Germanium or Silicon? The Pros of a Germanium Fuzz Face!
As you progress as a guitarist, you will inevitably run into the time-honored guitar fueled debate that is akin to Coke or Pepsi: “Do you like Germanium or Silicon Fuzzes”? There are passionate debates held from both sides of the fuzz aisle and as a budding guitarist it can be difficult to get into the debate. As a guitarist, I look at all fuzzes as some of the ultimate musical tools to express yourself with your instrument and I like to use both germanium and silicon transistor-based fuzzes as different musical situations permit me to use them. I wanted to delve into what many call the “holy grail of fuzz tone”: the early 1966 Germanium Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face and the positives they can give your playing and on your overall guitar sound. These are often considered to be “holy grail” like pedals for guitarists. I like to think that this all goes back to the days of Jimi Hendrix’s first album “Are You Experienced?” where he used the Fuzz Face on many classic songs including “Purple Haze”, “Manic Depression”, “Foxy Lady”, and “Third Stone from the Sun”.
While they are a multitude of non-tonal reasons that I like the germanium versions of the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, like the fact that it is a super awesome round smiley face you get to step on when you engage the fuzz tone, I usually categorize the pros of using a germanium fuzz face into three points: Warm, Organic Tone, Retention of Your Playing Dynamics, and The Clean Up.
First of all, and maybe the most important thing to start off with, is that what works for me as a guitarist might not work for you. Over the years making music, I have gravitated towards certain pieces of gear because they help me express how I feel with my guitar, and they also help me feed off my influences in my playing. I.E. if you didn’t grow up liking Jimi Hendrix’s music none of what I’m about to share will affect you too deeply. If you were into The Police or Radiohead and enjoy multiple tap tempo digital delays mixed with unlimited patches of every distortion imaginable, then what I’m about to share might actually seem like heresy. Does it mean that this isn’t still cool enough to check out, even if you’re not a Hendrix fan because it could get you a new tonal perspective? Yes.
What I really dig about Fuzz Faces is how such a primitive circuit design can give you such a wide range of useable guitar tones. They really are just simple two-knob pedals that run off a single nine-volt batteries. Yet in the correct application, can give you what seem like endless options of tone to use in your playing. What’s important here is to apply the right techniques to help you get the right amount of playing in your Fuzz Face, otherwise you might get what sounds like a disappointing dud. So, make sure you follow these three tricks so you can really appreciate what I’m about to share with you:
FUZZ FACE TIPS:
Use a Non-Alkaline Nine Volt in Your Fuzz Face and Thank Me Later. - Normal alkaline batteries will make the germanium Fuzz Face sound really crappy and lifeless sounding. Just trust me on this. Cheap Dollar store batteries are great for Fuzz Faces, and noticeably cheaper than most modern brands. Stock up on some and you’ll be good.
Max the Fuzz and Volume Controls on the Unit. - Germanium Fuzz Faces only give up the goods when the controls are maxed. When you turn it on this way you will hear a major audible difference in your overall guitar tone. You control the amount of Fuzz you want blended in with your guitar tone by using your guitar’s volume control.
Experiment with Your Guitar’s Volume Knob and Pickup Selectors When Using Fuzz Faces. - By utilizing your guitar’s volume and tone knobs, and by experimenting with different pickup selections you can get a wide range of tones from a germanium Fuzz Face. The more you learn how to manipulate the fuzz tone with your electric guitar, you can go from stinging to cutting fuzz at the flip of a switch of slight movement of your right hand while playing. This is way easier than trying to tap on multiple pedals whenever you want to change your guitar sound, however it does take practice to get it right.
The Louder You Can Get Your Amplifier the Better - Fuzz Faces are finicky, temperamental pieces of gear. They were designed for players to get a bold sound when playing through loud amplifiers of the day. Back in the late sixties, guitarists were required to play very large and powerful guitar amps so they could be heard onstage. There were no P.A.’s at the time, so players were guaranteed that they were going to have to play loud to be heard. Fuzz Face’s need power from your tube amp to really work effectively. So, crank up that volume to at least five on a small Fender combo. Playing at bedroom volume won’t allow you to experience the magic of a good germanium Fuzz Face.
WARM, ORGANIC TONE:
IF you chose to follow my Germanium Fuzz Face tips, you’ll immediately notice a fat, full, warm, organic fuzz tone coming out of your amplifier’s speaker. This is what separates a good germanium Fuzz Face from a silicon one. If your amplifier’s tubes are good and cooking from volume, germanium fuzz gives you a full warm tone with tons of bottom end, but without sounding muddy. To my ears, I feel as though the germanium transistor models have more rounded edges to the sound, and smoothness to the articulation of notes. I like to use different pickup selections on my Stratocaster to really get different tones. I usually will swap to the bridge pickup for either a more cutting, bright lead tone, or as a tight distorted rhythm tone, and then if I have to take a solo will swap over to the neck pickup for a more full, darker, boomy huge tone that is perfect for wailing away with. Can you use other guitars and still get the same sound? Sort of. I just always prefer using my Stratocaster with my Fuzz Face I tend to not use other guitars. But feel free to experiment with different guitars.
RETAINING NATURAL PLAYING DYNAMICS:
Another thing I really love about germanium Fuzz Faces are how well they can retain my natural playing dynamics as a guitarist. The way I fret and attack my guitar with my right-hand attack is unique to my style. Sometimes when I turn on pedals, I lose that uniqueness of the way my hands touch the guitar when just plugged through an amplifier that I feel like I’m not myself. Germanium Fuzz Faces seem to really enhance the subtle nuances of how I play certain phrases, and it really has allowed me to exploit that in my soloing. I can accentuate phrases by either picking hard on a line with a stinging vibrato, or changing my attack and get different sounds just like I would with my guitar and amplifier combo when playing. It makes the improvisational experience feel more organic when playing because my hands are part of the experience.
THE CLEAN UP:
My favorite thing about using Fuzz Faces are how you can control the amount of fuzz by using your guitar’s volume knob. By lowering the volume from all out at 10, to say maybe 8.5 you can get an amazing bluesy overdrive tone that sounds purer and more organic than any Ibanez Tube Screamer. By lowering your guitar’s volume knob down to 6.5-7, you can get a really beautiful sounding processed clean tone with just enough boost for the tone to sound clean and full. Fuzz Face cleans are unique in the fact that they definitely “color” your tone. You can tell you it isn’t your regular amplifier’s clean tone; however, I don’t look at that like a bad thing. If anything, it sounds like a more improved clean tone over just your stock amplifier clean tone. It sounds better, fuller, and richer in the process. By digging deep into Fuzz Face Cleans, you can go from a clean chunky rhythm part, to a grinding bluesy riff, to an all-out Fuzz assault on 10 at the touch of your guitar’s volume knob. After enough practice it really makes improvising and playing that much more fun because you can really focus on your playing instead of your pedalboard.
There are my thoughts on the epic germanium Fuzz Face. If you want to get one for yourself, I recommend checking out Analogman’s Sunfaces and purchasing one with NKT275 germanium transistors for the best tone.
Have fun and KEEP ON PLAYING-AM