What to Look for in a Tone Bender-Style Fuzz

Present-day guitarists are spoiled for choice when it comes to quality fuzz. And while that is a great situation to find ourselves in, it also means choosing the right fuzz for our needs can be daunting. If you’re looking for a Tone Bender-style stomp but are bewildered by the available choices, here are few tips to help you narrow your search.

Firstly, it’s important to go into this knowing that many Tone Bender clones are built in the spirit and style of the originals—which means many have no DC power option or LED. If these are features you feel you need, be sure to check out whether the clone you are interested in has them. Size is another consideration: Originals were housed in enclosures that are, well, huge by today’s standards. Some clones replicate the larger sizes, while others offer a more compact solution. Check your board and see how much space you can spare before you start your search.

As far as using a Tone Bender goes, the vintage nature of the design means it generally sounds best with your signal going straight from your guitar to the fuzz, before any buffered effects in your signal chain. So be aware that you may need to alter your signal chain to get the sort of iconic tones that have come to be associated with the Tone Bender.

Prior to the MkIII, with its added treble control, Tone Benders came with level and attack controls. It is not unusual to see clones add extra controls. A bias control—which alters the electronic tuning of the transistors—can be useful, as germanium transistors are temperature sensitive. This means the bias—and therefore tone—of the pedal can change, depending on the weather. A bias control, whether an internal trim pot or a standard, top-mounted knob, allows you to compensate for changes in tone due to temperature, as well as shape the overall tone of the pedal.

Price-wise, Tone Benders can be more expensive than other pedals. Due to the scarcity of the original parts, especially germanium transistors, obtaining a Tone Bender clone that is 100-percent true to vintage specs can be quite hard on the wallet. This is because not only are the original transistors hard to obtain, but they are also from an era when components were manufactured with a much wider range of tolerance in the labeled electrical values. (In other words, while a part might be labeled at a certain spec, its actual value when measured with a meter may be off the labeled spec enough to significantly alter how it will sound in a fuzz circuit.) This component inconsistency means discerning builders must spend extra time and effort sifting through and testing the transistors’ actual values. Thus, you are paying for a builder’s ears, skill, and time, as well as the components in the box. For the Tone Bender, transistor selection and biasing is key. Each transistor needs to be individually tested to check for noise levels, and to determine what the gain and leakage of the transistor is. To work with the Tone Bender circuit, gain and leakage of each transistor needs to be within a certain range.

If you cannot find—or afford—a painstaking Tone Bender replica with the extremely rare original OC75 or OC81D transistors, don’t fret. Any quality germanium transistors with the right specs and that have been well selected, tested, and biased can make a fantastic-sounding Tone Bender-style fuzz. Ultimately, selection and biasing of the transistor is much more key than the part number or brand printed on the side of the component.

If you want to go all out and get as close to the originals as possible, I suggest checking out the big guns: D*A*M, Pigdog, and Castledine. All of these brilliant builders are intimately familiar with every aspect of the original pedals and build brilliant recreations with vintage-spec parts. If your budget won’t stretch that far but you still want the best, check out Super Electric Effects. Run by Jimmy Behan, this up-and-coming outfit produces stellar, vintage-spec Tone Bender-style fuzzes at a slightly more affordable price compared to the heavy hitters.