If you haven’t read our article on silicon and germanium clipping diodes, we recommend that you start by reading that, which you can find here.
So you’re getting into fuzz and beginning to realize that fuzz pedals are a whole world of pedals almost as in-depth as the rest of the world of all pedals combined. Every company you look into offers at least two kinds of fuzz, but you don’t know what features you want or what kind of fuzz tone is best suited to your playing or your rig. Maybe you’ve been a fan of fuzz since you started playing and are just looking for a way to explain to your significant other why your Big Muff is cool, but you need to invest in an original Arbiter Fuzz Face because “it does different things.”
With fuzz pedals, it’s really important to understand how transistors work. Forgive my gross oversimplification, but transistors are basically one of the first stages of amplification that occurs as your signal is traveling from the pickups in your guitar, through a dirt pedal, and into your amp. There are two main factors that we care about as guitarists that influence the operation of transistors; input and voltage. I’m going to avoid getting into this too much because getting into the concept of bias can get complicated quickly, but we’ll scratch the surface. Just like in a tube amplifier, more input signal causes more distortion, and more voltage (power) cleans a transistor up, giving it more headroom. This is why when you roll the volume back on your guitar, thus reducing the input signal, your pedals clean up, and why when a battery is dying in your fuzz and other dirt pedals, they can sound dirtier and more gated.
Before I get into how this works practically with silicon and germanium, here’s an excerpt from our first article to help understand why there’s a difference between the two elements:
“Germanium and silicon are both semiconducting metalloid elements, which basically means that they have to be combined with another element (called a dopant) and heated in order to allow current to flow through. The primary difference between the two elements is how much voltage each one needs to start working—germanium at about 0.3 volts and silicon at about 0.7 volts.”
Similarly to with clipping diodes, germanium transistors will have more clear high frequencies and looser control over the bottom end of your signal because of the way the lower frequencies won’t tip the transistors’ turn-on point. Germanium is also much more unstable and sensitive as an element, so it is powered more carefully, which is why germanium responds so well to playing dynamics and the volume knob on your guitar. Also remember that germanium doesn’t like having any sort of buffer in front of it, so it usually will have to go at the very front of your signal chain. Silicon on the other hand can be powered more aggressively, and that higher voltage bias is one of the factors that causes silicon fuzzes to have that famous sustain and to be more naturally aggressive.
Now that we understand some basic functional differences between germanium and silicon, let’s look at some great options on the market right now.
Germanium Transistor Fuzz Pedals
With this pedal, Supro set out to make the “ultimate vintage fuzz pedal,” and I think they did a pretty good job of accomplishing their task. They used a N.O.S. germanium transistor in the first gain stage of the circuit and combined that with the tone stack from their famous amps to make magical vintage fuzz goodness combined with modern specs.
A few years back, the eccentric builders over Earthquaker Devices got in contact with Park and worked closely with them to redesign the fuzz circuit from the rare Park Fuzz Sound pedal. Staying true to form, Earthquaker Devices created a stellar modern reissue of this germanium fuzz legend in their own Earthquaker Devices Park Fuzz Sound.
Silicon Transistor Fuzz Pedals
We love the Dr. Scientist Frazz Dazzler here at Lunar. It’s a killer silicon fuzz that isn’t trying to be something else, like many other overdrive and fuzz pedals. Its full 3-band eq makes it much more usable in mixes than many famous silicon fuzz pedals.
A modern take on a classic from vintage fuzz legends Roger Mayer and Jimi Hendrix, the Suhr Rufus Re|Loaded is a great example of classic germanium tone re-engineered with silicon transistors for functional stability. A great example of how the components serve functional purposes and shouldn’t always have to define the way a pedal sounds, especially in the hands of talented engineers and players.
The best way to figure out what fuzz pedals work best for you and your rig is truly to just plug in and try them out, so do it. Research your favorite players and what they use, and have lots of conversations about it all, but try things for yourself too. You might be surprised at what you find.