In many ways, the beginning of guitar effects is based in happy accidents or unexpected discoveries. The wah was first designed for trumpet, chorus initially for keys, the list goes on. The godfather of them all, however, is the edgy beginnings of fuzz that began with a blown circuit.
In the 1950s, when the electric guitar was new to the world, clean was the name of the game. Gain, overdrive, and distortion all lay undiscovered. That all changed in the summer of 1960 in Nashville when fuzz accidentally crept onto a now famous track.
Country artist Marty Robbins and crew were in Bradley Film & Recording Studios cutting an album. When recording the bass for “Don’t Worry” a transformer of the recording desk blew resulting in an unexpected fuzz sound. The recording engineer, Snoddy Robbins, managed to convince Marty the sound was worth keeping and by 1961 the earworm of a track was released and so too was the sound of fuzz.
Robbins and fellow engineer, Revis Hobbs, ventured beyond the studio and masterminded the replication of the blown transformer in a mobile stompbox format. The circuit was simple: three transistors, a few resistors and capacitors, and a single on/off footswitch. The control dials of the effect are top-loaded and allow for sweeps of volume and attack. In short order, Robbins and Hobbs’ innovation caught the interest of Gibson, who launched the pedal in 1962 under their Maestro brand name. The Maestro FZ-1, the first fuzz pedal, was born and poised to revolutionize music.
Getting players on board with the new idea and effect, however, would take some marketing, innovation, and explanation. Print ads promised the effect opened up a “sensational new sound” that was loaded with adjectives: “guttural, mellow, raucous, tender, raw.” If those descriptions weren’t enough, Gibson developed our first ever guitar gear demo in the format of a 33-record providing samples of the sound. Thumbing through Gibson’s patent application also reveals that, at the time, they were still targeting guitarists who wanted to make their six-string sound like a symphonic brass section. Yet for all this potential, sales were in a slump. Fuzz fizzled.
Then Keith Richards came along. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Richards used the Maestro FZ-1 on the lead track on the Rolling Stones’ single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965). As it turns out, Richards deployed the effect for what Gibson thought guitarists wanted, to make the instrument sound more like a horn. As we all know, however, that signature sound is hardly horny but an ever-edgy masterpiece of distortion that set the course for the British invasion and modern rock.
With beginnings in a blown desk transistor, an accidental effect on a bass track, and a pedal designed to mimic a horn, fuzz’s unexpected beginning and evolution proves that sometimes innovation is bred by the unexpected.