Back in distortion’s origin days, it was all about playing loud. Guitarists would crank the volume until an excess of electricity flowing through their amps’ vacuum tubes compressed and distorted the signals produced by their guitars. There’s no way to know which bold musician first turned it all the way up, but it wasn’t until the mid- to late ’40s that this heavy new sound was recorded for posterity.
BOB WILLS BOOGIE (1946)
Bob Wills, and his Texas Playboys guitarist Lester Robert “Junior” Barnard, achieved one of the earliest recorded overdrive tones playing an Epiphone Emperor arch-top guitar through Fender and Epiphone amplifiers. The guitar featured two pickups — one from a steel guitar — wired out of phase and amplified through different channels. Barnard used a volume pedal to push his solos over the top.
ROCK AWHILE (1949)
Houston-born Goree Carter, who some credit with recording the first rock & roll song, took the overdrive sound a step further with “Rock Awhile.” Carter claimed to write the song in the studio while the rest of his bandmates ate sandwiches — they needed a last-minute cut to finish the record.
Before the advent of stompboxes, finding a heavier tone came down to two options: get lucky or get creative. No surprise, then, that the ’50s were a decade of happy accidents and game-changing destruction. Songs now regarded as the earliest heavyweights of distortion were made possible by broken amplifiers.
ROCKET 88 (1951)
Recording as Jackie Brenston’s “Delta Cats” — a made-up backing band — Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm laid down what is widely considered the very first rock & roll song. On the way to the studio, the band dropped their tweed Fender amp, shorting an output tube. Guitarist Willie Kizert didn’t have a replacement tube, forcing him to stick with a fuzzy — but ultimately revolutionary — tone.
TRAIN KEPT A-ROLLIN’ (1956)
Like Willie Kizert five years earlier, Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘N Roll Trio guitarist Paul Burlison stumbled upon a distorted tone by dropping his amplifier. The resulting loose tube created an edgy sound that Burlison loved — he’d go on to re-create it on 1956’s influential “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
Link Wray used a pencil to punch holes in his amplifier, creating a guitar texture with enough attitude to make up for the song’s lack of vocals. Some sources claim “Rumble” was the first rock & roll recording to feature intentional distortion.
What is fuzz? Nailing down a definition isn’t easy. Broadly speaking, it’s a term used to describe the sound of distortion after it stepped into the limelight in the early ’60s. It’s the sound of the Rolling Stones, of Jimi Hendrix — of rock and roll. And, appropriately, its entire massive influence can be traced back to a broken piece of equipment...
DON’T WORRY (1961)
Bassist Grady Martin, playing on the Marty Robbins country track “Don’t Worry,” accidentally recorded a distorted solo due to a bad connection in the mixing board. The sound was different than tube-based overdrive or a busted-amp growl — it was buzzier, more artificial. After some debate, the band decided to keep the take, rather than re-record it. The song went on to stay in the Top 40 for three months.
MAESTRO FZ-1 FUZZ-TONE (1962)
Spurred by demand for “Don’t Worry”’s signature bass solo tone — Nancy Sinatra was among the sound’s admirers — recording engineer Glenn T. Snoddy invented a stompbox to recreate it. This made it easy for guitarists to switch between a clean signal and a distorted one. Gibson president Maurice Berlin liked what the device could do and released it as the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone.
(I CAN’T GET NO) SATISFACTION (1965)
The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards ran his signal through a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”’s classic guitar riff, causing the stompbox’s popularity to shoot through the roof. Richards claimed the riff came to him in a dream, and originally planned for it to be played by a horn section.
An outlier in the age of early, buzzy fuzz, the short-lived Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster offered a smoother, fatter sound than the Maestro. According to writer Kenny Rardin, it wasn’t a true treble booster, but “basically a frequency selective boost. The higher frequency you put in, the more DBs of boost you [got].” Some of the biggest names of the ’60s used the Rangemaster to achieve their sustain-soaked timbres — including Slowhand himself (allegedly).
BLUES BREAKERS WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966)
Eric Clapton recorded John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ debut studio album using a Les Paul Standard and a Marshall Model 1962 JTM45 2x12 combo. According to legend, the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster provided the finishing brushstrokes to the record’s sonic landscape, which Clapton dubbed “woman tone.”
Beginning in the mid-’60s, distortion stompboxes experienced a major boom — new models and designs began to pop up by the dozen. The first wave of these new devices featured germanium transistors, the warm sound of which many guitarists found desirable. However, due to germanium’s higher cost and unpredictable level of quality, many manufacturers soon switched to silicon transistors, which resulted in a sharper tone. Nowhere is this trend better illustrated than in the history of the Arbiter Fuzz Face and its most famous user...
ARBITER FUZZ FACE AND “PURPLE HAZE” (1967)
Drum shop owner Ivor Arbiter — the man who created the Beatles’ logo for a Ludwig kit he sold to Ringo Starr in 1962 — released his less expensive alternative to Gibson’s Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone. The following year, Jimi Hendrix used Arbiter’s new stompbox to record “Purple Haze.”
THE SWITCH TO SILICON AND BAND OF GYPSYS (1970)
Arbiter Electronics released the earliest Fuzz Faces featuring silicon transistors — first with plastic BC183Ls, and then metal can BC108Cs. Jimi Hendrix used one of these new models to record 1970’s Band of Gypsys. The guitar tone on the album was distinctly brighter than on Are You Experienced. In the decades that followed, the continual production of new stompboxes and pickups allowed for more intense guitar tones, but by then — and before the later advent of digital clipping — the technology was hardly new. Whatever the shade of distortion, you could make it happen with a tap of your foot. It was a sound that enabled and defined a dominant genre of popular music, and it only took 25 years to move from earliest use to general adoption.
Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album came out in 1970, a release many say marked the birth of heavy metal. In the decades that followed, the continual production of new stompboxes and pickups allowed for more intense guitar tones, but by then — and before the later advent of digital clipping — the technology was hardly new. Whatever the shade of distortion, you could make it happen with a tap of your foot. It was a sound that enabled and defined a dominant genre of popular music, and it only took 25 years to move from earliest use to general adoption.