In the midst of the ongoing vintage trend, this is an attempt to scatter some of the clouds surrounding one of very few effect pedals which has earned itself a cult-status and just refuse to die – Fuzz Face!
Over the last ten to fifteen years there has been an increased interest in older effect pedals, mainly from the sixties and seventies. As a result a host of reissues of the most popular models are produced today; MXR, Electro Harmonix, Ibanez etc. These reissues often cost less than the original units and have the advantage of being readily available in almost every music store around the globe.
There is however reason to think twice before buying one of those reissues, a lot of times there is a huge difference in sound and/or construction when compared to an original unit – despite the fact that the manufacturer claims the opposite! So use your eyes and ears and, if at all possible, compare the reissue with an original before spending your hard-earned cash – otherwise chances are you may be disappointed.
The Fuzz Face, produced by Arbiter Electronics in London, first appeared on the market in the autumn 1966.
The goal was to design a fuzzbox with a different look, and 30 years later one can safely say that they succeeded with their intention. Ivor Arbiter, still active in the music business today, says that he got the idea for the round shape when he one day saw a microphone-stand with a cast-iron base.
Analogman Sunface NKT-275 White Dot Germanium
It can’t have been that hard to name their new baby. The control layout and the cutout "smile" in the rubbermat make it look just like a face!
The Fuzz Face quickly became popular. A certain London newcomer by the name of Jimi Hendrix soon discovered its tonal qualitys. One must in all honesty say that there wasn’t that many different fuzz pedals to choose from in those days, but fact remains; when musical history was made, this gadget was right there at the epicenter. Even today there are many guitar players that swear by their Fuzz Face and the sound it produce; Eric Johnson, David Gilmour, and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan just to name a few. Among well-known Swedish players Claes Yngström and Staffan Astner comes to mind. Swedish guitar-legend Kenny Håkansson could during one period be seen with two (!!) Fuzz Faces hooked up in series.
Photo Robert Lundberg. Inside of Arbiter Fuzz Face from January 1967 with NKT 275 germanium transistors.
All attempts trying to find the person responsible for the actual Fuzz Face circuit has so far failed. With it’s two transistors, four resistors, three capacitors, switch and two potentiometers, the circuit is nothing but primitive by today standards, but I still feel that the circuit designer should be awarded in some way for his or hers contribution to musical history.
The idea to use a DPDT-switch as standard part in the circuit, something that only can be found on the most exclusive, handmade pedals today, is worth eternal respect. DPDT means "double pole/ double throw" and enables "true bypass" – your signal isn’t affected by the pedal when in "off" position and there isn’t any treble loss etc. Today mass-produced pedals never have DPDT-switches; it would be too expensive for the manufacturer!
Fulltone 69 Mk II Fuzz
Despite its simple circuit this pedal has a remarkably wide array of sounds at its disposal. Depending on your playing technique and the type of gear you combine it with, you should be able to get sounds that range from true psychedelic fuzz to fat, compressed overdrive.
Around –74, -75, original production of the Fuzz Face stopped. During its lifetime, the pedal went through some minor cosmetic changes but major sonic changes.
Colors, smiles and more
The earliest models were covered in red, light- or dark gray hammerite paint with the Fuzz Face logo painted in white or black. In the cutout "smile" it said
Arbiter - England
Photo Robert Lundberg. Arbiter Fuzz face from December 1966.
As the Arbiter Company fused with Dallas Musical Instruments around –68, the text was changed to "DALLAS - ARBITER · ENGLAND."
Photo Robert Lundberg. Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face from 70´s
Both models have pots with date codes imprinted on them. Look carefully and you should be able to see it on the housing, just above the lugs – if the pots are original that is! There are two types of codes and they may look like these two examples;
10 – 6 or 8 – 68. In the first case the pot is made in October –66 and in the other it was made in august –68. The pedal should have been manufactured within the following months from the given date.
The painted logo was later replaced during the Dallas Musical Instruments production period with a thin decal that, qualitywise, resembles the fake tattoos that once could be found in certain corn-flakes boxes. These decals are so delicate that original units from this period often have a pretty worn logo. These variations are also true for the IN, OUT, FUZZ and VOLUME markings.
Even though it’s not 100% clear, it is probably during this period, -69, -70, that you could get the pedal in blue hammerite paint for the first time.
Analogman Sunface BC109 Silicon
Some time, in the beginning of the seventies, the "smile"-text was changed for the third time. This time it said DALLAS MUSIC INDUSTRIES LTD. and some people claim that production was now moved to USA. All Fuzz Faces I have seen or played from this era, all had English parts in them. Some even had a "Made In England" sticker glued to the bottom-plate – so what’s one to believe? Anyway, the "smile"-text is a pretty accurate way of dating a Fuzz Face.
The bottom-plate was chromed and shiny during the first production years and a battery-clip was attached to it. Later on the bottom-plate got thicker, its surface dull and the clip was moved to the inside of the pedal. The dull bottomplate in combination with a rather worn logo sometimes leads people to believe that the Dallas Music Industries Ltd. models are the earliest type of Fuzz Face when they’re not.
Dynamics To Beat
It is impossible to write anything about the Fuzz Face without touching the subject of transistors. Have you ever heard NKT 275 or AC 128 mentioned before? These types are the original PNP germanium transistors found in the first series Fuzz Face. NKT 275 was made by Newmarket Electronics in England and most people regard this "grey can" regarded as the "magical" transistor tonewise. This is what Jimi Hendrix had in some of his early pedals. Today the NKT 275 is long gone, original production ceased years ago and only with unreal amounts of luck will you find original samples.
Photo Robert Lundberg. With two NKT 257 transistors, four resistors, three capacitors, the circuit is nothing but primitive but it had a tone to die for (January 1967).
There was also a third type of germanium transistor called SF 363 E. This was more unusual but had roughly the same sound characteristics as the other two.
The great thing about germanium type transistors, when matched properly, is their tube-like responsiveness and fat even harmonics. Proper matching and biasing was however something that weren’t performed routinely during production in those days, and as a result pedals differ in sound dramatically, even from the same production period – you had to pick and chose which one you liked best!
Fulltone 70 BC-108C Fuzz
If you use a germanium equipped Fuzz Face and lower your guitars volume from 10 to 7 your sound cleans up in a dynamic way much resembling an old, slightly overdriven Fender amp, and with no loss of treble. The late Stevie Ray Vaughan once said in a 1989 interview that playing with the Fuzz Face on and your guitar volume lowered gave a cleaner sound than turning the Fuzz Face off and raising the guitars volume. Try for yourself and hear what he meant!
Unfortunately, germanium transistors also have their drawbacks. The worst is their temperature sensitivity and relatively short lifespan. If the pedal gets to warm or cold, the sound may suffer and, at worst, the transistors might become damaged. So be careful! Some golden-eared players can actually hear a sound difference between outdoor shows in the sun and indoor shows.
In an attempt to better the pedal, the germanium’s were replaced in about 1969 by the new and also more stable NPN silicon transistors. Tonewise, this would be the start of a whole new era in life of the Fuzz Face.
More gain & radiosignals
The first NPN silicon transistors were the BC 108 C and, a bit later, the
BC 183 L. Then came the BC 109, BC 109 C and BC 209 C in that order with the
BC 209 C being the final type before the original production of the Fuzz Face ceased in 1974/75.
Photo Robert Lundberg. Inside 70´s Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face with BC 209 C transistors.
Silicon transistors were silver colored at first and only half the size of it’s germanium relatives, but pretty soon all silicon got the black plastic look they still have today.
These transistors have huge amounts of gain, especially compared to a germanium. Increased treble + decreased bass and lower midrange also makes it work well with all types of pickup-positions, even on a Strat. Germanium on the other hand, is best suited for lead-pickups. However, silicon won’t give you the same warmth as it’s predecessor but will keep their original sound year after year – something which isn’t always the case with germanium. It can actually be very hard to find an original unit from the Arbiter-period that still sounds great today – transistor deterioration being the most common source to this. Eric Johnson mentioned in an interview that he had to go through 30 to find a couple that he liked! But obviously it was worth it!
The greatest drawback with silicon is their ability to pick up radio frequencies and the general noisiness – especially if you use a lot of fuzz and single coil (strat-type) microphones. If you’re the kind of player who wants a totally hiss-free rig, you should probably stay away from this type of Fuzz Face!
To further study the sound differences between silicon/germanium; listen to some of Jimi Hendrix’s live recordings from –67 and compare them to the sound heard on "Band Of Gypsys" which originally came out in 1970. He uses a silicon-equipped unit on that CD/LP.
Like I said, it’s not easy to find these units today. Price ranges from 100 dollars up to about 500 dollars– depending on type, condition and originality. The first series with NKT 275 is without a doubt the most coveted of all. But the early silicon versions with BC 108 C or BC 183 L are also "hot". At guitar-shows in Sweden I’ve only seen two(!) Fuzz Faces for sale so far and these were sold almost immediately – both had silicon transistors inside.
Since the original production of the Fuzz Face ceased 25 years ago, a host of reissues has seen the light of day. Some are very good but most of them fail to replicate the sound of its ancestors. Manufacturers often claims that their reissue is an exact remake of the original unit but the truth is that, so far, NO EXACT remake of the Fuzz Face has yet surfaced. Some come amazingly close, especially sound-wise, and instead of criticizing the ones that don’t, I’ve chosen to highlight the ones that do come close – or even dead on.
Crest Audio, type 1:
The first reissue to come out during the second half of the seventies was made by Crest Audio in New Jersey, USA. Their model was physically higher than the originals and used the BC 109 C silicon-transistor. The housing was painted thin in a light-gray color that failed to resemble the original hammerite paint. The "smile"-cut out said DALLAS – MUSIC or DALLAS – ARBITER. They sound roughly like a seventies original but with midrange a bit too harsh compared to an original.
Crest Audio, type 2:
Towards the end of the eighties Dave Fox at Crest Audio made a new try. This time with full-page ads in Guitar Player Magazine. The production-run was painted in an ordinary red or gray color, no hammerite paint and in the "smile"-cut out it said DALLAS - ARBITER · ENGLAND with text that was printed on a plastic sticker rather than painted on the housing, exactly like today’s Dunlop reissues. Once again the BC 109 C was used with same result as last time.
Dunlop took over production 1993 and started to use PNP germanium transistors almost straight away since their first units that used silicon sounded bad. Since then they have been using different brands of germanium transistors which have been relabeled NKT 275. You could argue about the moral/ethical aspect of re-labeling but since a few years back, Dunlop’s units sounds surprisingly close to the originals – you just have to pick and choose the best from a bunch. Expect limited dynamics and low gain compared to a prime original.
Foxrox Hot Silicon Fuzz
The "boutique" pedal market has bloomed and there are so many great versions of the Fuzz Face theme it's impossible to mention all. There are great fuzz pedals from Austone, Barber, BJF, Black Cat, Diaz, Foxrox, Jacque's, Lovetone, McFuzz, Menatone, MJM, Prescription Electronics, Zvex .... just to mention few.
Some people may think; what about Roger Mayer? Jimi’s own pedalman, what about his pedals? Well, Roger Mayer makes fantastic pedals for sure, but none even attempts to be a reissue of an original Fuzz Face. Mayers "Classic Fuzz" and "Axis Fuzz" are pedals containing copies of the heavily modified Fuzz Face circuits he made for Jimi Hendrix. This is why his pedals have been kept out of this comparison.
Just like I mentioned above, it is possible to get a wide range of sounds out of a Fuzz Face. The pedal is very sensitive to what type of playing technique you use and type of equipment it’s combined with. If possible, try experimenting with many different types of guitars and amps and you’ll see. Even the type of battery used makes a difference! Be sure to use carbon-zinc batteries for the most musical tone.
If you’re going to use the Fuzz Face in series with a lot of other pedals you must be prepared to put some effort into finding the right place in the signal-path. Placement greatly varies the tone!
Are you one of many players who likes the sound of wah-wah before fuzz/distortion? Most players do. Unfortunately your wah-sound will suffer if the pedal is put before a germanium equipped Fuzz Face. You will loose the treble - bass sweep and only get a strange hollow, shrieking sound. This is due to impedance differences between the two pedals and totally normal – nothing is broken or wrong. You can do like Jimi did at first and use the noise in a musical way or you can let a qualified repairman modify the circuit to "normalize" the sound, it’s not hard to do.
A Fuzz Face sounds IMO absolutely best when put in front of an overdriven tube-amplifier. Preferably an old Marshall "plexi" 50 W or 100 W from the sixties. This will take away much of the fuzz characteristics and you’ll get a fat, pure overdrive-sound instead which you can control with your guitars volume.
Turn down your amp and the fuzz characteristics will return. A Fender Twin Reverb with volume set at 3 combined with a Fuzz Face is like razorblades – psychedelic as it gets. Stay experienced.
7/1999 David Morin
Author is a guitarplayer and Hendrix-historian living in Piteå, Sweden. This article was first published in Sweden in the Swedish guitar magazine FUZZ # 5, June - July 1999
KUUNTELE CUSTOM SOUNDSIN SOITTOLISTASTA FUZZ-SOUNDEJA ERI VUOSILTA: