Before you read on, go ahead and listen to “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. That prominent, wooly, textured sounding guitar harmony line is the first fuzz pedal recording to go on to become a hit song. It’s gnarly, owing to the positively rudimentary circuit in the Maestro Fuzz-Tone he used to create it. Even before that, the particular sound of the fuzz pedal charmed guitarists and continues to do so today.
The key element of a fuzz (versus, say, distortion or overdrive) is the conversion of the guitar’s signal into square wave form. The sharp edges of the wave create that saturated, crunchy sound that is, well, kind of unnatural. While overdrive is the result of pushing the components within an amp into saturation, and distortion is the result of gain stages and filtering within the pedal, fuzz takes a comparatively simple approach, usually with two germanium transistors and a circuit that biases the output. You could almost get the same effect by biasing a tube amp incorrectly, but this is both unstable and dangerous for your amp. As a matter of fact, very early fuzz tones were achieved accidentally, primarily thanks to busted components in amps.
Additionally, fuzz tends to increase bass, while distortion generally cuts the bass before the clipping begins, adding it back in later on in the circuit. Because low frequencies distort first, all that low-end hitting your amp contributes to the wild and wooly sound that some people love. It can be somewhat difficult to control, but that’s part of the joy.
These days, a pedal board featuring at least one overdrive, one distortion, and one fuzz of almost any combination should give you all the heavy tones you’ll ever need (assuming you aren’t getting it directly from your amp). Both distortion and fuzz result in a totally altered signal before the amp, while overdrive occurs at the amp. Our overdrive post can be found here, while our distortion post is here.
It might be fair to say that due to the level of experimentation and the limits being pushed by the boutique makers, fuzz gets a little more play with the experimental and ambient crowd these days. Then again, this article started with the Stones and everyone knows Jimi had a Fuzz Face. As with any piece of gear, let your ears be the judge.
One thing to note about integrating fuzz into your pedal chain is that germanium-based pedals require the signal directly from your guitar in order to get the correct impedance. Some even say that fuzz pedals should not interact with other pedals at all, but this is bit of a stretch. It’s best to have them very first in the chain, but as with anything else, experimentation within your rig is key.
Before you scroll through this entire list looking for the Big Muff, you should know that we dedicated a whole post to it, as befitting a machine of its stature.
For thick, saturated tones through to searing jet sounds, here’s our list of the top ten best fuzz pedals.
1. Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face
Way back in 1966, Arbiter Electronics Ltd. (later called Dallas Arbiter, the most famously known branding) released the original Fuzz Face. It used relatively unstable germanium transistors, which changed character as the temperature around them changed. Nevertheless, the pedal formulation still provided the most reliable form of the fuzz effect to date, and became one of the primary tools for Jimi Hendrix. When people say fuzz, this is probably the first thing that comes to mind. The original run ended in about 1977, and was later reissued in 1986 through 1990.
In 1993, Dunlop took over and reissued the original Fuzz Face. The company calls it a “meticulously faithful reproduction,” though to be clear, they’ve reproduced the later silicon units, not the true original germanium ones. (A germanium Fuzz Face Mini is available, however.) That means that the fuzzy character is retained, but it’s not quite as muddy as the very first units. Controls are boiled down to the simple Volume and Fuzz. Oh, also: power must be delivered by a 9 volt battery.
There are many Fuzz Face versions to choose from, and most are in the Mini form factor. All of them are worth a look, but this is the starting place.
Why you would choose this one: You’re seeking classic fuzz tones with the ability to back off a bit for chiming leads.
2. Death By Audio Fuzz War
As if to illustrate the flexibility of the simple fuzz circuit, the Fuzz War is quite a different beast when compared with the Fuzz Face. This modern, destructive fuzz is meant as a full-bore wall of distortion that far exceeds the relatively humble capability of its predecessor. This is among the most savage of fuzzes, capable of thick sustain with surprising range.
Controls again include Fuzz and Volume, but the Fuzz War adds a Tone for shaping the harmonic content. Turning the Tone knob results in a distinct shaping thanks to the multi-curve filter housed within. This is the template for modern, brutal fuzz.
If you want even more choices about how you die (by audio), you could consider their Apocalypse, which offers five different types of fuzz and distortion.
Why you would choose this one: You need both sludgy lows and biting highs with plenty of brutality in between.
3. smallsound/bigsound Team Awesome Fuzz Machine
As with the next item on our list, the Team Awesome Fuzz Machine combines silicon and germanium resistors for the optimal blend of tone and reliability. The TAFM is perhaps more in the spirit of the Fuzz War above than, say, a Fuzz Face, being a thoroughly modern, brutal fuzz that is equal parts low-end power and singing sustain. With many fuzz units, the square wave chaos can translate to lost pick attack. In this pedal, the circuit is designed to preserve that attack with enhanced high end presence to go along with the punishing low-end.
There are more controls here, too, to suit your specific needs. The first is Input Gain, which changes the amount of gain pre-fuzz. When the Clean Boost switch is down, the Input Gain is roughly equivalent to saturation. When the Clean Boost switch is up, it combines that saturation with overdrive on the clean signal. It also inverts the phase of the fuzz, so that you can effect phase cancellation for octave-type sounds.
Fuzz controls the amount of fuzz, while Fuzz Volume the level. Shape alters the EQ, and there’s a Clean Volume knob to blend your original signal, which can boost significantly above unity. Finally, there’s a Mids Toggle switch, in which the down position scoops the mids and the up position boosts them according to the position of the Shape knob.
Why you would choose this one: The punishing lows of other fuzz pedals have made it so you can’t cut through the mix. This pedal will solve that issue and deliver more tones on top of that.
4. EarthQuaker Devices Erupter Ultimate Fuzz Tone
Tonal madman Jamie Stillman has spent years trying to create the perfect fuzz, evidenced by just how many EQD sells. This year, he unleashed upon the world his vision for what that might look like and it looks like this.
There is but one control on this pedal: Bias. The knob has a center detent at Stillman’s idea of the perfect setting, which is jet-like and full with the volume just above unity. As you back it off, the output is decreased and you get some of those splattery fuzzy tones. Increasing the Bias cleans up the pedal and tightens everything as it also gets louder. This is very reactive with your guitar’s volume and tone controls for all the variation you’ll need.
Other fuzz options from Stillman and his band of shadowy cohorts include:
What, you were expecting to see the Hoof here? That appears on our best Big Muff style pedal post over here.
Why you would choose this one: It’s the best fuzz ever. Just sayin’.
5. Way Huge Swollen Pickle MKIIs
Similar to the TAFM, the Swollen Pickle gives you an abundance of controls. It contrasts, however, in that preservation of the pick attack isn’t paramount here. Instead, this is a muddy, wooly fuzz box that goes from bass-y and gated to brash jet sounds.
The various controls include a Loudness for level, Sustain for gain, and Filter to control the tone shape. Two external trim pots further modify the tone, with Scoop cutting the midrange frequencies and Crunch acting as compression. Two internal trim pots include a Clip which varies the overall fuzz character from smooth to open and Voicing, which changes the extremity of the Scoop knob.
Why you would choose this one: You like your fuzz a little darker with some variance on either side.
6. Catalinbread Karma Suture Harmonic Fuzz
Similar to the Fuzz Face, the Karma Suture gets its roots from a pedal created long ago. Devised in the 70s by Wisconsin-based electronics repairman Ed Giese, the InterFax HP-1 Harmonic Percolator fuzz combined components in an unusual way, resulting supposedly in a signal that produces only even-numbered harmonics, which we hear as being pleasant and satisfying. This again requires the combination of silicone and germanium, but this is an especially particular configuration, which Catalinbread have seen fit to resurrect to excellent effect.
Unlike the original version, which only had sliders for Balance (volume) and Harmonics (fuzz), this pedal is controlled by four knobs. The typical fuzz control is split into the Density knob, which roughly translates to the tone, and the Diodes knob, which controls the amount of clipping. Input changes the amount of your guitar signal being fed to the fuzz circuit, while the Output knob controls the volume. There’s a lot of range in this pedal, from high-headroom overdrive to ultra-thick overload.
If you prefer, there’s also an all-silicone version, too.
Why you would choose this one: You’re looking for something a little different than most fuzz circuits available today.
7. Zvex Fuzz Factory Vexter
If you want to get really crazy, try on this ultra-flexible Zvex fuzz. The knobs let you control Volume, Gate, Compress, Drive, and Stability. Just about every fuzz sound imaginable exists in this tiny box somewhere. Again using germanium resistors to achieve that classic, heavily fuzzed sound, this pedal can deliver anything from tight, light fuzz to crushing distortion.
I used one of these for awhile and found it extremely inspiring. Every time you turn a knob, it seems like a whole new version of the pedal reveals itself. This is especially good for people who use multiple guitars and amps as there’s a setting that will work with almost any combination. It can get really wild, too. The lower the Stability, the more out-of-control your feedback, which will deliver soaring, experimental sounds that other pedals struggle to duplicate. This is the screen-printed series, which saves you about $100 off the hand-painted versions.
If you need even more Zvex fuzz goodness, seek out the Fuzz Factory 7, which is mythical in stature and in price. There’s also the Fat Fuzz Factory if you want to level up without the huge price jump.
Why you would choose this one: Extreme flexibility and experimental tones are needed.
8. Old Blood Noise Endeavors Haunt Fuzz
One of the really cool things about pedals is that there’s a relatively low barrier to entry when it comes to new builders entering the scene, particularly compared to instruments or amps. New builders means new ideas, which means new sounds. If you’re sick of the run-of-the-mill pedals available at every Guitar Center, it just takes a little digging around to find new companies making weird stuff. Old Blood Noise Endeavors definitely fits that bill.
With the Haunt, you also get five knobs, one each for Volume, Fuzz, Gate, Mix, and Tone. In addition, you get two switches: Mode lets you choose between two combinations of silicon transistors, while Bass adds a boost to your low frequencies. Because of the inclusion of different transistors, this pedal gives you a far greater range of distorted tones than a lot of the big names offer. The raw and messy end of this pedal borders on the psychotic, which is fitting, given the graphic design. If you’re stuck in a rut with the normal stuff, give this one a try.
Why you would choose this one: You’ve tried everything else and are ready to approach the void.
9. Fulltone ’69 mkII
This Fulltone offering takes direct aim at the Dunlop Fuzz Faces, offering an update on the two germanium transistor circuit. Harmonics abound in this little box, and it’s especially sensitive to your guitar’s volume knob, so you can use that while playing to clean up or drive your signal.
In addition to the standard Volume and Fuzz knobs, the ’69 gives you a total of three other controls with which to dial in your tone. First is the external Input trimmer which adjusts the impedance. Fully clockwise is a traditional Fuzz Face sound, and turning it down removes some of the muddiness of those original Dallas Arbiter designs. The Contour trim adds midrange and gain as it increases. An internal trim pot changes the Bias, with counter-clockwise being harder fuzz and fully clockwise being smoother, more tube-like breakup.
Word of warning: A standard Boss-style power supply won’t work with this pedal. Where the Fuzz Face is battery-only to get around the limitation of germanium transistors, this one uses a reverse polarity input, so you’ll have to get a suitable power supply or a reverse polarity cable.
Why you would choose this one: You want a Fuzz Face, but better.
10. Walrus Audio Contraband Fuzz
Perhaps even the two knobs of the Fuzz Face are too many for you. Like the Acapulco Gold we included in our distortion pedals post, the Contraband focuses everything around a single knob and a helpful switch. The rest of your fuzzy needs are accomplished through the knobs on your guitar, aided by a gate which causes it to sputter and choke at lower volumes.
That’s really it. An Output knob to control the pedal’s volume, with a Thick/Thin switch that allows you to easily switch depending on pickup position and type. Within these relatively spartan parameters are a whole lot of useful and recognizable fuzz tones, so you’re certainly not missing out on anything here. I personally would strongly consider this pedal, as I only ever use humbuckers through a chain of pedals all set the same way, so once I settled on the ideal setting, I could leave it.
Walrus also has the very tasty and far more flexible Jupiter Fuzz on offer, as well, if you’re feeling limited by the Contraband.
Why you would choose this one: You want to dial in that one right fuzz tone that can easily be matched to your Les Paul or your Strat at the flick of a switch.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Fuzz Goddess herself, Devi Ever. I’m not that good at counting, but I think she has something like 673 different fuzz pedals on offer, so go take a peek over there for even more square wave fun.
You know what goes great with fuzz pedals? A bass. Check out our top ten best bass guitars under $500 here.
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