Last time I did a Tone Bender overview I limited the selection to 12, and as much by chance as anything else I still managed to get a pretty decent roundup of most of the main Tone Bender varieties although not quite all as featured here. In the world of fuzz though only the Big Muff can compete with the convoluted and complex nature of the Tone Bender Family Tree - which I will endeavour to distil first, and then extrapolate into my own favourite / preferred pedals!
It all starts with the 1962 Gibson Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, powered by 2 x 1.5V batteries and running 3 x RCA 2N270 Germanium transistors.
Flash forward to the UK in 1965 where US-made FZ-1’s were in very short supply and session guitarist Vic Flick was on the hunt for the same sort of pedal but with more sustain. Up steps former Vox employee - electronic engineer Gary Stuart Hurst who introduces a 9 Volt battery to pedals for the first time - and makes further tweaks to give Vic exactly the sort of pedal he was looking for.
Over the years the Tone Bender inspired, evolved and even borrowed from other similar circuits - yielding 9 closely related circuits - as detailed in the heavily compacted chronology below:
In looking at the selection in the above top image, these are obviously my own choices - with Basic Audio, Expresso Effects and Hudson Electronics being some of my favourites in this area. Generally I dislike enormously the over-sized old-school enclosures used in the 60's and still utilised by so many of today's builders. These are all relatively simple circuits, and with some due diligence - they can pretty much all fit within a standard compact Hammond enclosure.
Normally when you talk of Tone Benders - most connoisseurs will think of Macari's and Sola Sound and Colorsound originals and replicas/re-issues, as well as master builders Stu Castledine, Steve Williams (PigDog) and David Main (D*A*M). While I admire their work ethics and methods, I by and large don't like the overall package of rudimentary aesthetics, large size and larger price.
A great example is the recent Sola Sound MKI Tone Bender Commissions / Special Editions - with 4 pedal variations built by Stu Castledine (3 x 0C75), Steve Williams (1 x OC75 + 2 x NKT OC81), David Main (1 x 0C75 + 2 x 2G374), and Ian Sherwen (1 x CV7005 (OC71) + 2 x CV7007 (OC77)) - of lesser known Ghost Effects - each builder hand-made / assembled their own derivation of the MKI circuit within an identical old-school over-sized wedge-shaped gold-hued enclosure - retailing individually for £899 each or £3600 for the 4 - with the David Main version only available to you if you buy all 4! I don't dispute that these are some of the finest examples of the genre, but the pricing here is really just off the scale. And the pedals are far from pedalboard or storage-friendly. There are plenty of equally great MKI circuits in far prettier and more pedal-board and wallet-friendly offerings as far as I'm concerned.
Musical devices have always been about the aesthetics almost as much as the build and the tone, and my modern practicality 'buffers' seriously filter out most of this sort of antiquated thinking. That said, I really like the relatively recent direction Steve PigDog has been taking with his enclosures - particularly the work with the JuJu Fuzz (MKIII) - some of those enclosures are proper works of art in every area. I was initially quite taken in by his Destruction Department too - until I noticed that the enclosures for those were somewhat over-sized and of a kind typically used for more vintage-inspired MKII's. The price for all these collectable builders is pretty sky-high - and I've done the psychology on the JuJu Fuzz - meaning that I'm determined to get one of those one way or another. A lot of Steve's other work could do with brining up to the same level of finish as the JuJu and Destruction fuzzes. I'm very firmly now embedded into compact enclosure pedals fuzz pedals - although I do make concessions for some Big Muffs in 1590BB enclosures - another idiosyncrasy for sure.
In any case this is my own selection - featuring 14 pedals I already have in the collection, and 14 more I would quite like to get my hands on. Note that I reckon the EQD Black Ash and Tone Reaper are largely re-versionings of the same sort of circuit as the details for both are so similar - that's the only anomaly really in this listing! There for the more sharp-eyed of you...
1 : MKI
2 : John Hornby Skewes Zonk Machine (≃ MKI)
3 : Marshall Supa Fuzz (MKI variant)
4 : MKI.V
5 : Vox Tone Bender (initially MKI.V, then MKII)
6 : Professional MKII
7 : Baldwin-Burns Buzzaround (inspired MKIII)
8 : MKIII
9 : MKIV
Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand as usual:
Essentially a Silicon Transistor fuzz supposed to be a cross between the Maestro FZ-1 (original inspiration for the MKI) and the Shin-Ei FY-2. Tonnes of range onboard here through those 3 dials - Level | Texture | Fuzz, and to my ears in Tone Bender voicing terms - sort of sits between a MKI and MKII. A lively fuzz which lives up well to its suitable moniker.
Upon looking into the guts on this there are no obvious markings on the principal thin metal can transistor - which is obviously not a black glass OC75, but could be a metal OC75 derivative or possibly more likely an AC128 or similar. In any case - this is a tremendous sounding MKI - richly detailed and pretty thick actually in Low-end and Standard EQ modes. The 3-way EQ switch is really handy - and it combines well with Volume | Fuzz | Hi-Cut controls. This is an all-round great example of the MKI style.
A fantastic all-rounder Tone Bender - and probably the one to get if you only ever going to get a single on! I place it largely in MKII/MKIII territory - while the 5 controls : Level | Tone | Fuzz | Bias | Fat - will give you near enough every classic Tone Bender voicing - sounds suitably richly detailed and dynamic. This is THE all-round Tone Bender.
The only representative here of the Marshall Supa Fuzz - which initially started off as an OEM MKI project for Marshall, while most pedals made were derivations of the MKII circuit. John Lyons here takes inspiration from the MKI Supa Fuzz for his variation on the same theme - really nicely demo'd here by David Torn. I don't yet have any examples of a Supa Fuzz in my Tone Library - so this is likely to end up in the collection at some stage - to join its other 8 siblings that I've already adopted. Control comes courtesy of 3-knobs - Level | Attack | Hi-Cut.
John's take on the JHS Zonk Machine is another feather in the cap for the Basic Audio range. I already have the DanDrive Secret Weapon derivation on order - due next month. And my pal Sof at Expresso FX has already mentioned that he would like to to his own version of this circuit. I'm a huge fan of Basic Audio - which to-date is my main supplier of fuzzes - followed by Skreddy, Magnetic Effects, SolidGoldFX, Spaceman Effects and Expresso FX.
This is as unorthodox a Tone Bender as you're likely to come across - with the circuit overloaded with Feedback/Sag courtesy of 6-knobs - Range | Bias | Sag | Fuzz | Exp (Sag 2) | Level - which are accompanied by two footswitches where you can alternate between the 2 Sag levels set on the Sag and Exp dials. You get all kinds of lovely warble and oscillation here - and I really love this pedal for its differences - while your typical Tone Bender fan is more than likely to steer well clear! This pedal was featured in a recent piece I did titled '2 of the Best from 2 Laid to Rest!'.
Following on from the Fubär we have another Tone Bender oddity here - where the circuit has been tuned to produce a really satisfying Rat type degree of distortion. The core of the circuit is MKII - utilising 4 silicon transistors - and it makes for a really thick and textured tone. You have 4-knobs at your disposal here - Filter | Gain | Volume | Input. I featured this pedal very recently in my Best of Catalinbread Overview.
This pedal was also featured very recently in my piece on Treble Boosters - which is just one of the 6 flavours found onboard here. I could probably have done with an additional Bias dial here - in addition to the 3 existing dials - Volume | Gain | Voicing Selector. The 6 voicings you can select are Fuzz Face | Vox Tone Bender | MK I.V | MKII | RangeMaster | RangeMaster into FuzzFace. All delivered supremely by 3 classy NOS OC45 transistors.
I ordered mine from Dan Querner back on the 6th of June (with Deluxe cloth wrap) - having witnessed its use on That Pedal Show by maestro Joey Landreth. If all goes well I should have my copy of this by the end of August - along with the even more impressive Austin Pride Fuzz - Dan's very unique take on the Cesar Diaz Texas Square Face Fuzz. His Secret Weapon features additional Bias control over the standard 'Secret Engine' version - which allows you to fine-tune the pedal's output. Otherwise you get the Mid-Boost toggle-switch, Fuzz and Volume controls per the Secret Engine. This is a wonderfully expressive fuzz - build on a very similar circuit to the MKI's. The pictured version above is the standard anodised matt black enclosure with relic'd edges.
This is the first of two Jamie Stillman MKIII style Tone Benders featured here - although this was the more recently launched. The Black Ash is a relatively limited editions of around 1,500 units and uses some rare unspecified NOS Transistors from Jamie's own collection. Both this and its predecessor - the Tone Reaper are billed as MKIII style Tone Benders - although their voicings are quite different while they may likely share the same rare transistors. The Black Ash is slightly more modern and strident in dynamics, while the Tone Reaper is dialled-in more to vintage specs and has a slightly more even temperament. You have 3 controls at your disposal here - Fuzz | Top | Level.
This is the predecessor to the Black Ash - also a MKIII derivative - but much more tuned towards vintage sensibilities - meaning that it sounds not quite as high gain and saturated as the later Black Ash. There seem to have actually been a fair few editions of the Tone Reaper - going back as far as 2009. Once more you get 3 dials - this time labelled Tone | Level | Fuzz. There's a sprinkling of these on Reverb.com and Ebay - some at very reasonable rates, so I may be tempted - while I actually probably prefer the tones of the newer Black Ash!
I've formed quite a connection with Sof of Expresso FX in these last few months - feels like I've known him forever. I guess that's the case when you get the meeting of minds of two highly detail-obsessed individuals. Sof is as methodical and detail-oriented as his pedals and website look - and he goes a long way to get everything just right. Which is definitely the case for this Custom edition he made for me in a compact enclosure. His MKI is typically housed in the larger 1590BB which I'm just not that comfortable with. This is the 4th of his pedals I have acquired and my favourite to-date although the CV7005 Germanium Fuzz (Fuzz Face) is near enough equally stellar. This MKI sounds quite different to my Basic Audio Marq Won - but I love them pretty much equally. The 3-knobs on the pedal are Level | Attack | Bias - I really like bias dials on most of my fuzzes as I like to be able to get all manner of tones out of them. The noise-floor on this MKI is about as optimised as you can get - while the pedal still rings out fully textured and harmonic when all dials are cranked. All MKI's can sound slightly different because of the many transistor variations utilised - but this combination of OC75 and 2N1307 transistors just sounds fantastic.
As I already have the Expresso Germanium Fuzz (Fuzz Face) witch sounds very similar to this - just with a more typically creamy Fuzz Face texture. I'm not sure I really need this variant. Obviously the Arbiter Fuzz Face circuits were very largely derived from the MKI.V's - but there are subtle differences in tonality and timbre in particular. Who knows - I may still get this version too although I really don't need it. Sounds fantastic though as far as signature MKI.V's go. Pictured is the standard 2-knob Level and Attack variety - while you can pay £5 extra for an External Bias knob - which I would most definitely do for my own needs.
The Vox Tone Bender derivatives made at the Italian JEN factory started life initially as MKI.V variants and then MKII Sola Sound Tone Benders - before a degree of OEM-ing took over and the Italian / Vox Tone Benders started becoming more their own thing - with subtle differences in the circuits. This is another well loved variety - but like the I.V can sometimes be seen as a sort of gateway drug to Fuzz Faces - an in-betweener and often considered somewhat less significant variation to the mainstream MKI, MKII and MKIII varieties - while there are some collectors who specifically prefer the Italian varieties. You just have the 2 classic controls here - Level and Attack - while you can request the additional external Bias knob - which I would likely do myself.
The Fulltone Soul-Bender has been around in various guises since 2005 I believe - initially in a 1590BB enclosure, but slimmed down to compact dimensions in latter years. The circuit is supposed to be pretty much the same throughout - using the same rare TO-1 transistors - but there are players who will tell you they much prefer the tones of the larger original units. It has always had the same 3 controls - Volume | Tone | Dirt and is one of the classic benchmarks for this type of Tone Bender (MKIII) as many Fulltone pedals are in their own particular categories. It may not be quite as sexy in some ways as some of these others - but this is still a very formidable Tone Bender at a decent price point.
Nowadays Hudson Electronics is best known for its medium-enclosure Broadcast Fuzzy-Drive and Sidecar Overdrive pedals - while Michael has a great history of producing neat compact fuzz pedals too - like the trio featured here, and of which I have two - this MKIV style fuzz - with a lovely rich textured tone, and the somewhat more subtle White Heat - based on the Vox Tone Bender circuit. Both are largely period-correct with the requisite amount of knobs - here : Treble | Sustain | Volume. A relatively simple but great sounding pedal.
This is Michael's take on the MKII Tone Bender - I don't have one yet, so I'm not sure which transistors he makes use of here - but they're likely some Russian variant no doubt similar to what the other two pedals use. Controls here are Attack and Level as expected - this is a great sounding MKII variety - even though I typically like a few more bells and whistles (and Bias knobs). I may still try to track one of these down to complete my set as it were.
Finally from Michael Hudson here - an elegant take on the 2-transistor Vox Tone Bender - with Attack and Level knobs as before and looks-wise pretty similar to the aforementioned Stroll On (MKII). I really liked the demo of this at the time which is why it's in the collection - while I typically gravitate more towards the slightly richer / thicker 3-transistor Tone Benders. For its specific type though this one sounds great.
This is one of Josh Scott's fallen hero fuzzes - as a great many fantastic JHS pedals have fallen between the cracks sort of over the years - with the fuzz category in particular having a significant numbers of casualties. I've come across this once or twice and have always had a good experience of this 4-knob MKIII style Tone Bender. I will likely make a more concerted effort now to track one of these down - I can't say I've seen any of these recently on Ebay or Reverb.com. The pedal features 4 knobs - Volume | EQ | Fuzz | Bias and is just as flexible as you would expect. Actually looks like some of these were sold relatively recently on Reverb.com - for around £160, no idea why they did not show up on my feed? In any case - probably pick up one of these pretty soon - as and when the opportunity next arises.
This is one that I mis-identified. mis-diagnosed from my first encounter - thinking it initially just yet another Germanium type Fuzz Face - while it is actually the more interesting for me at least Tone Bender MKII variety (I have 25 Fuzz Faces already!). Controls here are Input | Anger (Saturation) | Volume, alongside a Hi-Cut toggle-switch, and a 3-way Bass mode switch - which gives you anything from Lo-fi garage fuzz through mid-punch and on to full thick saturated fuzz. There are a number of really decent demos of this pedal - and I will need to spend more time getting better acquainted with this actually really versatile Tone Bender.
The eccentric cousins to the main Tone Benders are the Zonk and Buzzaround varieties - both a little more 'wired' than the typical Tone Benders, and in fact the Buzzaround was significantly influential of the direction the Tone Bender took in its MKIII incarnation - as there are a lot of similarities between those circuits. This is definitely one of those more full-on Tone Bender styles and I've made my mind up that I really need another Buzzaround variant to alternate with this one that I already have. A great range of tones here via 4 knobs - Timbre | Balance | Master | Sustain.
Much like the superb Magnetic Effects flagship fuzz - the White Atom V3, its Solar Bender V3 weirdly seems to be under the radar of many. With its 4 controls - Level | Bias | Tone | Attack - this is a great example of a MKII type - which is further enhanced by the 3-way Bass response toggle-switch. This may look a little too jolly and modern to some - but this is one of the best MKII types out there - and equal to many at twice or three times its very reasonable price-tag.
The venerable Maxon Fuzz Elements series is something too which has somewhat dropped under the radar for most of late. 7 core foundation fuzzes with different degrees of tone-shaping prowess. The Tone Bender genre is represented by the Wind element - which is Maxon's take on the MKII style. As expected you have 2 main controls - Attack and Level, and then a couple of 2-way switches - a Vintage / Hot switch for more sizzle, and a Buffer switch so that this fuzz responds better to Wah pedals - and can be positioned more freely within the signal-chain. Maxon does not specify the particular variety of transistors utilised here - but this is a very decent representative of the type - with a couple of really handy extra features.
This is the likeliest candidate for my second Buzzaround style format at the moment - so I can alternate with my existing Magnetic Effects Buzzer. Most Buzzarounds seem to be still in the more traditional 1590BB style enclosure - while as I will always have a more natural affinity for the compact types. The Rounder provides you with 4 controls - Timbre | Balance | Volume | Sustain. I'm weirdly one of those who always likes a few more options at his disposal - although too many dials can be a disincentive. This feels about right.
I have one Monsterpiece Fuzz so far to my name - a Custom 6-Knob Scratchy Snatch variant - a highly versatile enhanced Silicon Fuzz Face. All the while though I've still been chasing this particular one. I feel this would perfectly round out my MKI selection - with a totally vintage authentic box (apart from the size!) - which only has a battery option and no LED! Per the demo - this sounds really glorious. Of course I really love my Basic Audio Marq Won and Expresso FX MKI - I would see this as completing the set. Similar to my Expresso MKI - you get the same 3 dials in effect - Volume, Attack and Bias.
Since I've secured my Spaceman Effects Gemini IV - which I was chasing for so long in its Gemini III guise. I can now focus my attentions to nailing down one of the most sought-after pedals around - the PigDog JuJu - a gloriously rich and tuneful take on the MKIII variety. Steve Williams makes these in small batches with quite stunning enclosures now - his finishing game has really gone up in the last few years - would that all his pedals were built to the same sort of formula. I had eyes on the MKIV PigDog Destruction Department too - until I realised how over-sized it was. So I'm patiently waiting for the next batch of JuJu's to materialise or else one of the better looking ones appearing on Reverb.com. Funnily though - however expensive the new ones are - at around £400 - the second-hand market ones seem to be even more so - so it's about taking your chances really. I will be conducting a dual quest for the PigDog Juju - as well as the Demedash Laika - a really cool take on Spaceman's Sputnik II - which I would love to add to the collection - it's always nice to have some sort of longer-term mission!
Scotty Smith defines this as definitely not a Tone Bender - while for me it combines elements of Tone Bender, Fuzz Face and Germanium Overdrive. By default it has a beautifully rich and creamy - sort of liquid fuzz tone - which calls to mind the creamiest Fuzz Face I could ever wish to encounter. Yet by adjusting the 3 extremely interactive dials - Level | Drive | Attack you can touch on several different varieties of fuzz tones including those more associated with the Tone Bender genre. This pedal though is a modern confection of Germanium and Silicon and can sit anywhere in your signal chain. It has long been one of my favourite fuzz tones.
Last in line alphabetically here we have the limited edition Germanium version of the SGFX Rosie Fuzz - a take on the MKII genre. The Germanium edition has slightly more of that typical warmth and dynamism you expect from those transistors - and as RJ Ronquillo expertly demonstrates above. I've long said that RJ Ronquillo and Alberto Barrero are the two finest fuzz pedal players around - and that if you have a fuzz pedal to promote - you should get it into the hands of at least one of this dynamic duo. I've somehow by happenstance really more than anything come to own 6 SolidGoldFX fuzz pedals - I guess the right ones were available to me at the right sort of price when I was looking! And I love each and every one of them - they're most Custom Shop limited Germanium editions - like this one.
It just shows how complicated my pedal-life is when I forget one I featured less than a couple of months ago. Of course the Menatone Law Bender should have been in contention here - I would probably drop the EQD Tone Reaper in favour of the more versatile Law Bender - which is available in both Germanium (Red Fuzz Knob) or Silicon (Blue Fuzz Knob) varieties with fantastic tone-shaping abilities - Tone | Bias | Pork (Gain Boost) | Volume | Fuzz | Sag (Pre-Gain). As a Fuzz fan I've already earmarked the Germanium variety for imminent acquisition - another cool and versatile addition to my tone library no doubt. I obviously already have a number of Tone Bender style fuzzes in the collection, but not in this specific configuration - which offers something distinctly different.
Before I get all the messages of - 'but you left out this one or that one' - do remember that this is my own personal selection - and these are the ones I like and gravitate towards. I only really like compact enclosure versions for this particular pedal genre - and all the boxes featured here are either 1590B or 1590N1/125B size.
To date I believe I have around 310 pedals in my collection - near enough half of them are fuzzes - and of those - 17 are Tone Bender variants - with 14 in turn appearing in this listing amongst 14 others of interest.
There are so many great fuzz builders around that it's often just pure circumstance and happenstance as to how you gravitate towards one over another - sometimes certain things happen and just click for you - while you never actively seem to have come across those other guys - or at least not when you were actively seeking. For me that has meant that a large number of my fuzzes come from relatively few builders - foremost amongst those is John Lyons of Basic Audio - who has contributed 8 to my collection - 3 which are featured here. Next is Marc Ahlfs of Skreddy Pedals who has contributed 7, then Christian Livingstone of Magnetic Effects with 6, same amount from Greg Djerrahian of SolidGoldFX, then Zak Martin of Spaceman Effects with 5, and Sof Tebboune of Expresso FX with 4 etc. etc.
We don't always plot a particular path to follow - we just randomly encounter different things which register and influence to different degrees - which is why the above pedals follow that particular make-up. There are lots of other really capable builders of these sorts of pedals out there including:
And unlike Pokémons - you cannot possibly collect them all!
As for The Big 3 Fuzz Lords - Stu Castledine, Steve Williams (PigDog) and David Main (D*A*M) - I really only typically like Steve's output - and a limited subset of that - Stu Castledine is just way too old-school for my preferences, and David Main can't decide which camp to move into permanently (Vintage or Modern). Generally I would like to see all those great builders produce more compact and more aesthetically appealing pedals - more in line with Steve's JuJu.
My own 14 from this listing are : Basic Audio Gnarly, Basic Audio Marq Won, Basic Audio Scarab, Blackout Effectors Fubär, Catalinbread Katzenkönig, Crazy Tube Circuits Constellation, DanDrive Secret Weapon, Expresso Effects MKI, Hudson Electronics Germanium Fuzz, Hudson Electronics White Heat, Magnetic Effects Buzzer, Magnetic Effects Solar Bender, ProAnalog Devices MKIV Vintage, and SolidGoldFX Rosie Germanium.
Those others here that are top of my wishlist include the Basic Audio Supa MKI, Basic Audio Zonk, EQD Black Ash, Expresso FX Zonk (TBA), JHS Firefly, Mojo Hand FX Rounder, Monsterpiece MKI and PigDog JuJu - with possibly one or two more not yet in this list.
I am very happy for you if you like those older wedges, coffin- and frogman-flipper-size pedals - all power to you. I though like to deploy lots of different flavours in my highly complicated pedal-chain of 41 slots now - which means that enclosure size, power supply requirements, pedal positioning etc. are critical to the usability of my rig/setup.
Hopefully there is something here for everyone within this group of 28 - but I expect as usual that you can't please everyone... and this is certainly more for the modern style of player.
UPDATE - so in the wake of this article - I managed to scoop up 3 more from here - mostly at very good prices! Meaning the Hudson Electronics Stroll On, JHS Firefly and Mojo Hand FX join the collection - that should probably suffice for a while. The other three I really want are the BA Supa MKI, Menatone Germanium Law Bender and of course PigDog JuJu - need to wait for the right moment for those...