The only downside is, how do you choose a fuzz pedal? I mean, there are hundreds of models from dozens of manufacturers, all of which come with their own pros and cons.
But thankfully for you, we’ve gathered all of the information that you need to make an informed decision as to which fuzz pedal is going to suit your needs the best. If you're short on time or simply want to cut to the chase, we put together the following chart summarizing our findings:
- Bottom Line:The one & only legendary EHX Big Muff Pi offers near-perfect fuzz tones no matter your playing style or guitar/amp combo. That, and it's used by probably more pro guitarists than any other pedal out there. For such a choice pedal, it's offered at an "Are you kidding me!?" low price. No question, this wins our award for Best of the Best
- Bottom Line:The second-most recommended fuzz next to the Big Muff, and quite capable of replicating its tone. But make no mistake, this is not a mere clone - the very musical Shift knob can drastically affect the tone by affecting the mids. Boutique, hand-made in the USA, true bypass, and recommended by Dan Auerbach. What more could you need?
- Bottom Line:A fuzz unlike any other, capable of producing normal fuzz tones, all the way to varying levels of madness & noise (read the rest of our review for samples). The controls are less intuitive than the other fuzz pedals on our list, but it'll quickly become your favorite. Beloved by amateur guitarists all the way to the pros.
- Bottom Line:Widely regarded as a Big Muff clone - and a pretty darn good one - the budget-priced Fuzz Star can be had for about half the price. We wish the volume knob had a bit of a smoother transition, and the design of the pedal is not very inspiring. That said, the fit, finish, and durability is impressive. Winner of our Best Bang for the Buck
- Bottom Line:Made famous by Hendrix and capable of delivering deep, creamy fuzz tones, the JDF2 Fuzz Face is one of the most recommended fuzz pedals. Minor annoyances prevent it from being superb (bulky & only battery power). Still, the tone is so good and the fuzz cleans up so well that you'll never want to switch this one off in your signal chain.
- What Does A Fuzz Pedal Do?
- What Should I Look For In A Fuzz Pedal?
- The Top 5 Fuzz Pedals
What Does A Fuzz Pedal Do?
So there are three main breeds of distortion: overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. Of course there are the pedals that combine elements of each, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
Of these three, fuzz is probably the most unique. Distortion and overdrive share a lot of common ground with one another, but fuzz is actually a completely unique type of signal. If overdrive and distortion are analogous to the string section in an orchestra, fuzz is like the wild saxophone in a swinging jazz band.
In more technical terms distortion and overdrive “clips” a circuit, removing certain frequencies and emphasizing others. A fuzz will alter your guitar’s signal into an almost “square” wave, adding more complex overtones but at a more consistent and dramatic rate.
What Should I Look For In A Fuzz Pedal?
Fuzz is kind of a hard effect to really nail. I mean, it’s so easy to grab the pedal out of the box and turn it straight up to the “idiot” setting. The “idiot” setting is where you dime every control on the pedal, turning your signal from an expression of your instrument to something more reminiscent of a tin can full of angry bees.
Another problem is that fuzz is a really intense effect. Overdrive and distortion have a lot of room for error, but with how intense the distortion of the average fuzz pedal is it’s incredibly easy to screw up. Too much bass and no one can hear you; too much treble and you’ll end up sounding like an overheating chain-saw.
So the most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to weigh your options carefully. Research models before you buy, and do your best to find as many high-quality demos as possible.
The Top 5 Fuzz Pedals
When selecting the pedals for the section below, I combed through every major guitar forum as well as my favorite guitar publications in order to find something that should work for everyone reading this.
And just like every article in this series, it’s important to clarify what best means in this context. That $500 vintage boutique fuzz that you’ve got that you think can knock any fuzz out of the water, well that might be the best option for you. However, it doesn’t matter how good a $500 pedal is to someone who can only scrape together $60.
Just try to remember, what’s best for you may not be best for your neighbor. So without much further ado, in no particular order, here are the best fuzz pedals.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
There are thousands of guitar pedals out there, but very few reach legendary status like the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. The Big Muff Pi is synonymous with fuzz pedal, and it’s no surprise it’s by far the most recommended pedal on nearly every single "What fuzz pedal should I get?" forum thread. By owning a Big Muff Pi, you almost feel as if you join a club of legendary musicians that have sculpted their sound around it.
In this review, we’re talking about the widely available USA-made version (New York City, to be exact), but it’s good to understand that this pedal has undergone many incarnations and reissues since its inception in 1969. To the casual listener the differences in tone between models might seem minor and inconsequential, but communities of enthusiasts exist that beg to differ. We’ll cover a few of the other available models and how they differ from the classic Big Muff later in this review.
The EHX Big Muff Pi has three knobs - Volume, Tone, and Sustain - and a stomp-switch. In terms of laying out your pedals, note that its input and output are found at the top, not on the sides like most pedals. If you’re building a pedalboard, you might want to grab these extremely popular instrument cables with right angle plugs (we bought several of these 3-packs and they work perfectly - there’s a reason they have over 400 positive reviews). Also know that it’s a rather large pedal, and takes up a lot of real estate on the pedal board, which might be a deal-breaker for some of you. Another pitfall is that it uses a 1/8-inch power jack, as opposed to the Boss-style 9v power supply most other pedals use (this is a minor annoyance). The pedal’s build quality is rock-solid, and it’s true-bypass, meaning it won’t affect the guitar's natural tone when pedal is switched off.
So what do the knobs actually do? The Volume knob works great and adds some nice versatility to the pedal. You can roll it back to tame the Big Muff’s huge fuzz sound, or use it to boost your sound above the level of your amp when you turn on this pedal. The Tone knob drastically changes the brightness of the fuzz sound. Setting it all the way down darkens the tone and adds bass, almost giving it a low-fi growl quality to it (while maintaining great sustain). When playing chords, we particularly like using the tone knob because it allows for more harmonics to be introduced which make chords still sound relatively clear and defined (or at least as defined as possible given the Big Muff’s purpose). One complaint guitarists have is that their sound gets lost in the mix when playing with other musicians, and the Tone control really helps in that case. And last but not least the Sustain knob lets you adjust the amount of sustain (what a shocker!) and distortion. Actually, it’s worth mentioning that the EHX Big Muff Pie gives you LOADS of sustain, meaning your notes will ring on and on and on for very David Gilmour-esque vibes. This is something reviewers of the pedal love and mention again and again, and we just can’t imagine needing more sustain than what this pedal provides. So much so, that the phrase "sounds like a violin" came up several times!
In terms of describing how it sounds, a lot depends on your guitar and amp setup, and of course where you set the knobs. No matter how you have them set, it’s unmistakingly the legendary Big Muff sound. Take a listen to The Smashing Pumpkins tune Rocket - Big Muff all the way. In fact, for Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins fans, this pedal is absolutely key to get that tone.
If you roll the Sustain all the way back, keep the Tone around 1 or 2 o’clock, and give a generous amount of volume, the Big Muff will sound rather "clean." Keep these same settings and crank the Volume knob all the way up for a very pleasant and clear fuzz tone. The pickups in your guitar will noticeably change the results you get out of your Big Muff. Single coils, as opposed to humbuckers, will definitely bring out more clarity in the pedal. We slightly prefer the tone we get with a Strat or Tele through the Big Muff as opposed to a Les Paul. But if huge, fat fuzz is your thing, you certainly won’t be disappointed pairing humbuckers with it. We like this tip from a great review we read:
If you roll the gain knob up and then roll back the volume on your guitar it will give you a much tighter clear tone that still has singing sustain.
For a few dollars less than the EHX Big Muff Pi, you could pick up the Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff fuzz pedal. It’s the same Big Muff sound, just in a smaller enclosure. In truth, whether they sound exactly the same is a hotly-debated topic. The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi with Tone Wicker is another variant, with a reviewer saying it "cuts through a bit better than the NYC Muff. Smaller enclosure as well." If you want more control and versatility with your Big Muff sound, there’s the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Big Muff, which will cost you more.
Bottom Line: There are numerous reasons to make the EHX Big Muff Pi yours:
- Firstly, it has a characteristically huge sound, and most importantly for lead playing it has loads of sustain. Of course if you play rhythm, you’ll love the chunky, angry chords it’ll help you produce.
- Secondly, it’s used more by famous pro guitarists than probably any other pedal, and is absolutely key to replicating the sound of Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins, Jack White, David Gilmour, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Modest Mouse, and countless others.
- Third, it’s simply a great first fuzz pedal to start out with. As your guitar playing improves or you want to explore more genres, having a Big Muff Pi in your arsenal alongside another fuzz or distortion is never a bad thing!
- And lastly, it’s a fantastic value. In this world of boutique and specialty pedals costing $200, $300, and even more, it’s absolutely awesome that you can still pick up the legendary EHX Big Muff Pi for WELL under $100.
Definitely, this one is the Best of the Best.
EarthQuaker Devices Hoof
After the Big Muff, the next-most recommended fuzz pedal in our research is the EarthQuaker Devices Hoof. What’s awesome about the Hoof Reaper is can be a Big Muff, but it's also its own beast. Its circuitry is based on the early Russian Big Muffs, which tend to not be as gritty and high gain as their USA-made counterparts.
Operation of the Hoof is straightforward. It’s a very solidly-built stomp-switch style pedal, with four knobs - Tone, Shift, Level, and Fuzz. This boutique pedal is made by hand in Akron, Ohio, is true bypass, and is powered by a Boss-style adapter - all great things.
The Tone, Level, and Fuzz knobs are the same as what you’d find on a Big Muff, and they act accordingly. The Shift knob is the game-changer here, and makes things very interesting. The Shift control allows you to scoop or boost the midrange (all the way left for boosted mids, all the way right for scooped mids). It’s an extremely musical knob and drastically affects the character of the Hoof. We were able to test a Big Muff and EarthQuaker Hoof side by side, and for comparison if you set the Shift knob at about noon, you’ll more or less get in the same tonal range as the green Sovtek Big Muff. Rolling back the Fuzz control and increasing the Shift gives you a smoother tone for soaring, sustained David Gilmour-like leads. One thing owners of this pedal absolutely love is how well it responds to your guitar’s volume knob; Roll back the volume on your guitar to clean up the fuzz sound and maintain clarity.
Bottom Line: This is truly one of the best Big Muff clones out there, with the added tonal versatility of the Shift knob. You should opt for the EarthQuaker Devices Hoof if the ability to dial the midrange up and down is important to you. This makes a world of difference, and could be the deciding factor between your guitar sound getting lost in a mix, or really standing out and cutting through. Some reviewers also feel the Hoof has less low-end than the EHX Big Muff, resulting in a clearer, less muddy sound. Sure, it’s a good bit pricier than a Big Muff, but the added control plus the fact that it’s a handmade boutique pedal somewhat justifies the higher price tag. The Hoof can do Gilmour, My Bloody Valentine, The Smashing Pumpkins, and if all that doesn’t convince you, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys uses one of these bad boys on his pedalboard.
ZVex Fuzz Factory
Ah, the ZVex Fuzz Factory. It’s been described as “evil,” “crazy,” “brilliant,” “awful,” and “ridiculous” - sometimes all in the same sentence. This is a pedal that’s not content to merely be a straightforward fuzz. The Fuzz Factory is a sometimes unpredictable, always fun, great-sounding beast of a guitar fuzz pedal.
It came very highly recommended in our research, just a couple votes shy of the EarthQuaker Hoof. We found that guitarists that decide to buy the ZVex Fuzz Factory pretty much never regret it, despite its shortcomings in the straightforwardness department. What shortcomings, you ask? This is not a plug-and-play, set-it-and-forget-it type pedal. If you want that, you’d be better served looking elsewhere (the other fuzz pedals we recommend in this guide are the ones we suggest, and are far more straight-up fuzz pedals).
Because of its wild nature, you might think this pedal is not suited to be someone’s first fuzz pedal... but that’s not true at all! It’s because the Fuzz Factory can go from a tame, controlled fuzz to an outrageous noise that makes it a great go-to for a first fuzz. You just need to put in some time to understand the controls, and how the pedal interacts with the rest of your rig. We love this quote for a redditor that owns this pedal:
...it's not like you're constantly battling with some misbehaving mythical beast mystery pedal....once dialed in it's fine...and after 5 mins playing with the knobs (and reading what they do on Zvex's website) you get well accustomed to how the fuzz reacts to each parameter
Speaking of the knobs, let’s get acquainted with them. You’ve got knobs for Volume, Gate, Comp, Drive, and Stab. Volume works as you would expect. Gate and Comp make for interesting results. Gate is a standard noise gate, meaning as you turn this knob to the right it eliminate squeals, hiss, and buzz, gating them out just as they dip below your gate setting. The Comp knob stands for Compress, and is a standard compressor (meaning it squashes the sound back down once it exceeds a certain threshold). A review we enjoyed explains what happens:
...being able to basically pinch your sound between the gate and the compressor, where you move the gate high enough and compressor low enough that the two fight for control, emulating a dying pedal or a speaker cutting out…
The Drive knob increases level of distortion, and the Stab is, well... interesting... leading to some weird, oscillating, glitchy sounds. Buyer beware! ;) We liked the ZVex Fuzz Factory pedal so much, we actually bought one right after we demoed it! We used mostly single coil guitars to test it out, and can attest to the fact that it sounds fantastic.
We suppose the downside is that some sounds you’ll produce from this unit are unusable for most genres aside from perhaps noise-rock. It can sound downright bizarre, or even broken. To get an idea of how strange it can get, listen to the following clip from ZVex:
Bottom Line: The Fuzz Factory is not for the faint of heart. ZVex even says so in the manual! Wise words from an owner of the pedal:
Fuzz factory is a very versatile and ridiculous fuzz. Capable of raw cranked fuzz face madness to squelchy, gated saxophone honks. Tuned correctly, you can summon radio signals and oscillations with just your volume and tone knobs on the guitar
Matthew Bellamy of Muse uses one (sometimes integrated inside his guitars). You can hear the effect at the start of the Muse song Plug In Baby. John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer are also notable users of the Fuzz Factory, as is Nels Cline, Chris Allen of Neon Trees, and Jack Antonoff (and many, many more). Whether it’s your first fuzz or your fifth, get ready for an adventure. Just don’t lose your patience with it! It’s pricey, but truly one of a kind. If you can catch it in stock on Amazon, we’ve occasionally seen it at a lower price than other music stores.
Biyang FZ-10 Fuzz Star
If you're on the market for a fuzz pedal, but simply don’t have the cash to shell out for an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, you might want to take a very close look at the Biyang FZ-10 Fuzz Star pedal. While the Fuzz Star didn’t get the outright most number of recommendations to land in our top 5 fuzz pedals, it got the most recommendations in forum threads asking about the best fuzz pedal on a budget, the best fuzz pedals under $100, the best fuzz pedal for around $40, and so forth.
The Chinese-made Biyang Fuzz Star is widely regarded as a Big Muff clone, and does the job quite admirably for about half the price. If you’ve seen a Big Muff, or have been reading our reviews thus far, the knob layout on the Fuzz Star won’t surprise you. You’ve got Level, Tone, and Fuzz controls. There is also a small toggle switch for Normal/Bright/Warm modes. As you might imagine, most of the tone shaping comes with the Tone and Fuzz knobs, and they respond to your tweaks remarkably well - very Big Muff-like indeed. A few reviewers mention the Level (a.k.a. volume) knob lacks a smooth transition, and that it “seems like it goes from 10% - 60% too quickly.” One reviewer remarked that the volume knob “has to be approaching 9 o'clock before you get any volume, and then it's really loud, really quickly.” In both our experience and that of other owners of this pedal, the toggle switch provides a very subtle and understated effect between the three modes. You can brighten up or fatten/darken your fuzz tone, but the difference is not very perceptible. This is more of a bonus feature of this pedal, and doesn’t really make it or break it.
For as inexpensive as the Biyang FZ-10 Fuzz Star is, its fit, finish, and features are impressive. It’s a true bypass pedal, and the metal enclosure feels very sturdy. The design of the pedal seems like a bit of an afterthought, although this is personal preference more than anything. What truly counts is on the inside, and the Fuzz Star delivers the goods.
Bottom Line: The untrained ear would have a very hard time perceiving the difference between the Biyang Fuzz Star and Big Muff Pi. This user sums it up nicely:
If you go muff though, the Biyang Fuzz Star is a great, cheap one. If I painted it to look boutique, I'm confident it'd have a great rep among snobs at three times the $40 price point it is.
If you want a Big Muff-style, well-built, true bypass pedal for half the price of the Big Muff, then your search is over. Sure, being the budget option, you don't get the legendary status of the black silver and red box by EHX. At the end of the day it really comes down to your style and budget. If nothing but the classics will do, save up your money for a Big Muff. Otherwise, pick up a Fuzz Star, let your friends hear it and challenge them to pick out the differences. Chances are they won't be able to! Without a doubt the Biyang FZ-10 Fuzz Star is the Best Bang for your Buck.
Dunlop JDF2 Fuzz Face
Introduced to the world and made famous by Jimi Hendrix, his Stratocaster, and a Marshall amp, the Fuzz Face has a solid place in the guitar pedal hall of fame. The Fuzz Face has gone through dozens of incarnations, and in 1991 Dunlop secured the rights to manufacture the Fuzz Face in its original style. The Dunlop JDF2 Fuzz Face grabs a coveted spot in our top 5 fuzz pedals list after being recommended over and over in forums and other guitarist communities.
This re-release of the Fuzz Face is built to the specs of the original Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, and features Germanium transistors. The transistors largely define the tonal character of the Fuzz Face, with the other material used being silicon. Germanium Fuzz Faces sound warmer and less harsh, while silicon Fuzz Faces have a harder edge. The Dunlop JDF2 Fuzz Face definitely exhibits a warm, full, deep, creamy fuzz - truly a one of a kind tone. One issue with germanium transistors was their sensitivity to heat, which used to degrade their sound. Technological advances have allowed Dunlop to keep the bias of the germanium transistors stable, even in increasing temperatures.
The classic enclosure of this pedal is big, round, and heavy. There is no place to plug in a power adapter, so you’ll have to rely on a 9-volt battery. This is admittedly annoying, since you'll have to unscrew the unit to replace the battery. Just two knobs appear on the face - Volume, and Fuzz. The knobs are made of rubber, which is very nice for grip (a nice feature if you tweak them with your feet). There is no Tone knob like on a Big Muff or an EarthQuaker Hoof, but that’s ok. The Fuzz knob is very responsive, providing more high-end frequencies as it’s turned up and a darker, more bass-heavy tone when dialed back. One of the tell-tale characteristics of the Fuzz Face is how beautifully it cleans up when you lower your guitar volume, and we found that to be very true with the Dunlop JDF2. It really makes you never want to turn this pedal off. Be warned, when turned up to the max, the fuzz tone of the Fuzz Face is full-on, which tends to make everything sound a bit muddy and like sludge. Still, this tone is really unique and hard to replicate, hence why this pedal has become so famous.
Bottom Line: The Fuzz Face is a legend, and Dunlop has done an outstanding job sticking to the specs of the original. The germanium transistors make for a very full and creamy fuzz tone. It's not extremely versatile, but for the full-on 60’s Jimi Hendrix tone, Eric Johnson vibe, or Jimmy Page, you can’t do any better than this.
So how do you feel about fuzz? If you have any experiences, opinions, or personal anecdotes that you’d like to share, feel free to tell us all about it in the comments section below.