In the early days of electric guitar, musicians were left to fend for themselves if they wanted a unique tone for their guitar and amplifier. Amp makers focused on getting the cleanest sounds possible, leaving little room for personality in tone. The last thing guitarists want to hear is that they sound like everyone else.
Early effects were largely a result of experimentation. Guitarists would remove tubes, mess with wiring, or slice holes in speakers to get some variety in their sound. Most famously, there was a Marty Robbins recording with a defective mixer leading to a heavily distorted bass track. The song “Don’t Worry” was a #1 hit on the country charts in 1960, setting the stage for new sounds in the guitar world.
These happy accidents led to manufacturers and guitarists alike discovering ways to modify amps for new tones. Once this went outside of the amp and into FX pedals, things were never the same. But which effects really led the way? A small handful of seminal effects really changed how we look at guitar and made it possible for artists to drastically alter the direction of music. When you think of the evolution of rock over the past sixty years, it’s not just that songwriting changed, but the guitar sound evolved as well.
The group of pedals below were at the forefront of this evolution. When new and exciting things were happening with guitar sounds, these names would always come up. They allowed artists to reach new heights and even though the newest pedal on the list is four decades old, all of them are still found on modern pedal boards in the form of relics or modern clones.
Adding something beyond an overdrive/fuzz pedal to this list wasn’t easy. Surely there have been famous modulation or delay pedals over the years, but gain defined entire generations of guitar sound. You can mark generational changes in rock guitar by advances in distortion technology. However, it’s impossible to ignore what the documentary “Crybaby: The Pedal That Rocks the World” calls the number one selling pedal of all time.
The Crybaby is the key to the guitar sound on one of the greatest rock songs ever, "Voodoo Child". It’s well represented on any list of the greatest guitar solos of all time. And when Joe Satriani released “Surfing With The Alien” in 1987, ushering in a new generation of shred guitarists, the Crybaby was prominently featured.
Although it may not get the same props as Rock, the way the Crybaby shaped the funk guitar sound cannot be forgotten. The wah-heavy soundtrack in Shaft helped the film gain acceptance in mainstream culture and is instantly recognizable by audiences today.
The first commercial distortion pedal was released in 1962 by Maestro, a division of Gibson. Before the Fuzz-Tone, distortion was usually the result of cranking amplifiers or the aforementioned experiments. Sure, distortion existed on recordings, but it was quite rare. Most of the songs featuring any intentional signal clipping were considered obscure by mainstream standards.
The majority of guitarists had no clue they could get any sound but a clean one. In fact, the Fuzz-Tone was initially released to very little fanfare. Gibson famously shipped thousands of their FZ-1 Fuzz-Tones only to have them collect dust on store shelves. The problem was all about advertising. The Fuzz-Tone was originally marketed as a way to make a guitar sound like a saxophone or other brass instruments. Product literature had to assure guitarists that the sounds were normal. It was definitely a tough sell early on.
But then, in 1965, the Rolling Stones released “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” one of the most famous guitar riffs of all time, made possible by the Maestro. This track absolutely would not be the same without the FZ-1. The song starts with nothing but Keith Richards’ guitar buzzing away as he plays the main riff. Guitar players everywhere started cranking up their amps trying to get that sound only to find it wasn’t possible. Once word got out that a little box from Gibson made it happen, demand for the Fuzz-Tone skyrocketed.
As the 60’s rolled along, more and more hit records included distorted guitars, and more manufacturers were putting out fuzz boxes. The sound that is so fundamental to guitar today was born, thanks in large part to Gibson and Keith Richards.
Arbiter Fuzz Face
As soon as the Fuzz-Tone began taking off, other manufacturers looked to build on the fuzz craze. The late 60’s represented a rapid expansion of the guitar tone into more heavily distorted sounds. With this, of course, came more FX pedals to capture these amazing sounds.
Another pedal that, nearly 50 years later, still causes those “how do I get that sound?” questions among swarms of guitarists is the venerable Fuzz Face. Hendrix' playing on “Purple Haze” is the quintessential example of a Fuzz Face in action. Moving to heavier distortion sounds ushered in major changes to guitar playing. Low frequencies moved more to the forefront, guitar solos were longer and more frequent, and amps that broke up easily became popular.
Arbiter added to the mystique of the Fuzz Face by changing from germanium to silicon transistors shortly after release. Only the first two years of production, 1966 and ‘67, included the germanium transistors. This move to improve consistency changed the sound and made the original units highly sought after. There are now numerous options for Fuzz Face-type pedals that are true to the original specs, although fewer of the germanium variety are produced due to scarcity of the transistors.
The Fuzz Face is still a staple on pedal boards everywhere and a foundation for the circuitry of countless fuzz pedals. The argument over germanium vs silicon has yet to be settled.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
There are very few pedals so popular that we know them by their model number, but when you refer to the TS808 or TS9, almost any guitarist will know exactly what you mean. While the Tube Screamer has been the foundation of many famous guitar tones, what is even more remarkable is the incredible popularity of reproductions. The Tube Screamer is one of, if not the most cloned pedal on the market. It’s quite common for boutique pedal builders to establish their businesses on the ability to produce a faithful replica of the original.
First introduced in 1979 the Tube Screamer really didn’t make an impact on the consumer guitar world until after the second iteration, the TS9, went out of production in 1985. However, the 808 was adopted by the pros early on due to its ability to push a naturally overdriven tube amp into smooth distortion and sustain.
The Tube Screamer really doesn’t add much distortion itself but, as the name implies, makes an amp's tubes work harder. Guitarists who used a Tube Screamer with a clean or solid state amp would often be disappointed at the lack of gain, but those who threw them in front of a loud and broken up tube amp knew that the sound was magical. Advances in master volume amps enabled more players to really put a Tube Screamer to use at home and in small clubs.
Pro Co Rat
The pedal that helped define guitar tone in the 80’s. Just like the fuzz pedals of the 60’s led to an era of more distorted guitar than we’d heard before, the Rat pushed things to another level. With guitar theatrics reaching new heights and amps of the day not able to keep up, players flocked to the Rat to get the searing lead tones that filled the decade.
The Rat is also probably the most complex story of all. With eleven official variations of the pedal from 1978 to present, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the options. Easily the most coveted of the group is the original Rat2. Rat2 models from 1988 to 2000 were produced with an LM308 op amp, while an OP07 was used in later models. Much like the production changes in the Fuzz Face, this led to the early Rat2 models achieving royalty status in the pedal world.
The popularity of the Rat pushed amp makers to put more and more distortion and extra channels into their products. This pursuit of gain helped popularize amps from Mesa Boogie, Soldano, etc., and made celebrities out of anyone who could hot rod a Marshall.
Probably the most impressive thing about the Rat is that such a high gain pedal was popular outside of the heavy metal world. Jeff Beck, Peter Buck, Jonny Greenwood, and David Gilmour all relied on the Rat throughout the 80’s and 90’s for their distorted sounds.
We live in a Golden Era of gear. Although high quality tubes are hard to come by and germanium transistors command a premium, there are many manufacturers producing loving recreations of their favorite classic pedal, while others are pushing the limits to expand into something truly original. It is entirely possible that the next revolutionary pedal, like the Fuzz-Tone or Tube Screamer, already exists but just hasn’t caught on yet.
Every pedal listed here was originally released before 1980. What pedals do you think have had a major impact on guitar tone since the 80’s? Which ones have crossed genres to earn universal acclaim? What is yet to be explored?
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