The Story Behind How Guitar Distortion Was Born

Maestro Fuzz Tone and the story of how guitar distortion was born on Bobby Owsinski's Production Blog

If you’re a guitar player, chances are you’re in love with the distorted sound that’s so easy to create these days, thanks to a variety of amps, pedals and plugins. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a time when guitar distortion didn’t exist, but believe it, there was a time when there was no such thing. In fact, the story about how the original “fuzz tone” was born takes a number of unusual twists that are pretty amazing for such a ubiquitous sound.

Where It All Began

While the music world freely accepts that the first distorted guitar on record was the 1951 Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner hit “Rocket 88” where guitarist Willie Kizart reportedly poked a hole in his amp’s speaker to make it fuzz out, (later emulated by Link Wray on “Rumble” and Dave Davies of The Kinks on “You Really Got Me”), making that sound reliably repeatable came about as an accident in the summer of 1960 in Nashville.

Country star Marty Robbins was in Bradley Film & Recording Studios in Nashville (the famous Quonset Hut) recording a ballad for Decca called “Don’t Worry.” Backing him was the A-Team, Nashville’s best session players, which included guitar player Grady Martin.

The Quonset Hut had just received a new custom-built console with Langevin 116 tube amplifiers, but unbeknownst to everyone involved, it contained 35 output transformers wound by another manufacturer while Langevin moved to the West Coast. The problem was that these transformers weren’t up to spec, and during the session one of them failed on Grady Martin’s six string bass channel, causing it to distort, but in a musical way that everyone on the session loved.

Word spread around Nashville about this interesting new sound, and people began to specifically ask for it, so Glenn Snoddy, the engineer on the session, built a box that emulated the sound of the console distortion – the first stompbox!

But There Was A Difference

The big difference was that the Langevin module was tube-based, while Snoddy’s box was all transistor. It didn’t matter though, because studio guitarists loved it.

In 1962 Snoddy sold the manufacturing rights to Gibson, who then released the “Fuzz Tone” under its Maestro label. Dealers snapped up all 5,000 units produced in 1962, which was great for the company. The only problem was that guitar players refused to buy them. Reportedly, Gibson shipped only three Fuzz-Tones in ’63 and none in ’64.

So what changed their minds? In 1965 Rolling Stone Keith Richards used a Fuzz Tone (the model FZ-1) on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and the rest is history. From that point on, guitarists couldn’t get enough of the sound, which has evolved over time. While we each have our idea of what constitutes good and bad guitar distortion, if your life is connected to the guitar in any way, you know that you can’t live without it.

A New Version

Gibson recently restarted the Maestro brand again with a whole new product line, including an updated version of the original Fuzz Tone called the FZ-M. It’s a lot more versatile and has a fuller sound than the original FZ-1, which is a good thing since that model was pretty weak on the low end. Not so with the new version (check out the video below).

That being said, every guitar player has at least a few distortion pedals laying around, and the search for the perfect one will seemingly continue forever. What’s one more?

If you want to hear the original story directly from Glenn Snoddy, check out this video.


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