The people who died, 2018: Glenn Snoddy, recording engineer and inventor of the fuzz tone

May 4, 1922-May 21, 2018

Dec 26, 2018 at 1:00 am

Glenn Snoddy's contribution to the world of music wasn't a song or a style of playing. It was more like he helped discover a new color.

A recording engineer in Nashville in the early 1960s, Snoddy helped capture and re-create what is commonly called "fuzz tone," the distorted, overdriven effect that helped shape the sound of modern rock & roll.

And it was all, quite literally, by accident.

Already a recording veteran (he'd worked on pivotal sessions for Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash), Snoddy was manning the console for a session with producer Don Law and country singer Marty Robbins, who was recording his 1961 single "Don't Worry." A broken amplifier that the bass was running through created a dirty sound about halfway into the recording that caught the attention of everyone working on the track.

"The transformer in the amplifier blew up," Snoddy told Murfreesboro, Tennessee's Daily News Journal in 2016 about the happy accident. The bassist (country and rockabilly session guitarist Grady Martin) reportedly wanted to redo his part, but Law and Snoddy insisted it remain.

After its release, "Don't Worry" went to No. 1 on Billboard's singles chart and musicians in particular loved the buzzy sound. Snoddy says Nancy Sinatra was in Nashville and wanted that exact sound for a recording session, but by that point the original "broken" amp had completely died. So he began figuring out how to re-create the fuzz, designing and building a preamp effects box to capitalize on the curiosity. He sold the design to Gibson, which turned it into the Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1, the first commercially available guitar distortion pedal.

While the distorted guitar sound was pioneered by players like Howlin' Wolf guitarist Willie Lee Johnson and Link Wray (most notably on the revolutionary 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble") in the decade leading up to his invention, Snoddy was the first to capture that fuzzy lightning in a bottle (or, rather, a box). The Gibson pedal (which initially sold for $40) wasn't an immediate hit and the company ramped down production of them until 1965, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards used his FZ-1 on the band's seminal hit, "Satisfaction." Gibson sold 40,000 pedals in the wake of that song's success, after reportedly moving a grand total of three over the course of the previous two years.

The fuzz tone sound became the foundation of '60s and '70s rock & roll, leading the way for other popular pedals, including the Fuzz Face, beloved by Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, and the Big Muff, which saw a revival in the late '80s/early '90s, and was the key to the guitar sounds of bands like Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, and many other alternative rock acts of the time.

Snoddy, who'd later open Nashville's Woodland Sound recording studio (home to many important sessions, including the one for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"), died on May 21. He was 96.

From "The people who died, 2018."

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