First Fuzz

Christmas has brought some new toys my way. Besides the chorus pedal, I got a FUZZ. This is something that’s been low on my wish list since they started making a comeback in the early 90s. They always seemed crude to me, and I never need THAT much distortion. So I don’t know what suddenly possessed me to buy one. Maybe it Sly & the Family Stone’s second album which has been my happy day driving music for these past weeks.

My only criteria for getting a fuzz was cost/performance, in other words, the cheapest thing I could get that didn’t say Behringer on it. The cheapest new pedal I could find was Modtone’s “The Fuzz” for $40, but for a few dollars more I was able to win a Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz with no scratches and the battery still inside on Yahoo! Auction. I was concerned it would be too big, but it’s only a little wider than a Barber pedal. However, it’s slanted which makes it easier to stomp. The enclosure is one of the sturdiest and most attractive I’ve seen, but it looses points for battery access. The guts are clean, too but I was surprised when I couldn’t find any transistors inside. I guess they are surface mounted components like…Behringer. Maybe this is why these pedals don’t get much love. A boutique exterior with behringer might seem like bate-and-switch to some. In spite of this, the pedal is supposed to be very easy to mod thanks to sea of holes on the PCB, thus giving the pedal it’s name. 

The circuit is basically a fuzz-face, which is cool because that’s pretty much what I was seeking this time. Crank it and it delivers the goods: think, nasty ruthless clipping covered with extra hair and other cheap analog artefacts. This description makes it seem like it sounds bad, but the sound is not unpleasant. At least not after I changed the battery. Before that, I was treated to some nice sputtering fuzz flatulence which has inspired ‘sag’ controls on certain pedals and power supplies. After a battery change, stomping on the pedal deep-fried my guitars sound until it was unrecognizable, but totally imposible to ignore. The pedal is certainly not difficult to tweak, but there is no description for the 6-position tone-switch. This is not like a typical tone control with a single capacitor. There are 6-different caps to switch between, almost like tone presets. The manual I downloaded for it was very helpful, and my favorite tones so far are the first two sample settings. 

The sound was not quite as bright and raspy as I was expecting, so I finally changed the strings on my G&L Legacy. This time, I tried a lighter and brighter set of GHS Boomers (10.5~48). The combination of my Keystone pickups, Callaham Tremblock and amp’s crispy sounding speaker, I was worried the Boomers would be too bright, but the new strings compliment the whole set up very well, bringing out the best it all of it. Compared to these, the Burnished Nickels (11-50) set felt too heavy and dull. The guitar plays and sound very nicely again, especially clean and semi-clean. However, the fuzz doesn’t seem to care how bright the guitar is, and tone control on the bridge pickup had almost no effect.  

The final test was to see how it would interact with other pedals. Since I already installed an output buffer into my Budwah last month, there was none of the legendary incompatibility between fuzz and wah. Rolling off the volume control didn’t seem to have the desired effect, but I was again pleasantly surprised at how great it sounded together with my Robot Factory Ubber Rat. The day before the fuzz arrived, I had been really getting down with this pedal to see how it works, and I think I’m almost there. The major break through was figuring out how to get a clean boost by using the op-amp without the clipping diodes. Driving the fuzz with that gave some very nice overdrive tones with the volume rolled off, in addition to tightening up the fuzz and increasing sustain. This is good because it means I can still use my Tonepress as a clean boost with compression. 

Following the fuzz and strings, one more upgrade this week was a 12AT7 tube for my Valbee. I’ve tried all the other types and wasn’t totally satisfied. There was either too much gain or too little sustain. Yet again, I was surprised that the cheapest single tube I could find on Yahoo! Auction was not Electro-Harmonix, but an NOS MULLARD (actually branded Fisher)!!! It seems most tubes simply are sold as singles, which totally ignores the market for small single ended amps with like the Valbee, Greco GVA Custom and the Chimp which I covet. So lonely tubes with no family like this one can be gotten for as little as $12. The Mullard/Fisher sounds even better than my prized JAN 6072A which it replaces. I can’t describe it, but the there does seem to be a more open and detailed sound, and it even seems to add some of the warmth that has been missing from my current rig. 

Aria ACH-1

It’s not an impulse buy when you’ve researched the product, and find one at a ridiculous price. So when I broke down and got the Aria ACH-1 chorus pedal that was waiting patiently for me inside a locked case deep within a massive “recycle shop” near my job, I had no regrets. Made of plastic, this is the lightest pedal I’ve ever held but at market price of 2000 yen, it’s much better value than almost any plastic Behringer pedal.

After chorus being out of fashion for about 20 years now, why did suddenly I get a chorus this pedal? Pat Metheny. I read that he hates chorus pedals, and gets his big, lush sound using a stereo modulation delay. One half modulates down, while the other modulates up. So I searched for the cheapest chorus pedal that does that. This one doesn’t, but it’s outputs are out of phase with each other, yielding a very thick chorus with two amps.

Part of the pedal’s thickness is because of it’s Intensity control, which seems is really a poorly named “wet” control. It’s a great feature which so many other choruses seem to lack. I had mistakenly assumed this was a delay control, which is something else that would have been welcome for enhancing the stereo field, but I’ll have to save up for an 80s Ibanez SC-10 for that. In the meantime, I found another way to get close to the effect.

I happen to have two Fender Amp Cans (which sound a bit different from each other), and have been thinking for a while that it would be fun to use both outdoors. Spacial ambient effects like this and the Echo Park and Boss DD-7 I had for a minute (NOT like my Boss DD-3…later on that) really get the most out of a rig like this. My Boss DD-3 is a great ambient effect, but the direct/effect out scheme like so many stereo chorus pedals just doesn’t do it for me.

Finding a way to use a stereo chorus and stereo delay (both with MONO inputs) on my pedal board stumped me for a bit, but when I bent over to actually arrange the pedals, the signal-chain became obvious, following conventional signal chain flows like you see in books and multi-effects processors,  I put the delay before the chorus. However, I connected the delay’s Direct Out to a THIRD amp…like Pat Metheny.

Now I had a real-tube amp for my clean, and two satellite amps doing the chorusing with pre-delay. The results are hard to tell in my tiny practice room, but not bad. Setting the balance between all three amps is tricky, especially because the chorus outputs are out of phase with each other, one will be IN-phase with the clean/center, possibly cancelling out some of the frequencies. They key seems to be setting the right delay time to offset this.

Did I sound like Pat Metheny? Not even close, though that has more to do with the content of my playing and technique. If the rig sounded cold, it’s probably because the room, strings and my fingers WERE cold, but the three amps definitely got the cold air moving around me.  Obviously, to get the most out of a rig like this, you should be playing in a big room. Two small amps are more than enough for a small room.

Pedal Board Review

Satisfied with the results of my amp mods, I haven’t touched my pedal board for a while. After all, the best sound is a good guitar through a good amp. Rather than waste time plugging in, I’d rather just play.  Pedals usually make playing more fun, though. So why don’t I use them more?

To find the answer, I went back and reviewed the reason I bought each one. All of my pedals have been carefully selected for functionality, versatility and affordability. For example, the Tonepress is there for increasing sustain on an archtop, but also works as a nice clean boost. Same goes for my Nobels ODR-1 which makes a great clean boost, or overdrive for blues and hard rock. These pedals make the amp sound better yet I avoid using them.

The problem I realized was that I haven’t committed myself to what their function should be. The solution may be getting more pedals, or even get a second pedal board since settings for my pedals are different for my guitars. For example, I can use much more compression and gain on my G&L strat than my Ibanez archtop, and prefer an envelope filter to a wah with an archtop. Whereas any almost comp with do for a strat.

The confusion became unbearable when I modded my Budwah with a buffer/booster (Barber B-Buff). Now I had THREE pedals on my board to boost my signal and overdrive the amp, when I only need TWO at most. So I stopped using the wah for a boost, and decided to  let the other pedals do what their good at, which means the Tonepress sustains and clean boosts, and the OD-1 dirty boosts the bridge pickup into rock solo range.

As far as settings go, I looked at the pedals and realized they should be set from RIGHT to LEFT in most cases, though occasionally LEFT to RIGHT like the Nobels. Also, when making settings, imagine that the pedal only had ONE knob (like an MXR Phase 90 or Micro Amp.) Which one would it be? Set that one to get the sound or effect you want, and then set the others to compensate for any imbalances.

That one knob on the Tonepress that would be Sustain. The primary function of Blend and Volume  is to compensate for any loss of attack or volume. On the Nobels, it would be Drive.  Tone and Level are mainly there to trim for the high end loss and excessive that comes with higher settings. Delay? Delay. Repeats and E.Level just affect the audibility of the echoes, though they can be used to create extreme textural effects.

Of course, a more advanced approach where each knob on a pedal can be thought of as it’s own effect. The Volume/Level control on most pedals can be a dynamic boost effect. The Repeats on a delay an oscillator (and thus D.Time becomes a pitch shifter!) Discovering these extra other experimental sounds in pedals can yield some truly original sound. Some players spend more time with their hands on their knobs than their strings.

Most of us want to stand up and grab our necks,  not bend over and twist our knobs, right?