in 1965 were powered by 1.5V or 3V. This voltage boost, along with a few resistor-value tweaks, allowed the MkI—which features level and attack knobs, much like the Maestro’s volume and attack controls—to be louder and achieve greater sustain than the FZ-1.
A raspy yet articulate fuzz with laser beam focus, the MkI offered guitarists the ability to coax the gritty, distorted sounds that were coming into vogue without having to resort to Kinks guitarist Dave Davies’ method of taking a razor blade to his amp speakers for more breakup.
A classic early example of the MkI in action can be found on the 1965 Yardbirds’ single “Heart Full of Soul.” The story of how this came about is rather interesting, too: Originally a tabla and a sitar player had been booked to play on the song, but they purportedly had trouble with the 4/4 time signature, prompting Jeff Beck to use a MkI in his attempt to give the riff a more Eastern sound.
Early versions of the MkI were built by Hurst (in wooden enclosures) and sold by Macari’s Musical Exchange, a music store on Denmark Street in London. Hurst built approximately 100 MkI Tone Benders in the wooden enclosures before changing to a wedge-shaped, folded-steel enclosure with a gold-and-black finish.
Around the time of the introduction of these steel enclosures in mid-to-late 1965, the pedal began being marketed under the Sola Sound name—a brand created by brothers Joe and Larry Macari in late 1964.
Tone Benders were then sold both through Macari’s stores around the U.K. Starting with fuzzes and other effect pedals, the Macari’s later expanded into a range of musical products including amplifiers, mixers, spring reverbs, and microphones under the Colorsound brand, which they also started.
A leading proponent of the MkI was David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson. Frequently pairing it with a wah set to different fixed positions, Ronson used the Bender to push his sound through the sonic stratosphere on songs like “Moonage Daydream” off The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
The MkI.5 was sold under both the Sola Sound and Vox monikers. Here we have a 1967 specimen of the latter in a sandcast-aluminum enclosure. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Behan/SuperElectricEffects.com
The Tone Bender MkI.5
In early 1966, the Tone Bender went through the first of its many circuit changes. Reportedly looking for a cheaper, easier-to-produce design, Sola Sound equipped the Mk1.5 with two transistors (rather than three) and morphed the enclosures from the wedge style to a sleeker sandcast-aluminum design.
Tonally speaking, the MkI.5 has a different feel and response than its predecessor. Less saturated and with more low end, it’s a more controllable, less gnarly fuzz than the MkI.