Zoom Ultra Fuzz
When I’m rummaging around in the Cabinet, there are a lot of familiar faces, mostly pedals that innovated in some meaningful way or just plain sound amazing. Most of the places are occupied by companies that have been around for ages, and innovated out of necessity. Boss, MXR, Electro-Harmonix, Maestro and others occupy the overwhelming percentage of residents.
But it is my firm belief that every single pedal brand has something worth money, regardless of their overall contribution to the craft. Snarling Dogs has the Mold Spore. DOD had the Swell. And Zoom had the Ultra Fuzz.
For as omnipresent as Zoom has been in the guitar community, a closer look at the company’s product line shows a much broader approach to audio applications with forays into field recorders, audio interfaces and much more.
But what they have done in the guitar community was ever anything less than ambitious. The first seven offerings made by Zoom had the word “advanced” affixed to an otherwise bland product name (with the exception of the Advanced Sound Environment Processor, which sounds amazing).
For as advanced as Zoom’s stuff claims to be, almost every last bit looks anachronistic, and the shroud of mystery surrounding the company does no favors for accurately dating its products. Zoom’s first-ever standalone guitar pedal—the Power Driver—looks like it came from the mid-’80s but was actually released in 1992. Zoom’s next pedal was 1993’s Zoom Choir, and that one is coming soon to a Cabinet article near you.
This leads me to today’s pedal, the Ultra Fuzz. Replete with superlative, the Ultra Fuzz looks like it came out in the mid-‘90s, but actually was released in 2001. In fact, when I pulled it from the Cabinet, a coworker asked me the date and I actually thought it was from 1995. But the Ultra Fuzz’s 2001 birthdate puts it squarely in the crosshairs of an ugly rumor which I will be happy to dispel in due time.
With all that said, the Ultra Fuzz earns its moniker with a wide-ranging set of controls that have distinct flavors on all counts, along with a distinctive flavor and a character that requires the gentle touch of a loving operator. The manual asks quite a bit of the player, including knowledge of the composition of the nine-volt battery, cable quality and signal chain placement. Much like many vintage fuzzes, the Ultra Fuzz is highly interactive with the guitar’s volume knob, and only if that guitar is outfitted with passive pickups. Active pickups, according to page 9 of the manual, just won’t do the trick.
The Reso control of the Ultra Fuzz amounts to a feedback control, which inserts a screaming oscillation into the signal path. This drone seamlessly folds into the notes that you actually play, creating a velvety glissando that sounds reasonably close to a synthesizer. Zoom asks that you use your guitar’s controls to sculpt the electronic purr into a reasonable Theremin approximation. It can do all of these things. It is truly ultra.
In fact, the Ultra Fuzz asks quite a lot of the player, with a lengthy setup process that yields no sound in any way on multiple settings. In some ways, it is like its own instrument that requires a modicum of proficiency before one can use it to its full potential. This might sound quite similar to the same kind of verbiage usually applied to the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory, one of the most noteworthy modern fuzz classics.
Having been released in 1995, the Fuzz Factory rose to prominence around the time that the Ultra Fuzz was released, and so the Zoom unit carried a scarlet letter in gearhead circles, with the Ultra Fuzz constantly compared to Z. Vex’s unit, and in some cases seen as a shameless clone.
Because the Ultra Fuzz fell in and out of favor so quickly, I’m not sure this tawdry gossip has ever been dispelled. I am here to bust this myth, unless you’ve heard it somewhere else of course. But the innards of the Ultra Fuzz are anything but a Fuzz Factory. For one, the Fuzz Factory contains just 13 components (including two germanium devices) while the Ultra Fuzz is composed of a staggering array of surface mount devices that fills the entire board (with not a shred of germanium to be seen). It’s safe to say that there’s not much topological overlap.
In fact, the Ultra Fuzz is a powerful, compelling and dynamic piece of equipment that everyone deserves to try. While some of Zoom’s other offerings can feel a bit uninspired (except, once again for the Choir and a handful of others), they knocked the Ultra Fuzz out of the park and into the stratosphere.