Monday, August 5, 2013

A Happy Accident Revolutionized Guitar Sound, From The Tennesseean

Unbreakable cell phone glass was born out of an accident in the labs at Corning Glass. Another of the great modern day inventions in music, the distortion sound was born out of a transformer dying from too much current in an amp. Happy accidents occur all the time, so it is just a matter of sometimes slowing down and processing the events around us, which could ultimately become influential in new and profound way.

Link to original post on the Tennessean

"The distorted sound of rock ’n’ roll guitar aggression was born in Nashville, in 1960. By mistake.

“I’m pretty sure what happened was the primary transformer opened up,” says Glen Snoddy, the 91-year-old retired audio engineer who worked on producer Owen Bradley’s three-channel recording console in the summer of ’60, when the console malfunctioned and caused session great Grady Martin’s guitar sound to go from clean to bludgeoning during the recording of Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry.”

Snoddy explains what happened by invoking tech-talk about tube amplifiers and insufficient wiring. But whatever happened inside that console, what happened on tape was a singular guitar sound that jarred, invigorated and launched “Don’t Worry” to fame: It become a No. 1 country hit and reached No. 3 on the pop chart.

Other recording artists began coming to Bradley’s Quonset Hut studio in hopes of replicating that sound. But the sound born when the transformer went on the fritz died when the transformer ceased to work at all.

“Nancy Sinatra came to town and wanted to use that sound, and I had to tell her people that we didn’t have it anymore because the amplifier completely quit,” Snoddy says. “So I had to get busy and conjure up some way to make it happen.”

Snoddy built a guitar pedal, with a button guitarists could press with the tap of a foot to change tone from clean to filthy. Then he took that pedal to Chicago and arranged an audience with Gibson president Maurice Berlin.

“I don’t play guitar, but they had a fellow there who did,” Snoddy says. “I took the box, plugged it in, and Mr. Berlin said, ‘Hey, we want that.’ Gibson applied for a patent and sold the box. For seven years, I got royalties off of it. They didn’t sell very well at the beginning.”

The Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1 didn’t fly off the shelves upon its initial release, in 1962. But in August 1965, the Rolling Stones released “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a song that featured Keith Richards playing a signature hook on the fuzz box. “Satisfaction” soon ruled charts in America and the U.K., and Snoddy’s box and subsequent copy jobs became a part of most electric guitarists’ arsenal.

Snoddy did much more in his career in music. Raised in Shelbyville, he learned about radio and recording in the Army and wound up at WSM radio around 1951. He ran live sound for the “Grand Ole Opry” and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop’s “Midnite Jamboree” and grew to love the voices of Marty Robbins and Tennessee Ernie Ford. After Snoddy worked for a time at WSM television, Bradley brought him in to work at his Quonset Hut, on an impressive sound board.

The original Fuzz-Tone distortion pedal
“It was a great console,” Snoddy says. “Until one of the pre-amps went out and caused us to have the fuzz-tone.”

Snoddy also recorded Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” mastered records for Columbia Records and was an executive there after Bradley sold the Hut to Columbia.

“I hired Kris Kristofferson,” he says. “I hired him to clean up the studio. What did I know about songwriting? Not much.”

In 1968, Snoddy opened Woodland Sound Studios at 1011 Woodland St. in East Nashville. He built the studio, which became the spot for now-classic recordings by Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Buffett and many more, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album. He also built Junction Recording Studio for Kitty Wells, and he served as a trustee for NARAS, the organization that puts on the Grammy Awards. But it is his fuzz-tone guitar sound that is an everyday part of thousands of musicians’ and listeners’ lives.

“I’ve heard people saying, ‘We’ve been trying to make audio purer and undefiled, and then some so-and-so comes up with a way to distort it,’” Snoddy says. “That so-and-so was me.”

Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or"

Electrical schematics on how the fuzz-tone operates