While our columnist started out averse to the classic distortion pedal, they soon dove deep into its circuits to invent their own take.
It’s undeniable—the Fuzz Face is the most popular fuzz pedal in music history. Although it wasn’t the first fuzz ever created, nearly every stompbox manufacturer has attempted to replicate its circuitry. Furthermore, almost every guitarist has, at some point, incorporated it on their pedalboard. The question arises: Why? Is it due to its distinctive enclosure shape? Or, the eternal cliché question: Is it simply because Jimi Hendrix used it?
Well, I admit—I’m not even a Hendrix fan! My dad used to play his songs when I was a kid, but that’s precisely why I rebelled against it, countering Hendrix with Circle Jerks and Rancid! As a guitarist, I avoided the Fuzz Face for almost two decades. However, everything changed when I met Keket, my partner at Sehat Effectors. I found that he listened to Hendrix and music I’d never heard of before. Strangely enough, we still had something in common: Neither of us liked the Fuzz Face! For the first time, I’d met a guitarist who found inspiration in Hendrix’s songs, but didn’t like that pedal. And yet, there’s an expectation of me, as an effects-pedal builder, to offer my customers a version of the hallowed stomp. So, here, I’ll share my spiritual journey as a pedal builder lost in the endless labyrinth of the Fuzz Face.
In the process of creating our pedal that we came to call the Blown Face, I experimented with all sorts of variants of transistors and technology—from the highly sought-after germanium NKT275 version, to different types of germanium and silicon transistors from various series; then delving into the SMD/SMT versions that many dislike. I even took on digital emulations. In this journey, my main issue with the Fuzz Face was that its volume, at least with my simple setup, is too low for my liking (remember, I’m a fan of Circle Jerks!). This issue is even more pronounced when considering my band’s context, which also leans towards that same musical style. My ears have become accustomed to heavy and loud distortion, especially as a musician who frequently plays small gigs.
When I finally did develop the Blown Face into something loud and explosive, that still wasn’t enough. I wanted to replicate the original Fuzz Face enclosure, which, of course, I wanted to make my own using the sand-casting method. I also brought in features like the bias knob and a toggle switch that lets me turn it into a Tone Bender MkII, since, fundamentally, the Fuzz Face is descended from the Tone Bender Mk1.5. By adding a transistor to the input stage, it instantly becomes a MkII.
“Why is Stevie Ray Vaughan great? Because he’s heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, but still manages to find his own style.”
So, what is the point? Well, I’m not a purist! I’m not trying to sound wise here. As a builder, I simply believe that being yourself isn’t a bad thing. Even though, we’re quite sure there are pedal builders out there who better understand and are far more inspired by the Fuzz Face than Sehat Effectors—legends like Analog Man with their iconic Sun Face, and other big names like Dunlop, MXR, Fulltone, Wren and Cuff, JAM Pedals…. They’re all great almost by definition at this point. Why is Jimi Hendrix great? Because he’s Jimi Hendrix! But, at the same time, why is Stevie Ray Vaughan great? Because he’s heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and still manages to find his own style. This kind of analogy will always go on.
In diving into my Fuzz Face journey, my objective was simple: to see where the labyrinth would lead. Fuzz Face is a temporal anomaly. In an era where guitar-effects technology is advancing rapidly and has even reached sophisticated digital emulation, the pedal has managed to carve out its own unique, lasting existence. In my opinion, it should have been included in the Voyager Golden Record, sailing through a universe that is believed to have no end and is continuously expanding. Eventually, it might reach another Jimi Hendrix, who’s billions of light years away from our beloved Third Stone From the Sun. Or, perhaps it could land in the hands of an extraterrestrial being in a galaxy we haven’t yet named. Though, that extraterrestrial being might pick it up and say, “Why is this thing coming to me?”
The guitar-playing songwriter compares the emotions of "the spirit entering the church" and first hearing the guitar god's hypnotic, ragged cover. (And he admits "the steps" riff has seeped into his own jams.)
- Break down what makes Eric’s approach so unique.
- Learn Hendrix’s “Little Wing” from a whole new perspective.
- Pick up some new muscle memory on unusual chord shapes.
Eric Gales’ method of playing a right-handed guitar left-handed and upside down gives him a sound that’s distinctively his. If you watch videos of him playing, you’ll notice he plays with his thumb wrapped around the top of the neck, like Jimi Hendrix or John Mayer. However, since his guitar strings are flipped upside down, his thumb is fretting what would be the first string to most people. This not only puts your brain in a whirl when trying to steal licks, but it also opens the door for some truly unique chord voicings. Gales, who fuses blues, rock, and classical together, constantly manages to play some truly otherworldly licks and passages.
Gales’ speed and cleanliness are his bread and butter, but what sticks out to me in his playing are those chord voicings and substitutions he uses masterfully in his approach. He is one of the best at spicing up standard shapes. In this lesson we’re going to dig into Gales’ interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” using a pair of different live clips to showcase how he tends to mix up his chordal choices from performance to performance.
“I remember on this last tour me and Myles [Kennedy] were on the bus looking up stuff and we ran into some Eric Gales clips and we were just like, ‘This guy could be the best player on Earth.’” - Mark Tremonti
In Ex. 1, we’re checking out Gales’ performance from the 2019 Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise. When he kicks off the “Little Wing’’ intro, every note is the same as what Jimi Hendrix originally played. It’s worth noting that Gales also typically tunes down a half-step. It’s a straight-up cover, that is, until Eric does his “thing” when going from the IIm to VIm chords in the progression.
Eric Gales - Little Wing - Sail Away Show - KTBA Cruise 2019
At 0:26 in the video Eric uses a diminished triad to work his way up the fretboard, resolving on a Bm7 triad for just an eighth-note before moving to the Em7. His use of the open third string in the Em7 chord provides a nice jangle.
At approximately 0:35 in the song, Gales uses (with a tasteful hammer-on embellishment) a Bbm9(11) and Bbm11 to descend to the IIm chord. He then gives an Am9(11) chord the same embellishment and voicing jump with an Am11. To end this phrase, Gales resolves an F6(9) to an Em11(b13), as shown in Ex. 2.
The last nugget we’ll look at from this specific performance is pretty simple: a single F6(9) chord around the 0:51 mark. Shown in Ex. 3, Gales works this chord into his arrangement to build tension and grab your ear before beginning the verse of the song. As with the other examples, the notes being played are not difficult. It’s the application, however, that gets the listener’s attention. If you’re at all familiar with “Little Wing,” you’ll see that this chord comes out of nowhere in his arrangement.
The next two examples are from a seminar that Gales did at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro Center for Creative Writing in the Arts. It’s clear that Gales is going a little out on this interpretation, and he is also tuned to E standard.
Eric Gales "Little Wing"
In Ex. 4 we’re looking at the same part of the intro as Ex. 1 (around the 0:22 mark), but Eric has a much different approach. He arpeggiates an Ebmaj7(#11) and uses a hammer-on to turn it into an Ebmaj7(#5). He then uses a pull-off to return to an Ebmaj7(#11). To complete the phrase, Eric uses a hammer-on to switch between an E7sus and an E9sus three times.
The last example (Ex. 5) is a real finger twister. At 0:29 he plays an insanely tasteful Bm9 voicing and descends to a Bbm9 before continuing to an Am9. If you listen close, Gales is sprinkling in an open first string. Because he is playing a right-handed guitar upside down, he can add that extra open string to the chord voicings. If you play a guitar that is not flipped upside down, you logistically won’t be able to add that open string.
Eric Gales is a completely underrated guitarist in my book. Nobody else sounds like him, and it’s refreshing to hear someone truly being different in the guitar community. You could spend countless amounts of hours picking out the licks and passages he plays. Unless you’re learning cover tunes note-for-note for a gig, try stretching your creativity in the way that Eric does. Now that you’ve seen how an old standard such as “Little Wing” can be dressed up with this chord voicing and substitution approach, run with the idea and see what you can create.