I am aware that “ultimate” is like “unique.” Something either is or it isn’t in both cases, making “third ultimate” ridiculous. I just like having fun with the click bait concept. Also apologies to the manufacturers of the pedals for taking so long—life intervenes.
This roundup leans heavily on classic, less extreme fuzz, though with three octave fuzz boxes in the mix there are plenty of strange sounds available. This time we tackle two multi-sound EarthQuaker units, two Electro-Harmonix pedals, and one each from Crazy Tube Circuits, Keeley, Joe Gore, JHS, MXR, and Fender.
The continually increasing number of basic fuzz pedals on the market speaks to how it has become the go-to grit for many players. It also reveals the myriad flavors of even the less radical versions. Due to technology issues, for this go-round I decided to let the manufacturers demo the pedals whenever possible. You can read my impressions, based on personal experience playing through each pedal, below the videos.
Earthquaker founder Jamie Stillman created the Spires ($199) to get the sounds of his vintage Rosac Nu Fuzz and the now discontinued EarthQuaker Dream Crusher on his pedalboard without sacrificing too much space.
The Spires’ Green channel is inspired by the Rosac. The fuzz is full-on at all times, while a wide range tone control changes the character. The original was slightly below unity at maximum level so Stillman increased the output volume.
The Red channel is a version of the germanium Dream Crusher, now silicon-based to make it more stable.
I found the Red side produced an abundance of midrange, bottom, and sustain with the Fuzz knob all the way up. Backing off the Fuzz to three o’clock or less removed some of the bottom, but left plenty of fat low mids that could cut through a mix. Lowering my guitar volume lessened the fuzz, and increased mid emphasis to almost cocked-wah level. The mids varied, depending on the guitar, but I generally preferred the Red sound with the guitar volume full on.
For a great cleaned up sound when lowering the guitar input I switched to the Green side. It delivered that in spades, along with everything from thunderous lows to fizzy highs at full on. The tone seemed to act as a bass cut, with the volume decreasing as the tone got brighter. This was far from an issue, as both channels have enough level on tap to drive your amp into the next county. The Spires sounded great through both clean and dirty amps, proving to be a versatile dirt manufacturing machine.
EarthQuaker Hoof Reaper
The Hoof Reaper ($299) contains the sounds of EarthQuaker Hoof and Tone Reaper fuzz pedals, as well as an analog octave up. The Hoof section is a germanium/silicon hybrid muff style fuzz (based on the old green Russian muff). Its Shift control alters the frequency response of the tone control: clockwise scoops the mids and counterclockwise enhances them. The Tone Reaper side is based on the “three knob” Bender. Also a silicon/germanium hybrid, it offers tone and fuzz controls.
The Octave is a monophonic octave up that, like a classic Octavia, is more pronounced when using the neck pickup and playing above the 12th fret. It is like having EarthQuaker’s Tentacle octave pedal built in.
The three sections provide the potential for Hoof, Reaper, or Octave alone; Reaper plus Octave; Hoof plus Octave; Hoof plus Reaper; as well as Hoof plus Reaper and Octave. A quick calculation superficially reveals seven different sounds. But once you start twisting the knobs of the two channels, running each side and combinations thereof into various clean and dirty amps, and/or in conjunction with other drive pedals, the sonic permutations become virtually infinite.
The Octave section reacts differently and transforms into many distinctive sounds as you combine it with either side, other pedals, or employ it alone through a clean amp. The Octave switch offers Flexi-Switch Technology. For standard latching, you tap the foot switch once to activate the effect and then tap again to bypass. For momentary operation, you hold the foot switch down for as long as you want the effect and release the switch to again bypass the effect.
For offering a tremendous range of inspiring sounds in a relatively compact package and at a reasonable price, the HoofReaper earns a Guitar Moderne Great Gear Award.
Electro-Harmonix Triangle Big Muff
Electro-Harmonix has reissued the original Version 1 Big Muff, dubbed the Triangle Big Muff ($99), referencing the layout of its Volume, Sustain and Tone controls. The new version is a faithful re-creation of the original circa 1969 circuit now housed in a pedalboard friendly, die-cast chassis. The Triangle Big Muff updates the original with a status LED, true bypass switching and the option of being powered by a 9-volt AC adapter.
The music supply company Sweetwater currently lists more than 70 fuzz pedals online. Over 10% are made by Electro-Harmonix, and most of those are variations on the Big Muff. You ask, “Do we really need that many fuzz pedals?” I say, “Do we need so many types of red wine?” You ask, “Okay but do we need so many different versions of the Big Muff (the EHX site currently lists 20)?” To which I answer, “Do we need so many Malbec’s?” You see where I am going with this? Even when broken down to a specific model by a specific company, the flavors of fuzz can vary significantly enough to warrant all these versions.
A comparison of the Triangle Big Muff with the Green Russian version reveals the Triangle to be more scooped in the mid range and possessed more gain. I found the Triangle version to be articulate even at high gain settings. The tone control was wide ranging from fizz to fat, with an interesting low mid boost at near full counter-clockwise.
If you like fuzz, you need to own at least one Big Muff style pedal. When you add all the clones to the ones available from EHX the decision can get, er, hairy. But with its pedalboard friendly size and iconic tone, the Triangle Big Muff just might be the one.
The Octavix (around $80) offers late 1960’s octave fuzz sound with some modern enhancements. Housed in EHX’s nano package, it features Volume, Boost and Octave knobs. Volume is, well, volume, Boost controls the amount of fuzz, and Octave adjusts the volume of the octave. A mini-toggle lets you choose between 9 or 24 volt power rails. At 9V you get classic sag, while 24V delivers a tighter sound and a richer octave.
For a device with a minimal number of knobs and a single switch, the Octavix delivered a surprising array of sounds. On one end, I could turn the octave sound completely off and revel in just its fat, slightly aggressive fuzz. The fuzz effect sounded big and juicy going into a clean amp and was also excellent for adding some nastiness to already slightly overdriven amps or overdrives.
On the other end, I could turn the fuzz almost all the way down and the octave all the way up. This accentuated the octave and I could add that effect to distorted amps and drive pedals, or create cool ring modulator style tones through a clean amp. Imagine all the variations at in between settings, then factor in that the 9 versus 24 volt settings sound and feel radically different, and you get a picture of this pedal’s versatility.
The Electro-Harmonix Octavix seemed to slip in under the radar when it was released. Too bad, because it offers a wealth of fuzz and octave fuzz sounds, from classic to modern at an economical price point, earning it a Guitar Moderne Great Gear Award.
Keeley Rotten Apple
The Keeley Rotten Apple OpAmp Fuzz Pedal ($149) is less noisy than their Dark Side fuzz while increasing the gain dramatically. The three-way tone voice toggle gives you a scooped sound when switched left, a fuller sound in the middle and is flat when on the right. Though based on a Muff-style op-amp, it is a very different beast than the Electro-Harmonix classic. Through most of its gain range the Rotten Apple had more of a distortion pedal sound than the woolier tones of a fuzz. It is only at the clockwise end of the Buzz knob that it started to, er, buzz. Though emitting largely the smoother dirt of a distortion pedal, the Rotten Apple offered the dynamic feel of an overdrive or germanium fuzz, though the guitar volume clean-up presented more gradual degrees of smooth overdrive than the usual quick Fuzz Face fall off. At medium distortion settings, in Full switch position, the pedal proved great for slide, providing more sustain than many other fuzz pedals at those settings. Though videos abound, I suggest trying one yourself, because this pedal is as much about feel as sound.
Ultimately, there is nothing rotten about the Rotten Apple. In its smooth, controlled way it is a terrific grit machine, with a tone of its own.
Crazy Tube Circuits Constellation
The Constellation ($289) is a multi-mode germanium fuzz/booster inspired by vintage British fuzz boxes. The pedal features three zero leakage, New Old Stock Valvo, OC45 Black Glass, germanium transistors hand selected for performance and consistency. A switching circuit lets you select among six settings. “FF” is inspired by the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. “VTB” recalls a Vox ToneBender, with a brighter sound and tamer low end. The “3/2” setting apes the Sola Sound Tone Bender Mk 1.5, often described as a darker and heavier Fuzz Face. The selection marked “2” goes after the Sola Sound Tone Bender MkII vibe, a wild saturated fuzz with lots of sustain. “RM” is named for the Dallas Rangemaster, which was typically used to increase the gain, and sustain of already overdriven tube amplifiers. Finally, “RMFF” offers a custom combination of a treble booster and Fuzz Face.
Maybe more than the sound itself, what I love about germanium fuzz pedals is the way they quickly clean up when you back off the guitar volume. The Constellation offered this in each position, along with the responsiveness to touch and attack also characteristic of these types of pedals. The differences in the first four fuzz settings were subtle but definitely there, perfect for tailoring to specific guitars or amps.
The Range Master slot offers no gain within the effect (the gain control does nothing), but has plenty of level to push your amp or overdrive pedals. Rather than boosting the treble, it works like so many of the vintage versions, bumping the high midrange frequencies for a distinctive classic rock honk.
Germanium can be affected by temperature, but at an outdoor gig with the Constellation on a hot day the Constellation performed beautifully. The only downside of this pedal is deciding which of its amazing sounds to use. Due to the limited availability of these transistors CTC can only guarantee production “as is” while supplies last, so grab this piece of Guitar Moderne Great Gear before it shows up at twice the price on Ebay.
JHS Pollinator 2
Pollinator V2 ($199) is JHS’ take on the classic Fuzz Face circuit using matched AC128 germanium transistors. The Volume control has been updated on the V2 for more headroom and power. Gain controls how much the front of the pedal is pushed and works with the Fuzz control. The Bias knob sets the amount of power going to the germanium transistors to tailor the character of the fuzz.
Despite being a germanium-based design, to these ears, the Pollinator had more silicon style aggression than typical germanium smoothness. Through a clean amp, it sounded best with all the knobs (save volume) dimed. Though it cleaned up quickly when backing off the volume like a germanium fuzz, the clean sound was not the dynamic sag of a Fuzz Face, sounding more silicon-like and bias starved, even with the Bias full up.
More sonic variety was on tap when running through a driven amp or overdrive pedal. Here, playing with the gain and bias knobs yielded many musical options. I was able to achieve everything from an almost transparent boost to screaming, spitting fuzz.
I would not recommend this pedal for providing fuzz to a high headroom amp. But for adding drive and color to an already gritty sound, whether from the amp or another pedal, the Pollinator is a very viable option.
Joe Gore Screech
The Joe Gore Screech ($179) is descended from vintage octave fuzzes like the Ampeg Scrambler and Dan Armstrong Green Ringer, but not a clone of either. The octave in most octave fuzzes works best when you play near the 12th fret using the neck pickup, but Screech provides audible octaves regardless of neck position or pickup setting. It also works as a non-octave fuzz. As on many vintage octave fuzzes, you get interesting noises when you lower your guitar’s volume control and play certain intervals.
Screech is an all silicon fuzz and the fuzz part leaned toward that type of transistor’s aggressive, mid-push nature. But somehow Gore has made it clean up more like the germanium variety, with the distortion dropping off precipitously at the slightest backing off of guitar volume and the tone thinning out to a sound that screams “Jimi Hendrix rhythm.”
There are separate switches for distortion and octave, but you can’t use the octave alone. On the indicator light: no light means both distortion and octave are off. Step on the distortion switch and just distortion will come on as the light turns red. Now, engage the octave and the light turns yellow. If you only step on the octave switch, the light turns green, indicating the octave is armed but there is no effect. At that point stepping on the distortion switch will engage both. It sounds complex but makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
At all but full guitar volume the drive was very touch responsive. And, as advertised, the octave effect was present throughout the range of the guitar. The sitar effect you get with some other octave fuzz pedals (like the Octavix) when you use the treble pickup and back off the guitar volume was not as pronounced, but in exchange I got a wealth of effects impossible to achieve with other octave fuzzes. For coming up with a new twist on a classic sound, the Joe Gore Screech gets a Guitar Moderne Great Gear award.
MXR M296 Classic 108 Fuzz Mini Effects Pedal
The original Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face Distortion reissue is a meticulous reproduction of the 1969-70 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. It is built around the BC108 silicon transistor and housed in a period accurate circular chassis with clones of the original knobs and the correct classic finish. Though desirable for vintage fans, the large round housing makes this unit a space waster on modern, crammed pedalboards. Dunlop’s MXR branch smartly offers its guts in a more standard rectangular housing with modern upgrades and a buffer switch to help it work well with wahs. With board real estate becoming increasingly valuable, even that proves too large for some, so MXR has come out with a mini version ($99).
If you have read anything about, or opened up, an original Fuzz Face, you know there are very few parts involved in the design. Thus, fitting them in a smaller housing than the near Frisbee size circle of the original probably wasn’t a challenge. That MXR managed to cram them AND a buffer circuit into this mini pedal without sacrificing the character-filled sound of the original, however, is impressive.
Apparently, in the larger, rectangular BC108, the optional buffer was incorporated to prevent oscillation when using a wah pedal between the guitar and the fuzz. When not engaged, you can hear it with the Mini demoed in the video above [Starting at 3:02], and Guitar Moderne readers might find it to be a usable sound. The Mini I reviewed, however, evidenced no such oscillation. My Vox V847 worked normally with or without the buffer (As I write this, MXR engineers are working to figure out why, as the circuits are identical—maybe it varies with the model wah?).
That is not to say the buffer made no difference. Whether or not I used the wah, the buffered setting was brighter, more gainy, rolled off some bass, and did not clean up as much as the unbuffered version. To be clear, both settings sounded great. I would use the buffered setting when I wanted to clear out the low end a little to cut through a mix or band, and for maintaining highs when driving a gritty amp or overdrive pedal. But I could easily see using the unbuffered setting in other situations for huge low end and greater clean up. If you consider the option of oscillation a feature not a bug, check to make sure the unit you buy does it.
In either case, if you want reliable, vintage silicon fuzz without sacrificing much pedalboard real estate, the MXR M296 Classic 108 Fuzz Mini is the way to go.
Fender The Pelt
The old Fender Blender Fuzz was very cool, but pedals are not what have assured the company’s legendary place on guitar history. So when they released a line of stompboxes a couple of years ago I was skeptical. But on the basis of The Pelt ($129), it would appear they are serious about this new endeavor.
The Pelt is an original design silicon fuzz. In addition to the more typical Level, Fuzz and Tone controls, it has a Bloom control, a Mid switch to boost or cut the midrange, and a Thick switch to add girth. The chassis is crafted from light, durable anodized aluminum, and the amp jewel LED recalled classic Fender amps. LED-backlit knobs let you easily see your control settings on a dark stage.
Rather than go for yet another clone of a classic fuzz, Fender appear to have taken what is desirable about a typical silicon version and added a number of interesting features. They really thought this through, allowing you to shut off the knob lights to conserve battery power and making swapping said batteries quicker and easier with an easy to use magnetically latched door. But, what about the sound?
With the Fuzz, Tone, and Bloom knobs nailed, the Mids on flat, and the Thick switch off, The Pelt delivers something between a silicon fuzz and a smooth distortion pedal. Rolling back the Bloom brings in some of the booming bass associated with germanium fuzz. It also lowers the volume, but there is plenty available from the Level control to make up the difference and/or drive your amp into further distortion.
Every setting of the knobs and switches yielded usable, musical types and levels of grit. I could create clangy Marshall style rhythm sounds (with Bloom full up, Mid switch on scoop) using a Supro Comet amp, dial in fusion-ready overdrive and distortion tones, or serve up some fat fuzz. The Pelt drive is always sounds compressed, no nastiness here. The name says it all: if you are looking for a versatile drive and fuzz, perfect for legato playing, this pedal provides some silky fur.
Tone is subjective. Any of these pedals could be the sonic solution you seek. The Guitar Moderne Great Gear Award goes to pedals that for one reason or another go beyond the norm through innovation, purchase value, versatility, or all of the above.