Selection of vintage (Dallas) Arbiter Fuzz Faces.

The famous Arbiter (later, Dallas-Arbiter) Fuzz Face was originally developed by J & I Arbiter Ltd., and was presented in August 1966 at the British Musical Instrument Industries trade fair.1 Date codes on the potentiometers of surviving examples suggest that production was only properly ramped up by September of that year (units with pot codes earlier than September are particularly uncommon), and the Fuzz Face was already available in the shops by November 1966, when Jimi Hendrix was photographed performing with one.2

Enclosures for the early Fuzz Faces came finished in options of either red, silver or dark grey Hammerite, and they were printed with one of two different sets of silkscreened graphics. Some early Fuzz Faces were fitted with black ‘top hat’ shaped knobs, and others were fitted with dial knobs. There is currently no consensus among collectors about how to ascertain which version of the early Fuzz Faces came first, or indeed, how to identify a particularly early Fuzz Face that might have been built in 1966 (as opposed to one from 1967).

Two 1966-1967 Arbiter Fuzz Faces
Two almost identical 1966-1967 Arbiter Fuzz Faces. (Photo credit: J. Logan)

The two silver pedals pictured above were both built during the early period of Fuzz Face production. The pedal on the right has been printed with the same set of graphics as those which Arbiter continued to use for several years on the various later revisions of the Fuzz Face design that followed these early models. Compared with it, the pedal on the left has a thicker typeface for the ‘Fuzz Face’ lettering, and the ‘volume’ & ‘fuzz’ labels have a wider kerning.

The set of graphics printed on the pedal to the left was only used for some of the earlier (‘pre-Dallas’) Fuzz Faces, but there is not enough evidence to prove whether the pedals with this thicker & wider lettering decisively predated Fuzz Faces with the more conventional graphics, or whether the different versions may have been built in parallel for some time. For now, it is impossible to determine which of the two pedals pictured above were built first.

Fuzz Faces were initially sold in the UK for 8gns, but even during the early period of production (c. 1966-1967), these British-built pedals were being exported around the world. This is evidenced by the large number of original Fuzz Faces that regularly resurface in the United States, as well as around continental Europe. Some early Fuzz Faces even bear official stickers denoting their status as “export models”.

Bottom plate of an "export" model Fuzz Face
A handful of the early Fuzz Faces that have surfaced outside the UK had stickers underneath denoting their “export” status.

Arbiter apparently bought a large supply of potentiometers in late 1966 for use in the Fuzz Faces. The majority of early Fuzz Faces were built with potentiometers dating between the months of September to December of 1966. There are currently no known surviving Fuzz Faces equipped with potentiometers bearing 1967 date codes, and so it appears very likely that Arbiter only finally restocked in early 1968.

The only concrete evidence provided by date codes on components is the date by which the pedal cannot have been built before. An early Fuzz Face bearing ‘12-66’ (December 1966) codes on the potentiometers can only be determined not to have been built prior to that month. Bearing in mind the time that it takes for a potentiometer to travel from the RadiOhm factory, to Arbiter’s assembly lines, in addition to the likelihood that Fuzz Faces weren’t built during the winter public holidays, a Fuzz Face with 12-66 date codes might not necessarily have been built until the following year.

More than simply being based on a ‘textbook’ shunt-series feedback amplifier circuit, the Arbiter Fuzz Face is almost part-for-part a copy of a particularly early version of the two-transistor Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’. Early instruction papers supplied with Fuzz Faces even describe the model as producing a “tone-bending” effect.

Earlier Fuzz Faces were built with a pair [Newmarket] NKT275 germanium transistors, while later Fuzz Faces featured pairs of a number of different types of silicon transistors. Contrary to popular belief, there is no known unmodified surviving example of a vintage 1960s germanium-transistor Fuzz Face that has been built with anything other than NKT275’s.

Circuit board in an early Arbiter Fuzz Face
Circuit board inside an early germanium-transistor Fuzz Face. (Photo credit: eBay.com)

A long-standing assumption has been that Arbiter modified the Tone Bender circuit to allow for a better bass response, by increasing the value of the volume pot. More recently, however, it has been discovered that some of the earliest Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’ pedals were also built with a 500kΩ level pot, and that this is most likely the specific version of the Tone Bender that the designer of the Fuzz Face used as a reference. Some early Fuzz Faces were also built with 5µF input capacitors (as opposed to the more often seen 2.5µF value), which again, coincides with a feature of the Tone Bender.

The only electronic differences between the Sola Sound Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’ and the Arbiter Fuzz Face are the 20µF (and sometimes 30µF) emitter bypass capacitor, the NKT275 transistors, and 33kΩ resistor from Q1’s collector to the power rail as opposed to 47kΩ.

These similarities between specific versions of the Arbiter Fuzz Face and the Sola Sound Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’ have been highlighted on the table below:

Circuit board of a 1966-1967 Arbiter Fuzz Face, featuring Marcon capacitors
This particular Fuzz Face has been fitted with grey Marcon electrolytic capacitors. The 5µF capacitor in the input position is the same value that was consistently used in the Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’. (Photo credit: vintageandrare.com)

The (Dallas-) Arbiter Fuzz Face features an almost identical circuit to another earlier fuzz box offered by Dallas. The 1966 [Dallas] Rangemaster Fuzzbug was manufactured by Sola Sound, and briefly featured the same electronics as Sola Sound’s Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’. The Fuzzbug was part of the same family of early two-transistor fuzz pedals, but this should not be interpreted as evidence that the two models are related. The Fuzz Face was first and foremost an Arbiter product, and it was designed and introduced to the market well before Arbiter merged with Dallas. There is no evidence to suggest that Dallas had any involvement in the designing of the Fuzz Face, and the fact Dallas’ Fuzzbug bears electronic similarities is merely an indication of how widely Sola Sound’s products were being distributed in 1966. There is currently also no known surviving example of a Rangemaster Fuzzbug that was built with the Fuzz Face’s aforementioned 500kΩ volume potentiometer.

Vox’s Distortion Booster typically also featured a circuit sharing the same shunt-series feedback amplifier topology as the Fuzz Face, but because there isn’t any overlap at all in terms of parts values between the two, it’s very unlikely for either model to have been inspired by the other.

J. & I. Arbiter & Dallas Music Limited were apparently still two distinct organisations when they demonstrated their respective products at separate booths, at the March 1968 Musikmesse trade fair. It was reported, however, in April 1968, that Arbiter had been taken over by Dallas.3 The merger of these two companies was reflected in the branding of the Fuzz Face, and from 1968 until the mid-1970s, these Arbiter pedals were rebranded as products by ‘Dallas-Arbiter — England’.

Following the merger of Dallas & Arbiter, the Fuzz Faces were still being built with the same PNP germanium-transistor circuit that was introduced almost two years earlier. According to potentiometer date codes, however, by late 1968 (or early 1969), the Fuzz Face circuit had been updated for operation with NPN silicon transistors instead. The youngest of the known surviving germanium-transistor Fuzz Faces date to 1969, and so there is a reasonable probability that the germanium & silicon-transistor Fuzz Faces were being built concurrently for a period of time.

Circuit board in a silicon-transistor Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
Circuit board inside an early silicon-transistor (BC183L) Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face.

Early silicon-transistor Fuzz Faces featured BC183L & BC183KA transistors, and were housed in enclosures featuring the same three colour schemes that Arbiter had been offering pedals in since 1966. By around late 1969 (or possibly early 1970) Dallas-Arbiter apparently abandoned the BC183L & BC183KA circuits, and began using BC108C transistors for the Fuzz Face. It was at this point that Dallas-Arbiter also began offering fuzz boxes in various blue paint jobs.

Dallas-Arbiter later split back up into ‘Dallas Music Industries’ (DMI) & ‘CBS/Arbiter’, but the Fuzz Face continued to be manufactured under both names in the UK until at least 1976 (according to potentiometer date codes). During the 1970s, the model was offered in a variety of different colours, and with a variety of different NPN silicon transistor configurations.

After production of the British-built Fuzz Face was discontinued, there was a period in the late 1970s when DMI manufactured pedals in the United States. The model lay dormant until Crest Audio (a subsidiary of DMI) started building Fuzz Faces again, and this was soon followed by Jim Dunlop’s reproductions, which are widely sold around the world to this day.4

Thanks to J. Voggenthaler/Electric Warrior

  1. Melody Maker, 8th August 1966, p. 8
  2. Ulrich Handl, 8th November 1966, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Apple, Munich, [https://ulrichhandl.com/produkt/jimi-hendrix/]
  3. Melody Maker, 20th April 1968, p. 4
  4. https://www.foxroxelectronics.com/The-Fuzz-Face-Reissue-Story_b_3.html

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