If you're looking for classic fuzz tone, nine fuzz freaks out of ten will tell you it has got to be germanium. Not only is the germanium transistor viewed as the warm, furry beating heart of myriad ’60s fuzzboxes and booster pedals, it’s also considered a must-have ingredient in countless high-end recreations of these aural delights. It’s important in many modified and original designs, too. But what is a germanium transistor, and is it absolutely essential to viable fuzz tone?
Germanium is a semi-metallic element that was used to make transistors, diodes, and other components that were widely used in consumer electronics until more consistent and more reliable silicon components became available in the late 1960s. As far as solid-state circuitry goes, they are the “old technology,” and have developed a reputation for a decidedly vintage mojo that remains in vogue today. These are the transistors that help classic vintage pedals such as the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, and Colorsound Tone Bender do their thing, while also providing the far-from-linear drive tones in the legendary Dallas Rangemaster, Vox, and Hornby-Skewes Treble Boosters.
Although different makes of germanium transistors often had different characteristics, the more desirable types are considered to yield a sound that is warm, rich, and extremely dynamic. They can also range from crispy, bright and jagged to muffled, smooth and dark, or anywhere in between—factors that are also dependent on the circuits in which they are used. In the more popular pedals, they are universally considered to be extremely tactile, yielding a great playing feel.
The most notable downside to germanium transistors comes in that aforementioned inconsistency. Regarding the search for “good” germanium transistors, effects maker and former Jimi Hendrix tech Roger Mayer tells us, “The reality is that you’ve got to buy thousands of them, and then you’ve got to sit down and test them all. There are maybe 30 percent that you can use, but it was always like that.”
Z.Vex’s Zachary Vex understood the vagaries of the germanium transistor long before he began building pedals for a living. Vex relates how, as a musician and studio engineer, he used to hunt far and wide for magical vintage pedals.
“The holy grail at the time was the one that sounded really great,” he says. “The original Fuzz Faces, in particular, were put together very slipshod. They didn’t test the two transistors to see which one was high gain and which was low gain—they just threw them in there. If you were lucky, you could find a pedal that had the right combination.”
In the effort to acquire good germanium transistors to keep his own signature Fuzz Factory pedal in production, Vex says he has rejected probably 50 different kinds of transistors because they just don’t have the right tone.
Aside from germanium’s acknowledged inconsistency, this vintage transistor simply doesn’t always present the type of tone every fuzz hound might be seeking. The harder, edgier rock fuzz tones of the late ’60s and ’70s were often produced with silicon fuzz pedals. Jimi Hendrix himself had switched to a later silicon-based Fuzz Face and custom-made Mayer Axis fuzzes by the time of his Band of Gypsys album, and the sounds on that album are often cited as prime examples of silicon-fuzz tone. More aggressive and bombastic rock often requires the punchier attack and hairier tone of silicon-driven fuzz, where the smoother, germanium-based sound might get lost in the mix. From these later Fuzz Faces, to several renditions of the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, to modern entries such as Roger Mayer’s own Spitfire Fuzz, silicon transistors have certainly contributed to plenty of classic tracks.
As with so many things in tone town, the germanium/ silicon dichotomy isn’t a matter of better or worse. It’s very much a matter of choosing your technology to work with your sonic goals. If you feel germanium fuzz will rock your own personal casbah, it’s worth seeking out makers who understand this component well, and who test their transistors for consistency and tone. But don’t be surprised if a meaty, aggressive silicon fuzz delivers just what you need.