Monday, August 08, 2011

Chasin' the tone

Once and future Nervebreaker and all-the-time Big Gun Mike Haskins asked for some blog blather on "the ultimate fuzz tone." (That's right, this is the shitty coverband of music blogs; we take _requests_!)

Mike sez the noise Jeff Beck made running his Fender Esquire through a Sola Sound Tonebender on the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" is what made him wanna pick up a guitar in the first place. My ultimate fuzz tone noise would probably be the one Ron Asheton got on the Stooges' "No Fun" -- both the ugly, clotted chords and the Turkish taffy-like leads that Ron wrestled out of his Stratocaster.

Being a Hendrix man, Ron used a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, which you can actually see in the iconic vid of the Stooges' 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival appearance -- it's the round thing on the stage when Iggy's on his hands and knees at the beginning of "1970." (Of course he did; otherwise, he'd have sounded as lame as Townshend at Monterey without the fuzztone. Realize that Hendrix's sound was really just the sound of a clean Strat at max volume with effects; otherwise, those otherworldly arpeggios and triple-stop chordal riffs would have sounded like mud.)

As a novice electric guitarist at age 15, I was totally geeked on the Who, the Yardbirds, and Hendrix, so of course I _had_ to try to get feedback out of my crummy 10-watt solid state amp, which had _no_ tone whatsoever, sitting on the floor of my room in my parents' house. Somehow back then, I knew that Hendrix used a Fuzz Face, so I went out and got one.

Because I was timid, I tended to keep the "fuzz" control set too low, which meant that I usually got the constipated-sounding effect with very rapid decay that you hear on a lot of records from the '60s (think: Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction"). If you turned it up high enough, the thing would sustain for days (think: future Lynyrd Skynyrd Strat operator Ed King on Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints"). It was only later that I'd learn you could dial in the "fuzz" and "volume" settings to approximate something like a nice, "natural" tube amp distortion. But where's the fun in that?

(Other good example: Michael Knust with Houston psychsters Fever Tree.)

When I started working in the hipi record store, I got a recording of Hendrix's performance at the Isle of Wight, when things weren't really working for him and his Fuzz Face was actually broadcasting the security radio band through his stacks of Marshalls. Wouldn't you know, the same thing happened to me whenever my Fuzz Face was on: I'd get transmissions, inexplicably in Spanish from a Canadian radio station called "Radio Canada Internacional" through my amp. I was _just like Hendrix_!

When I finally joined a little funk band, a couple of months after getting my first electric guitar, there was really no opportunity to use the Fuzz Face, although they did give me a Univox wah that you couldn't lock in position like a Crybaby or Vox, so I'd just shove a wadded up handkerchief under the pedal in the position that gave you the most midrange and imagine I sounded like Jimmy Page on the first Led Zeppelin album.

Eventually, I became a sort of protege of the hotshot guitarist in my neighborhood, who eschewed the use of all pedals (except a Vox wah, which I soon adopted) and believed the best way to get a good tone (like his idol, Johnny Winter) was to simply dime all of the tone controls on your amp (or, if you wanted to emulate Leslie West -- who was as influential in my neck of the woods ca. '73-'74 as SRV was in Texas in the '90s -- just roll off all the treble and hit the string with the pick _just so_ to get that squealing harmonic).

When I started playing out again in the '90s, after putting down when I came back from Korea in '83 (my future ex-wife would get testy if I played an unplugged electric guitar on the other side of the house with all the doors closed), I was mainly playing in blues bands where a clean tone was desirable. I did, however, get a SansAmp from an ex-bandmate in NYC who was gradually divesting himself of all his analog gear. I believe that Kurt Cobain used one of those; it gave a fairly disgusting tone, but I didn't have to pay for it.

It was around that time that I got introduced to Ibanez Tube Screamers, which would give you a nice volume boost for solos without making it sound too nasty. (Once upon a time I used to be able to regulate volume from the guitar, but now I tend to knock all the knobs into the full-on position with my right hand.) When I saw Ron Asheton play with J. Mascis and Mike Watt at SXSW, I was surprised that he was using a black Squier Strat with a maple neck just like I was, with a TS-9 and Vox wah that his girlfriend Dara set up for him.

I bought a reissue Fuzz Face (red, where my old one was blue) to go on the road with Nathan Brown in 2003. I liked the sound of it fine, but was befuddled to discover that when it was on, my Vox wah wouldn't work, no matter where I placed the two stompboxes in my effects chain. So the Fuzz Face had to go; I traded it to Jim Crye for a Boss Super Over Drive (the yellow box) that I used for two and a half years of Wednesday nights with Lee Allen at the Wreck Room (RIP). The Boss had a kind of nondescript sound, but it was sure reliable.

In Stoogeaphilia, where we have the luxury of "amp du jour" rehearsing in the mighty Me-Thinks' practice pad at Inches of Mercury in Haltom City, I got to try a couple of Electro-Harmonix Big Muffs, which gave a totally over-the-top, end-of-the-world sound that Jon Teague loved. The thing was, the ones I borrowed from Jon and the Me-Thinks were New York models; when I got a Russian one from Guitar Center, it tended to decrease my volume when it was activated the same way my '95 Twin Reverb used to when I really dug in, before I had Craig's Music in Weatherford fix it. (I'm too techno-illiterate to tell you why.) I returned one, got another, and wound up trading it to Sir Steffin Ratliff for the Marshall Bluesbreaker I'm using now. In the Stoogeband and PFFFFT! ca. 2008, I'd sometimes use _two_ distortion pedals, but that's just silly, isn't it?

So the jury's still out. I have to admit that I'm pretty much a dumb ape when it comes to tone, these days. I just plug in and turn up until I feel my sternum vibrating. Not like Marlin and Bandy in the Me-Thinks, or their former songwriting secret weapon Will, with whom I recorded a track a couple of years ago for a compilation that's apparently never coming out and had the distinct pleasure of playing his Les Paul through his perfectly-tweaked Fender amp. But someday before I die, I will play through a Sola Sound Tonebender (Beck and Page's Yardbird weapon of choice, which Beck also used on Truth, which is still a guitar touchstone of mine). And maybe I'll break down and get another Big Muff, or play this mythical fuzzbox that Teague's got (if it's working).

ADDENDUM: Frank Cervantez suggests the Throbak Stone Bender.


Blogger J.G. Judge said...

Hey Ken, have you ever tried a Vox tonebender or a Mosrite Fuzzrite?

J.G. Judge

11:23 PM  
Anonymous mike haskins said...

Great post, Ken, thanks. I am considering my response, but it will require some soul-searching reflection before I reveal my fuzz-tone geekdom. Soon come.

8:51 AM  

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