10 Old-School Fuzzes that Could Have Been Contenders
Since the fuzz pedal was invented in 1960 when it made its debut on Sanford Clark’s “Go On Home,” it was quickly snatched up by musicians everywhere and put to good use. There aren’t many rock albums from the ‘60s or ‘70s that didn’t have fuzz ingrained within them, and for the most part, the Internet has taken care of figuring out who used what, down to microscopic detail (and atomic detail on some of rock’s heavier lifters, such as David Gilmour).
When folks think “vintage fuzz,” oftentimes the Fuzz Face, Tone Bender and Big Muff (and their derivatives) are the “big three” of old-school fuzz. Of course, this can be extended to other vintage fuzzboxes that had a milder impact on the recording industry, such as the Mosrite Fuzz-Rite, Univox Super Fuzz and the Maestro FZ-1—all of which are responsible for a handful of classic tunes. But what if we looked a little deeper?
Because the fuzz circuit is relatively simple, this coupled with the sudden explosion of the effect pedal market meant that hundreds of companies had fuzz pedals, companies whose existence today is entirely a mystery. Only the most hardened fuzz geeks around know them, but those fuzz geeks weren’t cutting records when it mattered, back when it would have kept these companies afloat instead of dashing them against the rocks of the cutthroat fuzz market. What follows is a list of vintage fuzz oddballs that may have been used by a small handful of recording guitarists over the years, but are largely forgotten today.
UMI Buzz Tone & Volume Expander
Started in 1967 by garage door installation mechanic Richard Holloway, UMI’s first order of business was manufacturing amplifiers, but Holloway eventually went on to hanging out with Jimi Hendrix in hotel rooms and designing fuzz circuits based on TV static, which became the intensely syllabic Buzz Tone & Volume Expander. As wild as all this sounds, it was the enclosure that is perhaps wilder—the circuit is housed in a sloped industrial metal box, complete with a meter to show you when to swap out the battery. The control set includes standard Volume, but a Contour control instead of “fuzz” and a Buzz control, which may have been the first-ever bias knob in a fuzz box.
WEM Rush Pep Box and Project V
Watkins Electric Music, or WEM, was a British manufacturer of amplifiers, tape echoes and occasionally pedals. Perhaps it’s best-known for its Copicat, a super-dark tape echo that experienced a second revival after being profiled for TC Electronic’s Alter Ego X4. WEM’s pedal business was another story, as the company released just four, two of which were wah-type effects. One of the others, the Rush Pep Box, was invented by a man named Pepe Rush, licensed by WEM and is one of the rare pedals of which photographic evidence exists proving it was actually used by the Beatles in the studio. The other is the Project V which is an almost fictionally rare four-control fuzz machine with eight transistors, and perhaps strangest of all, an optional inductor that appears to do nothing at all. Project V indeed.
Hornby-Skewes Zonk Machine and Zonk II
Not many folks know this, but John Hornby Skewes, vintage fuzz and boost savant, is the original JHS, and vintage JHS-branded pedals are attributed to him and not Josh Scott of Grandview, Missouri. Though JHS released two separate frequency boosters in the late ‘60s, it was perhaps the Zonk Machines that cemented his legacy. Both Zonks borrowed from the circuits around them—the Zonk I is based on the Tone Bender MKI while the Zonk II is more like 75 percent Fuzz Face and 25 percent Tone Bender. The Zonk II was also immortalized as one-half of the Shatterbox (the other half being the Treble Booster), one of the most valuable effects of all time.
Honey Special Fuzz
By now, almost everyone has heard of Shin-Ei, the OEM of the Uni-Vibe, Companion Fuzz and Super Fuzz, among others, but before Shin-Ei was Shin-Ei, it was Honey, and Honey’s Special Fuzz earns its name and then some. Featuring a circuit board peppered with more electrolytic capacitors than should be allowed and two wah inductors, the Special Fuzz also came equipped with two footswitches—one that switches between Fuzz and bypass, and one that changes between Fuzz and Special Fuzz. The latter setting turns the box into a wah-phaser hybrid and can be used on its own, but it sounds pretty bad. One can only guess that the cost of two inductors is the only thing keeping this beast from the clone limelight.
Unlike many pedals on this list, the TA-28 actually had one famous endorsee: Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. However, you won’t find the TA-28 on any pedalboard. You see, the TA-28 was sold by Heathkit, which released the TA-28 in kit form only. Because purchasing the kit gave the buyer carte blanche to do whatever with the circuit board, Farner’s guitar is equipped with the TA-28 guts and attached to a toggle switch. It runs off one 1.5-volt AA battery for miserly power consumption, which also eased the integration into Farner’s Musicraft Messenger. The sound of the TA-28 is as raspy as one might expect with just 1.5 volts of juice, and biased transistors on top of that. However, since these values were suggested rather than gospel, who knows what Farner (or anyone) did to it before stuffing it in the axe.
Earth Sound Research Graphic Fuzz
Based in Farmingdale New York, not far from UMI, Earth Sound Research spent its days essentially cloning other amps in Peavey shells and selling them to retail stores for far less money. Eventually, Peavey ended up suing ESR but not before it created just one pedal: the Graphic Fuzz. Featuring two knobs—Filter and Volume—the Graphic Fuzz was set to 10 in all respects at all times. Even turning the Filter control past the minimum caused the circuit to howl and oscillate, making your guitar signal fight for space in the spectrum. With the Filter set to zero, players were treated to a crushing stoner rock-esque op-amp based fuzz-distortion hybrid.
Maestro made a ton of fuzz pedals. By now, everybody knows about the FZ-1 and FZ-1A, the former used by Keith Richards to fake a horn sound on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and the latter the more commercially-available version. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys famously used the Maestro “Fuzz” from the company’s Norlin era, the DOD released the Carcosa, a retooling of the Maestro FZ-1S. The Fuzztain is an oddity in the line, combining a CMOS compressor with a gnarly fuzz circuit. Drive and Volume controls show up as knobs while the compressor gets only a rotary switch, as Sustain, Soft (clipping) and Hard (clipping), with all three settings sounding fantastic. Bob Moog designed this pedal and every other one in the line, and as a side note, they’re all worth grabbing.
Roland Double Beat
Before Roland was Roland, it was Ace Tone, and Ace Tone put out a handful of classic fuzz circuits loosely related to the Univox Super Fuzz. When Roland came of age, it released the Bee Baa, a curiously-named fuzzbox that has come under the cloning knife in recent years. One pedal that never spawned a following outside of the most dedicated pedal nerds is the Double Beat Fuzz Wah. The wah is a standard-issue model, even being released separately from the fuzz as the Beat, but the fuzz circuit is as blown-out and nasty as Japanese circuits get. With a three-way rotary selector for sine, triangle and square waves (whatever that means), the fuzz ranged from heavy to heavier, and as an owner of one, I am bewildered as to why it isn’t a much bigger deal then or now.
Written by Nicholas Kula