Perfect Circle: Life, Death, and Resurrection of the Fuzz Face

MORE THAN A few stompboxes have earned their historical stripes under the feet of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour, Eric Johnson, and other legendary guitar slingers.
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MORE THAN A few stompboxes have earned their historical stripes under the feet of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour, Eric Johnson, and other legendary guitar slingers. These guys made household words out of pedals with names such as Tone Bender, Octavia, Tube Screamer, Tube Driver, and, of course, Fuzz Face. Introduced by London’s Arbiter Electronics in 1966, the Fuzz Face wasn’t the first fuzz on the market—that distinction goes to the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, a wedge-shaped wonder that created the buzz on the Stones’ hit “Satisfaction” a year earlier. But the Fuzz Face quickly became the distortion pedal of choice (among the few existing at the time) after Jimi Hendrix demonstrated to the world how awesome the pedal sounded with a Marshall and a Strat. Hendrix created a recipe for sonic majesty that enshrined the Fuzz Face as one of the most important guitar effects of all time. Some 45 years later, more players than ever are still digging what it does.

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We know that an American named Glen Snotty invented the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, and Englishman Gary Hurst was responsible for the Tone Bender (which was based on the Fuzz-Tone), but it’s not known who designed the Fuzz Face. Like most fuzzes, the circuit is simple: a couple of transistors, four resistors, three capacitors, two pots, and a footswitch to turn it on and off. As, however, David Morin points out in his excellent historical piece, FuzzFace: The True Face of Fuzz, the footswitch is a DPDT type (double pole, double throw), which makes the Fuzz Face probably the first distortion pedal with true-bypass switching—a feature that’s de riguer for the vast majority of modern boutique pedals and some production models. Why Arbiter chose to spend extra shillings on a costlier switch that no one at the time even knew they needed is another mystery.

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Billy Cox (right) plays an outdoor concert with an unnamed Fuzz Face user.

During nearly a decade of production (that ended around 1975), the Fuzz Face had minor cosmetic alterations, such as the logo in the “smile” cutout changing from “Arbiter England” to “Dallas-Arbiter England” (following the merger of Arbiter and Dallas Musical Instruments in 1968) to “Dallas Music Industries LTD” in the early ’70s. Some were also labeled “CBS Arbiter.” Different knobs were also used, the earliest being metal-rimmed and numbered, followed by the “top hat” and “tall thin” types, and finally, the “standard” style, as replicated on Dunlop’s JH-F1 Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face. That said, 1970s Fuzz Faces have also been seen with “top hat” knobs, so it’s likely that workers occasionally pulled random knobs from whatever was in the supply bin.

The famous circular housing that company founder Ivor Arbiter said was inspired by the bases on microphone stands, came in a variety of finishes, including two shades of red, four of gray, and four of blue (baby blue, dark blue, hammertone blue, and hammertone turquoise). Arbiter reportedly used a sand-cast housing at first, and then switched to a new type from ’68 to ’69, which featured a third flat spot on the inside for the extra pot used on the Treble & Bass Face. Yet another housing was developed in 1970 that remained in use until the end of production.

Given that the Fuzz Face circuit remained fundamentally unchanged throughout its life, a big question surrounding Fuzz Faces is why they all sound so different. “The reason Fuzz Faces vary in sound so much has a lot to with the fact that six different types of transistors were used in them,” says stompbox designer Jeorge Tripps, who founded Way Huge in the ’90s, and has spent a huge amount of time studying vintage Fuzz Faces while developing the Jimi Hendrix, Joe Bonamassa, and the soon-to-come Eric Johnson Signature Fuzz Face series for Dunlop. “In the early models, they only used germanium NKT275 transistors. You hear about ones with AC128 germaniums, but I’ve never seen them in an old Fuzz Face. After that, they started with silicon BC183L transistors in ’68 and ’69, and then went to BC108s. Then they used BC130s for a brief stint, and I’ve also seen BC209s in the later Dallas-Arbiter and CBS models. I have not seen an old Fuzz Face with BC109 transistors—the Crest Audio and early Dunlop models used those, but not the vintage ones.”

Anyone who has played Fuzz Faces knows they also all have different dynamic characteristics. Some clean up so beautifully when you lower your guitar volume that you never want to turn them off. Others don’t clean up as well, but are more aggressive and sustaining.

“The main difference between germanium and silicon transistors is gain,” says Tripps. That’s why the earlier germanium Fuzz Faces tend to be warmer sounding and less gnarly, and the later ones are gainier and more sizzling. As far as dynamics go, it really depends on what transistors they put in the circuit, and how they were biased. There’s only nine volts of headroom, so we set the bias on the Jimi Hendrix model at six volts so that when you hit it hard, it doesn’t get quite as buzzy. Joe Bonamassa likes a more compressed response, so his Signature Fuzz Face is biased in the middle at around 4.5 volts. Eric Johnson prefers his to be biased ever lower, but he keeps the Fuzz knob pulled back, and through a Marshall with a Strat, it all works. Germanium Fuzz Faces also have a low input impedance of around 10k ohms, which loads a guitar’s pickups, making the Fuzz Face very sensitive to changes in guitar volume. This impedance mismatch is also why the sound gets weird when you run a Crybaby wah into a Fuzz Face.

“Germanium transistors are also very temperature sensitive, and the hotter they get the crappier they sound,” says Tripps. “And they get hot just from use. Sometimes you plug one in and it sounds amazing. Then, an hour later, the current draw from the battery warms it up and the sound changes completely. That’s why germanium Fuzz Faces are more of a studio thing. Use them for a little while and they sound great, but live, you’re just asking for inconsistency in sound and feel.”

After the Fuzz Face was discontinued in the mid 1970s, it soldiered on in reissue form—first by Crest of New Jersey, who introduced short-lived reissues in 1976, and again in the mid 1980s. Then, in July 1991, Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc. obtained the sole rights to manufacture the original-style Fuzz Face. No one else could put the ’Face’s circuit in a circular housing from then on, but that didn’t stop boutique effects makers such as Analog. Man, Fulltone, Way Huge, Z.Vex, and others from using the circuit as a starting point to create all sorts of new fuzz effects—many of which have had a huge impact on modern guitar sounds.

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The Fuzz Face continues to be an object of obsession, however, as pedal makers seek ways to maximize the performance of its germanium powered circuit. In fact, we recently learned of a particularly tweaky modification that directly addresses the age-old problem of heat buildup. As of this writing, Analog. Man has come up with a prototype cooling system for germanium transistors that is based on the Peltier effect—the same principle used in portable coolers that plug into a car’s 12-volt cigarette lighter jack.

As Analog.Man’s Mike Piero explains, “A Peltier device is a solid-state heat pump that takes electrical current and uses it to move heat from one side of a ceramic chip to the other side, where it can be dissipated by a heat sink. We are currently working on a prototype unit for Al Schnier to use on moe.’s summer tour. It will be a crude box that attaches to the fuzz pedal with rubber bands, but it should work fine and prove that the method can be used for a production pedal cooler. Of course, getting just the right amount of cooling is the issue, as a Fuzz Face will also sound really bad if it’s too cold!”

So can we expect to see thermostatically controlled Fuzz Faces in the future? It’s very possible, since Dunlop’s standard red JDF2 Fuzz Face already uses a thermistor (a semiconductor device that decreases in resistance as temperature increases) to keep the bias of its germanium transistors stable as the temperature changes.

As with other pieces of classic hardware that people love to tinker with and modify— including cars, guitars, and other machinery— the Fuzz Face continues to inspire all who have fallen under its spell. How amazing that an electronic device so Stone Age crude by today’s digital standards still defines the sound of rock guitar, and still plays a significant role in the creation of music.