Fuzz, Fuzz and more Fuzz!

I first heard a fuzz pedal on the song Cherub Rock by the Smashing Pumpkins. Well, at least I think I did, I wasn’t sure if the Satisfaction riff or Lennon’s Revolution were fuzz. However, soon after, confusion set in; why didn’t my DS-1 sound quite the same?

Before the days of the internet and the keyboard warrior, the only way to find out something was to ask a human or consult a book. Sounds easy until I started coming across words like: germanium, transistor, clipping and JRC4558 chips – suddenly I started fearing for my bank account. So, by trial and error and by doing my homework (like my mother always used to harp on about), I discovered exactly what a fuzz was and when it wasn’t a fuzz. Think of this article as a (very) brief 101 on what constitutes a fuzz pedal and why it differs from a distortion or an overdrive.

I asked Nick D, unashamedly fuzz addicted and a friend of Break The Machine, what he wants from a fuzz pedal:

“I’ve been addicted to Fuzz pedals for longer than I can remember. There is just something unique and organic in the harmonics of the humble, transistorised fuzz pedal that, in my opinion, cannot be replicated with anything else. For me, the sound of Fuzz transcends the eras and genres that have been most associated with this type of effect. It’s almost like those little metal, glass or plastic items of sonic beauty, or transistors as most know them, transform the string vibrations into a living entity; a Frankenstein’s Monster of distorted delight!

What do I look for in a Fuzz Pedal? That is a difficult question to answer! I’m an avid collector of Fuzz, but also a player of Fuzz every chance I get. My moods swing – sometimes I want the creamy smooth, violin sustain of a Big Muff type, or the violent, mid rich, howl of a Germanium powered Tonebender, or the square-wave, gorilla booted-up in 14 hole Cherry Reds kicking down your front door screaming “tone is in yer fingers” Super Fuzz, and…, and…., and…. ! The list goes on and on!

What do I look for in a Fuzz Pedal? The answer is simply Fuzz, Fuzz and more Fuzz.

Tim, owner of Faceless FX and all round electronics genius, and maker of the fabulous De Sade Fuzz, knows a bit about dirt and filth (pedals!) Tim has very kindly shared his views on the whys and how’s of Fuzz. for this article:

“Break The Machine asked me to write about the technical details of what Fuzz is, and I thought that shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe just give a few examples of circuit types, transistors, op amps, diodes, clipping, wave shapes, etc. A basic “this is how a fuzz pedal works” type of thing.

Then it got deep.

I eventually came to the conclusion that Fuzz is deep. And important, thus deserving of its capital letter. So I may have gone off track, my notes got complicated and I ended up with…some perhaps slightly esoteric ‘stuff’ about Fuzz. Less “here’s what Fuzz is” and more “WTF is Fuzz?”

Let’s start with trying to find a definition of this thing called Fuzz. This thing that takes a sound, picks apart the pieces and spits them at your speakers.

Fuzz has a certain sound. A je ne sais quoi that makes it hard to pin down. I think if you’re not sure if it’s fuzz, it probably isn’t. But you know it when you hear it. It has its own essence. But those essences are many and varied. The solo on the Carpenters’ Goodbye To Love sounds totally different from the aforementioned Cherub Rock, or the Beastie Boys’ Gratitude, or In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, or Satisfaction… But they’re all fuzz. It can sound so different, yet so unmistakeably Fuzz. Trebley, middy, muddy, saturated, smooth, gated, gritty, nasty, nasal, compressed, clear. So different, yet all Fuzz.

So it becomes very hard to reconcile the “what” with the “why”. Why does it sound that way? How?

Well, it’s tricky to get into the technicalities, because there are lots of ways of making a Fuzz circuit and getting too far into electronics theory is beyond the scope of this short piece. So let’s start by defining a Fuzz pedal as giving a higher amount of distortion (with a lower case ‘d’) than a ‘Distortion’ pedal. A Distortion pedal will usually retain some clarity by leaving some of your original signal intact. It does this by using softer clipping and (hopefully) well designed use of filtering that makes for distortion but also clarity.

Perhaps one defining factor that can separate Fuzz from the politer forms of distortion – Overdrive, and Distortion, is that it often forgets about the original signal.

In the simplest Fuzz circuit, we’ll take the input signal, amplify it (gain), then gain again, and maybe again, and in the case of the Big Muff, again. Gain on gain on gain on gain.
Lots of gain. This makes high and sharp leading and falling edges and chops the top off the wave quite harshly, creating a square-ish wave shape.

Imagine your guitar signal as a nice clean, smooth wave (it’s mostly not, but it’s a good enough thing to imagine.) A Fuzz pedal takes that smooth wave and makes it almost a Square wave. It never makes it perfectly square, which is an important fact that we’ll come to in a few paragraphs.

It creates the almost vertical sides by amplifying it, thus making the rise and fall time of the wave quicker. Then it chops off the top and bottom of the wave, by either making it ‘hit the rails’, or by using diodes to force a limit to how much it can be amplified.

Hitting the rails is where that signal gets so big it hits the voltage limits of the (usually 9V) power supply. If our signal wave floats around half the power supply, we only have about 4.5V each way to swing. When the wave gets bigger than that, it can’t get any bigger and gets clipped. Distortion!

Clipping by using diodes is mainly accomplished in two ways. By putting diodes from the signal path to ground. Diodes conduct at a certain voltage, and if the signal is greater than that, it will get sent to ground, clipping the top off the signal at the forward threshold of the diode.

The Big Muff and related circuits use diodes in the feedback loop of a gain stage. This works in a similar way to that described above, but does it softly. However. It does this more than once, eventually causing it to be clipped hard. Fuzz!

So, although there are no hard and fast rules for how Fuzz works, hopefully I’ve given some clarification of how fuzz can be made inside a pedal.

But why does this make the Fuzz sound?

Well, we understand that hard clipping makes an almost square wave. The ‘almost’ is important. A pure square wave only has odd harmonics, because of maths! There is always some rise and fall time. It’s not instantaneous. This is good because it means we get even harmonics along with the original ‘note’. And even harmonics are musical sounding!

However, some fuzzes (such as the Tone Bender Mk1.5) can give more even order harmonics at lower input levels, then both even and odd as it’s hit harder. Awesome.
So there are many types of fuzz sound. Many types of fuzz circuit. Many ways of thinking about why fuzz is fuzz.

At the end of this speculation, perhaps it simply doesn’t matter how or why. I think that would be the fuzzy way of thinking about it, rather elegantly, in more way than one. Because fuzz can be made in more way than one and those ways are usually simple and elegant.”

So there you have it. Fuzz. Who would have thought it be so complicated, simple and intriguing at the same time? but as Nick D said earlier: The answer is simply Fuzz, Fuzz and more Fuzz!

Boutique Guitar FX 101