Tone makers: Z.Vex founder Zachary Vex

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Z.Vex's pioneering soundsmith explains more about dying batteries and electronics beyond the grave...

1. What was the first pedal you built and how did the design come about?

“I was 15 years old when I sold my first pedal, although it wasn’t branded as Z.Vex. I got a copy of Popular Electronics magazine and begged my Dad to go to Radio Shack and get me the parts so I could build a Jordan Boss Tone. I showed it to a guy at school and he offered me $10 for it! 

“Z.Vex started in June 1995 and the first effects pedal I shipped was the Octane - an octave-up fuzz. It was based on a 1960s Shin-Ei Apollo Fuzz Wah. I bought a broken one at a guitar shop for $25 and modded it up using silicon transistors, a booster circuit and also added a tone sweep instead of a switch.”

The Fuzz Factory does well because people feel like they’re creating their own thing with it

2. What’s your bestselling pedal and why do you think that is?

“It’s usually the Fuzz Factory or the Box Of Rock. The Box Of Rock is a really rich distortion that sounds very much like a tube amp and I think that makes people feel really comfortable. The Fuzz Factory does well because people feel like they’re creating their own thing with it.”

3. What do you think makes Z.Vex unique?

“I was the first guy to do sequence pedals and also the proximity sensing radio transmitter pedals such as the Wah Probe. I was also the first to do an analogue looper - the Lo-Fi Loop Junky, a 20-second analogue looper. The company that designed the chip intended it to be used in gravestones, where the loved ones could have a recorded message from the deceased to listen to!”

4. Which notable players/ bands have used/are using Z.Vex pedals?

“The Woolly Mammoth showed up on Jack White’s Quantum Of Solace James Bond theme tune, Another Way To Die, which I was very proud of. John Frusciante [Red Hot Chili Peppers] used a Fuzz Factory and he also purchased a couple of my iMP amps.

“He bought a couple of those to record with in hotel rooms, but they’re so small he left them behind! Steve Albini’s studio called me up recently in a panic because his Super Hard On stopped working and they use it on everything!”

5. Is there anything new on the horizon with Z.Vex?

“We’re going into production with a vertical version of the Fuzz Factory, followed by the Box Of Rock and the ’59 Sound, as they will fit on pedalboards easier. Our new microphone, the T Ball Mic, is interesting because it virtually eliminates feedback and ambient noise. 

“It came from 1930s military electronics literature concerning communications in bomber cockpits; the solutions were either a proximity mic that went down the pilot’s throat and the other (less intrusive) solution was the same design I’m using.”

6. Name some common mistakes guitarists make with effects…

“A large percentage of guitar players only play with their guitar volume on 10 and they don’t really know what their effects sound like when they turn down to 1 or 2. But an awful lot of fuzzes and distortions sound quite interesting with very low guitar volume.”

7. What’s your best tone tip?

“I used to keep a deck of Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards when I worked in the studio; they can get you out of rut. He’s got interesting phrases in there like ‘Repetition is a form of change’. Also, going outside and walking around often works; changing your environment changes your perspective.”

8. Can you tell us a secret about effects you’ve discovered...

“People recognise that using carbon zinc batteries with germanium fuzzes produces more sag. Sag controls on power supplies just lowers the regulated voltage but the output impedance remains the same. It’s worth experimenting and listening to the effects of dying batteries when you’re recording with germanium fuzzes.”

9. What’s your favourite vintage pedal and why?

“A personal favourite of mine is the Pearl PH-44 Phaser. The circuit itself sounded amazing. It has the most interesting chewy sound. A kind of vocal texture to it, almost like a human-voice quality.”

10. What are your favourite effects moments on record and why?

“The really, really high [Octavia] sound on Purple Haze during the fade out - I find that extremely exciting. The first time I heard the studio effect flanging on Life In The Fast Lane by Eagles (and some of the early Pink Floyd stuff), it blew me away. It was also interesting to hear the Fuzz Factory in Muse’s songs - I knew instantly that’s what it was!”

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