In the beginning, distortion was accidentally discovered by many amplifier owners simultaneously–usually because of damage to valves or speakers.
Of course the sound was undesirable to some, but surprising and appealing to others. Some guitarists loved the sound enough to deliberately poke holes in their speakers.
A bad preamp circuit created the deliciously sinister noise of Grady Martin’s guitar on a Marty Robbins track, and the producer, Don Law, had the wisdom to know that although it was a mistake, the sound was awesome. Have a listen to Marty Robbins’s “Don’t Worry” to get an idea of how a bad preamp circuit can help change the course of musical history. Especially jarring in such an otherwise classic-sounding country tune, isn’t it?
The Ventures heard that guitar sound on “Don’t Worry,” loved it, and asked their friend, a pedal steel player and electronics wizard named Red Rhodes, how to get that sound. In response, Rhodes built his pals what may very well be the world’s first distortion pedal. By that time, the cat was out of the bag.
Distortion grew even more popular after the Kinks recorded “You Really Got Me” with a guitar that had been violently “modified” with a razor.
Then in 1962, Gibson produced the Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1, bringing pedal overdrive to the public. No more razors and pencils. No more punching holes in loudspeakers to sound like the Kinks. Sales were sure to be terrific. Right?
You’d think so, but… meh. Until 1965. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones recorded “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” using the FZ-1, and suddenly Maestros were flying off music store shelves. More fuzzboxes crowded into the market: the Vox Tone Bender, the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, the Arbiter Group Fuzzface… these vintage pedals are still sought after today.
The sounds of Jimi Hendrix and other emerging rock groups fanned the flames even further–and today, if you’re a rock guitarist, chances are good that you’ve got at least one overdrive pedal. Many of us have a dozen, including at least one that goes “to eleven” with bone-rattling distortion levels. You’ve got metal to thank for that.
What about you? What’re your favorite fuzzboxes?