Fuzz Faces explained

29th Nov 2012 | 12:53

Fuzz Faces explained
What is a Fuzz Face, exactly?
The Fuzz Face pedal's look was inspired by a mic stand base

Germanium or silicon? Dallas-Arbiter or Dunlop? How's it different to a Big Muff Pi? For a pedal that's so simple, fun and effective in use, the famous Fuzz Face can get awfully confusing when it comes down to explaining the jargon. Fortunately, our sister magazine, Guitarist, has put together this guide to help you avoid further fuzz-fusion. Let's start with the obvious question...

What is a Fuzz Face, exactly?

The big, almost-round guitar effects pedal first built by Arbiter of England in 1966, and descended from the seminal Maestro Fuzz-Tone. Denis Cornell (designer for Dallas Music Industries in the late 1960s) explains more:

“The circuit is what they call a Schmitt-Trigger - it’s designed to put an AC signal in and get a square wave out. It kind of ‘triggers’, which is why at very low sensitivities it can’t make up its mind!”

They’re big and round for purely aesthetic reasons, reputedly inspired by the base of a mic stand. The circuit will fit in a much smaller box - there are plenty of small-box FF-clones.

Fuzz Faces explained
Why the different colours?
The original Fuzz Faces were red or a grey-silver colour

The first ones were either red, or a grey-silver colour, in a textured, Hammerite-style paint. Blue ones came towards the end of the 1960s. These days there are a number of different finishes, depending on model.

Fuzz Faces explained
How do I set it for the best sound?
Blues guitarist Philip Sayce has some good advice

Bonamassa likes his flat out - gain and fuzz - while Eric Johnson knocks the fuzz back a bit. We like Philip Sayce’s approach:

“Start with everything flat out, then ease both knobs back just far enough so the sound of frying bacon disappears.” Amen to that.

Fuzz Faces explained
Arbiter, Dallas-Arbiter, Dunlop?
This pedal pictured here is a recent Dunlop Fuzz Face

The text in the ‘smile’ reveals the pedal’s age. The earliest ones were ‘Arbiter-England’, then they became ‘Dallas-Arbiter England’ some time in 1968. Since then there have been a variety of words in the smile. Today, both the Dallas Arbiter and Fuzz Face trademarks are owned by Dunlop Manufacturing Inc.

Fuzz Faces explained
Germanium or silicon transistors?
The much-lauded germanium transistor, also found in the modern Joe Bonamassa signature Fuzz Face

Denis Cornell: “They all worked in a very similar way and all did the job, but they did give a slightly different tone. I think the ‘Arbiter-England’ one didn’t use the [fabled] NKT275 germanium transistor; in those days we used the AC128 [PNP germanium transistors].

"There were always problems with them, so I’d get involved in testing and repairing because they just didn’t all work right!”

Later came NPN silicon transistors as they were less expensive and more stable, although sounded somewhat more harsh.

Fuzz Faces explained
What's the difference between a Fuzz Face and a Big Muff Pi?
Listen to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze to hear the Fuzz Face tone

Electro-Harmonix Big Muffs have varied as much as Fuzz Faces over the years. However, the Big Muff Pi has a more complex circuit, sounds smoother across the frequency spectrum and many would say is ‘easier’ to use. Fuzz Face, think Hendrix’s Purple Haze; Big Muff Pi, think The Isley Brothers’ That Lady.

Fuzz Faces explained
Why are they so fussy about pedalboard positioning?
If you can't be bothered with the science, just remember to place it first in your signal chain

The Fuzz Face has a very low input impedance - one reason they clean up so well when you roll your guitar’s volume down - especially with single coils. They tend not to cope well being hit by other pedals - put a wah before your Fuzz Face and see what we mean!

There are plenty of online forums that will get into the physics - the simple, practical advice is to put your Fuzz Face first in your signal chain.

Fuzz Faces explained
Which one did Hendrix use?
Roger Mayer reckons Hendrix used several types of Fuzz Face pedal throughout his career

Roger Mayer [who modded Fuzz Faces and built other effects for Jimi Hendrix]:

“Jimi said to me, ‘Well, what do you think of these, Roger?’ No two of them are exactly the same, so I looked at the circuitry and did a bit of analysis. The actual configuration of the circuit just about works, but it has many electronic pitfalls. They were still germanium-only at the beginning of 1967, but I reckon that by about mid-’67 they were on to silicon; by Axis: Bold As Love they were silicon.”

Fuzz Faces explained
And all the other fuzzes?
A Roger Mayer-made Classic Fuzz pedal - one of many interpretations of the Fuzz Face

Yep, everyone makes a fuzz pedal, from the cheapo Far Eastern brands right up to boutique offerings from Fulltone, Analogman, Roger Mayer and more.

The rule of thumb is that the more you try to ‘fix’ the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies in the classic Fuzz Face circuit, the less it sounds like one... which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your tastes.

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