Flangers! Phasers! Fuzz! How Misusing Gear Gave Birth to Your Favorite Guitar Effects
Give creative people knobs and they will twiddle them. Instruction manual? What’s that? Don’t exceed recommended settings? Yeah right! Like a stock car racer, the first thing they do with a new piece of gear is to punch it to the max and see what that baby’s got.
Creative types also like to play with things that would get their hands smacked at engineering school: manipulating actual tape with their grubby paws, tinkering with busted circuits, and slashing speaker cones while voiding warranties left and right.
From Dimebag Darrel’s metal distortion to the gated reverb on Phil Collins’ tom-toms, sometimes too much is the perfect amount. They can’t describe why it’s cool, they just know it when they hear it again. And before long, someone would make the pedal version and cash in.
Here are five effects invented when the boss wasn’t around.
Who Invented It: Believe it or not, Country Western music gets the credit, both for inventing fuzz, and then immediately abandoning the effect. While Glenn Snoddy was recording Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry,” a transformer blew on the recording studio’s giant mixing board, mangling the signal. They fell in love with the sound, but only as a one time novelty. Once Hendrix got a FuzzFace pedal, it was all over.
How It’s Replicated: The fuzz pedal replicates the blow circuit by clipping either a silicon or germanium transistor, according to taste. Chopping off the peaks this way turns the naturally rounded peaks into jagged square buzz cuts that generate new frequencies while distorting the signal.
The First Stompbox: The Gibson Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone in 1962. Keith Richards used one on the Rolling Stone’s I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.
A Classic Example:
Who Invented It: In the 1940’s, blues musicians figured out that if they cranked amps all the way, it literally put them into overdrive and sounded rad as hell. Ike Turner is credited with creating distortion when his amp fell off the back of his truck on the way to the studio, tearing a hole in his speaker cone on his way to record “Rocket 88”. Years later, Link Ray went Norman Bates on his speakers with a pencil for his song “Rumble”, inspiring The Kink’s Ray Davies to take a razor to his cones for “You Really Got Me.”
How It’s Replicated: There’s no need to slash speaker cones anymore. Distortion pedals use transistors and op-amps to boost the signal to the point of distortion before it even hits the guitar amplifier. Now, guitar amps could sound cranked to eleven when turned down to three, making live sound engineers around the world rejoice.
The First StompBox: Both the Boss Ds-1 and Proco Rat came out in 1978.
A Classic Example:
Who Invented It: In the 1940’s, French collective Musique Concrète stumbled on the delay effect during their avant guard sound experiments with portable recording decks. Across the pond Sun Studios owner Sam Phillips, the same guy who discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, recreated the effect by chaining two recorders together. Before pedal versions came out, Ray Butts made the effect portable with Echosonic, a delay unit with a built-in speaker.
How It’s Replicated: The pedal records the signal and plays it back along with the original signal. Knobs can adjust the time delay in milliseconds.
The First Stompbox: Electro-Harmonix Memory Man in 1976, used on U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.
Who Invented It: Acoustic innovator, Steven Reich, created the effect when he noticed that two signals would start to flange in a cool way if one was even slightly faster than the other one, creating the phase effect.
How It’s replicated: A circuit is used to split the signal. These signals are then modulated so that when they are recombined, the frequencies either reinforce or cancel each other out, creating a crazy sweeping effect.
The First Stompbox: in 1968, Shin-ei invented the Uni-Vibe to replicate the Leslie rotary speaker that cost as much as a used car. The Uni-Vibe didn’t sound like a Lesie, which actually spun their woofers and tweeters around to create the effect, but had its own cool vibe.
A Classic Example:
Who Invented It: The same guy who invented the harmonica holder, multitrack recording, and the Les Paul Guitar. Les Paul set up multiple recorders and wound one tape head slightly faster with his fingers, creating the effect.
John Lennon is credited for coining the term “flange.”
How It’s Replicated: Like the delay pedal, a second signal is added, but this one has a low frequency oscillator combined with one of the signals.
The First Stompbox: Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress in 1975.
Classic Example: 0:48 in
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit — all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
- Brian Eno