Fuzz Face vs Big Muff
by Daniel Brooks
A fuzz is a fuzz is a fuzz, right?
Well, no. There are more than a hundred different fuzz pedals on the market, each one achieving that distinctive, textured sustain in one of several possible ways, each with a claim to its own sonic territory in a surprisingly broad fuzzy aural landscape. And while there are certainly distinguishing features that define fuzz, the range of variation is great enough that no two fuzz boxes sound exactly alike.
Fuzz pedals were among the earliest effects, preceded only by reverb and vibrato. Originally it was an accidental effect of a damaged amplifier with a defective or poorly fitted tube or a torn speaker. Some blues guitarists found inspiration and a creative voice in the raspy sound, and by the time rock and roll emerged in the 1950s, it was a somewhat common practice for a guitarist to intentionally alter an amp by dislodging tubes or slicing, tearing or punching holes in their speakers in order to get “that” sound. By the early 1960s, inventors, designers and engineers began experimenting with ways to create the effect by way of an electronic circuit.
There have been a handful of iconic designs, like the Maestro Fuzztone and the Sola Tone Bender, for example, that have left an indelible mark on music and deserve special consideration in their own article. But none have had a greater impact on as broad a range of music as the Fuzz Face and the Big Muff.
The Fuzz Face was introduced in 1966 by Arbiter Electronics, Ltd. It has since been produced by Dallas Arbiter, Dallas Music Industries, CBS/Arbiter and, since 1993, Dunlop. Upon its introduction, the Fuzz Face became a favorite of Jimi Hendrix, who used it as one of his essential stage effects and recorded with it extensively on his debut album, titled “Are You Experienced?” and on most of the classic songs he recorded throughout his short but legendary career. Since then, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, George Harrison, Eric Johnson and countless others used the Fuzz Face as a cornerstone in their sound.
The Fuzz Face is an extraordinarily simple design that uses a mere eleven components. Initially designed around a pair of Germanium transistors, the first’s output feeding into the second’s input and, in turn, having its bias controlled by the output of the second transistor in a series feedback circuit. The resulting signal is naturally asymmetrically-clipped and mimics the roughly square-waved fingerprint of an overdriven preamp or a damaged speaker. Of course, germanium transistors perform with notorious inconsistency at different temperatures, so the original design was adapted for newer, more dependable silicon transistors that created a brighter, edgier effect that some would say is noticeably harsher. But, obviously, the “new” tone has never been a deal breaker for most since it has been the sound of the Fuzz Face for all but the first few years of its decades of production. In recent years, the original germanium design has been made available.
The Big Muff is a far more ambitious design that, technically speaking, straddles the entirely imaginary line between distortion and fuzz. Introduced in 1969, Electro-Harmonix’ original signature pedal, the Big Muff Pi, is designed with four independent silicon transistor stages. An initial clean boost cascades into two consecutive clipping stages followed by a final stage that restores the lost tone and volume before outputting to the amp. Within weeks of its release, Jimi Hendrix picked one up and it soon became an immediate hit, lending its sound to the music of Kiss, The Isley Brothers, Thin Lizzy and David Gilmour, starting with Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album. It has since been used to shape the sound of rock guitar throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s by artists such as Dinosaur Jr., Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Mogwai and countless gigantesque metal bands. Over the years, more than a dozen variations have been engineered and released, most famously the Sovtek editions crafted by Electro-Harmonix sister company, the Ram’s Head and the V1 Triangle, the Metal Muff and the Little Big Muff, all with noticeably different sounds. If you’re considering a Big Muff, it’s worth taking some time to find the one with the sound you seek. It is as much fun as “research” can be.
So, which is better, the Fuzz Face or the Big Muff? That depends. The simple design lends The Fuzz Face a much more transparent sound. Plug your Strat, Tele, Les Paul, or your old Ibanez Roadstar II into a Fuzz Face and it will sound like a fuzzy Strat, or a fuzzy Tele, or a fuzzy Les Paul, or a fuzzy old Ibanez Roadstar II. It doesn’t have any tone control but it does get progressively brighter as you turn up the gain, it cleans up with the volume knob on your guitar, especially the Germanium models, and it responds to your dynamics, your fingertips on the strings are still the primary influence on the quality of your sound. The Fuzz Face, however, does not deliver overwhelming amounts of gain. For that you need a Big Muff. Because it is a much more sophisticated series of circuits, the Big Muff will take anything you play into it and fundamentally transform the tone and character of your sound from the ground up. The inherent compression of the four stage effect will take a considerable amount of your guitar’s dynamic response out of your hands, but any bottom end of your guitar’s natural tone will become a deep, subterranean wall of seismic activity, and the tone control will give you considerable brightness on top of that for an overall massive sound. It is a huge effect, and it’s up to you whether or not you like it. When it comes to deciding which one to get, most guitarists seem to be instinctively drawn to one or the other, but, of course, there is no rule against having both.