In the midst of putting together our recent deep dive into the history of the Tone Bender, we knew we had to talk to EarthQuaker Devices' Jamie Stillman. Not only is EQD one of the biggest names in the world of fuzz, but they've released a number of their own Bender-inspired pedals, including the Park Fuzz Sound.
Jamie, can you tell us how you discovered the Tone Bender sound?
The first Tone Bender type of pedal that I came across was the [Fulltone] Soul Bender. A friend of mine was using one and it would always sound so good when he turned it on - like the amp was melting down.
Do you have a recollection of hearing a Tone Bender on a record, maybe not knowing what it was at the time, but being a bit taken aback?
Definitely Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson. I always thought their guitar tones were great, but I never really looked into what they used beyond the Gibson/Marshall combo until much later.
Do you remember the first time you plugged into one? What was the sound like?
The first legit one that I plugged into was a D*A*M 1965 and my first thought was, “Holy s***, that’s it! The sound of rock guitar!”
EQD has put out a number of pedals inspired by the Tone Bender over the years. What were your design touchpoints?
The Tone Reaper, which now makes up one half of the Hoof Reaper, was inspired by the MKIII, and has more of a high-gain distortion character to my ears. The Black Ash, which was limited to 1500 units, was inspired by the MKII, which sounds a little darker and smoother, while still having that “tube amp distortion” quality.
How did the Park Fuzz Sound collaboration come around? How does it distinguish itself from some of your other offerings?
I first came across [Park’s] Mitch Colby at the New York Guitar Show - he was showing his line of Colby Amps down the hall from us. I thought they sounded great and he was a super nice guy. I learned he had worked at Marshall for a while and he really knew his amps.
A few years later, our mutual friend Anna Blumenthal reintroduced us. Mitch had recently purchased the Park name and was thinking of reissuing the Park Fuzz. He didn’t want to produce the pedal himself, so he was looking for a pedal company to partner with, and I jumped at the chance to be part of the Park history.
I was a big fan of the Park brand – I always thought they were a better-looking version of the Marshall! Guy Picciotto from Fugazi used one and that’s how I became aware of them. I was always looking for one, but I rarely saw them. When I did, they were usually way out of my price range. I’m thankful to Mitch for reissuing the brand so I can finally own one.
So, the three-knob Park Fuzz is pretty close to a Tone Bender MKIII. I developed our version based on my vintage unit, with the goal of nailing the tone with modern parts and making it easy to reproduce. The only changes I really made were to reduce the noise and give the fuzz control some more useful range.
It still uses vintage germanium transistors, but all the other parts are modern production. The transistors are key. They’re becoming harder to find but necessary to get close to the original unit. We test each one to make sure they are suitable before going into the finished unit. It’s a lot of work but definitely worth it.
What’s the X-factor you go for when making Tone Bender-inspired pedals? What do you listen for to decide when the pedal is ready?
I’m usually looking for what I would consider a perfect blend of the “bite” of a Marshall amp and the sustain of a Fuzz Face.
What do you think distinguishes the Tone Bender from other famous fuzzes, like the Big Muff or the Fuzz Face?
As far as tones go, I think the Tone Bender sits right between the Fuzz Face and Big Muff.
The Fuzz Face is my all-time favorite circuit - it does exactly what I want every time. The Tone Bender MKII is a close second, and it’s pretty much just a Fuzz Face pushed over the edge, with more bite and focus. The Big Muff is a huge sound, with scooped mids and loads of sustain. It doesn’t always work for every situation, but I think it excels when you want smooth sustaining leads or huge crushing power chords.
There are so many variations of each circuit that it’s hard to do direct comparisons or put them all up against each other. Even identical units can produce wildly different tones. That’s the fun of vintage fuzz pedals - you never know what you are getting into.
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