The 29 Weirdest, Wackiest, and Coolest Effects of All Time
A refresher in Greek mythology: When Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the heavens, Zeus, father of the gods, was enraged. He chained Prometheus to a rock for all eternity. Adding to the punishment, Zeus created the first woman on Earth – Pandora – whom he endowed with great beauty, plus musical ability, thanks to the god Apollo. Zeus then married Pandora off to Prometheus’ brother to further seal the deal. Zeus gave Pandora a wedding gift of a beautiful box, but warned her not to open it – or else! Pandora, of course, popped the lid, letting loose all the evils contained within. She quickly closed it, but it was too late – evil was everywhere, along with one more thing, the Spirit of Hope that was hidden at the box’s bottom.
All of which is, of course, an analogy for guitar players and their effects.
Not happy to have our six-strings make natural, simple sounds, we created stompboxes and unleashed all sorts of bizarre, strange, and even downright evil tones in hope of being heard. We wanted an organ’s warbling vibrato, so we concocted tremolos and rotating-speaker systems. We wanted a trumpet’s blare, so we invented the wah pedal. We wanted a pedal-steel’s weeping moan, so we made vibratos and B-benders. And we were angry at the world’s injustices – or at least a girlfriend who had (supposedly) done us wrong – so we fuzzed out our guitar sound.
Over the years, there have been about as many bizarre guitar effects as there are stars in the Greek gods’ heavens. We asked VG readers, writers, and musicians what they thought were the funkiest of all time and came up with this batch. There’s undoubtedly more weirdness out there, so you can argue, contemplate, and disagree with what is presented here – that’s the fun of such lists, of course.
In the early days, “high fidelty” was the guiding principle as guitar and amp designers sweated to reproduce a guitar’s sound as cleanly and precisely as possibly. Guitarists quickly changed all that nonsense. Introduced in ’46, the DeArmond Tremolo Control is believed to be the earliest stand-alone guitar effect.
This quaint electro-mechanical device has a miniscule brass vial filled with an electrolyte; electric signal runs through the fluid that, as it sloshes up and down thanks to a motor, allows more or less signal to pass, which modulates the volume. Tremolo has since became commonplace in pedals, amps, and tailpieces, but, in the ’50s, the DeArmond was an out-there concept.
None other than Billy Gibbons is a #1 fan. “You can go from mild to wild,” he said. “We’ve used it on so many delightful excursions from the recording studio into the outer limits of the ether. The mystique is quite entertaining.”
The Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay took echo to the next level, and is guitarist Bill Frisell’s fave weird effect. “For me, it was one of the most extraordinary pedals to ever exist,” he said. “When they first came out in the ’80s, I was immediately hooked. There had been nothing remotely like it before and hasn’t been since. I guess in a way, it’s not even really a guitar pedal. It was a unique, one-of-a-kind musical instrument unto itself.
“That box had a huge affect on my music – both my playing and composing. It helped me see structures in different ways and it would, of course, do the most amazing out-of-control, over-the-edge, unexpected things. It wasn’t being reined in by some lame pre-programmed digital computer crap. It was alive.
“Boy, just talking about it now, I miss it! I still have two of them, but they hardly work. I gave up trying to fix them. Someone said they used chips from telephone answering machines or something that you can’t get anymore.
“Whoever invented that thing should get a Pulitzer Prize or something.”
The Theremin was launched in the ’20s, the brainchild of Russian scientist (and spy) Léon Theremin. One of the first electronic instruments, it was played without being touched; thereminists moved their hands through electrical fields, creating sounds ranging from violin-like sonorousness to horror-film eerieness. Of course, guitarists needed a Theremin of our own – just ask the Beach Boys.
Maestro’s Theremin of the ’60s wasn’t strictly for guitarists; Hiwatt’s funky foot-level version was. Today, the ZVex Fuzz Probe adds the effect to a fuzz stompbox. Léon would be proud.
Echo or delay is common these days, but when early purveyors created tape echo – folk such as Les Paul and Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips – it was mindblowing stuff. The EccoFonic, Echoplex, Watkins Copicat, and others were developed in the ’50s and ’60s as an echo in a box for performing and recording guitarists.
No echo unit sounds as good and offers as many far-out options as the Roland Space Echo, with its multiple recording heads, numerous pre-sets, and – on the RE-301, RE-501, and SRE-555 – the added analog chorus effect to really make things crazy.
Brian Setzer tours the world with vintage RE-301s in his backline. “The Space Echoes are sturdy and sound exactly the same as the Echoplex – and you actually have more of a choice in the echo, if you want it,” he said. “The Roland has always done me well.”
Reverb doesn’t get all that wacky, but the ’60s Valco-built Supro Reverberation rules as the stylesetter. It worked in cooperation with the similarly glamorous Supro 1615 amp, providing a five-watt boost. With Supro amp and reverb behind you, looks alone would have made you the coolest guitarist on the planet.
Why would you want to add “static” to that guitar sound engineers worked so hard to purify? Keith Richards – among others – convincingly explained this to the world in ’65 with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Honors for the most fuzzed-out fuzz go to the mid-’60s Honey Special-Fuzz. The Honey firm was started by ex-Teisco employees – which should be a warning for wackiness right there – then went bankrupt by ’67. The company was reborn as Shin-ei, and quickly became the undisputed kings of wild effects. Their offerings were sold and re-sold under scores of brand names.
The Honey fuzzbomb had no fewer then 13 transistors and two inductors inside! It was recast as the Shin-ei Companion FY-6, revised as the FY-2, and Univox Super-Fuzz, Uni-Fuzz, and others.
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach is a confirmed FY-2 fan. “I own a sick amounts of fuzz pedals,” he says, listing a Sovtek Big Muff Pi, an early 1970s Ibanez Standard Fuzz octave fuzz, and a vintage ’60s Marshall Supa Fuzz. “My favorite for coaxing the best sound out of a smaller amp is the Shin-ei Companion fuzz.”
“I found my Honey at a yard sale for a dollar. Put a fresh 9-volt in it, and all of a sudden the most evil, nastiest fuzz from the ’60s sprang forth,” added oddball-effects connoisseur Deke Dickerson. “It eliminates all subtlety and goes straight for the throat. It’s one of those great fuzz effects where you can play single notes and take people’s heads off, but if you try playing a chord, the signal decomposes into pure mud. My old bandmates used to shudder with fear when I got this pedal out – ‘No, please don’t use that one!’
“I reckon we’re all a little bit more hard of hearing today, thanks to Honey and their gnarly fuzz.”
Masked man Danny Amis of Los Straitjackets gives kudos to the Mosrite Fuzz-Rite as the coolest effects pedal ever. “Back in the ’70s, I had a Mosrite Award amp with a Fuzz-Rite built in. It was the most amazing fuzz sound, like a chorus of mosquitos!”
The Monacor Solid State Fuzzder Model FS-1 gets Billy Gibbons’ tip of the fuzzy hat. “A fine example of ’60s fuzz fakery from parts unknown – wacky!” he said. “And, to add to the disbelief, powered by a single AA, not the more common 9-volter.”
The Monacor was likely another Shin-ei monster, as similar Fuzzder lookalikes show up from Apollo and other “brands.” Mr. Gibbons sums up the sound simply: “Way out there, man.”
With the wonders of transistors at their fingertips, effects engineers went wild, concocting all sorts of strange effects cocktails. The Fender Blender was one such over-the-top fuzz maker, a sick distortion machine capable of turning your picked notes and strummed chords into pure chaos.
For sheer style, no effect beat designer Steve Ridinger’s Foxx machines, which debuted in ’71. The Foxx Fuzz Machine in various combos with wah pedals and more were covered in electrostatically fuzz-flocked casings. Reader Rick Kislia loves his red-flocked Foxx O.D. Machine pedal. “The OD pedal is extremely hot… almost impossible to use even with the boost at just 3!”
VG contributor Dave Hunter remembers his Foxx Fuzz & Wa & Volume Machine. “It sounded great… until the red fuzz flocking started shedding from the casing and found its way into the treadle wah’s potentiometer.” Call it early male-pattern baldness if you will, but the fuzz sound was downright hairy while in its prime.
The Cold War of fuzz was won by the Soviets: the Specter-3 Fuzz Wah was built in the ’70s and ’80s at the USSR’s Novosibirsk Vacuum Tube Plant. This stompbox is about the size of a Russian tank and has similar styling. The pedal incorporates fuzz, tone fuzz, wah, and an auto wah – plus any combinations of said effects. Two foot pedals are needed here – left controls wah, right controls master levels. Other needs include two 9-volt batteries.
Houston-based Ilya Shlepakov owns the largest collection of vintage Soviet electric guitars, basses, and stompboxes this side of the old Iron Curtain. He reports that “The Specter-3 Fuzz and Wah were arguably the two most popular effects among the Soviet rockers, immortalized in some of the song lyrics (!) from that era.”
The early ’80s Boss Rocker Distortion PD-1 had a Boss DS-1 fuzz circuit hot-wired to a volume pedal. As Garrett Tung, proprietor of vintage-effects specialist Boingosaurus Music in Austin, Texas, enthuses, “You could drive your distortion like a Hemi-powered Mopar muscle car, wah-ing the amount of distortion on the signal.”
The Cousin Itt of furry fuzzes is the Uglyface, which wins a nod from Nels Cline of Wilco. Designed by Tim Escobedo, the stompbox is a legendary underground fave, a true stompbox rarity, and the fuzziest fuzz you’ve never heard of.
“Not even sure if this is the brand or name or both, but I have three of these,” says Cline. “They are all covered in fake fur – one I bought just because it has much longer bright yellow-green ‘hair.’ It does spectacular filtery auto-wah mega distortion.”
Why would someone want to make a guitar sound like a trumpet? Why not? T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian famously adapted horn lines to create single-note solos, so why not dream of getting that “wah” effect, as well? No guitarist wants to carry around a toilet-bowl plunger, but a Vox Clyde McCoy Wah, or one of its many descendants, is today practically an essential. The wah was a far-out creation at its birth in ’67. Made from an organ pedal, it was originally marketed to trumpeters – before guitarists stole it and made it their own.
Storm of Sounds
The trophy for the funkiest wah of all time goes to the Shin-ei Companion Hurricane Wah, which was offered in various guises under the brand names Cromwell, Apollo, Jax, Kimbara, and many more. Not only did these rarities have wah, they boasted a fighter jet’s array of switches and controls offering a “Siren,” “Surf,” and even “Hurricane” or “Tornado” at your toetips.
The Snarling Dogs Mold Spore Psycho-Scumatic Wah is a ring modulator wah. “I have never heard anything even close to the way it sounds,” said Garrett Tung. The pedal has a load of funkified controls, including three ideal presets – Shaft, Voo Doo, and White Room.
J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr., recommends the Lovetone Meatball, an auto-wah envelope filter with unending funkadelic potential and a staggering array of control. And to make his Meatball even more Bootsy-esque, it’s “…tweeked by Lovetone to be more extreme.”
Sure, everyone wants to make their guitar speak – but how about truly talk? In 1970, the engineers at Kustom Electronics offered The Bag, which was half vocal modulator, half bagpipe. Promo posters promised its “electro-thoracic sound” would “free your musical mind.”
Joe Walsh used one on his famed “Rocky Mountain Way” vocal “solo” and Stevie Wonder plugged in on his ’72 LP Music of My Mind. It’s also likely that The Bag was used to make those weird vocals on Marc Benno’s Ambush LP, Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama,” and Iron Butterfly’s “Butterfly Bleu.”
The Bag hung over your shoulder with mod ’70s fabrics that kept it looking cool, and not like a man purse. You spoke into a plastic pipe that connected to a one-inch-diameter metal tube running down to a driver within the sack.
The Bag had great sound, but was not truly loud enough for stadium gigs. Enter Bob Heil and his Talk Box to solve that. Still, Kustom’s The Bag unreservedly deserves the crown as the weirdest guitar effect of all time.
In the bad old ’80s, Mike Matthews’ Soul Kiss talk box added wah to the weirdness. As Garrett Tung explains, “You put a probe right in your mouth and control the tones with your voice. Sanitary? No. Unique? Yes.”
Sure, we’d all like to have infinite violin-like sustain for a solo. Jimmy Page solved this by borrowing a violin bow and making beautiful music – or at least a long, drawn out drone.
Enter 10cc’s Lol Creme and Kevin Godley and their perfectly named Gizmotron with its rotating plastic wheels fitted with miniature plectrums that continuously plucked the guitar strings. The concept was overly complex, hard to set up, prone to breaking, prone to wearing out – and ultimately, players didn’t want that sound all that much after all. And the Gizmotron brought down one of the most innovative effects companies of all time in the process, Musitronics.
Still, the Gizmotron remains one of the weirdest guitar effect of all time – and proved Page right; a violin bow was the way to go.
Want your guitar to sound like a tremulous Hammond B3 organ? Bob Murrell created his Guitorgan in ’68, followed by Vox’s V251 Organ Guitar in the ’70s. Going a more straightforward route to the same end, Leslie offered its Model 16 and 18 rotating-speaker cabinets (or at least, rotating-speaker baffles). Fender, which owned Leslie at the time, launched its own Vibratone, as well, and these cabinets win an award as the largest, bulkiest, and heaviest effects.
The coolest was without doubt the Maestro Rover RO-1 – complete with space-age styling that made it easy to mistake for a UFO.
The Tel-Ray firm offered oil-can technology at its finest – or at least, weirdest. Similar in concept to DeArmond’s Tremolo with its moving vial of electrostatic liquid, Tel-Ray modernized the concept and made a variety of strange effects for Fender, Vox, Morley, and others. Blending a rotating-speaker simulator with a wah, the Morley Rotating Wah RWV could mess up your signal until it was unrecognizably cool.
Engineer Mike Biegel’s mind worked in complex, fascinating ways. He created not only Musitronics’ wonderful Mu-Tron III envelope filter but also the supremely complicated Mu-Tron Bi-Phase in the ’80s. The phaser was replete with so many controls and options, you might think you were flying a spaceship instead of just playing rock and roll. Yes, this was truly rocket science.
The DOD FX 13 Gonkulator is truly difficult to describe, but VG reader Vinny Roth raved over it. “This modulator is the wackiest pedal I’ve ever used. It can replicate cartoon noises – perfect for when Tom hits Jerry over the head with a frying pan.”
In an effort to make effects ever more portable, some makers created miniatures that plugged directly into a guitar. Dan Armstrong’s Sound Modifier series include the Orange Crush compressor, while in the ’60s, Vox offered the Jen Repeat Percussion, a sort of mini drum machine that gave a chopped tremolo repeat of pick attack.
The crown for miniaturization goes to the ’60s Jordan Buzz-Tone with its superlative fuzz. Dan Auerbach remains a big fan, as does many a pedal-steel player.
For a combo of complexity, rarity, and all-round strangeness, reader Dave Carness recommends the Pluto Dual Filter Pedal. It was created in the early ’70s by George Mundy, an Alembic Instruments engineer and part of the Grateful Dead’s tech crew. Made (by hand) for Maestro, which backed out of the deal, only 50 or so were built.
“Pluto Pedals are really more suitable for synth operators or noise makers who know how to handle precision sweepable filters,” Carness explains. “The treble sweeps side to side as well as up and down to control the filter box, which has way too many options for the average wah operator. The pedals were unintuitive to operate for the average guitar player of the day.”
Many a bizarro guitar effect arrived on the market before its time. Some were adopted by players and became the voice of the times – witness the wah and fuzz. Others never found a home and were dropped. At least at that time…
In the late ’60s or early ’70s, the Guild Tri-Oct was unveiled, an analog polyphonic octave divider – long before most guitarists had a clue what that meant. You added the hexaphonic divided pickup to your guitar, and it fed into the shoebox-sized effect box to six parallel octave divider circuits and a fuzz. Sliders and trimpots allowed you to adjust level of the octaves – for each string.
The Tri-Oct disappeared from the scene as quickly as it arrived, and remains both a vintage rarity – and mystery – today.
“It’s the missing link between fuzzboxes and guitar synthesizers,” says reader Mark Hammer. “How does it sound? Okay, I guess. It’s no POG or Boss OC-3, and it’s certainly not as complex as the better-known, and legendary, Ludwig Phase II. But considering when it was produced, it was way out there relative to other effects of the time and nothing like any of us had ever considered. Its weirdness lies in the very concept of such a thing.”
In ’67, Japan’s Honey launched the Honey Psychedelic Machine, an early multi-purpose creation that was perhaps the first “super effect.” The creation came from mad scientist-cum-designer Fumio Mieda, and featured both a tremendous fuzz and a chorus/vibrato circuit. The sounds were all controlled by the Mood Adjuster knob, which presumably added the psychedelia.
Honey quickly morphed into Shin-ei, and the creation lived on as the Shin-ei Companion Psychedelic Machine. But the two circuits were later extracted and offered separately as the Honey Super-Fuzz (which in turn morphed into Shin-ei Companion FY-2 and Univox Super-Fuzz and Uni-Fuzz, among others) and the Univox Uni-Vibe.
Looking to be heard but not understood? Nels Cline exults over the Mid-Fi Electronics Glitch Computer. “It’s hilarious. Loud as hell and basically makes everything sound so distorted that no actual notes are discernible.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.