Most documentaries and accounts of the history of heavy metal music will mention the debut album by Black Sabbath as the first instance of the popular music sub-genre. Others will report initial stirrings of the style in the psychedelic years of the late sixties. But the heavy metal sound depends a lot on a particular piece of equipment that was invented in 1961.
Chapter Three: Here Comes the Fuzz!
As we saw in Chapter One, the sound of Rock and Roll was defined to a degree by the sound of the electric guitar. That buzzing sound of a loose speaker cone held in place by newspaper crammed into the speaker box gave Jackie Breston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” a special edge. Distortion was actually explored by many guitarists in the 1940’s and 50’s. The electric guitar was originally intended to produce clean sounds; however, it was discovered that if you turned the amplifier volume all the way up, the vacuum tubes would become over capacitated and the result would be a warm distorted sound. This was overdrive and it appealed.
Guitar distortion began appearing on recordings as early as 1949’s “Rock Awhile” by Goree Carter. Guitar playing style and guitar sound went hand in hand in developing new styles of music. James Cotton’s guitarist Pat Hare is credited for developing rockabilly on the song “Love Me Baby” and the heavily distorted guitar on “Cotton Crop Blues” was a likely major influence on the development of British Invasion blues style (to be discussed in Chapter Four). While a distorted sound could be achieved with overdrive, damaged amps could also give a nice buzz to the sound. Dislodged speakers cones, loosened vacuum tubes, and even slashed or punctured speaker cones could create distortion. The Kinks made the slashed speaker cone sound a hit in 1964 with “You Really Got Me”.
By 1960, a radio technician working for Lee Hazelwood, who was a producer and song writer recording with Duane Eddy, developed a device that could give the guitar a fuzzy sound. Guitarist Al Casey used the first built fuzz box on what may well be the first song to use such a device, “Go On Home”, released in March 1960. The song, however, would not make much of a buzz in the music scene, pun intended. That would occur almost a year later when an accident occurred during a recording. Most interestingly, it was not while recording the guitar for a rock and roll number but during the recording of a bass solo in a country western ballad.
Recording engineer, Glen Snoddy was in the studio with Marty Robbins recording “Don’t Worry” (at 1:29 the solo comes in). The bass guitar was played by Grady Martin and unusually a bass solo was to appear in the song. As the story goes, a transformer blew out in the mixing console, resulting in the bass guitar having a unique fuzzy sound. Opinions were expressed about fixing the problem and re-recording the solo or keeping it as it had turned out. In the end, the fuzzy sound was kept and the song released in January 1961. By February it was the #1 song on the country charts. Grady Martin used this fuzz tone effect on several recordings and it became popular among Nashville-area country western guitarists. Glen Snoddy fixed the problem with his mixing console but also decided to create a small box that could replicate the fuzz sound. This device he later sent to Gibson and the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone pedal became the first commercially available fuzz box.
In 1961, pedal steel player and electronics technician, Orville Rhodes created a fuzz circuit for studio recording. The box had a distortion level knob and a bypass switch. Though Rhodes’ fuzz box never went into production, he made several of them for other musicians.
Over the next few years, the fuzz tone would appear on a number of rock recordings. The appeal on the fuzz tone was that it was different from the warm buzz of overdrive. It had an otherworldly sound to it. Session guitarist Billy Strange used a Rhodes fuzz box on the 1961 Ann Margaret recording “I Just Don’t Understand” and Nokie Edwards of The Ventures was using a Rhodes fuzz box in late 1961. The sound was featured on “2000 Pound Bee” in 1962. The Beatles were seen using a Maestro Fuzz-Tone in the studio in 1963. By 1965, the first British fuzz box was brought to market: the MKI Tone Bender.
By now, guitarists had become fascinated by the possibilities of fuzz tone. One of The Who’s earliest recordings – “Bald Headed Woman” – features a fuzz-toned guitar in the intro, allegedly played by Jimmy Page because, according to the notes in the compilation album “Two’s Missing”, “He was the only one in the country with a fuzz box”. Jeff Beck used one on several Yardbirds’ recordings in 1965, most popularly on their single “Heart Full of Soul” but perhaps most effectively on the instrumental “Someone to Love Part 2”. However, it was Keith Richards fuzz toned riff on the Rolling Stones’ 1965 hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that kicked off the fuzz tone craze. Gibson fuzz boxes sold out in a jiffy. This spurred the development and production of other fuzz boxes as well.
The fuzz tone’s popularity had begun in the country western world but was quickly brought into distortion-loving rock and roll. With garage rock already primed for guitar distortion effects, two more developments of paramount importance in rock and roll would ultimately lead to the birth of heavy metal. The first of these is the British Invasion, to be discussed in Chapter Four.
For further reading about the history of the fuzz box: