Pioneers of fuzz: 13 guitarists who defined the fuzz pedal

St Vincent plays guitar live on stage
(Image credit: Getty/Burak Cingi/Contributor)

If you were to have a Thanksgiving dinner with all your pedals gathered around the table, it would be the fuzz pedal that starts the arguments. No doubt.

There is no pedal that is as divisive as the fuzz. Yet, there has been no pedal that’s been so crucial to the evolution of popular music – well, at least, it certainly shares that honour with its kissing cousins, overdrive and distortion.

The ability to put some hair and teeth on electric guitar tone changed rock’n’roll – and it changed the world – and so when we look at the pioneers of the fuzz pedal, the players who propagated it, the players who have found new ways to incorporate it in their sound, we’re inevitably looking at those who changed guitar playing as we know it. 

Before the fuzz pedal, players would poke holes (Link Wray) or slash (Dave Davies) their speaker cone to dirty their tone. Broken amps were looked on as a deus ex machina bringing dirty guitar tone down from on high. Guitarists would try anything – they had to – but all that changed when the fuzz was captured and put into a stompbox.

Fair warning, there will be omissions. There are players who could lay a claim to such a title of fuzz pioneer, but perhaps are more associated with another sound, with overdrive and distortion, say, rather than fuzz. But through these players you can chart the evolution of fuzz in rock and in popular music, from its accidental beginnings as guitarists sought out more aggressive tones, to its exhilarating present, where fuzz has mutated beyond all recognition.

But there is only one place to start, and that’s right at the beginning…

1. Nokie Edwards, The Ventures

As sure as you can ever be with rock’s contested genesis stories, the Ventures’ 1962 single The 2000 Pound Bee is the first song to use a fuzz box on record, with Nokie Edwards doing the honours with the riff. Was it coincidence it came a year after Grady Martin’s bass solo on the Marty Robbins hit Don’t Worry turned to fuzz after passing through a faulty tube mixer? Surely not. Once consecrated on vinyl, others looked to recreate it. Orville Rhodes made the box. Edwards did the rest, placing the Ventures at the forefront of guitar-driven instrumental rock.

Fuzz of choice: Orville Rhodes custom box
Get the tone today: Walrus Audio Jupiter v2

2. Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones

The irresistible groove of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction put fuzz on the map, tattooing it on rock’s cerebral cortex, making it alive to the creative potential of scuzzed-up guitar tone. The Rolling Stones’ runaway hit was a Big Bang moment for the electric guitar, but curiously Keith Richards remained unmoved, preferring instead to run his guitar straight to the amp. “I need my feet to stand up,” he explained, in the “Ask Keith Richards” YouTube series. “I'm not gonna go around on stage doing tip-toes on different machines.” You can’t always get what you want but you can get an Electro-Harmonix Satisfaction fuzz pedal to help you nail Keef’s tone here.

Fuzz of choice: Gibson/Norlin Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone
Get the tone today: Electro Harmonix Satisfaction

3. Jimi Hendrix

Consider Jimi Hendrix, and try to imagine what his pedalboard might look like if he were alive today. Surely he’d at least be trying some new-school fuzzes and reverbs, maybe a DigiTech Whammy – and some survivors from the ‘60s, too. After all, that’s the sound that so many pedal builders spend so much time chasing. Hendrix’s imagination was an evolutionary supernova. As an early adopter, there was no one more in tune with fuzz’s electrifying potential. Whether it was the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face that juiced much of Are You Experienced? or Roger Mayer’s Octavia that gave Purple Haze its extra-dimensional texture, fuzz was putty in Hendrix’s hands. 

Fuzz of choice: Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Roger Mayer Octavia
Get the tone today: JHS Pedals Smiley, MXR Octavio Fuzz

4. Pete Townshend, The Who

The Who’s windmilling firebrand genius used a variety of devices back in the day, and always in the company of a dimed amplifier. His aggressive, dynamic playing style was perfectly aligned with the fuzz pedal’s capacity for crunching up guitar tone with hard-clipped gain. The best examples of Townshend’s snap, crackle and pop were onstage, with Live At Leeds a shining example of a fuzz pedal giving an iconoclastic player the extra tonal permission to take music further into the realm of destruction. It’s no surprise that legions of punk players were paying attention, a collective consciousness that was grabbed by Townshend and a fuzz tone designed for carnage.

Fuzz of choice: Marshall Supa Fuzz, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Univox Super-Fuzz
Get the tone today: JHS Pedals Supreme, Dunlop JDF2 Classic Fuzz Face

5. Eric Brann, Iron Butterfly

The Ed Sanner-designed Mosrite Fuzzrite (often listed in the Freudian style as FUZZ-rite) was not a pedal you’d take home to your mother. The fuzz is good and nasty, capable of some intense saturation. But to everything, a purpose, and in Eric Brann’s signal chain the Fuzzrite gave his In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida riff a cosmic resonance. Eric Brann was no one-riff wonder either. Iron Butterfly’s acid-rock style remains a source text for any player pursuing a psychedelic style. Check out the likes of Possession from their 1968 debut, Heavy, for another example of fuzz in action, saturated and psychedelic to the point of abstraction.

Fuzz of choice: Mosrite Fuzzrite
Get the tone today: Catalinbread Fuzzrite

6. Ron Asheton, The Stooges

There is no scientific consensus surrounding the Stooges guitarist’s fuzz box of choice. Some sources say it was a Fuzzrite, others a Marshall Supa Fuzz or Fuzz Face. He probably used them all. After all, when you are reimagining rock to soundtrack the death of the ‘60s head-on with the combustible nihilism of proto-punk, you need a gnarly tone. The Stooges’ eponymous debut foregrounded Asheton’s ear for guitar-driven chaos, the fuzz and intensity of performance transforming spartan arrangements into epoch-defining works of pop culture. Whichever fuzz box you use to channel Asheton, just make sure it has bite in the upper-mids, and keep it crunchy and animalistic. Canine, even.

Fuzz of choice: Mosrite Fuzzrite (rumored)
Get the tone today: Keeley Fuzz Bender

7. Poison Ivy, The Cramps

Poison Ivy’s guitar playing brings together the pomade-slicked rockabilly of the ‘50s and a horror-punk sensibility, suggesting that whatever time it is it is always close to midnight and the date is always Halloween. She alternates between a Gretsch-through-Fender twang that’s heavily sauced by spring reverb and rendered through the skronk of a Univox Super-Fuzz. Add a Maxon delay for slapback and that’s it. The rest is 100 percent attitude. Playing a ’58 Gretsch 6120, she has acknowledged that the fuzz will make it squeal if she’s not careful with the top end, but those accidental moments of chaos only add to a vibe of raw animalism. 

Fuzz of choice: Univox Super-Fuzz
Get the tone today: Way Huge Conquistador Fuzzstortion

8. David Gilmour, Pink Floyd/solo

The doyen of melodic lead guitar playing and one of the most famous proponents of the “Ram’s Head” Big Muff, David Gilmour is proof that fuzz can be housetrained to flatter rock’s statelier compositions. Gilmour’s epic sustain on Comfortably Numb was brought to you by a 1973 Violet “Ram's Head” Big Muff, and it has since been cloned, obsessed over and traded for big bucks online. Electro Harmonix has just reissued it so there has never been a better time to bring fuzz into your signal path and transcend rock’s animal kingdom with a majestic interstellar lead tone. Of course, Gilmour’s technique might be a lot harder to replicate.

Fuzz of choice: Electro Harmonix “Rams Head” Big Muff
Get the tone today: Electro Harmonix “Ram’s Head” Big Muff

9. J. Mascis, Dinosaur Jr

The Dinosaur Jr. guitarist and frontman is a connoisseur and mass consumer of pedals of all stripes, but particularly fuzz. He’ll stack his gain stages and layer ‘em up for some really sweet, thick-textured fuzz tones. With fuzz, you can dial in assaultive clang or fizzy feel-good vibes. Mascis leans towards the latter, giving his slacker anthems a gauzy feel that complements a songwriting style that seems half-awake yet always aware. Mascis has just put his name to the Garbage Face, a signature fuzz developed by Wren and Cuff that houses his ‘70s Electro Harmonix “Rams Head” Big Muff and a germanium Dallas Rangemaster-style treble booster in one enclosure.

Fuzz of choice: Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi, Univox Super-Fuzz, Jerms MK1.5/MK2 Tonebender, Lovetone Big Cheese and more
Get the tone today: Electro Harmonix “Ram’s Head” Big Muff

10. Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins

The Chicago rock band Catherine first introduced Billy Corgan to the Big Muff, a moment’s serendipity that made obtaining a 1978-era Muff a matter of critical importance for Corgan and his imitators. The pedal that gave the ‘90s grunge scene one of its most memorable guitar tones, the super-pop effervescence of Siamese Dream, was a ’78 op-amp version – the IC or V4 Big Muff – in which Electro Harmonix had switched up the circuit, removing a gain stage and replacing it with a 741 op-amp. The Pumpkins’ success created scarcity, drove up the price, but these days you can pick up an EHX Op-Amp Big Muff reissue easily enough.

Fuzz of choice: Electro Harmonix Big Muff (circa 1978)
Get the tone today: Electro Harmonix Op-Amp Big Muff Pi

11. Matt Bellamy, Muse

Matt Bellamy likes fuzz so much that he had the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory circuit built into his signature guitar. Nothing like having it at the tips of your fingers as well as the toes. But this sort of ingenuity is testament to the Muse guitarist’s visionary collaborations with luthier Hugh Manson. The name Manson is now synonymous with next-gen electric guitars. Tracks such as Supermassive Black Hole, alive with velvet crunch, showcase that vision in action. You could think of Bellamy as kind of like an extra-terrestrial Brian May, only it’s his many flavours of manipulated fuzz and not a treble-booster/Vox AC30 that he’s synonymous with. 

Fuzz of choice: Z.Vex Fuzz Factory
Get the tone today: Z.Vex Vexter Fuzz Factory

12. St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s presence on this list as a pioneer is testament to how much is left to explore on Planet Fuzz. As the fuzz keeps on evolving, so does the music, and vice versa. St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, is a pioneer in many aspects. Like Bellamy, she too has a collaboration on a line of innovative guitars. Her sound represents a paradigmatic shift for the guitar, and particularly the fuzz pedal, taking it out of its native context – big riffs and undiluted rock – into a pop milieu where it sits among arrangements that are often predominantly electronic, as though it were an umbilical cord to a previous generation of rock and pop. 

Fuzz of choice: Z.Vex Mastotron, Z.Vex Fuzz Factory
Get the tone today: Z.Vex Mastotron

13. Chelsea Wolfe

When all is said and done, Chelsea Wolfe is as much a pioneer of signal chain as she is of fuzz. She incorporates fuzz for dramatic peaks of sky-tearing thunder, and uses her pedalboard for all aspects of her performance, processing vocals through an EarthQuaker Devices Disaster Transport modulated delay, opening up big, wide-open spaces in her guitar tone via a Death By Audio Dream Echo 2 and an Eventide Space. It’s all in pursuit of dreamy, haunting transcendence. She extols the virtue of signal-path iconoclasm, citing the Electronic Audio Experiments Beholder’s reverb-into-dirt configuration as a source of “really spacey drone,” and ergo inspiration.

Fuzz of choice: Death By Audio Apocalypse, Electronic Audio Experiments Beholder, and more
Get the tone: Death By Audio Apocalypse

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.