Ask your friends to give you an example of this crazy menacing sound and they're likely to name Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. Or maybe they'll refer you to Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, or even Davie Allan & The Arrows, who recorded tons of fuzzy guitar instrumentals for biker movie soundtracks. Given the rock and roll reputation of the fuzztone sound, those are all pretty understandable responses.
I'm here today, though, to share with you some fine examples of country music fuzz. While that might sound counter-intuitive it actually makes perfect sense given the fact that the fuzztone sound was created by the legendary Nashville session picker Grady Martin. Martin's immense talent was used to great effect on thousands of recordings, probably none of which were more influential than the rock and roll sides he cut with Johnny Burnette Trio in Nashville in 1956. On songs like Honey Hush and Train Kept A Rollin' (MP3), record buyers heard Martin cut loose with astonishing levels of distortion that hinted at the fuzztone sound he accidentally created a few short years later.
It happened in the summer of 1960, when Grady was hired to work on a Marty Robbins recording session in Nashville. While recording the tune Don't Worry, a malfunctioning channel on the mixing board caused Martin's six string bass to be recorded with an insane amount of distortion, a sound that would come to be called fuzztone. Despite the jarring sound, the record was released as it was originally recorded, fuzztone and all, which turned out to be a successful gamble. The record bolted to the #1 position on the Billboard country charts and #3 on the pop charts. With results like that, it's really no surprise that other country artists soon started experimenting with fuzztone sounds on their own records.
Glen Snoddy, the session engineer, saved the malfunctioning channel on the mixing board and brought it out upon request. Grady used the effect on several other records including one of his own, The Fuzz by Grady Martin & The Slew Foot Five. Soon enough, Snoddy saw the commercial potential for a device that would produce the fuzztone effect on command and sold the idea to the Gibson Guitar Corporation, who marketed the Maestro Fuzz Tone in 1962, the first commercially available fuzz-type unit.
Oddly enough, the Maestro Fuzz Tone was originally pitched as a device that would allow a guitar to replicate the sounds of brass or woodwind instruments like the saxophone, tuba or violin. For an example of using the fuzztone effect to ape the sound of a saxophone, check out Phil Baugh's One Man Band, below. Despite Gibson's marketing strategy, thrill-hungry teens had other plans for the fuzztone sound and eventually it was a garage band staple. Throughout the 1960's, the effect was used on a surprisingly large number of country records, most of which came from Nashville, although some trickled out of Bakersfield as well. Because most people don't associate the fuzztone sound with country music, these are precisely the fuzz records that I find most intriguing.
No doubt I've overlooked many fine country fuzztone records in the rundown below but what the hell. It's a pretty good starter kit, I think.
Marty Robbins - Don't Worry (1960) Columbia. Here it is, the first recording that can be described as having fuzztone on it.
Claude Gray - Stone Heart (1962) Mercury
Darrell McCall - Got My Baby On My Mind (1963) Philips. McCall was the front man for Faron Young's band and also served time as one of Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys. Here he cuts loose with one of the fuzziest country records ever. The tune was written by Harlan Howard. Image
Glen Garrison - City Of Sin (1964) Kapp
Ferlin Husky - I'll Sail My Ship Alone (1966) Capitol
Willis Brothers - Ruby Ann (1966) Starday. The Willis Brothers dip their boots into the fuzztone pool with this track, originally recorded by Marty Robbins appropriately enough.
Willis Brothers - Soft Shoulders, Dangerous Curves (1966) Starday. The first few seconds of this record sound exactly like a scorching garage punk combo at work. Then the Willis Brothers start singing and it gets even better. Image
Skeeter Davis - If I Had Wheels (1966) RCA. There's no other way to put it...this is a very annoying song. It sounds like something Roger Miller passed on during the abrasive novelty stage of his career.
Kay Adams - Big Mac (1966) Tower
Phil Baugh - One Man Band (1966) Longhorn. Cool song in which Baugh makes his guitar sound like the banjo, steel guitar, stand-up bass and sax. The regrettably brief fuzztone comes when he imitates the sax.
Charlie Louvin - Cash On The Barrelhead (1967) Capitol. This one comes from an LP Charlie released 2 years after his brother Ira's death. It's comprised solely of songs they recorded during their long career as a brother act. Image
Jean Shepard - My Mama Didn't Raise No Fools (1967) Capitol.
Johnny Darrell - Mental Revenge (1967) United Artists. Nice version of a song written by Mel Tillis, who actually hit the charts with his own version in 1976. From Darrell's second LP, which also features a fine version of Porter Wagoner's Cold Hard Facts Of Life. Image
Chesley Carroll - Hippie From Mississippi (1968) Minaret. Very little fuzz in this one until the end when the abused hippie packs his bags and heads for San Francisco. Good clean hippie-bashing fun.
Waylon Jennings - Six Strings Away (1968) RCA
Wayne, Pat & Keith - I'm Tired Of You Satan (196?) Country Happy-Tones. It's records like this that make me proud to call Atlanta home. Stay with it until the end to enjoy the sound of the reverb tank getting a good swift kick. Image
David Lamar - Service Station Man (196?) Marlin. Yep, a tune about the challenges of working at a service station.
Hank Locklin - Hot Pepper Doll (1968) RCA. This goofball number features Hank bragging about his bride to be and her culinary talents. Food/sex metaphors fly as he describes her hot cooking.
Buck Owens - Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass? (1969) Capitol. Many of Buck's fans were hardcore traditionalists, but he wasn't necessarily averse to throwing them a curve ball every once in a while.
The Buckaroos - Anywhere USA (1969) Capitol. Another one out of Bakersfield. Lead vocals here are handled by Don Rich, Buck Owens' lead guitar player and right hand man.
Webb Pierce - The Good Lord Giveth And Uncle Sam Taketh Away (1975) Plantation. Right off-hand, I can't think of any other country fuzz tax protest numbers cut by Country Music Hall of Fame members.
Merle Haggard - The Runnin' Kind (1977) Capitol. Merle's guitarist Roy Nichols is heard here playing fuzzy notes through the tiny Radio Shack amplifier he used for practice in the band's tour bus.
Charlie Walker - T For Texas (1978) Plantation. This is a pretty cool update of an old favorite, but the synthesizer keyboards are a little out of place.
Grady Martin - The Fuzz (1961) Decca. This audio tour concludes with a 1961 single by the creator of the fuzztone guitar sound. This one's not really country, but it's a cool follow up to Don't Worry from the man who got the ball rolling.
Since I'm somewhat of a musical ignoramus, I'd like to thank guitar players Deke Dickerson and Chad Proctor for lending me their expertise as I wrote this article.