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Maestro FZ-1

Maestro FZ-1

Today in the Cabinet, we’re taking another trip back to the fabled wish list, and checking out a pedal that perhaps needs no introduction, but I’ll give it a shot for the rookies. In 1962, a product hit store shelves that would go on to redefine music as we know it. Though technically not the first guitar effect, this pedal languished in dusty discount bins for three solid years before getting the recognition it deserves, and kicking off the “pedal craze.” Sales have grown exponentially since those days, which is where we find ourselves.

The story starts with a pencil. Link Wray’s pencil, to be exact. After maxing out his distortion capabilities by redlining his guitar amps, Wray was the first recording artist to achieve extra distortion beyond the amp’s capabilities, requiring an external “effect.” In this case, this was Wray puncturing a speaker. This distorted sound got Wray banned from the radio, because of purported themes of inciting violence. This was rock ‘n’ roll.

Banned from the radio doesn’t mean banned from retail stores, and as more people heard “Rumble,” the more that sound began to take hold. As those influenced by Wray wanted to play along, they didn’t necessarily want to permanently damage their equipment and succumb to the force of pure rock. Plus, there are limits to the distortion you can extract from an amp, speaker modification included.

Three whole years later, a faulty console caused some distortion to appear on a Marty Robbins recording. Grady Martin played through the malfunctioning equipment that kicked on before his solo, and it was left in the recording by the engineer; Martin reportedly hated it. But the power of rock was simply too much to bear; later that year, Grady snuck in a studio session between jobs and recorded a song with his band, “Tippin’ In.” The B-side, Grady recorded himself, specifically requesting the same faulty console. He called the song “the Fuzz” and the rest was literally history.

Grady Martin

The immediate timeline is a little muddy, with two different engineers attempting to reverse-engineer the “Grady Martin sound” which of course traced back to the faulty console tube at Quonset Hut Studio in Nashville. Red Rhodes developed a unit for the Ventures to use, based off the abstract concept of “the sound.” But Glenn Snoddy, armed with the actual faulty console, partnered up with Revis Hobbs to create the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone. While the Rhodes box morphed into the Mosrite Fuzzrite and had Iron Butterfly and Strawberry Alarm Clock, the FZ-1 found its way into the hands of a band with a much wider audience.

Three full years after the FZ-1 was released to retailers—with accompanying demonstration vinyl record—they were sitting in stores at bargain-basement prices. The release of the FZ-1 was marred by some particularly antiquated marketing; buyers were encouraged to use the pedal to replicate any number of orchestral instruments, including a variety of horns and stringed instruments. As rock was coming of age, Maestro’s marketing department didn’t do its own device much of a favor. That is, until Keith Richards wanted a placeholder for an unavailable brass section while recording the second version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

As Maestro had prophesied in the years before, Richards had used the FZ-1 to simulate a brass band. Eventually, and again against the wishes of the artist, fuzz effects were once again part of the rock conversation. But this time, players had a means to acquire it. There was a serious run on FZ-1 units, prompting Maestro to release four more fuzz units bearing the FZ prefix, with the FZ-1A, FZ-2, FZ-1B and FZ-1S eventually making their way to shelves.

The fuzz saga doesn’t end there—what follows is a mildly disputed account, but the story goes that Vic Flick, you know, the guy who wrote the James Bond theme, was on tour in England. During his stop in London, he swung by Macari’s, a gear shop on Charing Cross Road in London. He brought his FZ-1 and asked the shop if they had anyone in-house that could modify the pedal for more sustain. Gary Hurst did just that, and the result was the Tone Bender, now retroactively known as the MKI. Arbiter borrowed a transitional design off the Tone Bender, referred to in the fuzz annals as the MKI.V., and released the Fuzz Face, and you know the rest.

By now, everyone knows about the allure of germanium transistors, so I’ll spare you. But even back in 1962, germanium devices were hard to come by for reasons not related to scarcity. Cost was a definite hindrance back then—when Maestro agreed to manufacture Snoddy’s FZ-1, they were taking a gamble by outfitting the unit with germanium pieces; they were expensive back then. However, cut-rate devices were much cheaper, and so the FZ-1 was manufactured with intentionally “leaky” components. Have you wondered why every germanium fuzz box from yesteryear has been offered by many different companies, but FZ-1 clones remain a stone unturned? You can no longer purchase “bad on purpose” semiconductors, and it’s unbelievably impractical to purchase what small bulk lots exist on eBay and hope for disastrous measurements. One might spend a thousand dollars before they have the stock to make 25 pedals. And that’s just not good business.

The out-of-spec devices combined with enormous coupling caps to deliver a splatty fuzz circuit core with a meager input buffer in front. The buffer is responsible for trimming down the frequency content of the input signal and creating the nasally narrow range. The circuit is so dependent on its leaky parts that signal will not pass through the second stage if the parts are pristine. The FZ-1A rectified this by adding a resistor that in a way, “simulated” bad parts, presumably because reject parts were drying up. However, too many deviations were made from the original FZ-1—including operating voltage (1.5V as opposed to 3V) and transistor selection (2N2613 instead of 2N270)—for it to sound as desirable as the original. Thus, the FZ-1A is much more common on the second-hand market, and if you can find an actual vintage FZ-1 with 2N270s, jump on it fast.

As one might expect, every piece of FZ-1 ephemera is collectible, from the original Grady Martin “Tippin’ It” single to the FZ-1 demonstration record sent to retailers. Gibson originally manufactured the FZ pedals for Maestro and reissued a handful of Fuzz Tone units in the ‘90s; even those reissues are rare. And to think, fuzz fever was kickstarted as a ladder of broken equipment, from deliberately mangled speakers and punished amplifiers to haywire mixing consoles and bargain-bin transistors. Bad parts never sounded so good.