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