Stompbox Classics: Tone Bender
The history of the iconic fuzzbox, the Tone Bender
Greetings, effects aficionados, welcome to another installment of “Stomp School.” This month we’re going to take some time to talk about Tone Benders. Nearly 45 years after its introduction, this iconic fuzzbox is one of the most coveted and revered of all vintage guitar pedals. Most recently, the Tone Bender has experienced a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to the availability of some highly regarded boutique clone benders, a seemingly bona fide reissue, and perhaps most significantly, the sudden reappearance of the reclusive designer of the Tone Bender, Mr. Gary Stewart Hurst.
Suffice to say, the Tone Bender is a hot commodity at the moment, so a good discussion is well warranted. But let’s first clarify what we mean when we refer to a Tone Bender. Over the years, the name “Tone Bender” has appeared on more than a dozen different pedals, some of which hardly resemble the others in appearance or design. From its earliest beginnings, the Tone Bender underwent continuous circuit revisions, was sold under numerous brands, and received more cosmetic alterations than… well you get the idea.
Legend has it that the Tone Bender was born in 1965 when British guitarist Vic Flick (best known for playing the famous “James Bond Theme” riff) walked into Macari’s Music Exchange on Demark Street in London with a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone that was not to his liking. He made the request to the shop’s proprietors, Larry and Joe Macari, that something be done to give the pedal more sustain. The Macari brothers gave the assignment to the young electronics wiz who worked for them, Gary Hurst.
Mid-nineties Sola Sound reissue of the Professional MKII, hand-built by the late Dick Denney. Late-sixties Italian-made Vox Tone Bender. Sola Sound Tone Bender MKIV. Photos by Tom Hughes
The very first Tone Bender (later christened Tone Bender MKI), was based on Hurst’s modified Maestro fuzz. In the course of a year, the Tone Bender was subject to a succession of revisions that yielded two different versions of the MKI, a “transitional” MK1.5, and finally the classic Tone Bender Professional MKII. An excellent history of the early development of the Tone Bender is recounted by David Main, builder of the D*A*M (Differential Audio Manifestations) line of pedals, on the D*A*M website.
The various iterations of the Tone Bender have had many circuit configurations, but it’s best known as a three-transistor germanium design, typified by the Professional MKII. This is the pedal associated with Jimmy Page during the early days of Led Zeppelin, and was a key component of Eric Clapton’s “Woman Tone” on the Disraeli Gears album by Cream. The MKII featured three germanium Mullard OC75 transistors (although some rare examples are reputed to have used Mullard OC81D transistors).
While the earliest American fuzzboxes seemed to have been created as sound effect novelties, there was no mistaking that the Tone Bender was there to make fuzz, and it meant business. It had a complex, saturated fuzz tone that was loud and in your face, making its American counterparts sound anemic, thin and buzzy. With minor alterations, the MKII was also sold as the Marshall Supa Fuzz, Park Fuzz Sound, and Rotosound Fuzz Box. This briefly summarizes the “classic era” of the Tone Bender. There’s quite a bit more to the story, but that will have to wait for another time.
This has all been a very nice bit of history, but it doesn’t answer the pertinent question: why Tone Bender, why now? Simply stated, it’s my opinion that it all started with the DIY community, which over the course of the last decade has fueled a growing interest in the Tone Bender design and kept the love alive. By its very nature, the germanium three-transistor circuit is a finicky design. It seems to sound best with components that are obsolete and difficult to procure. It begs to be tweaked and optimized and fussed over, and does not lend itself well to mass production. The major manufacturers won’t even touch it, and very few makers have attempted extended regular production runs, the Fulltone Soul Bender being one of the notable exceptions.
Many of today’s small boutique pedal builders actually cut their teeth in the DIY scene and have apparently taken their Tone Bender appreciation with them. A Tone Bender clone will thrive on the individual attention given by a skilled and dedicated builder, and will reward a builder greatly. Players are catching on, and the demand has been growing, evidenced most recently by a series of Limited Edition reissues from JMI, with the participation of none other than Gary Hurst. It’s been a long time coming, but the day of the Tone Bender has finally arrived.
Well, that’s enough fuzz for one day. Check back with us next month. Until then, keep on stompin’!
(a.k.a. Analog Tom) is the owner and proprietor of For Musicians Only (formusiciansonly.com) and author of Analog Man’s Guide To Vintage Effects. Questions or comments about this article can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(analogman.com) is one of the largest boutique effects manufacturers and retailers in the business, established by “Analog” Mike Piera in 1993. Mike can be reached at AnalogMike@aol.com.