1950s – The Rise of Distorted Guitar in Blues, R&B, and Rock and Roll
Distorted guitar sounds have been around since the first electric guitar was created and cranked to maximum through an amplifier. No one accidentally ‘discovered’ it, although occasionally accidents caused amplifiers to distort, which were then intentionally recorded because people liked the sound. While initially musicians desired clean guitar amplification, thus distortion was frowned upon, in the growing rock and blues arena of the late 1940s through the 1950s distorted guitar was becoming something very intentional. This timeline focuses on the first electronic circuits created specifically to make a guitar sound distort, but there are many earlier examples of people doing this by driving amps to the maximum levels in order to make them distort. Fuzz boxes were specifically created to make it easier to achieve these sounds. Here are a few early, pre fuzz box examples of recorded guitar/amp distortion.
Recording session engineer Glen Snoddy records Marty Robbin’s hit Don’t Worry in Nashville, Tennessee USA. So the story goes (there are several versions), an accident causes a Langevin tube amp module in the mixing console to blow a transformer, making Grady Martin‘s bass guitar on the song have a fuzzy, distorted tone. The decision is made to keep this unique “fuzz” bass solo as part of the final song, supposedly recorded in late 1960, but not released as a single that year. It first appeared in January 1961 on a greatest hits album. It shot to the #1 spot in the country charts in February. This is generally accepted as the first recorded “fuzz tone” circuit, although Sanford Clark’s Go On Home also featured a fuzz box and was actually recorded earlier that year. Grady Martin continued to use this fuzz tone effect in his recordings, including an instrumental called The Fuzz in January 1961. Country musicians, mostly from the Nashville area, picked up on the fad and featured fuzz tone guitar on various recordings for the next few years. These included songs recorded by Carl Butler, Claude Gray, Darrel McCall, and Glen Garrison.
California pedal steel player, session musician, and electronics technician Orville ‘Red’ Rhodes creates a fuzz circuit for use in the recording studio, housed in a small metal box with a distortion level knob and bypass switch. No production version of the pedal was ever made, although Red made several of these Rhodes fuzz boxes for fellow musicians, including Nokie Edwards of The Ventures and Billy Strange. Some sources state the Rhodes fuzz was actually made in 1962, and that Red was inspired to make it after hearing Marty Robbin’s hit Don’t Worry. However, Billy Strange used it on a recording in 1961, and Nokie Edwards of the Ventures stated he was also using it 1961. Other reports say Rhodes actually made the first one in 1960. You can listen to it here, the fuzzy goodness starts at about 1:26:
This however was just the start. In the next post, we’ll look at the developments that took place in 1962, and the release of the first commercial fuzz pedal.