‘He one mojo filter’ (The Beatles, ‘Come Together’)
From 1973 to 1975, several school friends and I formed a loose confederacy of music makers desperate to make the most of our respective incompetence. This attitude that has persisted throughout my life. Just because you don’t have a natural aptitude for something doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it. Indeed, with the requisite application, time, effort, understanding, commitment, and enthusiasm, it’s possible for anyone to acquire a level of artistry far beyond mere proficiency.
I was neither a musician (a status and an opinion that I still maintain) nor a guitar player. My instrument was the Stylophone. (The memory still makes me wince.) The device is a rudimentary monophonic synthesiser, played with a stylus. As such, the instrumentalist either draws or writes on the keyboard in order to produce sound. In the late 1960s, a now disgraced Antipodean fronted the manufacturer’s advertising campaign. I suspect he was chosen, in part, for his association with exotic or unusual instruments, such as the indigenous northern Australia didgeridoo.
The original Stylophone was based around a solid state circuit that emitted a crude and gritty square wave, which could be cross-modulated with a sine wave Low Frequency Oscillator to produce vibrato. Thus, it possessed a very limited scope and a mildly unpleasant sound to boot. I was interested in extending the device’s sonic range by feeding the output through a WEM Dominator guitar amplifier. (I wish I hadn’t sold it. What was I thinking?) This enlarged and enriched the electronic tonalities. The amplifier’s spring reverb tank also situated the sound in a larger and more resonant virtual space, thus imparting to the Stylophone a fullness of presence.
WEM catalogue (c. 1974)
However, the device’s underlying and underwhelming buzzyness remained unaltered. This could be modified only by the introduction of a filter between the Stylophone and the amplifier. Once again, I looked to the electric guitarist’s repertoire of gadgets for a solution.
In 1973, at 14 years of age, I acquired a fuzz-wha pedal. It opened a window that I’ve never been able to close. I’ve no recollection of where it was purchased. Mrs Brown’s music shop, on Somerset Street, Abertillery (my home town), sold only violin strings, manuscripts, Dolmetsch descant recorders (for the local schools), and kazoos; that kind of thing. I suspect that my Mam sent for the pedal through the Grattan mail-order catalogue, for which she was a locale agent.
The pedal was a Jen Double Sound unit, in all likelihood. These were manufactured in the USA, and in Europe under the brand names of Arbiter (who issued the first Fuzz Face in 1966) and FBT, an Italian company. In many respects (not least its sound) the pedal resembled the later Cry Baby Fuzz-Wah made by Jim Dunlop, who entered the effects business in the mid 1980s.
The ‘wah’ function of the pedal is basically a tone and bandpass filter, with a resonant peak set at the low-pass roll-off frequency of the incoming signal. This is swept by the adjustment of a foot treadle. The ‘fuzz’ circuit adds an odd order of multiple harmonics (higher frequencies) to the signal, while clipping (or distorting) the waveform of the instrument. In effect, the sine wave produced by, say, an electric guitar is converted into a square wave. So, when the square wave of the Stylophone passed through the square wave filter of the pedal, the combined effect sounded like a wire brush rubbing-up hard against a rusty cheese-grater. From a musical standpoint, the fuzz-wah pedal converted the Stylophone’s otherwise vexatious tone into something resembling a fiercely overdriven Fender Telecaster guitar.
Not content with that, I opened up the pedal and began circuit bending. This is a technique whereby an electronic device is ‘rewired’ by connecting circuits that ordinarily are isolated, thereby short-circuiting the path along which the electrical current normally passes, to produce a range of unintended sound-forms. In this case, the pedal (rechristened the ‘Harveytron’ by one of my bandmates) yielded higher pitched, fizzy fuzzes, throaty dry rasps, and a buzzing and compressed sustain of great duration.
My intervention was in response to a sound (heard only by my ‘third ear’) that was summoned by the name of a pedal referred to in the credits to Robert Fripp’s and Brian Eno’s (No Pussyfooting) (1973). (This was the album that first endeared me to the electric guitar, and to the Gibson Les Paul Custom ‘Black Beauty’ especially.) On the recording, Fripp’s list of instruments and devices included a ‘Frizzbox’. I suspect that this was either a bespoke effector or a processing filter of Eno’s invention. The timbre that I heard in my head lay somewhere between a whispered hiss – subtle and sensuous – and frying bacon. I wanted that to realise this sound through my electrical redirection of the fuzz-wah pedal. Subsequently, an electric guitar was played through it.
Circuit bending is not without hazard: frequently components on the circuit board burn out, rendering the adapted device useless. A year later, my altered fuzz-wah was consigned to the dustbin. On returning to sound and music in 2009, the first three devices that I bought were a Stylophone (now digital and sounding none the better for it), a Carl Martin 2Wah pedal, and a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory stompbox (rightly named, since there’s no treadle attachment). The latter is a knob-laden and an eminently tweakable piece of hardware that can marshall some of the same aberrant noises that I’d coaxed mercilessly out of my first pedal … and yet survive unscathed.
The principles of intervention, redirection, adaptation, and extension, which underlaid my reckless deviations and prodding as a boy, have governed my approach to creative practice and scholarship ever since. In one sense, they betray my consummate inability to accept what is given and leave well alone, and to learn other than by interfering (sometimes with dire consequences) and interacting with materials, methods, and ideas, experimentally.