Fuzz pedals are known for having a mind of their own. Since there doesn’t seem to be a simple guide to the “personality” of a fuzz pedal out there, I will attempt here to help you get the most out of this primitive and fun effect.
First, let’s talk about “fuzz”. What is a fuzz? Is it just a distortion? Is it the harnessed sound of Falcor’s voice? What, exactly, is it? In the simplest terms possible, fuzz is simply what your guitar signal sounds like as it is being literally destroyed. Some types do this a little nicer than others, some have no mercy; at the end of the day a fuzz pedal simply destroys your signal in the same musical tradition that started the 60’s revolution of love and setting your guitar on fire. For a brief history of how fuzz came to be, check out the previous article on the History of Pedals
There are two basic types of fuzz: silicon and germanium, which refer to the type of transistor used in the circuit. The first fuzz designs were all germanium and are usually the most sought-after fuzzes on the market. Germanium, (originally called Neptunium) type components existed in the electronics world as early as the 1940’s. It found its way as a very useful semiconductor material by the late 1940’s and helped in moving a lot of electronics away from the use of vacuum tubes, ushering in the beginning of the solid state era. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that silicon was introduced as a type of transistor material. Unlike Germanium components, which are very inconsistent and have a lot of variance, silicon offers closer tolerances and more reliable consistency from component to component.
Germanium and silicon have several different characteristics that might draw you to one instead of the other. Germanium fuzz will act a lot like a dirty tube amp, and even clean up when you roll back your guitar’s volume, in most cases. Silicon tends to not respond in the same way. Germanium also tends to be more mellow, rounded, and overall, more responsive. One of the quirky things about Germanium is that it is very picky about its environment. There are countless stories of famous sessions and recordings where that magic fuzz tone was accomplished from the player putting his fuzz face in the freezer for a while before tracking. The Germanium is truly temperature sensitive; if you’re playing at an outdoor festival in July, your fuzz will sound and react differently than your outdoor gig in December. This sounds crazy, but it is one of the reasons I prefer it. Silicon can be more precise, aggressive, and consistent in tone, without the inconsistencies of Germanium. In my experience, many silicon designs lean more towards a distortion, due to how precise they come across. In many cases, that is a great thing. I like to think of silicon fuzz as a cold can of Coca-Cola Classic and the way it burns rebelliously while going down your throat, and the Germanium is more like Pepsi-Cola, which goes down smoother and feels kinda classy. Both are great, but you usually want one or the other, not both.