What did a guitar player do for some tasty OD before the Green machine? The Ibanez Tube Screamer is arguably the first overdrive of its type, but it hasn’t been around forever. No doubt, the Tube Screamer is a milestone, and potent magic. There are many different contemporary overdrive classics, arriving after the legendary and game changing green, screaming box of heat called the TS-808.

The Analogman King of Tone, and the no introduction necessary Klon Centaur are just two examples.

We all know what came along after the Tube Screamer, but what about the roots of dirty guitar tone?

It’s not an overstatement to say that today, just a bit over 100% of guitarists, of nearly every style will use natural overdrive or pedal induced drive regularly. To fully “get” what overdrive is, you have to imagine a time before overdrive. Overdrive or “OD” or crunch, dirt, grit, whatever you want to call it is known by many names. It is basically, a subtle distortion. Distortion is basically a squared-off sound wave. The squared-off or “clipped wave” is why distortion is sometimes called “clipping”. You don’t typically want any distortion or clipping on your hi-fi sound gear. Play-back studio monitors and home stereo systems, or even ear buds of quality should not produce any distortion. If they did, you’d rightly demand your money back.

The three elements

A guitar amp is not designed to “listen” to music with. The guitar amp is designed and voiced to make music with. The guitar amp is a very large part of the whole, when creating electric guitar tone. In the beginning, there are only three elements: The Guitar, the amp, and the player. Nearly all electronics before the 1970s and 60s used vacuum tubes, including the radio your grandparents gathered around, or the giant one that you (or your parents) watched TV on.

A tube amp, set near the top of its output range will begin to fail, producing distortion, and compression. At first, no guitar (or bass) player wanted to hear any tone that wasn’t crystal clear. Rhythm and Blues and some Western Swing players actually started to embrace a mildly distorted or “over-driven” guitar tone. The sound of a cranked up tube amp beginning to fail, is the sound of overdrive. It must have sounded quite anti-establishment to most ears. Link Wray’s over-driven guitar is the centerpiece of the late 50’s hit single “Rumble”. Give it another listen, next time you watch “Pulp Fiction”. The tone is not deeply dirty; it’s just a bit “snotty”. Rumble is the only 100% instrumental song to be banned from radio airplay. The ban was probably not because of the overdrive sound, but it did help give the over-driven guitar its bad-boy vibe. Wray is said to have helped coax the effect out of his amp with help from a purposefully torn speaker cone, and a “dimed” tube amp (volume control turned up all the way to “10” get it?). Along with natural organic vacuum tube distortion, enriched harmonics and natural compression hitch a ride, adding sustain to the guitar’s amplified signal. Guitarists have chase a distorted sound ever since (well, maybe not right ever since). Several milestones along the way helped before an over-driven, dirty, distorted, or “Fuzz” sound became essential and ingrained into the collective guitar player’s consciousness.

Ready? Some historic first uses of overdrive are well documented, and the OD aficionado will be able to recite them from a dead sleep- in reverse order. We are gonna move quickly through some “firsts”

Rocket 881951Brenston/TurnerAmp fell off “Jalopy”Guitar sounds like a Sax
Rumble1958Link WraySpeaker vandalism (intentional)Banned from Radio
Don’t Worry1961Marty RobbinsBusted mixing board (unintentional)The Maestro FZ-1 pedal
Satisfaction1965Rolling StonesKeef wanted a brass sectionThe FZ-1 Starts selling!

Marty Robbins (yea, the down in the southwestern town of “El Paso”, Marty Robbins) has a recording session for “Don’t Worry” in 1961. A now Historic malfunction caused by a broken channel strip created artificial clipping on the guitar solo track. The sound is “off the wall” and novel to say the very least. The electric guitar sounds more like a sax, or some kind of low brass instrument. The entire solo takes up 8 measures, but left its mark. No doubt this helped the song climb the charts. Someone decided the sound was “fuzzy”. Maybe it sounded like fuzzy brass?

It’s pretty widely known that the guitar tone of Robbins’ hit record was later re-created artificially by the recording engineer, Glen Snotty. Apparently, some other players wanted the “broken board” sound. Snotty obliged with some transistors, some lamp cord, pots, and some stuff from the sock drawer. The result is the first “Fuzz box”. Gibson got a hold of the makeshift device, and created the Maestro FZ-1; the world’s first commercially available stomp box.

It became an instant hit, and fuzzy sax/trombone/guitar sounds came out of the woodwork, right?

No, not really. The “Fuzz” was a rather unnatural sound, and stuck out like a sore thumb in a world of clean guitar tones.

Time-out please!

Think of this in terms that might be called the Frampton-conundrum. The album “Frampton Comes Alive” marks the introduction of the talk box to the world; Frampton “owns” the sound. It will be a minute before anyone else dares touch the talk-box, lest they be labeled as a “Frampton rip off”.

The spitting, popping sound of the Fuzz is not quite as unique as Frampton’s “talking guitar”. Slowly, the Fuzz, and its distorted variations will start to pop up with subtle texture changes, and styles of use.

Time in

Unlike the early tube malfunctions, the FZ-1 didn’t sound “tube like”, natural, or what we call overdrive today.

The Fourth Element

So we had the guitar, the amp and the player, the fourth component in electric guitar tone was the outboard effect. Little by little the Fuzz tone sound gains use. Magnificent film score composer Ennio Morricone uses dramatic distorted guitar in scores for firms “A fist full of dollars”, and the now pop-culture phenom score of “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”. Of course, at the same time Keith Richards unbridles the Maestro Fuzz on 1965’s mega anthem “Satisfaction”. Keef said he used the Fuzz, to reference where he wanted the brass section to go. Some arm twisting led to the Keefs “scratch” track making the final mix. The rest as they say is history. Now, the fuzz, and soon more types of pedals, became an overnight industry. Shortly after, The Beatles released “Revolver” featuring McCartney playing “fuzz bass” on “Think for Yourself”. It’s as mesmerizing today as it was in ’66. Neither Keef nor McCartney will record with that exact kind of Fuzz ever again; the Fuzz is extreme, and in-organic. It’s clearly an effect, not to be over-used, or is it? Soon the Maestro and the idea of fuzz being a one-time “hit and run” were over.

If one is good, more is better! (Sometimes)

The Maestro was made popular by a couple of Englishmen, but was an American invented, and made device. In the early 60s, American guitars, amps, and pedals were not easy to come by, or afford, for a musician living in the UK. England’s answer was to make some of their own. The British made (Sola sound) Tone Bender was born, the JMI, better known as “VOX” created the Vox distortion booster (and more to come). Ivor Arbiter (Dallas/Arbiter) created the Fuzz Face, (with some help from Roger Meyer). The Fuzz Face was a fairly long way away from the spitting fuzz of the Maestro, especially when played at low settings, and in an already cranked amp. The fuzz face had the potential to sound more like a natural overdrive, and less like a “forest fire”. Meanwhile, back in the USA, the Fuzz is driving the new Rock and Psychedelic sounds. This (dirty tone) is now, a must have sound. It cannot be achieved without this “4th” element device of one kind or another. Fuzz pedals are made by every manufacturer under the sun, along with some new companies. Just to name a few: The Moserite “Fuzzrite” the Astro tone/Sam Ash Fuzzz (same device, under a different brand name). The Orpheum, Clark, Manny’s Music Fuzz (all the same unit). The Guild Foxy Lady (super early E.H Big Muff), the Jordan fuzz, and Fender Blender (and more, sorry if I left out your favorite). So Much Fuzz is now available; belly buttons no longer need to be harvested.

The purchase of a Fuzz Box seems to come along with a free hit record: The Trogs “Wild Thing”, Iron Butterfly’s 17 minute hippy epic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”, and “Born to be wild”.

Many distorted or driven tones are becoming the mainstay. Not all sound like the spitting “Spirit in the Sky”. Many of the greats of the era will adopt a dirty sound without the artificial sounding Fuzz. How do Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, Marc Bolan, David Gilmour, Brian May and sometimes Jimmy Page, get that edge? It didn’t sound like a Fuzz box, it didn’t sound like the over-driven board that made the Beatles Revolution single, or the Jimi Hendrix sound (oh-no, not here, that’s a whole other ball of wax).

Make a note of one thing before you take a guess: They are all from the UK.

The mystery behind the tone of these true “Guitar Heroes” is another one of the electric guitar’s happy accidents. All of these great and influential players were using an over-driven sound, over a decade before what the world likes to call the “First Overdrive Box”, the Tube Screamer.

The Fuzz was not the only effects pedal produced in the 1960s, but we are on a countdown to the first overdrives, not wahs and other crafty devices.

English guitar players chased after the bright “Fender” amp sound. Most of our pal Leo’s amps are voiced with emphasis on highs, and lows. Vox and WEM, and the JTM 45 are rich in mid-range, but not especially “bright”. The battle cry of the English electric guitarist is “we need more top!!! What they got was a “4th element” outboard effects box solution.

The most misunderstood and difficult to use solution was the Treble booster. In the late 60s the treble booster had no counterpoint in America (yet). The Treble booster is so not a great way to brighten your dark amp. In fact, when used as originally intended, it sounds nothing shy of disastrous (if that’s not a real word, I want credit). Use of a treble booster into a clean Vox, or JTM-45 will sound shrill or vile, at best. It will send dogs running, and humans stuffing whatever they can find into their ears.

The statement that the Dallas Rangemaster,(later Dallas-Arbiter), Hornby Skews Treble booster, or Color Sound boost sound awful is a nearly sacrilegious and definitely a dangerous statement to make, without deeper explanation. When not used as originally intended (as a frequency enhancement), the treble booster is nothing shy of magical sounding, and is responsible for some of the world’s most loved guitar sounds from the 60s (and maybe of all time).

Using the Treble booster

Often overlooked today, in the overdrive rich environment afforded to the modern player, the Dallas Rangemaster is in a very real way, a primitive overdrive. It works a bit like a light overdrive, like a TS-808. When plugged into an amp with lots of headroom, at a low, clean volume, the Tube Screamer, or Range-master is not very effective. The Treble booster is a simple design, using only a battery, three resistors, 4 caps, a pot, and a single Germanium Transistor (for those that want more info, the Transistors were commonly a Mullard OC41, or New Market 275. Later, versions with more stable and reliable silicon transistors were used). The combination of elements is simple brilliance: a boosted signal, frequency hump, and the rough and dirty OC41 works like witchcraft on a dark amp, when it is turned up close to its “boiling point”. The Rangemaster added rich harmonics, almost like a cocked wah. The boost could push an already turned up to edge of grit amp into singing, sustain and overdrive. The Rangemaster was not a foot-controlled amp. It was either on, or off. The always on nature of the device worked like a charm with the guitars volume control. Turn down a bit to clean up the tone. Turn it up to rip a hole in time and space. Great examples of the treble booster, and cranked up amp starts with the legendary “Beano” album. The Les Paul, Marshall JTM-45 and Dallas Rangemaster are reported to be the source behind Clapton’s “Woman” tone. Rory Gallagher gets his monster tone using a Fender Strat, AC-30 and Treble booster (a trade secret that Rory shared with Brain May, who is NEVER without a wall of AC-30’s and treble booster). The Black Sabbath debut album could have never achieved raw edged guitar without Iommi, and his Laney, Humbuckers, and treble booster. The list can go on for pages; the fun part is the discovering. Listen to the late 60’s dirty Brit guitar tone. Maybe try a modern Treble booster yourself, next time you plug in a play “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

One thing about the Treble booster is for certain: The upper mid-range hump, boost and grit, is far up the road, on the way to the Tube Screamer, and all overdrives to follow.

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.