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.
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.)
The Fuzz-Tone stompbox also spawned the avid community of guitar effects aficionados. Their reverence for the Tone Bender, the Big Muff and the TS-808 Tube Screamer have driven vintage pedals values skyward. The Honus Wagner of effects, the rarely sighted EMS Synthi-Hi Fli, can fetch thousands of dollars on e-Bay. Like the shop talk of wine enthusiasts, discussions among distortion cognoscenti on nuances of tone can baffle outsiders. Some differences are obvious, but many aren't. Debate rages over whether the JRC4558 op amp chip in overdrive pedals is truly superior. Similar arguments erupt over whether fuzz sounds better with transistors made of silicon or the much rarer germanium. Tom Hughes, author of "Analog Man's Guide to Vintage Effects" uses those two elements (14th and 32nd on the periodic table, respectively) as the dividing line of Jimi Hendrix's career.
"Early Hendrix, that was a germanium Fuzz Face, right up to "Are You Experienced?,'" he says. "When he got to the Band of Gypsies, that was silicon."
Guitar distortion is a triumph of the counterintuitive. Earlier in the 20th cenury, sonically adventurous folks like Luigi Russolo and John Cage spent years promoting the idea that noise in music was good, but it took Keef and a sharp-eared recording engineer to prove it.
To make a rather sweeping statement, the existence of rock 'n' roll rests pretty heavily on distortion. Music historians talk up the genre's origins as a blend of musical traditions, its challenge to cultural mores, etc. But, really, without at least a bit of crunch, rock wouldn't have a lot going for it. There's some satisfaction in this; rarely is the crux of an art form so precisely identified.
What was once revolutionary is now taken for granted. Great as Hendrix was, we rarely hear of Roger Mayer, a techie who honed his engineering chops in the British military. He served as Hendrix's personal guitar effects tinkerer. Mayer's most famous creation, the Octavia, created and threw an additional octave into the mix of thick fuzz.
Distortion's not always a rabble-rouser. Fuzz brings a certain sweetness, for instance, to the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey." Indeed, without the Shin-ei fuzz pedal that drenches their 1985 debut Psychocandy, the Jesus and Mary Chain might have been just another British pop band.
And it needn't be confined to the guitar. Distortion has made the term "cello metal" possible. Applied to the humble thumb piano, it made unlikely stars of the fantastic Konono No. 1 from the Democratic Republic of Congo:
So what is it about distortion that so draws us in? Zachary Vex, owner of Z. Vex Guitar Effects in Minnesota, has a theory.
"Our own voices distort when we yell or sing intensely, so a distorted guitar also reminds us of the human voice at it's most exciting point," he says in an email. "Most audio stuff that affects us emotionally is a result of pretty primal factors."