Jack White's Third Man delivers a positively monstrous no-frills octave fuzz.
Jack White formed Third Man Records back at the turn of the 21st century. Like most small label proprietors, he started the company to release records that big labels wouldn’t touch, whether it was a White Stripes live rarity, a 7" from blues primitivist Seasick Steve, or an LP from psych-pop trickster Kelly Stoltz. When you visit the Third Man shop in Nashville, you get the sense that Third Man remains a labor of love. It’s a minimalist affair, mostly stocked with limited editions of records that strike White’s fancy.
Third Man has diversified a bit and now offer a stompbox called the Bumble Buzz. It’s an octave fuzz built for Third Man by Vancouver, British Columbia’s Union Tube & Transistor, and it reflects the ethos that guides Third Man’s record business. While the knob-free, on-or-off Bumble Buzz may not have widespread appeal, it’s a lovingly designed and executed heirloom that will blow the minds of those who get it and can imagine a place for it in their own music.
Trip Inside This Hive
The Bumble Buzz is so visually arresting that you might not notice that the only functional component is the footswitch. The bold neo-Art Deco graphics look killer. There are abundant visual puns just in the electrified bee logo. (It looks like a tube, a transistor, and a bee with a lightning bolt stinger.) The pedal has a clear visual kinship to Union Tube & Transistor’s other stomp boxes, most overtly in the laser-etched aluminum label, which looks lifted from the engine compartment of an old Studebaker.
Given the lack of knobs and switches, it’s little surprise to encounter a relatively spartan circuit inside. The wiring is tidy, and the board itself is affixed to the enclosure via the same assembly used to adhere the label to the front. It’s streamlined and rock-solid. It also reflects Union Tube & Transistors commendable desire to building repairable stompboxes—a rare commodity in our disposable age.
Brawny Octave Buzzer
The four-transistor Bumble Buzz may not have a varied voice, but it bellows with authority and an outsized presence. It’s the Howlin’ Wolf of fuzzes. The basic voice is a lot like a Univox Superfuzz in the first (unscooped) tone-switch position, though there’s a little less high-octave presence and a more corpulent lower-octave sound. It’s louder than a Superfuzz at maximum output, and much of the extra thrust—particularly on the bass side—has the round muscularity of a Big Muff. (Not surprising, given White’s well-chronicled affinity for the current, full-sized NYC version of the Muff.)
Like many octave fuzzes, the Bumble Buzz is less than ideal for chords. In fact, playing anything other than I-V power chords reduces the Bumble Buzz to a spitting, hiccupping mess. But the Bumble Buzz excels at generating bossy single-note riffs and leads. Working below the seventh fret, you get the best results playing slower runs, which let the octave overtones bloom a bit. I had great success playing in this style with humbuckers and single-coils, though the extra cut from, say, a Telecaster bridge pickup would add a cool complexity to the bass-heavy output.
Leads played further up the neck change the character considerably. In this range, the individual colors in the octave spectrum become more defined and harmonious. The Bumble Buzz reacts relatively well to picking nuances in these environs, at least for a fuzz with so much octave content. This lets you speed up your attack and use hammer-ons, slides, and bends without signal collapse. And while the ring modulation-like artifacts aren’t as pronounced as what you might hear in a Superfuzz or MXR Blue Box, they’re strongly present, adding a touch of cool dementia to a rich octave fuzz.
Though you hear traces of Superfuzz and White’s beloved Big Muff in the Bumble Buzz, it’s a distinctive octave fuzz that inhabits a cool world somewhere between the two. Union Tube & Transistor built this pedal like a rock. Its obvious quality, rich sounds, and the chance to own a slice of Jack White’s creative universe will justify the steep $325 price tag for some. Players who don’t dig White or octave fuzz might find the pedal frivolous. But to write the Bumble Buzz off on this count would be a mistake. It’s a powerful fuzz that can color a riff or lead in fascinating ways.