This summer, we published “When Did Guitarists First Use Tremolo, Echo, and Other Early Effects?”. It probed four classic effects that were first created by cumbersome electro-mechanical means, but which fired up guitarists’ desires to adulterate the natural sound of the instrument. Today, we’re delving into some of the more processed sounds enabled by the transistor revolution of the ’60s.
Our first article was published back in July, shortly after the passing of engineer and inventor Glen Snoddy—so let’s begin with his most notable contribution to the sound of modern music: the fuzz box.
Fuzz is arguably one of the fiercest effects available to the electric guitarist, and one of the most dynamic, yet it has its roots in a bass guitar track recorded for a commercial country artist in the early ’60s. While recording Grady Martin’s bass part for Marty Robbins’s 1961 hit “Don’t Worry,” Nashville engineer Glen Snoddy was utterly transfixed by the distorted sound that ensued when the tube preamp in one of the mixer’s channels started to fail. He and the client not only agreed that the resultant “fuzz bass” track was worth keeping, Snoddy set out to replicate the sound in a standalone box. His circuit evolved into the Maestro Fuzz-Tone pedal a couple years later, and the rest is history.
Rock historians still argue about the first fuzz-guitar solo, which is sometimes credited to Big Jim Sullivan’s guitar track on the ’64 P.J. Proby hit “Hold Me” in the UK, recorded via a custom unit made by Roger Mayer, and sometimes a Snoddy-made pedal used by Nokie Edwards of The Ventures to record “The 2,000 Pound Bee” in ’62. The first major smash for the commercial fuzz pedal, the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, came from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, released in June of ’65 in the UK and two months later in the US. Cross the Stones’ booming popularity with the infectious new sound of the fuzz itself, and a sonic revolution was born.
The Fuzz-Tone circuit itself is extremely simple, employing just three transistors and a handful of resistors and capacitors, but its sound is often considered one of the most expressive in rock. Much of the magic of the early units from Maestro and other manufacturers comes from the germanium transistors they relied upon, which can have a lush, rich sound and a tactile, somewhat compressed playing feel. Their tolerances also varied widely, however, to the extent that no two early fuzz boxes ever sounded entirely the same, while some could sound outright dull and uninspiring and others utterly sublime (silicon transistors began to replace germanium in the late ’60s).
By the latter part of the mid-’60s every guitar-gear manufacturer worth its salt was producing—or at least re-badging—a fuzz box of its own. Other classics came in the form of Arbiter’s Fuzz Face, the Vox Tone Bender, Baldwin’s Buzzaround, the Marshall Supa Fuzz, and others.
Take an early fuzz box, lop off a transistor or two, and tweak the EQ to emphasize the high frequencies and you’ve pretty much got yourself a treble booster. Originally designed to do exactly what it says on the can—in an age when treble was the key to helping you cut through the mix (witness the Top Boost, bright switches, and brilliant channels of the era)—treble boosters fast became popular for their ability to kick an edge-of-breakup tube amp into juicy overdrive, regardless of EQ disposition, and these simple designs have remained favorites of many guitarists ever since.
Having called the thing a Treble Booster, it’s worth noting that the tag can be somewhat misleading: the Rangemaster circuit doesn’t so much make your guitar brighter, as it boosts the higher frequencies more than the lower. The unit debuted in ’65, and it’s most famous early use is usually pegged as Eric Clapton’s application of the box on a few tracks on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton album of ’66—although it’s extremely difficult to say with absolute certainty whichtracks employ the Treble Booster, if any. There seems to be just as much evidence that he didn’t use the unit on the so-called Beano album (which is to say, little hard evidence that he did, despite many fans’ declarations that “that sounds just like a Rangemaster!”), but Clapton may have used one later for live shows, or on some Cream tracks, or… who knows.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the treble booster as a genre of effect became extremely popular through the late ’60s and into the ’70s, and the Dallas unit and others were used by the likes of Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, Rory Gallagher, Brian May, and many others.
If not for the persuasive efforts of a Los Angeles-based studio guitarist and inventor, the wah-wah pedal may have ended up on the scrapheap of musical history, rapidly abandoned as a novelty effect used briefly on mic’ed-up trumpets, trombones, and other brass instruments. Instead, thanks to Del Casher, it has endured as one of the most expressive effects ever tethered between guitar and amp.
After a little persuading, Casher’s boss at Thomas Organ agreed to assign engineers Brad Plunkett and Les Kushner to convert the circuit behind the knob into a standalone pedal with rocker treadle, with consultation from Casher, and the wah-wah was born. The only problem remaining was that Thomas Organ CEO Joe Banaron envisioned selling the things to horn players, because orchestras have several horn players and only one guitar player (hence the early endorsement of trumpeter Clyde McCoy, whose photo and name appeared on the bottoms of early production units). To convince Banaron otherwise, Casher produced a 10-song wah-wah guitar demonstration LP, recorded in his own garage studio in late ’66. The promotional album was released early the next year, Casher proved his point, and the Vox Wah-Wah went into production in February ’67, with the Thomas Organ Cry Baby available for U.S. sale following in ’68.
Any of the tracks on Casher’s demo LP of early ’67 stand as the “first examples” of recorded wah-wah guitar, although other early adopters came thick and fast. Casher had recorded with Frank Zappa and the Prunes previously, and Zappa himself soon became a major proponent of the wah-wah, as did Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton in the UK, both abiding exemplars of classic wah-wah use.
This relatively simple, early transistor-based effect is potentially one of the freakiest available to the guitarist of the late ’60s when used right—and arguably even wilder when used wrong—creating a note an octave higher than the original played, often with a hazy fuzz slathered over it, to enable the trippy, brassy, slightly dissonant guitar solos that helped to define psychedelic rock.
Inside the box, the circuit that enables the seminal octave-divider sound isn’t much more complicated than that of the early fuzz boxes and treble boosters discussed above, comprising just three transistors, an impedance interstage transformer, and several resistors and capacitors. Its operating principle, on the other hand, is pretty high-tech. As explained to me by Mayer several years ago, “It doubles the number of images of the note. And that, apparently, makes it sound twice the frequency, whereas it really isn’t. Because the signal’s going up and down twice as much, even though you’ve changed the relationship of it, the ear perceives it as twice the frequency.” Put another way, Mayer added, “It’s like holding something up to a mirror. You see two of them, but there’s still only one thing there.” Fair enough.
It often requires some practice to use an octave divider well. Traditional renditions only track single notes, and they prefer clean, direct picking, relatively few slurs and bends, and a signal not overladen with harmonic overtones. Best results are often achieved on a guitar’s neck pickup, and a single-coil pickup at that, played up around the 12th fret or beyond. Get it right, though, and it’s a surprisingly effective and infectious sound.