Germanium or Silicon: The Pros of a Silicon Fuzz Face
Hello fellow gear heads and guitar lovers one and all!
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. Last week we started talking about the difference between styles of Fuzz Faces! This week I wanted to visit the silicon transistor version of the Fuzz Face.
The silicon version of the Fuzz Face was something that evolved over time. They were not the original incarnation of the Fuzz Face from 1966. Original Fuzz Face designs used germanium transistors like NKT275’s, NKT274’s, or AC128’s. These transistors gave a certain warm, organic tone to your guitar signal. However, germanium transistors had a few weak spots. They usually need to be carefully matched for the components to work properly in a pedal. So, in the mid-sixties, this means that you would have to go through as many units as possible in the store to find a good one. There are tons of stories of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa etc. all holding Fuzz Face auditions in music stores to find maybe a couple units out of the entire inventory that sounded any good. Also, as more and more germanium Fuzz Faces made their way into the hands of actual touring musicians, players began to realize that their favorite Fuzz Face that sounded great in the studio didn’t always sound great when playing outside at a summer festival. This is due to the inherent flaws in germanium transistors. They can overheat and change the sound of your pedal from an amazing one, to something that sounds very cruddy-very quickly. From a sales perspective this isn’t a good way to go. So naturally, when the opportunity came for Dallas Arbiter, the Fuzz Face’s parent company, to upgrade to a more stable, consistent transistor they made the change to silicon. In fact, most guitarists were unaware of the change at the time. They made the change because that is what was available as a pedal at the time. But as we look back on recorded music, we can definitely hear a sonic difference between players fuzz tones. This is because of the change in transistor materials in 1969!
While they are a multitude of non-tonal reasons that I like the silicon 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 silicon fuzz face into three points: Bright and Cutting Sound, More Edgy Gnarly Tone, and Most importantly the lack of any Clean Up compared to its germanium cousin. Also, silicon Fuzz Faces are much more consistent from unit to unit, so you won’t have to hold auditions between different Fuzz Faces at your local Music MegaMart.
As always with Fuzz Faces, there are a few tips you should follow to help get the best results when using them:
FUZZ FACE TIPS:
Use a Non-Alkaline Nine Volt in Your Fuzz Face and Thank Me Later.
Normal alkaline batteries will make the Silicon 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.
Silicon 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 silicon 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. BE forewarned, typically silicon Fuzz Faces don’t clean up entirely with your volume knob. So, can you get different tones to play rhythm and lead? Yes, but you won’t get the beautiful clean up you can get out of the germanium counterparts.
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 silicon Fuzz Face.
SILICON FUZZ FACE QUALITIES
Bright, Edgy and Cutting Sound:
If you followed my Fuzz Face Tips from above, you should have a large, powerful fuzz tone coming from your amplifier. Silicon Fuzz Faces typically have a bright and cutting tone. They also tend to be edgier than their germanium counterparts. I recommend turning some of the treble down from your amplifier to compensate for the brighter Fuzz Tone. I like to use silicon Fuzz Faces with maple neck guitars for added cut through a band mix. To my ears, great silicon Fuzz Faces sound much “ruder” than their germanium counterparts. There are usually two schools of thought at work here. Depending on the silicon transistor versions, some Fuzz Faces are very rude and distorted and some are more on the smooth end of things. If you are wanting a more temperature stable version of a germanium Fuzz Face, while retaining all of the low end and smoothness, I recommend checking out Fuzz Faces with BC108 silicon transistors. If you’re in the market for extreme rudeness, I recommend checking out BC183 silicon transistors. Some great tonal examples would be David Gilmour’s 1970’s recordings with Pink Floyd for BC108 transistors, and Eric Johnson for how rude a BC183 transistor. Both guitarists have cutting distortion, there are just gain differences with the different transistors. Just know these transistors have very different clean up tones from germanium Fuzz Faces! For BC108 transistor Fuzz Faces I prefer Analogman’s Sunface loaded with those transistors. For the Eric Johnson BC183 fuzz tones, I prefer the signature Eric Johnson Fuzz Face made by Dunlop.
Lack of a Clean Up:
Silicon Fuzz Faces tend to not have the beautiful clean up from your guitars volume knob like their germanium cousins. You can get varying amounts of fuzz by lowering your guitar’s volume knob, but they don’t completely clean up. Sometimes they can have a fizzy tone to “clean notes” that never go away despite volume positioning. To my ears, the best way to use a silicon Fuzz Face is to max the controls and crank your tube amp for maximum awesomeness. Sometimes depending on the transistor, usually if it’s gainer, I back off the Fuzz knob by 20% to tame the fuzz tone a bit. If you really want the best of both worlds, check out the Diaz Square Face, or any fuzz style pedal that allows you to mix and match germanium and silicon transistors, so you can get better clean up response from your guitar’s volume knob and more balanced gain in the range of germanium style fuzzes.