A History of the Fuzz Face
by Daniel Brooks
Although there were developments in amplified music that preceded the birth of Rock and Roll by a few decades, the widespread commercial availability of reliable pickups and amplifiers in the early 1950s initiated a few radical evolutionary steps in Western popular music. The ability to amplify a relatively quiet acoustic instrument like a guitar meant that it could now be heard among much louder instruments. This was good news for traditional guitarists, of course, but it wasn’t long before innovative minds realized you could radically alter the new electric guitar’s timbre to produce a whole new sonic landscape ripe with unprecedented creative possibilities. By the mid 1950s, the new form of music called rock and roll had captured the imaginations of a whole new generation of guitarists. By the early 1960s, an industry had emerged to meet the needs of the inspired guitarist with equally inspired and inventive effects designs.
Among the most enduring and iconic of these designs was the Fuzz Face. Introduced in mid 1966, it wasn’t the first fuzz pedal to appear on the market, the Maestro Fuzztone preceded it by a couple of years, and the Sola Tonebender appeared a few months after that. Its round design physically resembled a face, with volume and fuzz controls placed where its eyes would be, and the footswitch, rubber pad, and label suggesting a nose, beard, and mouth to further the illusion. More importantly, the Fuzz Face’s effect on a guitar’s sound was extraordinary, and was immediately recognized by a few emerging guitarists on the verge of taking rock and roll into a whole new dimension.
A fuzz pedal works by simulating the clipped signal of an extremely overdriven tube amp. When the wave we associate with a clean, perfectly amplified guitar signal exceeds the limitations of a preamp tube, the peaks and valleys get flattened out, or clipped, to create that crunchy, distorted sound we all love. If the incoming signal is radically excessive, then what we hear, primarily, is little more than the transition between the tube’s maximum and minimum operational current. A simple circuit like the Fuzz Face simulates this saturation effect. Using only eleven components to achieve its effect, it is, essentially, a two stage amplifier. That is, two transistor-based gain stages in series, where the output of the first stage serves as the input of the second stage. The first stage can be adjusted for a lower or higher gain that approaches saturation, which will instantly clip the peaks and valleys of the signal in the second stage.
Because it is such a simple circuit, the performance of each component, especially the transistors, has a vital influence on the sound. The earliest Fuzz Faces achieved their now legendary sound through the use of a pair of germanium NKT275 transistors. When these relatively lower gain transistors (compared to silicon) worked well together, the effect was sublime, with a warm, organic tone rich with harmonics. With the peaks and valleys of the guitar’s signal clipped off, the decaying amplitude is no longer immediately audible, and the affected signal creates the perception of a steady, sustained note. In addition, the clipping and unclipping of each cycle happens at a frequency that is a naturally occurring multiple of the original signal, which is heard as additional harmonics in the affected signal, expanding the sound even further. This is true of any good fuzz pedal, but the Fuzz Face was also somewhat transparent, preserving the essential character of each guitar and amp in the affected signal. And it was responsive to the player’s dynamics, the way you put your fingertips on the strings, the way you pick, bend or slide into a note was still the primary influence on the quality and character of the sound.
But the quality of the germanium components used to make a Fuzz Face was inconsistent, with everything from the notoriously erratic performance of germanium at higher temperatures to the individual variations of the germanium used in each transistor contributing to the unpredictable performance of each unit. As the stories have it, some musicians would go through whole batches of Fuzz Faces seeking one or two that made the search worth the effort.
When the Arbiter Electronics Ltd. introduced the Fuzz Face in mid 1966, one of the first musicians to realize its extraordinary potential was Jimi Hendrix. It was one of his essential stage effects and he used it extensively on most of the classic songs he recorded throughout his short but legendary career. It is difficult to imagine how psychedelic music might have sounded without it. Of course, the Fuzz Face outlived psychedelia. Pete Townshend was a famous convert to the pedal, George Harrison used it on the Let It Be sessions, and many other guitarists of the time picked up on it and used it in their own creative ways.
By 1969, new, more consistent BC183L silicon transistors had taken the place of the original germanium components, and were, in turn, replaced by the more durable “metal can” BC108C silicon transistors. The higher gain, quicker silicon transistors created a brighter, edgier sound that some claim is audibly harsher. The new sound was clearly acceptable to those who used it, however, as discerning guitarists like David Gilmour used it well into the mid 1970s as an essential part of his sound on stage and in the studio, and the silicon transistor has remained the sound of the Fuzz Face for all but the first couple of years of its production. The original circuit design has remained the same, only the transistors have changed, with some of the later units using BC183KA, BC130C, BC109C, BC209C and AC128 transistors to drive the effect with reasonable consistency.
Over the years, the business end of the Fuzz Face phenomenon changed quite a bit, with the design’s ownership and production in a decade-long state of flux. The original Arbiter Electronics Ltd. merged with John E. Dallas and Sons to become Dallas Arbiter, with later versions of the effect bearing the name of the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, and then appearing under CBS/Arbiter Ltd. The first run of Fuzz Faces ended in 1977, when Dallas Music Industries stopped production. Crest Audio resumed production of the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face in 1986 with a four-year-run of about 2,000 units that ended in 1990.
In 1993, Dunlop Manufacturing Inc. resumed production and hasn’t stopped since. With ownership of both the Fuzz Face and Dallas Arbiter Trademarks, Dunlop has been free to experiment and create variations of the Fuzz Face. They have reintroduced the original germanium design, kept more than one silicon version in production, and introduced artist signature pedals, with customized values for some of the components to get the sounds made famous by Eric Johnson, Joe Bonamassa and Jimi Hendrix. They’ve even introduced a few versions such as the Classic 108 Fuzz and the Jimi Hendrix 70th Anniversary Tribute Series Fuzz Face, both with the classic circuit housed in a much more pedalboard friendly enclosure. However you like your fuzz, there is a variation of the Fuzz Face there to deliver it to you.