History

Origins

These early Tone Benders were built with a three-transistor fuzz circuit, based on Gibson’s 1962 Maestro Fuzz-Tone. The Maestro Fuzz-Tone was an American product, and was predominantly sold in the United States, where the majority of surviving examples resurface nowadays. Nevertheless, the Gibson fuzz boxes found their way into the hands of several notable British guitarists, and the circulation of those primitive early American fuzz boxes around the London music scene can at least be partially explained by the fact that the Selmer shop on Charing Cross Road was importing them.1

During the early 1960s, Gary Hurst worked as a repairman and engineer for Vox. Hurst recalled initially commuting from London to the Jennings “laboratories” in Dartford, where he worked briefly with Dick Denney, and that, slightly later, Tom Jennings set him up with his own dedicated space close to the (then-)Jennings shop at 100 Charing Cross Road. The exact dates of these events are unclear, but at some point Hurst stopped working for Vox, and spent several months working on Organs for Elka in Italy.2 By 1965, Gary was back in London, and was working out of the back of Larry Macari’s new Musical Exchange shop on 22 Denmark Street. This is where and when the Tone Bender was born.

Mistaken identities

Over the years, Gary Hurst has consistently recalled the story about a day at work, when he was approached by an eminent session musician, dissatisfied with his Maestro Fuzz-Tone, and who asked Gary whether he could improve the pedal. Gary agreed, but ended up supplying his customer with a brand new fuzz box instead of their Fuzz-Tone, which to this day, Gary still owns.3

These events certainly took place before 1965, because Gary Hurst was reported to have begun developing his fuzz box as early as in mid-1964,4 if not before then, and that development was put on hold until April of the following year, after Hurst had returned to London following the aforementioned period of working for Elka in Italy.5

The identity of the session guitarist who approached Gary Hurst with a Maestro Fuzz-Tone is a contentious subject. Hurst has long maintained that it was Vic Flick (famously responsible for the lead guitar motif on ‘James Bond Theme’) who enquired about having his Fuzz-Tone modified, and who was subsequently supplied with the very first Tone Bender. Vic Flick, however, has on several occasions in recent years, denied any involvement or association with Gary Hurst and the Tone Bender.6 Flick recalled visiting Macari’s Musical Exchange during the 1960s, and speaking with somebody there about how his Maestro Fuzz-Tone “didn’t cut it”, but explicitly maintained his position that he had no connection with Gary Hurst, and he condemned Music Ground for using his name in the promotion of their modern reproduction fuzz boxes. Vic Flick went as far to point out that he still owned his original Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which is pictured in his autobiography, ‘Vic Flick, Guitarman’.7

A telephone interview conducted in 2009 revealed the possibility of a different session guitarist having brought a Maestro Fuzz-Tone to Gary Hurst. “Big Jim” Sullivan was among the very earliest adopters of the fuzz sound in England, having recorded with a Maestro Fuzz-Tone on P.J. Proby’s ‘Hold me’ in 1964. Sullivan reportedly described in detail having loaned his Maestro Fuzz-Tone to Hurst (who, according to Sullivan’s recollection, was then working at the Vox shop), never seeing it again, and instead being presented with a wooden fuzz box.8

The complete story behind the Tone Bender’s conception will never be known, but most of the details from Gary Hurst’s own accounts were eventually corroborated by “Big Jim” Sullivan’s testimony. Vic Flick may have been a victim of mistaken identity over the decades, and there is now a strong case suggesting that it was actually “Big Jim” Sullivan whose Maestro Fuzz-Tone inspired the now-famous Tone Bender pedals.

Macari muscle

By the summer of 1965, Gary Hurst’s Tone Bender was already being marketed and promoted by Macari’s Musical Exchange. This is evidenced by the significant coverage that the ‘MKI’ received in the September 1965 issue of Beat Instrumental, including a full page advertisement for the model. Beat Instrumental also ran a promotional competition for the Tone Bender ‘MKI’ in the September 1965 issue. Of the six pedals that were given away, at least one is known to still survive, and it was recovered in recent years by the Macari family.

The Gary Hurst/Sola Sound Tone Bender ‘MKI’ continued to be advertised regularly in the Beat Instrumental & Melody Maker publications during 1965.

These early Tone Benders were first & foremost a Sola Sound product, marketed & sold by Macari’s Musical Exchange. Recently uncovered anecdotal evidence from original owners of Tone Bender ‘MKI’ fuzz boxes has, however, opened up the possibility that they may have also been supplied to other music shops for distribution beyond Denmark Street. Shops where early Tone Benders are reported to have been purchased include Selmer’s on Charing Cross Road9 10 and Jim Moore’s in Hornchurch, Essex.11 One ‘MKI’ user even reported acquiring their pedal from a shop as far away as in Newcastle.12

The Macari’s archive holds logbooks, detailing the payments made to Gary Hurst in exchange for his fuzz boxes, which reveal that production of the ‘MKI’ version continued at least into December of 1965. This model would, however, soon be replaced by one that was perhaps cheaper and easier to mass-produce.

Evolution of the ‘MKI’

Wooden Tone Benders

Gary Hurst’s earliest Tone Benders were built into wooden enclosures. By Gary’s own admission, he didn’t keep an exact count of how many of these wooden pedals were made. Gary estimated that he and his brother built 10 pedals a day, for a period of roughly 10 days, before the casing had to be redesigned to make it easier to meet the huge demand.13

Only a single wooden Tone Bender is known to have survived over the decades. This pedal, pictured above, remained in Gary Hurst’s possession for almost half a century, before being sold directly to a collector. The electronics inside this wooden Tone Bender were assembled on stripboard (also known as ‘Vero board’), and its circuitry boasts three black glass Mullard germanium transistors. (Photo credit: G. Green)

Hurst soon moved over to housing his Tone Benders into enclosures made of folded steel, presumably as part of an effort to scale up production. Hurst’s recollection of the wooden version of the Tone Bender having only been built for a very limited time is corroborated by a combination of the fact that Hurst only returned to London in April 1965, and that Jeff Beck was photographed already using the more sophisticated metal-bodied Tone Bender ‘MKI’ by the 4th of June 1965, during one of the Yardbirds’ appearances on ‘Ready Steady Go’.14

Early metal-bodied Tone Benders

Exhibit A

The enclosures of these metal-bodied Tone Bender ‘MKI’ pedals came with a distinctive gold-painted top half and a dark grey base. Earlier examples of these metal Tone Benders, like the one pictured above, were primitively decorated with Letraset lettering for the model name & the relevant labels for the controls & jack sockets. These Letraset graphics were applied by the then-girlfriend of Gary Hurst (who was also the niece of Larry & Joe Macari), and who also coated the lettering with clear lacquer to protect it from rubbing away.15

The Tone Bender above is unquestionably the earliest known surviving example of a metal-bodied Tone Bender ‘MKI’ thus far. It features Letraset lettering on the top half of the enclosure, as well as very crude hand-painted lettering denoting the jack sockets at the back. Electronically, this ‘MKI’ features the same stripboard construction as sighted in the single extant wooden Tone Bender, complete with three unknown black glass Mullard transistors. The circuit board in this Tone Bender has been painted over, in what is very likely to have been a deliberate attempt to discourage or frustrate attempts by others to copy the design. (Photo credit: S. Castledine)

Incidentally, the white knobs on this pedal were determined to be original after a photograph surfaced of Mick Ronson performing in London, in 1972, with a very similar looking Tone Bender.

Exhibit B

The Tone Bender ‘MKI’ pictured here is also a relatively early model, judging by the selection of parts and the remains of its Letraset lettering. By the time this Tone Bender was built, however, Gary Hurst was no longer putting the ‘MKI’ circuits together on stripboard. Instead, the Tone Bender was now built using a point-to-point parts layout, on its own dedicated board. The majority of surviving Tone Bender ‘MKI’ pedals were built using this construction style.

This particular pedal has been well-known to collectors for over two decades. At one point, it was part of Phil Harris’ Harris Hire backline, and it was pictured in Dave Hunter’s 2004 book, ‘Guitar Effects Pedals: The Practical Handbook’, albeit incorrectly captioned as an “Arbiter Tone Bender”. (Photo credit: L. Cook)

Sola Sounds Limited

As development of the Tone Bender progressed, the ‘MKI’ started being marketed more professionally, and the practice of crude Letraset labels was replaced with a the printing of a cleaner set of silkscreened graphics. By this point, the ‘MKI’ also finally featured the Macaris’ Sola Sound brand name (in small print, below the ‘Level’ control). These features suggest that the Tone Bender pictured above is a relatively late-production example.

Despite the enclosure being in rather poor condition, this particular Tone Bender has miraculously retained all of its original parts inside. The battery connector was at some point, however, replaced, and the Bulgin ‘chicken head’ control knobs are also non-original (although they are consistent with the style of knobs that we would expect to see on a ‘MKI’ built at the time).

This particular pedal was sold in 2021 by musician & sound engineer Laurie “Lol” Beeching, who performed with it through the 1980s. Lol acquired the pedal from an enigmatic London-based guitarist known only as ‘Bonk’, who reputedly bought the pedal brand new in 1965, from Jim Moore’s music shop in Hornchurch, Essex.16

‘Bonk’ played in the 1960s with a group called the Diddley Daddies. I would be grateful to hear from anybody that has any further knowledge of ‘Bonk’ or the group(s) in which he played.

Notable users

The long list of groups that used the ‘MKI’ includes the Beatles, to whom Gary Hurst recalled (in a 2010 interview) delivering two Tone Benders at a rehearsal.17 Photos taken by Robert Whitaker in November of 1965, showing the Beatles (as well as Hurst) with two ‘MKI’ Tone Benders, corroborate this story.18

The Who were named in the earliest advertisements for the Tone Bender,19 and indeed, Pete Townshend was still using the ‘MKI’ by July of 1966.20

Mick Ronson described in Melody Maker that Pete Townshend sold a Tone Bender to somebody at some point in the mid-1960s, and that that individual had in turn sold it to Ronson.21 The Rats’ bass player corroborated the story, making specific reference to a Tone Bender ‘MKI’,22 so it is quite likely that the exact Tone Bender that Mick Ronson used with the Rats, and with David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, was one that the Who had performed with, years earlier.

Mick Ronson, performing with the Rats in 1968

Pictured above is Mick Ronson, performing with the Rats in 1968, with a ‘grey’ JMI/Vox wah-wah, and what may very well be the exact ‘MKI’ Tone Bender that was formerly owned by Pete Townshend. (Photo credit unknown)

Ronnie Wood was a very early adopter of the Tone Bender. According to Wood’s diary, he purchased a fuzz box from Macari’s on the 16th of July, 1965.23 The Birds are also named on Gary Hurst’s register of early customers, so it’s quite likely that Wood used a ‘MKI’ on the Birds’ 1965 single, ‘No good without you baby’.

The Spencer Davis group is listed on Gary Hurst’s register of early customers, and Steve Winwood was filmed & photographed performing with a ‘MKI’ on Ready Steady Go! in 1966.24 It was reported, however, in Melody Maker that Winwood’s fuzz box was somewhat temperamental,25 and by April 1966, he was using the Tone Bender ‘MK1.5’.26

Singer, songwriter & producer ‘Big Boy Pete’ Miller recalled purchasing his ‘MKI’ from the Selmer shop on Charing Cross Road. This pedal was likely used on Big Boy Pete’s 1968 single, ‘Cold turkey’. Pete used the fuzz box until 1969, at which point it was discarded after getting too rusty from the climate in the jungles of Thailand.27

'Big Boy Pete' Miller, with a Tone Bender MKI
‘Big Boy Pete’ Miller, performing with a JMI/Vox wah-wah and a Sola Sound Tone Bender ‘MKI’. (Photo credit: P. Miller)
The Poets, performing in early 1966, with a MKI Tone Bender
The Poets, from Scotland, were pictured using a ‘MKI’ Tone Bender in early 1966. (Photo credit unknown)

Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich were listed on Gary Hurst’s register of Tone Bender customers. Tich had already obtained an early Tone Bender by September of 1965, when it was used for the recording of DDDBMT’s single, ‘You make it move’.28 This pedal was likely also used on the studio recordings for DDDBMT’s ‘Hold tight’, as well as ‘Hideaway’, in 1966.

Tich, of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, performing on Beat Club with a Tone Bender MKI

The group were filmed in 1966, performing ‘Hold tight’, for the German ‘Beat Club’ broadcast. Visible on the floor is Tich’s Tone Bender ‘MKI’. This pedal was reportedly stolen at a different concert, on a later date.

At least one Tone Bender ‘MKI’ made it over to the Netherlands. The Nederbeat group, ‘Het’, is listed on Gary Hurst’s register of early Tone Bender customers, so it’s very likely that Het used a ‘MKI’ for their 1966 single, ‘Kejje nagaan’. Unfortunately there is no known photographic evidence of their pedal in use.

Los Bravos, performing with a MKI Tone Bender
Los Bravos, from Spain, obtained a ‘MKI’ at some point in the 1960s as well. (Photo credit unknown)


The Tone Bender ‘MKI’ also found its way to Norway. In the mid-1960s, Pussycats’ guitarist Trond Graff took advantage of a regular ferry between Bergen and Newcastle, and brought the fuzz box back to Norway with him. Before a battery leaked, and the pedal was consigned to the trash, Trond Graff’s Tone Bender fuzz box was used on the Pussycats’ 1966 single, ‘Purdy patsy’.29

The Pussycats, performing with a Tone Bender MKI in 1966

Pictured above are the Pussycats during a performance on the 1st of May, 1966, with the Tone Bender ‘MKI’ visible in front of guitarist, Trond Graff. (Pussycats photo by Ukjent / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Terje Rypdal tuning up, with a Tone Bender MKI visible in the signal chain
At least one other Tone Bender ‘MKI’ ended up in Norway, where it was used by Terje Rypdal (and Sveinung Hovensjø) in the 1970s. (Photo credit unknown)

Gary Hurst’s early Tone Bender even made it to Australia. The Rondells, famously Bobby & Laurie’s backing group, obtained a ‘MKI’ from Terry Britten of the Twilights, who in turn had brought it over to Australia from England.30 The Rondells’ fuzz box was used on Bobby & Laurie’s 1966 single, ‘Hitch hiker’.

The Rondells, performing with a Tone Bender MKI
The Rondells performing in Australia with a Sola Sound Tone Bender ‘MKI’. (Photo credit unknown)

Terry Britten was, himself, photographed (below) in late 1967, using a ‘MKI’ in Australia, with the Twilights. The date of this photo creates an inconsistency with the fact that the Rondells had supposedly already recorded ‘Hitch hiker’ with this exact pedal in the previous year. The reason for this inconsistency is still unclear.

Terry Britten, with the Twilights, in late 1967
Terry Britten, performing with the Twilights, and a JMI/Vox wah-wah & Tone Bender ‘MKI’. (Photo credit: Robert Davies)

Significant surviving pedals

“Goldie”

This particular Tone Bender ‘MKI’ is unusual in that it has been built into one of the earliest known examples of Sola Sound’s cast aluminium enclosure. The construction of the electronics is also unique (at the time of writing) in that the parts have been assembled on perforated circuit board, as opposed to on strip board, or point-to-point on a dedicated board.

Having been through various generations of repairs & restoration, it is uncertain whether the type of construction is original to the pedal, or indeed whether the electronics might originally have been housed in a conventional steel-bodied case and have been re-built to fit the cast model.

“Goldie” spent a significant portion of its life in Germany, with former owners including Hamburg-based producer (and musician) Jochen Petersen31 and session guitarist Frank Diez.32

The “Groundhogs” MKI

Original 1965 Sola Sounds Ltd Tone Bender MKI (Photo credit: D. Main)

This ‘MKI’ surfaced during the 2000s, when there was very little information available about the model. The vast majority of the modern copies of the Tone Bender ‘MKI’ are based off a schematic that was drawn by David Main (D*A*M Stompboxes) from this particular exemplar. (Photo credit: D. Main)

It has changed hands several times over the years, between collectors, but this pedal’s provenance is rumoured to span to Tony McPhee, of Groundhogs fame.33

Thanks to D. Main, S. Castledine, P. Johnston, J. Logan, & G. Green

  1. Beat Instrumental, January 1965, p. 25
  2. Guitarist, “Bend it like Beck can”, November 2009, p. 63
  3. Guitarist, “Bend it like Beck can”, November 2009, p. 63
  4. Beat Instrumental, September 1965, p. 30
  5. Guitarist, “Bend it like Beck can”, November 2009, p. 63
  6. Vic Flick, interviewed by David Main in 2003, and again by Kit Rae in 2013 (https://web.archive.org/web/20230129234225/https://stompboxes.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1100&start=180)
  7. Vic Flick, interviewed by John Logan in 2009 and again in 2013
  8. “Big Jim” Sullivan, interviewed by John Logan in 2009 (https://web.archive.org/web/20230129220720/https://stompboxes.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=13401&p=274134)
  9. P. Miller (personal communication, 4th February 2012)
  10. Dave “Andy” Andrews, interviewed by Philip Johnston
  11. L. Beeching (personal communication, 1st July 2021)
  12. T. Graff (personal communication, 9th September 2018)
  13. Guitarist, “Bend it like Beck can”, November 2009, p. 63
  14. Tony Gale, June 1965, Yardbirds on Ready Steady Go [https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-yardbirds-on-ready-steady-go-june-1965-from-l-chris-dreja-jim-mccarty-29460384.html]
  15. https://web.archive.org/web/20230131002637/https://stompboxes.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?p=138374
  16. L. Beeching (personal communication, 1st July 2021)
  17. Shinko Music Mook, The Effector Book, vol. 7, 2010
  18. Robert Whitaker, November 1965, Beatles at the Donmar [https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/paul-mccartney-is-pictured-at-the-donmar-rehearsal-theatre-news-photo/554329921]
  19. Beat Instrumental, September 1965, p. 22
  20. Pictorial Press, 30th July 1966, Pete Townshend smashes his guitar & amp at Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival [https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-the-who-pete-townshend-smashes-his-guitar-amp-at-windsor-jazz-blues-25781142.html]
  21. Melody Maker, 9th June 1973
  22. Keith ‘Ched’ Cheesman, interviewed in 2007 for Whotabs [https://www.thewho.net/whotabs/gear/guitar/tonebender.html]
  23. Wood, Ronnie, How can it be? A rock & rock diary, Genesis Publications, 2015
  24. Reelin’ in the years, Spencer Davis Group RSG 1966 [https://photos.reelinintheyears.com/storage/uploads/RITY-MH-000679%20Spencer%20Davis%20Group%20RSG%201966.jpg]
  25. Melody Maker, 15th January 1966, p. 4
  26. Tête de bois et tendres années, 27th April 1966, Le Spencer Davis Group “Keep on running [https://www.ina.fr/video/I07146761/le-spencer-davis-group-keep-on-running-video.html]
  27. P. Miller (personal communication, 4th February 2012)
  28. https://web.archive.org/web/20161111134502/http://davedeedozybeakymickandtich.nl/september-1965/
  29. T. Graff (personal communication, 9th September 2018)
  30. Hunt, R. & Nankervis, B. (Host), 17th August 2018, Bobby Bright, Back Story: Bobby and Laurie Bring the Fuzz on Hitchhiker, ABC Radio Melbourne [https://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/thefridayrevue/bobby-laurie-hitchhiker-back-story/10133418]
  31. F. Reinke (personal communication, 17th April 2016)
  32. F. Diez (personal communication, 1st September 2018)
  33. https://web.archive.org/web/20100104231754/http://pedalporn.blogspot.com/2006/05/1965-sola-sounds-ltd-gary-hurst-tone.html

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