50 Years of Making Fuzz, the Sound That Defines Rock 'n' Roll

A look at the evolution of the technologies that give rock its signature sound

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Fifty years ago, a faulty connection in a mixing board gave birth to fuzz, which is a term of art. Although it came to define the sound of rock guitar, fuzz appeared first in neither guitar nor rock, but in the bass solo of country singer Marty Robbins on "Don't Worry." The band and producers debated whether to keep the weird sound or record another take. It stayed, and the song entered the Top 40 in February of 1961 and remained for 12 weeks. In an otherwise sweet and mostly acoustic tune, those incongruous 19 seconds of buzzing presaged decades of distorted guitar to come. The fuzz kicks in at the 1:39 mark:

 

Part of the fun of discussing early distortion is finding ever earlier examples of it. "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats (it was actually Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm backing Brenston) from 1951, the Memphis recordings of Howlin' Wolf (1951-52), Johnny Burnette's "Train Kept A-Rollin" (1956) and Link Wray's "Rumble" (1958) all hold a special place in the distortion lover's heart. In the taxonomy of distortion, most early guitar grit is considered classic overdrive -- that's when the input from the guitar exceeds the capacity of the amplifier's vacuum tubes. Depending on where the volume dials rest, sounds range from a gentle rasp to a serious bite. It's a warm, earthy species of distortion.

But fuzz was different from those tube-driven sounds. Transistors boosted and then severely clipped the guitar's signal, creating a buzzy, not-quite-of-this-world timbre. It sounded kind of synthetic, and far from warm or earthy. It was perfect, though, for a world still dreaming of the cosmos -- the first manned space flight would occur a few months after the release of Robbins' song -- but not quite ready for the purely electronic tones to come.

Accidents account for many of the great sounds on early rock records. The grunge of Willie Kizart's guitar on "Rocket 88" came from the damage of a speaker that either fell off a car's roof or got left out in the rain, depending on who's telling the story. There was purposeful damage, too, like the holes Link Wray pierced in his speakers to get the crunch of "Rumble," causing a sound so bad-ass that it's probably the only instrumental banned by U.S. radio stations. Years later, Dave Davies of the Kinks would visit similar violence upon his guitar speakers for "You Really Got Me."

The fuzz produced by Grady Martin's bass on "Don't Worry" was also happenstance, but it earns a place in the annals of distortion because its makers captured what would otherwise have been a fluke. Recording engineer Glenn T. Snoddy tells Gary Gottlieb in his book "How Does It Sound Now?" that he figured out the faulty circuit so he could recreate "this awful sound" for other musicians. His master stroke, though, was replicating the sound with what would be the first commercially available fuzzbox. The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone allowed guitarists to change their tone from clean to dirty with a tap of the foot, thanks to a rather simple circuit of three transistors and some capacitors and resistors. Initial sales lagged (due, perhaps, to marketing; ads promised that it would make guitars sound like saxophones and orchestra strings). But when the Rolling Stones used it on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," everyone wanted fuzz. (Other early, though less influential, adopters were the writers of the "Green Acres" theme song.)

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William Weir is a writer living in New Haven, Conn. His articles have appeared in Slate and other publications.

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