Fuzztone: Who Used It First?

Tuesday, 04 February 2014 06:31 AM Written by 

In discussing the fuzztone sound for guitars and basses, a lot of claims are made by fans about how it all began. Everybody knows Keith Richards' used it on the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.  And of course Paul McCartney played "fuzz bass," using the same or similar tone-altering device as Keith, on tune "Think For Yourself" on Rubber Soul.   As noted so often on this blog, for various reasons, the truth is often not that simple.  I'll try to put it in a coherent order. 

Let's look at the two main numbers known to many.

The Stones' "Satisfaction," Recorded May 12, 1965.

The Beatles' "Think For Yourself," recorded November, 1965.

Paul is in your left speaker.

Are these the debut of fuzztone on records? Not a chance.

Various versions of fuzz had been around on blues, rock and western swing records since the 40's, mostly involving high volume distortion or physical tinkering with an amp. Early Howlin' Wolf guitar man Willie Johnson punctured his speakers.  Link Wray slashed the cone of his speaker to get that sound on 1957's "Rumble," the birth of power chords. Paul Burlison, guitarist with Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'N Roll Trio, simply loosened a tube in his amp on songs like "Train Kept A-Rollin'."

The first actual fuzz sounds appeared in 1960.  The first, was on Arizona singer Sanford Clark's recording of "Go On Home," done in Phoenix with Al Casey on guitar. His device was created by a radio engineer in Phoenix.  Clark was best known for his 1956 hit recording of "The Fool," also done in Phoenix.

Sanford Clark: "Go On Home," Recorded February, 1960.

Clark's record, however, got very little notice.  But later that year electronic fuzztone truly came into its own at Nashville's Bradley Film and Recording studio on what is now Music Row. Country star Marty Robbins was recording a blues-tinged ballad titled "Don't Worry (About Me)." This time, it would reach the masses.

Befitting his stature, Robbins recorded with some of Nashville's best session musicians, known today as the "A-Team," among them Bob Moore, the dean of Nashville's session upright bass players, with drummer Louis Dunn, Jack Pruett, Robbins's guitarist, pianist Floyd Cramer and on six-string Danelectro bass guitar, Grady Martin, one of Nashville's pre-eminent A-Team members. He'd decided to play a deep, twangy six-string bass break in mid-song. Except that a bad pre-amp in the studio's mixing board picked the moment of his solo to misbehave. This solo in mid-song was the result.

Marty Robbins: "Don't Worry," Recorded July 12, 1960.

After some quick discussions (Robbins's vocal performance was flawless), everyone decided they liked the accident well enough to keep it on the record. Columbia released the single as by Marty Robbins and the Bumblebees." "Don't Worry" topped Billboard's country charts for 12 weeks in early 1961 and made it to # 3 on Billboard's Hot 100: a true country/pop smash.

Studio co-owner Harold Bradley, the Dean of Nashville's studio guitarists, told me they replaced the bad pre-amp but kept the defective unit handy if someone else wanted that sound—until the unit died on its own.

The single's success meant Martin's "Don't Worry" solo got ample notice. Since he recorded instrumentals for Decca, he created an entire song around it, with a group of Nashville musicians known as the "Slew Foot Five." The title: "The Fuzz." The producer, Harold's brother Owen Bradley, the brilliant producer who made Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee famous, add strings and voices to give the song a pop feel.

Grady Martin: "The Fuzz," Recorded January 12, 1961.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Ventures used a similar device created by LA steel guitarist and electronics whiz Red Rhodes, inspired by Grady Martin''s solo. It became the focus of their 1962 two-sided instrumental "The 2,000-Pound Bee." Dan Aykroyd played the song at John Belushi's funeral in 1982.

Actually, however, the Ventures didn't use it first.  Guitarist Billy Strange worked the Rhodes unit into his playing on Ann-Margret's 1961 single "I Just Don't Understand," recorded in Nashville.  The Ventures followed.  The harmonica work here is by Charlie McCoy, then a newcomer to Nashville and a future member of that town's revered A-Team of session players.

Ann Margret with Billy Strange, Guitar: "I Just Don't Understand," 1961

The Ventures: "The 2,000 Pound Bee," Recorded October, 1962.

Glenn Snoddy, the Bradley Studio's engineer, developed out a  solid-state circuit for the fuzz sound (using transistors, not tubes). That miniaturization allowed creation of the first self-contained fuzz pedal (or stompbox) by the owners of Gibson Guitars: the Maestro FZ-1, introduced in 1962.  It's an achievement Nashville doesn't get credit for. Others came up with their own variations on the Maestro.

And no doubt others used it between the Ventures and the Beatles and Stones and certainly afterward, on instrumentals like "Blue's Theme" by Davie Allan and the Arrows, records by the Yardbirds and many, many more. This is roughly how it all came to be.


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