Sunday, August 10, 2008

Terminology (digression no.1)

There comes a time in every fuzz fan’s life when someone says “so, what is it with all these fuzz boxes then? Aren’t they all the same?”. One day over the xmas break a year or two ago, I decided that would do a an impromptu demonstration-cum-lecture on the history of fuzz for Charlotte and Kay, partly to pre-empt this slightly awkward question, and partly to account for all the time I was spending in the den fiddling with transistors and soldering irons [and yes - I know I’m mad; but we make our own fun]. I choose an early fuzz (Maestro FZ1-A, 1965), a “classic” Germanium fuzz (Marshall Supa Fuzz), and a 70s big rock fuzz (op-amp Big Muff), introducing and playing each one in turn in the front room. Could they tell the difference? Not really. I mean they could hear they sounded different, but not very different. Fuzz is elusive - the apocryphal story about Inuit people having 100 words for snow comes to mind. My current vocabulary for describing fuzz is inadequate. With this in mind I tried to compile a list of terms used to describe fuzzy sounds, on diy sites and forums and Harmony Central. Some of them are sizzling, abrasive, smooth, muddy, sweet, warm, squishy, thick, fat, thin, gated, tubey, fizzy, saturated, crunchy, mangled, sharp, buzzy, dynamic, grinding, raspy, fartty, creamy, mushy, woolly, dirty, psychedelic... plus many qualifying references to compression, sustain, halo, bloom and Jimi Hendrix/Jimmy Page/Ron Asheton/Billy Corgan/whoever. I don’t think these are always hugely helpful in putting across the sound of a fuzz circuit, but they are part of the cloud of associations that are part of the mystique (real or imagined/manufactured) of old (oh, I mean Vintage) pedals, that in the commercial world falls under the heading ‘marketing’. It’s also part of the mythology of ‘getting great tone’, which I won’t go into. Although it’s rarely used without a certain irony, the term ‘mojo’ does come up more frequently than I’d like. The fact that comparisons with other known circuits are more useful than most of the above terms also says a lot. They are at best a shorthand for a certain language spoken mostly only by guitarists that is mildly alienating. It masks the undeniable truth that many fuzz pedals do sound similar (there! I’ve said it!) but also that they sound different with different guitars and amps. I'll try to include short sound clips instead of getting bogged down in this. They are not recorded under laboratory conditions. On three separate occasions Inow I've tried to record a clip of the Pep Box, and been unsatisfied with it - this is nuts - from now on it's rough + ready, and probably me playing badly - clips are just to give you an idea of what each thing sounds like, but I will try to use the same guitar and amp for them - a 1960 Burns Sonic through a Selmer Little Giant with a 12" extension speaker (an early 60s Celestion G12).

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