The History of Heavy Metal: The First Generation – Chapter Three

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:

The Big Muff

The History of the Fuzz Pedal

50 Years of Making Fuzz

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The History of Heavy Metal: The First Generation – Chapter Two

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. As the 1960’s began, two new forms of American popular music helped contribute to the future of guitar-based rock.

Chapter Two: Surf Rock and Garage Rock

While teen romance and girl bands along with Motown began claiming the pop charts around 1960, two new styles of music were about to capture the attention of guitar rock fans. The first was that of surf music. Originating in California but later expanding across the States and even across the Atlantic, surf rock emerged thanks to the popularity of guitar instrumental music by bands like the Ventures. Though when it comes to surf music most people think of the Beach Boys and their memorable vocal harmonies, it was guitarist Dick Dale whom most historians believe created the genre.

Dick came from a multi-ethic background which included Lebanese, and his love for Middle Eastern music and Eastern scales found their way into his unique style of guitar playing. Dick Dale and the Del Tones played a number of instrumental pieces, many of which were built on the Eastern sound that was part of Dale’s musical psyche. “Misirlou” is probably his best recognized initially hugely popular on the surf music scene in the early 60’s and later enjoying a revival after it was used as the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Pulp Fiction”. Dick played fast and has been said to be the grandfather of heavy metal because he played an early style of shredding by double picking the strings (for “Misirlou” he apparently played it all on one string only). Dale also contributed to the heavy sound by playing with a thick-bodied Fender stratocaster and used thicker strings than standard for guitars. With lots of reverb he created a “wet” sound that was meant to capture the sound he heard when surfing.

In addition to speedy playing on thicker strings, Dale also spoke to Leo Fender about making the first 100 watt amplifier because Dale kept blowing up Fender’s amps. Furthermore, Dale was quite a showman with the guitar. All these contribute to his performances being regarded as a precursor to heavy metal. Play loud. Play fast.

Surf music wasn’t all blazing guitar instrumentals. Many bands recorded songs with lyrics. But surf songs were not going to lay any foundations for metal with cheery songs about sunshine and waves in good harmony. It took another new form of music to bring heavy metal a step closer to realization.

By the early 1960’s, many youngsters dreamed of starting a rock and roll band and in the suburbs, the best place to rehearse was in the garage. Electric guitar, bass guitar (which was a relatively new instrument and picked up by not only surf rock and garage rock bands but also by country western bands as well), drums, and vocals, along with the occasional organ or saxophone, young musician hopefuls took fifties hits and churned out their versions with amplified guitars.

The riff rock song became king as the garage rock movement began. “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen became one of the most recognizable songs of the day. It was not, however, the song itself but the influence it had across the Atlantic that would make history. The story goes that Ray Davis of The Kinks was trying to play “Louie Louie” and came up with the guitar riffs for both “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”. Played with a new sound he’d created by slicing an small amp’s speaker cone with a razor blade, Davis created two of the first power chord riff-based, distorted guitar rock songs with wild guitar soloing. These songs in turn inspired The Who’s Pete Townshend to compose “I Can’t Explain” which was not as hard and heavy in the guitar sound but still and important riff rock song.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., The Sonics were finding their own way to damage their speakers and creating their own riff-based rock with plenty of vigor. Like most garage rock bands, The Sonics started out doing mostly covers; however, in 1964 they recorded “The Witch”, a heavy rocker of the time if there even was one. This was follow a year later by “He’s Waiting” which was not only an excellent proto-metal song with its angry distorted guitar chords but also because the song mentions “Satan”. When The Sonics released their second album in 1966, they had covered “Louie Louie” with a heavy rock version that was so gritty, raw, and powerful not only in the music but with vocals that pushed the red line in the recording studio. The guitar solo too is worthy of praise as it bends and swerves like a viper rather than blazes.

Vocal styles were becoming more daring too as American bands found that they didn’t necessarily have to sing like Elvis, and a good number of bands with strange vocal styles – anywhere from shouting to rough singing – began gaining popularity. Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Seeds, and many others found success with this new approach to rock. However, both surf rock and garage rock were about to be joined by another new take on rock and roll. For as another Paul Revere is alleged to have said, the British were coming. But before that, a very important piece of equipment that would be vital to the sound of heavy metal was invented by accident.