Fuzz and Overdrive Hybrids

The no-man’s-land that lies between the well-established sovereignties of overdrive and fuzz can be a wild and wonderful place. It’s a place where chords can be tight and defined, while solos can sing and sustain like the world’s loudest violin. Rhythms that are chunky and just a little gritty when picked with restraint become squishy and saturated when walloped with a vengeful picking hand. There are a handful of players whose signature tones exemplify this sort of sound, including Neil Young and Ziggy Stardust-era Mick Ronson, but the guitarist that always comes to mind first when I think of great tones that straddle the line between fuzz and drive is The Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison. The song “Puss,” from the band’s 1992 album Liar, is a perfect, and fairly well known, example from the band’s catalog. Denison’s tone is tight and chunky for the song’s palm-muted verse rhythms, but as he lets loose for the choruses his tone morphs into a hairy, saturated snarl. Of course, Mr. Denison didn’t use any pedals to get his distinctive signature tone, just a Travis Bean aluminum neck guitar, a 100-watt Hiwatt DR103 head, and a set of magical, tone-filled hands. However, for players who might like to add this sort of sound to their arsenal without building an entire rig around it, there are a few pedals out there that do the job nicely. Some have been purposefully designed to blend the best qualities of amp-like overdrive and gnarly fuzz, while others come by these tones in a less contrived fashion. Here are a few of my favorite pedals for fuzzy overdrive tones:

HBE Germania

This is the pedal I personally use for its dynamic blend of fuzz and drive tones. The Germania is actually a germanium-based, Rangemaster-style treble booster by design, but it also features a toggle switch for a “hi-fi” mode that produces a full range boost with 20dB of output. This full range mode is the key to unlocking the Germania’s fuzzy secrets. Depending on the setup, it can achieve tones reminiscent of Mick Ronson’s work with David Bowie, or Duane Denison’s chunk and snarl. For wrangling these kinds of sounds from the Germania, a humbucker-equipped axe will work best.

Fairfield Circuitry Barbershop Overdrive

This unique, dynamic pedal can make a surprising range of sounds, from transparent boost and drive tones to a vicious, saturated bark. It is often described as “tweedy”, because when its Sag control is dialed back it beautifully mimics loose, Neil Young-style, vintage Fender tweed tones. With the gain up and the Sag knob somewhere in the 10–2 o’clock range, the Barbershop is a superb overdrive-fuzz hybrid, staying thick and defined with gentle picking, and boiling over with fuzzy, tweedy rage when hammered hard.

Way Huge Red Llama

The current Red Llama is a reissue of Way Huge’s first pedal, a simple, two-knob dirt box that was beloved for its massive output and versatile, tweed-voiced filth. The Dunlop-era Way Huge reissue is identical, with warm, fuzz-tinged drive tones in the lower gain ranges, getting more cutting and aggressive as the gain rolls past 1 o’clock. This one is great for Rust Never Sleeps- inspired fuzzy drive tones, or for sharp, Denison-esque rhythm playing. Watch out for the high-end on this beast; it’ll take your head clean off.

Keeley Fuzz Head

Keeley’s Fuzz Head has been around a while, and was designed quite purposefully to marry the best features of fuzz and overdrive together in one pedal. The soul of this pedal is its NPN germanium transistor, but it also blends silicon transistors and diodes into the mix for increased output and compression, offering a wealth of different fuzz and overdrive tones in one compact, simple box. In “Ge” mode, at lower gain settings, the Fuzz Head is quite transparent and has plenty of output for boosting a tube amp, but when you crank it up and kick in the “Si” mode, it becomes much more modern and aggressive sounding. In either mode, this pedal is great for players that like to control their tone and gain levels with picking dynamics and the guitar’s volume knob.

EWS Fuzzy Drive

As one might guess by the name, the EWS Fuzzy Drive was designed to blur the lines between snarling fuzz and organic-sounding overdrive tones. This it does, and quite well. The Fuzzy Drive is probably more drive than it is fuzz, and in the lower gain ranges it sounds positively amp-like. Turn it up and things get ugly fast, with plenty of hard rock chunk and thick, squishy sustain on tap. Though its tone knob is capable of dialing in some high-end cut, the Fuzzy Drive still never gets all the way into vintage bee-buzz territory. Heading the opposite direction, however, it can get damn near sine wave smooth, and its responsive qualities are perfect for dynamic pickers and compulsive guitar knob twiddlers.

Skreddy Hybrid Fuzz Driver

The Lunar Module and Screw Driver are two of Skreddy’s most popular pedals, and the Hybrid Fuzz Driver beautifully combines these two into one extremely dynamic box that encompasses the best elements of both, producing all manner of overdrive and fuzz tones. This pedal, like Keeley’s Fuzz Head, is built with a combination of germanium and silicon transistors, letting the player access old-timey warmth and modern attack in equal measure. Its Tightness and Mid Boost controls are essential in getting the most out of the Hybrid Fuzz Driver. Crank up the Tightness and Mids knobs for crunchy drive tones, or roll them both back for looser, hairier, vintage fuzz. This pedal works well with any pickup, but it’s especially marvelous with humbuckers.

ProCo RAT

The RAT is probably the first dirt pedal to exist successfully in that gray area betwixt fuzz and overdrive. It’s more midrange-y and amp-like than any old-school fuzz, but much too hairy and aggressive to fit neatly into the overdrive category with the Tube Screamer and its sonic brethren. Some people even call it a distortion pedal, but it’s not really that either. It’s an enigmatic design that’s great at a lot of things. A quick look at a list of RAT users reveals players from every genre, from punk, noise, and doom metal, to jazz, Americana, and ‘80s buttrock. The quality of its gain can be warm and friendly in the lower ranges (especially in tandem with its passive tone filter), or as furry and chaotic as a dog fight when the gain knob veers clockwise.

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