The Z Vex Fuzz Factory shot to legendary status almost instantly upon its release in the mid 90s. This was a rude, loud, dirty fuzz pedal in an era that was rapidly becoming overpopulated by high-gain valve heads, and before the boutique pedal boom had really hit its stride.
Initially only available in groovy hand-painted boxes, Z.Vex released the Vexter series a few years ago, which packs the same circuit as the newest hand-painted Fuzz Factories(including a DC power jack and on/off LED indicator) into a less labour-intensive screen-printed box to keep the cost down. Well, relatively down – it’s not a super-cheap pedal by any stretch of the wallet – which is kind of reassuring. If it’s true that you get what you pay for, I’d probably be a bit
First off, the presentation. My Vexter Fuzz Factory arrived in a cardboard box, with the pedal inside wrapped in cloth, bound with what appeared to be groovy hair bobbles, and with a helpful photocopied instruction manual alongside the expected warranty information. Wrapping the pedal up in this way was a nice little touch, and it reminded me of playing Pass The Parcel as a kid, and the thrill of the parcel stopping on you when you know there’s only one layer of wrapping paper left. I’m a sucker for this sort of stuff.
The Fuzz Factory is built around a pair of new old stock (NOS) germanium transistors like those found in the famous Fuzz Face, but the similarities pretty much start and end right there. The Fuzz Factory gives you much more control over the sound courtesy of a quintet of controls (compared to the Fuzz Face’s mere two). These are Volume (output level), Gate (transistor bias), Compression (another transistor bias), Drive (input level) and Stability (supply voltage). These names are only rough guides to what the controls do though, and they don’t really tell the full fuzz story. Depending on where one is set, the next might have a very different effect than it might otherwise have. That’s what makes the Fuzz Factory so much fun. For instance, the Compress control behaves very differently if you lower the Stability control, and Drive becomes redundant when you crank up the Compress knob.
I started off with the Hi Compression Fuzz setting outlined in the handy instruction manual. This medium-gain setting is great for percussive, jabbing single-note lines, and while it sounds nice and chewy with single coil loaded guitars, it adds a little twang to humbuckers too. The Velcro Fuzz setting outlined in the manual is endlessly entertaining, with a sort of lo-fi sizzle. And there’s a great setting called ‘Cleanish Hi Octave Intermodulation’ which sounds somewhere between an old-school octave pedal and a demented robot. But as helpful as the manual’s settings are in getting you started (and they are indeed very helpful), I found a few of my personal favourite settings by exploring the boundaries where the sounds go from musical to cataclysmic. A great way to do this is by taking the Gate knob to right where just enough sound gets through in between your notes that it creates odd oscillations (dialled in to perfection by balancing the Compression and Drive knobs). Dial back the Stability for some crackle and chaos and you’ve got yourself a unique sound you would never, ever be able to replicate with a different pedal, or keep Stability fairly high and you’ll get an almost controlled-feedback quality from actual picked notes, even if you play super-fast.
More traditional sounds are available too. With Gate, Compression and Drive all the way down and Volume and Stability all the way up you’ll get a much more straightforward overdrive/fuzz sound (which reminds me a little bit of a vintage treble booster pedal). In fact the ability to boost the output courtesy of the Volume control means you can use the Fuzz Factory to goose the input of a tube amp to increase its preamp tube distortion if you so wish. Meanwhile higher drive settings and more severe jurisdiction over the Gate and Compression controls will lead you to fat, full-bodied, harmonically rich distortion sounds.
One of the Fuzz Factory’s most lauded features is its ability to squeal like a piggy if you tell it to, and with a bit of experimentation you’ll start to learn exactly how to control this seemingly chaotic side-effect. One way of keeping it in line is to make sure you ride your guitar’s volume knob, keeping it down all the way when you’re not playing. Balance Gate and Compression just so and you’ll actually be able to control the pitch of the squeal with your guitar’s volume knob, which is great for conjuring science fiction-y, Theremin-type sounds on stage without having to lean over and tweak the pedal with your picking hand. With a little trial and error you’ll also figure out how to control this trait – and use it to your musical advantage – by selectively leaving ‘holes’ in your riffs for the squealy FF-generated notes to poke through.
So are there any downsides to the Fuzz Factory? Not really. It can be a bit noisy at the upper reaches of its Drive control, especially with guitars equipped with single coils, but this is somewhat to be expected. The Gate control will go some way towards rectifying this, but you have to be prepared to take the bad noise with the good, and there are some tones which simply don’t sound as awesome if you have to gate them too much, background hum or no. But dude, this is rock n’ roll! A little noise never killed anybody.
The Fuzz Factory is a modern classic, and it’s not hard to see why its list of devotees includes players as diverse as Muse’s Matt Bellamy, Wilco’s Nels Cline, David Torn, Jack White, J. Mascis, Silvercair’s Daniel Johns, Trent Reznor, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Robert Fripp, Billy Gibbons, John Frusciante, Buckethead and Deftones’ Stephen Carpenter, to name but a few. It’s a pedal that practically demands creativity from the user, and although it can pull off great traditional fuzz sounds with ease, its sheer range of sound manipulation is so wide that it really becomes the sound of the player, rather than making the player sound like the pedal.
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CLICK HERE to buy the ZVex Vexter Fuzz Factory from Guitar Center.
By the way, here’s a great demo video by Pro Guitar Shop.