The practice of amplifying guitars has been around a long time. From its initial development in the 1930s on Hawaiian steel guitars, through a wider acceptance in electrified acoustics in the '40s, to solid bodies in the '50s, the various types of electric guitars sounded pretty much the same as their unamplified brethren, only louder. The pick-ups in the guitars fed their signal to an amplifier, and that changed the character a little, but it was still instantly recognizable. A guitar was a guitar was a guitar.
Then, in the late '50s, things started to happen. Using the newly invented transistor, electronic circuits housed in small metal boxes--effects pedals--suddenly appeared that could make a mild-mannered guitar and amplifier sound like a galactic bulldozer crush, a luscious symphony of chainsaws, a wrenching moan transmogrifying into a wailing banshee before your very ears. Small animals ran for cover, parents took their children indoors, all to no avail; the sound penetrated brick, mortar and untold layers of cultural sediment to reach the as-yet-unsullied ears of America's youth.
In 1965, the Rolling Stones' hit, "Satisfaction," featuring a guitar riff powered and perverted by one of the first pedals, the Gibson Maestro Fuzz Tone, swept the nation and much of the civilized world.
The conventional idea of a note played on an instrument being simply a note was instantly transcended. The note, and the modified sound that created it, combined into a newly realized phenomena with a staggering range of expression and power. This idea of raw, unfettered sound had revolutionary potential, and people felt it down to their very bones. Rock 'n' roll, born from the humble beginnings of rhythm and blues and evangelized by the wild likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Elvis and others, was reaching the full flower of its mind-altering, spirit-lifting, psychedelic realization.
Enter Glenn Wyllie, Chatham County-based musician, effects builder, instrument maker and all-around sound conjurer. Back in '66, he was a 17-year-old budding guitarist growing up in New Jersey, and the startling arrival of fuzz guitar was not lost on him; he heard the Stones' "Satisfaction" on the radio, and that was it.
"Whatever it was that was making that sound, I knew I had to have one," he recounts. Out of economic necessity, Wyllie managed to gain access to a Maestro Fuzz Tone and, after becoming familiar with the circuit, built his own version using parts obtained for half the price of the store-bought model.
Ironically, Wyllie notes, the whole idea of musical mutation may have originated through decidedly straight-laced research. Legend has it that the first fuzz-tone circuit may have come about through the efforts of British Naval Intelligence to build audio surveillance devices, or "bugs." Supposedly one of their engineers had an interest in music, and, realizing that these bugs were very advanced, high-gain audio devices, wondered what would happen if he jacked an electric guitar into it and fed the signal to an amplifier.
What "happened" was a revolution in rock music.
Popular first in England, these pedals started appearing in the hands of some of London's best players, most notably the recently arrived Jimi Hendrix, arguably the greatest purveyor of rock, blues and sonic psychedelia the world has ever seen. Like a script from an old James Bond movie, musicians who received these pedals knew the designer simply as "O," an alias probably inspired by one of his very first pedals, the Octavia. After a while, the buzz over these pedals grew so intense that their maker finally stepped forward, and Roger Mayer began selling his pedals to the general public.
Mayer built many of Hendrix's pedals, and modified the ones he already had in use.
Testifying to the quality of those early Mayer-made pedals and other vintage boxes, Wyllie recalls meeting Hendrix three times during the guitarist's meteoric career. The first meeting preceded Hendrix's fame, when he was still working under the name Jimmy James & The Blue Flames.
"We were walking down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village, on our way to another show that I can't even remember now," Wyllie says. "And I heard this magic rolling down the street, big colorful clouds of sounds ... just unbelievable, flying guitar ... the most futuristic, otherworldly stuff that I'd never heard on any recording."
Wyllie even had a chance, then and later, to at least look at Hendrix's effects pedals, but from the outside, they looked completely stock. "I wondered if Mayer had modified those pedals to Jimi's specifications, or maybe put things in them that he didn't put in the others," he says. "It could be he wasn't permitted to mass produce those particular circuits, because of where the original designs came from."
Wyllie resolved to recapture the sound, if not the original designs, of those pedals; his often spectacular results don't just include, but eclipse, their source of inspiration. Mark Stewart, a New York studio musician, composer, sonic experimenter and guitarist for Paul Simon, is unabashed in his admiration about Wyllie and his pedals. In a recent phone interview with the Indy, he responded to questions about Wyllie and his focused yet open approach to sound modification.
"Glenn Wyllie is an instrument builder, a soundsmith of the highest order. ... He is an unacknowledged American master," Stewart asserts. When asked if he thinks Wyllie's pedals have an overall sonic signature, he agrees. "It's impossible for any remarkable artist to do anything that doesn't sound like himself. Glenn's pedals all have a 'Wyllieness' to them, and if you spend time with them, you'll begin to recognize that imprint on everything he does. But at the same time, the effects can be wildly different from each other."
Stewart contrasts Wyllie's experimental approach with the route other manufacturers seem to take: "Anytime you make anything from a 'recipe,' you get something familiar, 'yummy,' but you leave out some ingredients that might be important."
Which makes sense: If you have in mind exactly what you want to hear, there's a good chance you're not going to be receptive to anything else that might happen. "I'm interested in every sound," Stewart says. "If I want inspiration, I'll take in the sound of the street, right outside on First Avenue. There's sound out there, so alluring, unknown, perfect and extraordinary." And that's where Wyllie's flexibility can give someone on their personal quest for tone a new perspective.
"Some of Glenn's pedals supply you with parameters that are really outside the standard," Stewart says with a laugh.
Bringing it closer to home, I talked with Jim Shumaker of Jim's Guitars, located in Hillsborough. He remembered a time when a noted local composer, guitarist and studio owner needed a fuzz pedal to bolster the arsenal of his studio's tone-shaping devices. He played using a couple of the most highly regarded fuzz pedals before Shumaker suggested he try one of Wyllie's earliest pedals, the "Fuzzmite."
"Well," Shumaker recalls, "he plugged it in and immediately it was obvious--those other pedals sounded like they had the guts sucked out of them. And the Fuzzmite, it just sounded so full and big." Shumaker has owned and/or operated music stores for the last 20 years, trading extensively in vintage gear. A purist who likes his sound taken down to the bare essentials, he still appreciates Wyllie's work. "I haven't heard a better one [fuzzbox]," he says of the Fuzzmite.
But if you're thinking that these pedals are for '60s fuzz aficionados only, or the wildly experimental, think again.
Stewart went to great lengths to elaborate on the fortunate paradox--the openness and undefinability--that characterizes Wyllie's adaptable sound. Stewart's favorite Wyllie pedal is a strange modulating device called the Oxo (pronounced oh-zo); it's the one that makes him laugh and say, "Whoa, where did you come from?" Surprisingly, Stewart's been able to use this otherworldly pedal to accompany a very traditional, formal instrument, the unamplified Celtic harp. "It changed the whole texture from within," he says. "It was amazing. I'm interested in things--in pedals--that make your instruments 'supra' instruments, more and beyond what they originally were."
Although he's gained a cult following and a reputation of sorts, Wyllie is comfortable operating on a small scale. "I'm really about where I want to be, in terms of the number of pedals I'm making," he says. "I'm not going to mass produce them, because you can't make them that way and still have them sound the way they should."
Shumaker agrees: "Glenn's an innovator. He's in it for the sound and the vibe, with a lot of commitment to building the highest quality effects; he's not a capitalist."
Maybe not, but Wyllie might find the tide from his most high-profile pedal yet, the Moonrock, pulling him in that direction. Beautifully sculpted out of "moon-cratered" aluminum, the case alone could prompt you to buy it, but you'll treasure it for its sound.
And with reviews like this one by JeffD@Tonefrenzy.com at his Tonefrenzy Web site, Wyllie could find himself hard-pressed to keep up with the demand:
"Moonrock has arrived! It's as good as we'd hoped for. Just two easy-to-use knobs!
The work of artist Glenn Wyllie, this is about the most interactive (100 percent melodic) pedal we've found.
... NO raspy edge or hissing. The effects seem to pour out from the center of its primary voice, when you want them.
A wicked, pick-sensitive swell helps create a 100-pound violin tone, or tape reverse effects. A winner!"
Wyllie's pedals can take you to where you want to go. More importantly, they can take you to places you didn't even know existed, yet there you are, smiling in the big musical ultra-glow that wraps around you like a blanket, floats you like an inner tube on an amazing sonic swirl, and somehow manages to reassuringly catapult you far, far up into undiscovered atmospheres, where at last, you and your sound can breathe.