Classic Gear: 1966 Arbiter Fuzz Face

The fuzzbox was a prime aural delight in the psychedelic rock of the late ’60s, and has been a mainstay of heavier styles of guitar music ever since, but it had its origins in very different realms.
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The fuzzbox was a prime aural delight in the psychedelic rock of the late ’60s, and has been a mainstay of heavier styles of guitar music ever since, but it had its origins in very different realms. The fuzz pedal was first developed to reproduce the clipping-distortion sound on Grady Martin’s bass track when a mixer channel broke down during the session for Marty Robbins’ 1961 hit “Don’t Worry,” and many early iterations were thought to be primarily useful in helping guitarists to replicate the sounds of saxophones and trombones. Maestro bottled and sold that busted-mixer tone in the U.S. as the Fuzz-Tone pedal in 1963, and by 1964 adventurous artists on the other side of the pond were already probing the wonders of fuzz—purportedly first heard via a fuzz built by effects pioneer Roger Mayer, and used on P.J. Proby’s 1964 hit “Hold Me,” a year before Keith Richards’ legendary use of a Fuzz-Tone on the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” riff. In many tone freaks’ estimation, though, fuzz really came into its own with the release of the round, smiling Fuzz Face. Introduced by the Arbiter Electronics company in mid 1966 (later Dallas- Arbiter), the Fuzz Face wasn’t even the first British fuzzbox—that honor goes to the Solasound Tone Bender—but it has become arguably the best known and most iconic, thanks largely to two words: “Jimi” and “Hendrix.”

Three caps, four resistors, and two germanium transistors define the classic Fuzz Face circuit.

We often think of fuzz as an extreme, in-your-face, brick-wall kind of an effect, but a good Fuzz Face isn’t by any means restricted to such performance. Played right, that jolly sonic discus can sound surprisingly rich and organic, contributing to a broad range of tonal colorations. Or, that is, the right Fuzz Face can, since they tend to be inconsistent. The two germanium transistors at the heart of the circuit are where all the magic lies—yielding a sweeter, warmer, rounder and more tactile form of clipping than the silicon transistors that would replace them in 1969—but they are also notoriously inconsistent components. Two good transistors, which will also play nicely together, can sound sublime; two bad or poorly matched ones can be anywhere from jagged and nasty to downright dull and lifeless. And, since it’s such a simple circuit, the right transistors, and the right biasing thereof within the circuit (a job done by other components with broad tolerances that are occasionally wildly off-spec) make all the difference. Other than the two germanium sweethearts, the tiny circuit board inside the die-cast housing contains just three capacitors and four resistors. Done. Legend has it the round design was inspired by the base of a mic stand. The pedal didn’t need an enclosure nearly as big as this, but hey, the shape made a splash and helped to get the thing seen. Marketing, right?

A “good” Fuzz Face meant different things to different players, too. They could be jaggedly bright or warm and brassy, all of which might sound superb in the right application. In addition to using a Fuzz Face for his more bombastic moments, Hendrix would also tame it by winding down the guitar’s volume, often keeping it engaged to thicken up his clean tone—a nifty trick that many other great guitarists have used through the decades. A fussy circuit with a low input impedance, the Fuzz Face works best when placed first in your pedal chain, where it also interacts most smoothly with your guitar’s volume control.

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